Salome (play)

Salome (French: Salomé, pronounced [salome]) is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original 1891 version of the play was in French. Three years later an English translation was published. The play tells in one act the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather's dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.

The Peacock Skirt, one of the illustrations Aubrey Beardsley produced for the first English edition of Wilde's play Salome (1894)
Written byOscar Wilde
Place premieredComédie-Parisienne
Original languageFrench


  • Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea
  • Jokanaan, the Prophet
  • The young Syrian, Captain of the guard
  • Tigellinus, a young Roman
  • A Cappadocian
  • A Nubian
  • First soldier
  • Second soldier
  • The page of Herodias
  • Jews, Nazarenes, etc.
  • A slave
  • Naaman, the Executioner
  • Herodias, Wife of the Tetrarch
  • Salomé, daughter of Herodias
  • The slaves of Salomé

Versions and premieres

Rehearsals for the play's debut on the London stage, for inclusion in Sarah Bernhardt's London season, began in 1892, but were halted when the Lord Chamberlain's licensor of plays banned Salomé on the basis that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on the stage. The play was first published in French in February 1893, and an English translation, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, in February 1894. On the Dedication page, Wilde indicated that his lover Lord Alfred Douglas was the translator. In fact, Wilde and Douglas had quarrelled over the latter's translation of the text which had been nothing short of disastrous given his poor mastery of French – though Douglas claimed that the errors were really in Wilde's original play. Beardsley and the publisher John Lane got drawn in when they sided with Wilde. In a gesture of reconciliation, Wilde did the work himself but dedicated Douglas as the translator rather than having them sharing their names on the title-page. Douglas compared a dedication to sharing the title-page as "the difference between a tribute of admiration from an artist and a receipt from a tradesman."[1]

The play was eventually premiered on 11 February 1896, while Wilde was in prison, in Paris at the Comédie-Parisienne (at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in some accounts)[2] in a staging by Lugné-Poe's theatre group, the Théâtre de l'Œuvre.[3] In Pall Mall Gazette of 29 June 1892 Wilde explained, why he had written Salomé in French:

"I have one instrument that I know I can command, and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it. [...] Of course, there are modes of expression that a Frenchman of letters would not have used, but they give a certain relief or colour to the play. A great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language. The same thing is true of Rossetti, who, though he wrote in English, was essentially Latin in temperament."[4]

A performance of the play was arranged by the New Stage Club at the Bijou Theatre in Archer Street, London, on 10 and 13 May 1905, starring Millicent Murby as Salomé and directed by Florence Farr.[6] In June 1906 the play was presented privately with A Florentine Tragedy by the Literary Theatre Society at King's Hall, Covent Garden. The Lord Chamberlain's ban was not lifted for almost forty years; the first public performance of Salomé in England was produced by Nancy Price at the Savoy Theatre on 5 October 1931. She took the role of Herodias herself and cast her daughter Joan Maude as Salomé.[7]

In 1992 the play was performed on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, under the direction of Robert Allan Ackerman. Sheryl Lee starred as the title role alongside Al Pacino. The play costarred Suzanne Bertish, Esai Morales and Arnold Vosloo.

Al Pacino said in an interview that a new production of the play where he will star as King Herod is to open in London's West End in 2016.[8]

In 2018 a production by Lazarus Theatre performed at Greenwich Theatre. Directed by Ricky Dukes, the performance portrayed Salomé as male.

Origins and themes

Wilde had considered the subject since he had first been introduced to Hérodias, one of Flaubert's Trois Contes, by Walter Pater, at Oxford in 1877. His interest had been further stimulated by descriptions of Gustave Moreau's paintings of Salomé in Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours. Other literary influences include Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll, Laforgue's Salomé in Moralités Légendaires and Mallarmé's Hérodiade.[9]

Many view Wilde's Salomé as a superb composite of these earlier treatments of the theme overlaid, in terms of dramatic influences, with Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's characteristic methodical diction,[10][11] and specifically Maeterlinck's La Princesse Maleine, 'with its use of colour, sound, dance, visual description and visual effect'.[9] Wilde often referred to the play in musical terms and believed that recurring phrases 'bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs. ' Although the "kissing of the head" element was used in Heine and even Joseph Converse Heywood's[12][13][14] production, Wilde's ingenuity was to move it to the play's climax. While his debts are undeniable, there are some interesting contributions in Wilde's treatment, most notably being his persistent use of parallels between Salomé and the moon.

Scholars like Christopher Nassaar point out that Wilde employs a number of the images favoured by Israel's kingly poets and that the moon is meant to suggest the pagan goddess Cybele, who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took pleasure in destroying male sexuality.[16]

Following the prelude three demarcated episodes follow: the meeting between Salomé and Iokanaan, the phase of the white moon; the major public central episode, the dance and the beheading, the phase of the red moon; and finally the conclusion, when the black cloud conceals the moon.[17]

An argument is made by Brad Bucknell in his essay, "On "Seeing" Salomé" that the play can be seen as a struggle between the visual, in the form of various characters' gazing as well as Salomé's dance, and the written word. Salome's dance (which is never described) overpowers Iokannan's prophecies, and Salomé herself dies due to Herod's command to crush her. As Bucknell writes of Salomé's dance, "The power of the word is inverted, turned back upon its possessors, the prophet and the ruler-figure of the tetrarch."[18]

The idea of the gaze—specifically the male gaze—is also explored by Linda and Michael Hutcheon in ""Here's Lookin' At You, Kid": The Empowering Gaze in Salomé." In their essay, the two write that Salomé's body "clearly becomes the focus of the attention—and the literal eye—of both audience and characters. As dancer, Salomé is without a doubt the object of the gaze—particularly Herod's male gaze." The Hutcheons argue that while the male gaze has been traditionally rooted in the idea of sexual privilege, leading to a gendering of the gaze as 'male' in the first place, the character of Salomé undermines this theory by knowingly using the male gaze to her advantage, first by gaining access to Iokannan via the male gaze and later through her dance.[19]

However, others argue that the female gaze is also present in the play, with Salome gazing and objectifying Iokannan. As critic Carmen Skaggs writes, "Syrian, Herod, and Salomé objectify the subjects of their gazes. They admire each one for his/her beauty alone. The desires of all three are forbidden and recognized as dangerous by those around them, but they are not persuaded to turn away".[20]

Skaggs also discusses in her essay "Modernity's Revision of the Dancing Daughter: The Salome Narrative of Wilde and Strauss” the possible homosexual subtext of Wilde's play. Skaggs points to one instance in the play when Salome promises Narraboth a flower, a signal of homosexuality in Wilde's time. Skaggs and other critics argue that Salomé's sexuality is presented as typically masculine, which makes the relationship between her and the Young Syrian border on the homoerotic. Skaggs also argues that Wilde is attempting to explore different forms of worship, with Salome, the Young Syrian, and Herod worshiping beauty and serving as contrasts for the religious Iokannan, whose worship revolves around God.[20]

Oscar Wilde's play Salome is a twist on the execution of John the Baptist, fuelled by motives of lust and slaughter.[21] Scholar Tania Albin believes Wilde's interpretation is deeply rooted in the Biblical story of Salomé's dance to please Herod and her mother's plea for John the Baptist's head.[22] Wilde's twist on the biblical story focuses on the personality of Salome and the hypersexual implications.

Wilde's play Salomé is the distortion of the Biblical story through the creation of Salomé as a victim and victimiser. She is the incarnation of seductive lust and manipulative power. Salomé is the object of lust and perverted desire leading to her twisted obsession in the beheading of John the Baptist.[23] Keijser believes that Wilde was influenced by the Bible's word choice and style, adapting Bible verses and diction generously. Biblical images, symbols, and diction are referenced from the Gospels, Isaiah, Song of Solomon and the Book of Revelation. Wilde even gives John the Baptist a more derived biblical Hebrew name with Iokannan.[24] In the Song of Solomon, Wilde's text is literally adapted from the biblical context, Salomé says that “[n]either the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion". This is the closest Wilde comes to copying the Song, for it says, "[m]any waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (8:7).[23] Referencing the book of Revelation, Jokanaan compares Herodias with the figure of Jezebel, proclaiming her to be a treacherous woman who uses her sexual wiles to corrupt men and bring about their downfall. Wilde twists the context so that Salomé is the one who desires John's head rather than Herodias.[23] Wilde creates an incarnation of obsessive lust and power from a biblical context where she operates beyond the play.

Salome is not named, but only referenced as "Herodias' daughter" in the Biblical story (Mark 6:22, Matthew 14:6), but Wilde chooses to make the focal point of the play the perversion of lust and desire of Salomé rather than Herodias vengeance on John the Baptist. He uses the sexual power of the dance to construct lustful emotions, which are barred out in the biblical text. The depiction of Salome as a pawn to her mother Herodias diminishes her image as a woman of manipulation, but Wilde portrays her as a woman of power and manipulator creating this femme fatale manifestation. The kissing of John's severed head testifies to this ideal of what Bram Dijkstra calls "the virgin whore", a perversion of purity tainted by lustful desires.[22]

Joseph Donahue, a theatre historian, believes that Wilde uses poetic license in filling in narrative gaps from the accounts of the head on the platter story, to tease out explicitly what was written implicitly.[21] Despite the similarities, Wilde's depiction mixes legend with biblical history, the temporal with the eternal, but also blends form and medium creating a complex rendition of sensual repulsion.[25] Wilde's recreation of this biblical horror based upon lust and manipulation of Salome's passion is its own downfall.

Significance of the Dance

One of the primary concepts that Oscar Wilde altered in his play was the significance that the dance gets emphasised, ultimately putting it at the very core of the play. Little information had originally been provided by the Bible, with Mark's gospel simply stating, "When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests" (Mark 6:22). Indeed, the daughter (Salome) isn't described in any detail whatsoever – in fact, it isn't until the early fifth century that Salomé was even given as her name. During this period, Salomé's dance was mainly used by early church leaders as an example to warn against such sinfulness as the temptations of women, as well as to introduce the element of sex itself – such as Johannes Chrysostomos, who stated in the late 4th century, "Wherever there is a dance, the devil is also present. God did not give us our feet for dancing, but so that we might walk on the path of righteousness."[26]

From this point forward, however, the Salomé narrative continually evolves – and often quite dramatically so, ultimately left bearing little resemblance to how it was used/understood in the earliest days of the Church. In Carmen Skaggs' "Modernity's Revision of the Dancing Daughter: The Salomé Narrative of Wilde and Strauss” she intimates that by expanding upon the dance in his play, “Wilde, as a Decadent writer in the nineteenth century, develops the themes of Orientalism and counter-cultural ethics. He enters the chasm of human emotion and reveals both the savage and noble heights to which humanity ascends. He explores the deeply ingrained gender ideologies of modernity and the sexual perversities of modern culture," and "by focusing the narrative upon the dancing daughter and empowering her sexuality, Wilde brings new dimension to her character."[20]

Theodore Ziolkowski, in his "The Veil as Metaphor and as Myth," continues the idea of character development for Salomé via her dance, and points out that in Wilde's text "Salomé is placed squarely in the center of the action…her mother, fearing that the dance will only cause Herod to lust even more after her daughter, warns her repeatedly not to dance. Indeed, the dance is almost anticlimactic since Herod, unlike the biblical Herod, has already promised Salomé whatever she wants."[26] And with this in mind, that Salome has the agency to use her dance to her own benefit instead of dancing simply on the command of the lustful Herod, Linda and Michael Hutcheon's claim in "'Here's Lookin'at You, Kid': The Empowering Gaze in Salomé" that Salomé knows the meaning of power and that "her dance is a calculated move in a game of exchange with Herod in which she offers her body as a sensual, sexual spectacle to his eyes, in return for a promise that will fulfill both her childlike willful stubbornness and her consuming sexual obsession to kiss the mouth of the resistant prophet," serves to add another, more politically minded layer to Salome's character, and takes the focus from strictly the sexual elements of Salomé's performance.[19]

Finally, in "Scandal and the Dance: Salomé in the Gospel of Mark,” René Girard uses the developed ideas of Salomé as manipulative and politically savvy, and applies them once over to her dance, saying that her dance represents reckless desire because of the freedom of letting go and moving one's body as well as the fuel for a political scandal, driven by Salomé's desire for Jokannan's head. Girard also incorporates Skaggs’ idea of Wilde using different cultures and influences other than the original Biblical story, and claims that Salomé's dance becomes pagan and ritualistic because it is performed for Herod's birthday, not a religious holiday, and in this circumstance, Jokannan becomes ritual sacrifice.[27]

Wilde's Salomé in later art

Wilde's version of the story has since spawned several other artistic works, the most famous of which is Richard Strauss's opera of the same name. Strauss saw Wilde's play in Berlin in November 1902, at Max Reinhardt's 'Little Theatre', with Gertrud Eysoldt in the title role, and began to compose his opera in summer 1903, completing it in 1905 and premiering it later the same year.[2] The Strauss opera moves the centre of interest to Salome, away from Herod Antipas. However, it was not the only operatic treatment. Antoine Mariotte also wrote Salomé in 1905, and he was involved in a debate with Strauss to prove that his music was written earlier than Strauss's version. Mariotte's version was premiered in 1908.

The play, and most of the later filmed versions, have Herod as the centre of the action, dominating the play. Strong actors have been used to achieve this, such as Al Pacino in his 1980s Circle in the Square production; and in 2006, in a Los Angeles production.

In 1906, Maud Allan created a production entitled Vision of Salomé, which debuted in Vienna. It was based loosely on Wilde's play. Her version of the dance of the seven veils became famous (and to some notorious) and she was billed as "The Salomé Dancer". A production of the play led to a libel case in 1918, when Allan was accused of promoting sexual immorality.

In 1918, a silent film adaptation of Wilde's play was released by Fox starring Theda Bara and directed by J. Gordon Edwards. The film, having been a relatively big-budget production exploiting the wildly popular Bara at the height of her "vamping" career, proved quite popular – yet this also contributed to some of the controversy surrounding it. Many churches in the US at the time of its release protested against what they saw as blatant immorality -with an often scantily clad Bara showcasing her sexual appeal to audiences- appearing in a film about religious subject matter[28]

In 1923, a film adaptation of Salomé directed by Charles Bryant was released. Alla Nazimova, the Russian-American actress, played the protagonist.

In 1961, Caffe Cino playwright Doric Wilson wrote a comic re-imagination of Wilde's Salome entitled Now She Dances!.

The Canon Group produced a film adaptation, Salome[29] in 1986 directed by Claude d'Anna, a lavish period piece highly emphasised with sexual decadence, ambiguous WW2 inspired costumes and a breakthrough performance by Jo Champa in the title role delivering an exhilarating Dance of the Seven Veils.

Australian musician Nick Cave wrote a 5-act play entitled Salomé which is included in the 1988 collection of Cave's writings, King Ink (the play alludes to the Gospel account, Wilde's play, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes's 1869 painting, The Beheading of John the Baptist).

Ken Russell directed a film version of the play, Salome's Last Dance (1988), staged as a private performance for Wilde at a brothel.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical Sunset Boulevard features a song in Act I entitled "Salomé". The song highlights Salomé's infatuation with John the Baptist, and foreshadows Norma's obsession and later murder of Joe.

Throughout the 1994 movie A Man of No Importance and its 2002 musical adaption, the main character, Alfie, tries to produce a production of Salomé in his local church, and the play is often quoted and referenced.

The 1999 film Cookie's Fortune depicts a small Southern town preparing for a community production of Salomé, with Camille (Glenn Close) as the director of the play and Cora (Julianne Moore) in the role of Salomé.

In the 1999 film Trick, the character Katherine is in a fictitious variation of Salomé whose story is set in a women's prison. Aside from seeing characters in striped prison jumpsuits, however, no scene from the play is actually re-enacted.

In 2011 Al Pacino revisited Wilde's play, this time with a documentary-drama entitled Wilde Salomé[30]. A version was released two years later as simply Salomé[31] minus the documentary elements with the stage performance as its sole focus. Written and Directed by Pacino himself, it featured redheaded Jessica Chastain as a crimson veil clad Salomé.


Also heavily influenced by the play are The Smashing Pumpkins' video for the song "Stand Inside Your Love" and U2's "Mysterious Ways"[32] and "Salome".

"Salomé" is a track by Pete Doherty on his 2009 album Grace/Wastelands, which shares several lyrical references to Wilde's work.

Paintings and illustrations

Manuel Orazi illustrated Salomé for an edition by the Société des amis du livre moderne in Paris 1930.[33] Salomé is the subject of a series of paintings The Dance of Salome (1988) by Nabil Kanso.

Spanish painter Gino Rubert created a series of pictures in 2005.[34]

Animation and video games

Salomé is metaphorically referenced in the 2005–2006 anime Blood+.

In 2009, the game developer Tale of Tales created a computer game called Fatale based on Oscar Wilde's take on the Biblical story. In the first third of the game, the player takes on the role of Iokannan awaiting his execution as Salomé (unseen) dances above. Quotations from Wilde's Salomé appear periodically, creating what Tale of Tales calls a "whispering soundscape". In the second part of the game, the player takes on the role of Iokannan's spirit and is tasked with blowing out the candles in the courtyard. The player is also allowed at this point to examine their surroundings. Salomé and her mother Herodias can be seen at this point. In the last part of the game, the player can only control the camera as Salomé dances. It is not outright stated from whose point of view you are watching; however, it may be Herod's as he is absent from the rest of the game. Tale of Tales took visual inspiration from the depictions of Salome painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Titian, and Gustave Moreau; from Rita Hayworth's performance of the dance of the seven veils set to Richard Strauss's music, as well as Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Wilde's original manuscript. The developers of Fatale have cited "the repeated reference to looking and seeing" within Wilde's play as forming the core experience of the game.[35]


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  2. Peter Raby, Introduction, p. xiii The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Oxford, Worlds Classics, 2008 ISBN 978-0-19-953597-2
  3. Bristow, Joseph (2009). Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. pp. 96, 106, 193. ISBN 978-0-8214-1837-6.
  4. cited by Archibald Henderson in Overland Monthly No. 1, July 1907. p. 14
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  10. Stalpaert, Christel ; Oostveldt, Bram Van; Schoor, Jaak Van. “Enter Ghost ...” : The linguistic, theatrical and post-dramatic afterlife of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Flanders. The turn of the century: Maurice Maeterlinck and the inner action of Hamlet
  11. Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome's Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression pp 60–61.
  12. Heywood, Joseph Converse, Salome. A dramatic poem (1867)
  13. Ellmann, Richard Wilde and the Legend of Salomé in the Nineteenth Century Oscar Wilde. London Hamish Hamilton, 1987, pp 375–76.
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  15. The Importance of Not Being Salome. The Guardian.
  16. Nassaar, Christopher S. Wilde's Salomé and the Victorian Religious Landscape.
  17. Peter Raby, Introduction, p.xiv The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Oxford, Worlds Classics, 2008
  18. "On "Seeing" Salome. ELH. Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer, 1993.
  19. "Here's Lookin' At You, Kid: The Empowering Gaze in Salome"
  20. Skaggs, Carmen Trammell, "Modernity's Revision of the Dancing Daughter: The Salomé Narrative of Wilde and Strauss". College Literature Vol. 29, No. 3, Literature and the Visual Arts (Summer, 2002), pp. 124–139
  21. Marrapodi, Eric. "A Head on a Silver Platter – Rethinking John the Baptist and Oscar Wilde." CNN Belief Blog RSS. CNN, 2 February 2012. Web. 24 March 2014.
  22. Albin, Tania. "The Biblical Story of Salomé." The Biblical Story of Salomé. Brown University, 26 December 2006. Web. 24 March 2014
  23. Keijser, Luuk. "Biblical Influences on Oscar Wilde's Salomé." The Culture Counter. The Culture Counter, 23 November 2013. Web. 24 March 2014.
  24. "View Submitted Name." Behind the Name:. N.p., 10 January 2009. Web. 24 March 2014
  25. Thuleen, Nancy. "Salome: A Wildean Symbolist Drama." 19 December 1995.
  26. Ziolkowski, Theodore "The Veil as Metaphor and as Myth" Religion & Literature Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 2008), pp. 61–81.
  27. Girard, René "Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark". New Literary History Vol. 15, No. 2, Interrelation of Interpretation and Creation (Winter, 1984), pp. 311–324.
  28. Protests Against Showing of Salomé "Protest Against Showing of Salomé: Church Federations of St. Louis Raise Objection to Theda Bara's Dearth of Attire". Moving Picture World (New York City: Chalmers Publishing Company) 39 (4): 476. Jan 25, 1919. Retrieved 25 July 2014
  29. Mark Wrathall: U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band. Open Court. 2012. ISBN 978-0812698138. Page 40.
  30. texte, Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900). Auteur du; (1854-1900), Wilde, Oscar (1930). "BnF Catalogue général". (in French). Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  31. Spanish ed.: ISBN 84-8109-511-7 German edition, Club premiere 2006, without ISBN
  32. Tale of Tales. Fatale -Exploring Salome
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