Popular Posts

Friday 21 May 2010

Salome : half Biblical, half pornographic -

with such words did the censor describe Oscar Wilde's play in 1892 when the Lord Chamberlain's office refused it a licence. In point of fact, both the half Biblical and the half pornographic were grounds for refusal, but there's a lot to be said for making sure!

Last Wednesday evening we (Doreen and I) went to see Salome at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. I had read the play way back (and, indeed, illustrated it -the first image here is one of mine, the second, which I could not have followed, is by Aubrey Beardsly), but I had not seen it. Somehow it had always escaped me. Maybe because it has always been more popular and so staged more often on the Continent than in this country. And maybe that's because Wilde wrote it originally in French.

The story is well enough known, I think, though for any who might not be familiar with it I will give a broad sketch - plus an extract or two.In the first extract Salome has walked out of a feast and approaches the guards on the terrace:
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Do not look at her. I pray you not to look at her.

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: She is like a dove that has strayed .... She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind ... She is like a silver flower.


SALOMÉ: I will not stay. I cannot stay. Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. In truth, yes I know it.

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: You have just left the feast, Princess?

SALOMÉ: How sweet the air is here! I can breathe here! Within there are Jews from Jerusalem who are tearing each other in pieces over their foolish ceremonies, and barbarians who drink and drink, and spill their wine on the pavement, and Greeks from Smyrna with painted eyes and painted cheeks, and frizzed hair curled in twisted coils, and silent, subtle Egyptians, with long nails of jade and russett cloaks, and Romans brutal and coarse, with their uncouth jargon. Ah! how I loathe the Romans! They are rough and common, and they give themselves the airs of noble lords.

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: Will you be seated, Princess?

THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Why do you speak to her? Why do you look at her? Oh! something terrible will happen.

SALOMÉ: How good to see the moon. She is like a little piece of money, you would think she was a little silver flower. The Moon is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin's beauty. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men like the other goddesses.

THE VOICE OF JOKANAAN: The Lord hath come. The son of man hath come. The centaurs have hidden themselves in the rivers, and the sirens have left the rivers, and are lying beneath the leaves of the forest.

SALOMÉ: Who was that who cried out?

SECOND SOLDIER: The prophet, Princess.

SALOMÉ: Ah, the prophet! He of whom the Tetrarch is afraid?

SECOND SOLDIER: We know nothing of that, Princess. It was the prophet Jokanaan who cried out.

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: Is it your pleasure that I bid them bring your litter, Princess? The night is fair in the garden.

SALOMÉ: He says terrible things about my mother, does he not!

SECOND SOLDIER: We never understand what he says, Princess.

SALOMÉ: Yes, he says terrible things about her.

Herod and Herodias are an item, although she is his brother's wife. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod for his violent denouncing of their adultery, describing Herodias - and, indeed, her daughter, Salome - as a daughter of iniquity and much else along the same lines. Salome becomes fascinated by what she is hearing about the Baptist and persuades the guards - the very reluctant guards who are under strict orders from Herod - to bring the Baptist before her. She tells the Baptist of her desire for his body. When that fails she extols his hair and desires that. Finally she desires to kiss his mouth.
Here is a taster of the text.
JOKANAAN: Back! Daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.

SALOMÉ: Thy body is hideous. It is like the body of a leper. It is like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled; like a plastered wall where the scorpions have made their nest. It is like a whitened sepulchre full of loathsome things. It is horrible, thy body is horrible. It is of thy hair that I am enamoured, Jokanaan. Thy hair is like a cluster of grapes, like the clusters of black grapes that hang from the vine-trees of Edom in the land of the Edomites. Thy hair is like the cedars of Lebanon, like the great cedars of Lebanon that give their shade to the lions and to the robbers who would hide themselves by day. The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, when the stars are afraid, are not so black. The silence that dwells in the forest is not so black. There is nothing in the world so black as thy hair .... Let me touch thy hair.

JOKANAAN: Back, daughter of Sodom! Touch me not. Profane not the temple of the Lord God.

SALOMÉ: Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a crown of thorns which they have placed on thy forehead. It is like a knot of black serpents writhing round thy neck. I love not thy hair .... It is thy mouth that I desire, Jokanaan. Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate-flowers that blossom in the garden of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets, that herald the approach of kings, and make afraid the enemy, are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine-press. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of the doves who haunt the temples and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers. Thy mouth is like a branch of coral that fishers have found in the twilight of the sea, the coral that they keep for kings ...! It is like the vermilion that the Moabites find in the mines of Moab, the vermilion that the kings take from them. It is like the bow of the King of Persians, that is painted with vermilion, and is tipped with coral. There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth .... Let me kiss thy mouth.

JOKANAAN: Never, daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: Princess, Princess, thou art like a garden of myrrh, thou who art the dove of all doves, look not at this man, look not at him! Do not speak such words to him. I cannot suffer them .... Princess, Princess, do not speak these things.

He remains scornful of her and her desires and is led back to prison. Herod then becomes besotted by Salome and offers her anything she might desire, up to half his Kingdom, if she will only dance for him. She dances and demands the head of the Baptist in return. Herod does all he can to wriggle out of his sworn oath, but it was made before too many witnesses and Salome will not fall for any of his life-changing bribes.

The performance had been due to start at 7.45. We entered the auditorium at 7.30. Something was already taking place on the stage. Half a dozen men in combat fatigues and armed with automatic weaponry were crouching, leaping forward, cat-like, scampering up steel frames with all the agility of monkeys or cringing as though before some awful sight. My first thought was that a group had taken advantage of an empty stage to rehearse a ballet before the play began, for the movements were very balletic and there was no sound from the actors. There was sound, however. There were weird, electronic sounds which at times made me think of a railway marshalling yard. Visually however, we seemed to be in an open cast coal mine.

At 7.45, precisely, the formerly dimly-lit stage blazed with light, the actors leapt to new positions and the dialogue began. We were, I presumed, where Oscar Wilde said we should be, on a terrace outside the palace. In the centre of the terrace was a dry well covered with a trapdoor, below which John the Baptist was imprisoned, a device which enabled his "ravings" to be heard as part of the on-stage dialogue.

I have to say that I was disappointed to discover that we were watching a modern interpretation of Wilde's play, Not because I have anything against such things per se, but because, seeing a play for the first time, I prefer to see it straight. Wilde wrote it immediately after "Lady Windermere's Fan" and having thus written a play about a good woman, enjoyed himself with this one about a woman who was "wild, naked and clothed only in jewels". She was to be erotic, remote and self-absorbed. (Interestingly, he thought his comedies should be presented in modern idiom, but the tragedies should be "purple and remote".)

As played last Wednesday, she was certainly self-absorbed and erotic - and we did see her naked. We also saw simulated anal sex between Herod and a guard and Herod masturbating a couple of times. The final scene was both dramatic and gory with Herodias being presented with the (very realistic) head of John the Baptist, her holding it aloft in triumph, and the blood pouring from the neck and splashing on to her face. Finally she got what he had denied her: she kissed his mouth.

Much is made in the text of metaphor and simile, with various characters speaking of Salome or the moon in sentences beginning: She is like... with their appearance presumed to be some sort of omen. Immediately before the final acts, for example, the moon turns blood red.

Take an Apple O.S.
fit it into your P.C. -
you've made an Apple.

- a rather tepid explanation, I thought, by an eminent scientist of the "creation of a synthetic organism" (i.e. one with a "synthetic D.N.A.")in the laboratory.


Rachel Green said...

Dave, your illustration is an utter delight.

Barry said...

I haven't seen this play either. From your description I don't think Lord Chamberlain's office would have granted it a license this time either.

@ctors Business said...

I much prefer your illustration to Beardsly's or Awfully Weirdsly as one of drama tutors labeled him.

Dave King said...

Too kind, but thanks anyway!

MMM, I'm not sure Wilde put all that in the script.

I like that - Awfully Weirdsly, I mean. I was told that mine would make him turn in his grave.

Unknown said...

Well, Dave, your illustration might also give the Lord Chamberlain pause! But where are Jokanaan's long black locks?! Richard Strauss' opera of Salome is very dramatic. Thanks for quoting some of Wilde's script.

Tabor said...

When I was a hormonal teenager I found the Bible pretty pornographic in several places!

Dave King said...

I thought that when I dug out my drawing. I was quite surprised at its near-porno nature!

Funnily enough, he didn't have long black locks on wednesday evening. He had short frizzy hair.

I remember those days, too - the glee when we found something we could quote with impunity because it was in the Bible!

Raj said...

oscar wilde.
i had heard lots about him. probably read a little but that was before i had started appreciating the skill in writing. and now the only word i can use to describe u and him is legendary.

but someday, some fine day i pray i may be close to being this good as well.

my god this was breath takingly marvelous.

thankyou sir :)

Conda Douglas said...

Wow, your illustration is quite powerful, Dave. And I read the play, um, back in my school days and believed daring to do so at the time. Now, I believe I may have been right.

Ronda Laveen said...

Straight or modified, it read as an interesting experience! Great illustration. Love the head on the platter.

Jim Murdoch said...

The only version I’ve seen was Ken Russell’s expansion of the play, Salome's Last Dance. I don’t remember much about it other than being underwhelmed by it. I know the story from the Bible. I think what annoys me is that too much emphasis is placed on the girl. Remember the girl (unnamed in the account) went to consult with her mother, Herodias, before making her request to Herod; she told her what to ask for.

Karen said...

Your illustration is incredibly good! I think it's much better than the other. Thanks for quoting the Wilde.

Cloudia said...

I see Beardsley and am young again!

Aloha from Hawaii

Comfort Spiral

Dave King said...

He's legendary; I, unfortunately, am not. Thanks, though.

Yes, I think you were right!

Yes, you are right. It was an interesting experience, and one that has deepened in retrospect.

I agree with you about the undue emphasis. In the version I saw Herodias does all she can to persuade her daughter not to dance for Herod, but is tickled pink when she Salome asks for the B aptist's head - she obviously had not expected that.

And thank you for such a commen t.

It takes more than a pen drawing to work that miracle on me these days!