In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote a new play, Salomé, in French, though of course his native language was English. The theme and plot of this play are Biblical, but it does not follow a Biblical script. In the original story, there is an unnamed dancer who performs prior to the beheading of John the Baptist; in Wilde’s revision, this dancer becomes the seductress Salomé, who performs the dance of the seven veils under the condition that she is given the head of John the Baptist. Once he is beheaded, she kisses the head, but in the end she is punished for her manipulations, and is crushed to death. The play was first performed in Paris in 1896; it was not allowed to be performed in Britain because of a law that prohibited Biblical subjects in plays.
The attacks on meaning are rampant for this work – not only is the Biblical story altered (and not in a way that favors the sexual woman), but the use of French is yet another veil for those wishing to read the play in English. Wilde apparently chose to write in French to produce a different sensibility, a cross-over modeled to some extent on Dante Rossetti, an English Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist who translated Dante and who favored an Italian style. Wilde then chose his lover Alfred Douglas to translate the play. Douglas, whose knowledge of French was poor, made many errors, and although others re-translated including at one point Wilde himself, the version done by Douglas is still used in some “authentic” collections of Wilde’s work.
One person who also attempted a translation was the graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, who also illustrated an edition of the work. His drawings of Salomé are famous, but Wilde reportedly did not think that they were an appropriate match to his play, and apparently Beardsley returned the favor in that he did not like the play. It was indeed controversial, not like Wilde’s more easygoing comic English plays, and the sexual topic and his choice of translator only served to deepen the scandal associated with it. Wilde was in fact in prison for gross indecency with men when it was first performed.
Salomé, in its various forms, translations, and pictures, captures much about the relationship between art and society in Wilde’s time. There is first of all the love of the exotic, shown not only through the content of this work, but also by the fact that Wilde insisted in writing it in French. There is censorship, by both British society (which would not allow the play to be produced) and French (demonstrated by the fact that Wilde was imprisoned in France). There is interpretation, and even distortion of Biblical material, and society both embraces and critiques such changes. But Oscar’s Wilde’s place in history appears to be more secure now – his gravesite in Paris is a popular tourist destination, where many kiss his gravestone.
Aubrey Beardsley: The Dancer’s Reward: Salomé