|Salome: A Wildean Symbolist Drama|
Attempting to categorize, analyze, or even describe Oscar Wilde's lyrical drama Salome is a problematic issue and a source of contention amongst critics. To many, Wilde's willingness to appropriate themes and treatments of the Salome legend from other authors of the period is a shortcoming; Wilde's play is labeled as "derivative" or a mere imitation. For others, it is precisely this fusion of different sources which gives strength to the drama, and Wilde is hailed as creative, innovative, and modern. The fact is that the Salome legend was a logical choice for Wilde: one writer acknowledges that "the Salome/Herodias figure was almost as popular among nineteenth-century artists as the Virgin Mary was among medieval artists."  But seeking justification for Wilde's 'originality' in his creative use of sources is, I believe, misguided. Certainly Wilde adapted his material, and drew on many different settings of the legend -- most of them, however, stemmed from the school of Symbolism, with whose poetic tenets Wilde felt a strong affinity. It is, then, vitally important to regard the Symbolist and Decadent aspects of Salome as well as the drama's literary-historical background, since it is in the subversive treatment of symbolic representation that Wilde's drama reveals itself to be unique.|
The Legend of Salome: Various Treatments in the 19th Century
An astounding number of settings of the Salome legend were produced in the nineteenth century, both in literature as well as in painting. Wilde's literary background ensures that he was aware of, if not intimately acquainted with the large majority of Salome treatments, and he made obvious reference to some of them in his 1892 drama. He was certainly familiar with the novels of Gustave Flaubert, and most particularly with the short story "Hérodias," which had appeared in Trois Contes in 1877. Flaubert's setting of the Salome legend, however, bears only a superficial resemblance to Wilde's own: Schweik notes that the earlier tale is "devoid of such perverse irrationality" but depends instead "upon the carefully researched and minutely realistic social detail that is one of Flaubert's characteristic achievements in fiction."  Nonetheless, Wilde admired Flaubert's works and his treatment of the ancient legend with its erotic, even scandalous depictions.
Far more influential for the genesis of Wilde's Salome, though, were the paintings of Gustave Moreau, whose strange and mystical themes laid the groundwork for later expressionist art, as well as for the poetry and art of the Decadents. In particular, Moreau's Salome Dancing Before Herod, from 1876, played a vital role for the conception of the legend, for Wilde as well as for other writers of the period. Moreau's setting of Salome's dance is not, by any means, a mere recreation of the Biblical legend: fantastic and subversive, she cannot be confined to one medium, one time, one place, as Conrad describes:
The resemblance to Wilde's own poetic drama is clear: not only does the depiction mix legend with history, the temporal with the eternal, but it blends form and medium as well, creating a complex rendition of sensual repulsion. Indeed, this paradoxical mixing of emotions, so key to Wilde's own play, may have its source in the art of Moreau: another critic finds that the entire composition of Moreau's Salome is infused with a "conflicting symbolism", a "beauty of inertia" and a "necessary richness" which emphasizes the "wholly arbitrary and irrational character" of Salome herself. 
Wilde may have been directly familiar with Moreau's paintings, or he may have known of them simply through the writings and descriptions of others. There is no question, however, of his exposure to one of the most significant novels of the day, a tale in which these paintings play an important role. Joris Karl Huysmans, a Dutchman writing in French, gives a prominent description of the Salome painting, as well as its effect on the viewer, in his decadent and influential novel A Rebours (1884). The novel's protagonist, des Esseintes, has acquired Moreau's painting, considering it to incarnate the very spirit of decadence; it is one of the few works of art which send him into raptures of delight. Huysmans' lengthy description of the painting is notorious for its detail and sensuality: his description of Salome's dance, for instance, reads in part:
Huysmans does not confine himself to a simple reproduction of the painting's content; indeed, his analysis of Moreau's work reads like that of an art history textbook. He notes that the painting combines many different, even conflicting, spiritual and religious elements, and believes that this makes Salome herself "one of the undying gods of nature ritual," a creation that can be shared by all cults and beliefs. Huysmans' anthropological musings were well-known to Wilde, although, as Conrad notes, they are relegated to near insignificance in his play and in Strauss' opera:
Wilde's love of Huysmans' novel was surpassed perhaps only by his admiration for the reigning French Symbolist poet, Stephane Mallarmé. Although his writings are few in number, Mallarmé was a driving force for the Symbolist movement throughout the 1890's, providing both a model for other poets and a springboard for new ideas, many of them formulated at one of the salons or café meetings which he organized in Paris. Mallarmé's theories of poetics and literature were to shape Wilde's outlook, as well, and it is thus no surprise to find that his Hérodiade (1869), a lyrical drama telling the tale of Herodias' marriage to Herod, bears certain similarities to Wilde's drama. Schweik notes, in terms that could just as easily apply to Wilde, how Mallarmé's work exhibits a "poetic style characterized by a remarkable discontinuousness, so that individual words and images resonate against others in ways that leave the reader confronted with abrupt and confusing shifts of sense."  True to his own theoretical statements, Mallarmé's poetry is suggestive, elliptical, often obscure; his words act as instruments within a symphony, and his poems resemble music both in form and expression. Arthur Symons, a contemporary literary critic, remarks:
Mallarmé may never have resolved or realized his ideals, but they provided impetus to the next generation of poets who gathered to meet with him in Paris. A logical extension to his ideas came in the writings of Maurice Maeterlinck, one of the first Symbolists to produce and theorize drama as well as poetry. Maeterlinck's dramas, known more for their style than their plots, emphasized a universal "mystery" and a sense of impending doom, as well as an awareness of the transitory nature of reality and existence. As Symons describes it, Maeterlinck's plays take on an almost existentialist quality:
In accordance with this deliberate mysticism, Maeterlinck shaped the language of his plays into an art form of its own. His characters speak with the mechanical precision of marionettes: childish, simplistic, even absurd and reductionist, their utterings make linguistic sense but are often lacking ties to any familiar concept of reality. Maeterlinck's use of language, it can be seen, has much in common with Wilde's own: Praz claims that "the childish prattle employed by the characters in his Salome ... reduces the voluptuous Orient of Flaubert's Tentation to the level of a nursery tale," a statement which, although polemical, is not far from the truth. 
Two other sources for Wilde's treatment of the Salome legend deserve to be mentioned. Heinrich Heine, in his 1843 epic Atta Troll, invents a fantastic setting of the story: during the vision of a witches' wild chase, the narrator describes how Herodias, laughing madly with desire, kisses the head of John. She had loved him, Heine continues, and had demanded his head in the heat of passion -- for, he asks, "why would a woman want the head of any man she did not love?"  This setting incorporates elements of the Biblical legend, but is one of the first to attribute John's decapitation to a sexual desire on the part of the woman. Surely, this was an important forerunner of Wilde; nonetheless, as Ellmann points out, Wilde's Salome is not merely a retelling of Heine's tale, since the German version makes the shocking kiss into the punishment of Herodias after, not before, her death. Importantly, too, Heine's ever-present irony is nowhere to be found in Wilde: Heine's "tone of caricature is quite unlike that of perverted horror which Wilde evokes." 
Perhaps the most direct and at the same time least famous setting of the Salome legend comes from an American author, a contemporary of Wilde named J.C. Heywood. A young Harvard graduate, his dramatic poem Salome was published in Massachusetts in 1862, and reprinted in London throughout the 1880's. Wilde reviewed the piece in 1888, and seems to have drawn on it for some inspiration: Heywood's setting is full of erotic nuances, and has a climactic scene of Herodias kissing John's head following his execution. Nonetheless, as Ellmann stresses, Heywood's setting of the legend pales in comparison to Wilde: "to read Heywood ... is to come to a greater admiration for Wilde's ingenuity." 
Indeed, Wilde's creativity is striking. Not only has he, as many critics have pointed out, drawn on various legends and histories to expand the setting of his drama, but the characters themselves take on a lively, even larger-than-life quality. Alan Bird claims: "The fact is that Wilde actually created the characters of his play, rolling several historical Herods into one and using the biblical narrative as the slenderest of bases for his plot."  It is important here to note that the figures of Salome and Herodias are, in Wilde's setting, very distinct; in many legends, by contrast, there was confusion as to the role of each woman. In most cases, Salome had played a rather minor part: usually shown as a young girl, subservient to the wishes of her mother, she became a pawn in the machinations between Herodias and Herod. In Wilde, on the other hand, Salome is extremely self-aware and far more powerful, in the end, than her mother. So too has Herodias, long the heroine of legend -- witness the titles of nearly all the previous literary treatments -- both gained and lost in Wilde's play. She has lost her erotic attachment to John, but gained in jealousy, anger, and stolid practicality: she is the antithesis of symbolic mysticism, placed in direct opposition to Herod and Salome, who both recognize and draw power from metaphorical representation.
The character of Salome is rightly chosen as the centerpiece of the drama: it is around her that the action revolves, from her that the conflicts stems, and with her that the climax is reached. But Salome is far more than a mere character in this play: she has become, for Wilde as for Moreau and Huysmans, an incarnation of seductive purity and power. She, like Moreau's painting, blurs the line between creation and creator, between form and content, between image and word. She exists in legend far beyond the confines of drama or poetry, and in art beyond the borders of the stage. Her ability to create, in words, a painting of Jokanaan's body is but one example of the power of her speech and of her being:
In these scenes, as well as throughout the opening lines of the play, the power of contrast is invoked. Wilde's language, however childish and simplistic, is full of images and metaphors of opposition, attempts to negate and to recreate, to prohibit and to encourage. The quiet, dream-like statements of Narraboth, countered by the urgency of the Page's replies, are contrasted with the loud and rough jokes from the soldiers, just as Salome's high-pitched, passionate entreaties to Jokanaan meet with his solemn and deep rebukes. The entirety of sounds, of language as well as intonations, calls to mind a musical performance, even without the aid of Strauss' operatic setting. In fact, many critics find the most striking feature of Wilde's play to be its musicality. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote, shortly after reading the play:
In blending the categories as she does, suffusing painting with the power of words, and words, in turn, with the power of music, Salome becomes a transcendental figure, exactly as the Symbolist agenda would have her. Conrad sees her as having been "released into music, for the primary universal language whose existence Levi-Strauss postulates ... is music, the international idiom."  In addition, Salome becomes a figure free from traditional constraints, able to convey the 'universal mystery' and establish a basic link between all forms of expression.
Salome: The Renunciation of Language
Wilde wrote Salome while living in Paris in December of 1891. His allegiance to the French Symbolists and Decadents had been firmly established, and he had become friends with some of the more prominent poets in Paris. After an evening spent discussing the legend of Salome with some of these writers, Wilde retired to his room, opened a blank notebook which happened to be on the table, and began the play. A few hours later, with much of the text already written, he went out to a nearby café and, needing inspiration, asked the leader of the orchestra to play some music which might evoke "a woman dancing in her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain."  Salome was finished soon afterwards, and plans were made to produce it for the theater.
Significantly, Wilde composed Salome, from the very beginning, in French. Some critics postulate that this fact may account for the simplistic, "phrase-book" language of the play; others vehemently defend Wilde's fluency in his adopted tongue and prefer to see a Maeterlinck influence. Bird strikes the middle ground in his assessment: "Wilde wrote French as he spoke it -- that is, charmingly, but simply and somewhat in the manner of the the phrasebook."  Whether or not Wilde's command of French was truly a factor in the style of language he uses for the play, it is definitely a point of contention, and an oddity. Conrad notes:
The English edition of Salome was translated by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893, although there was some contention at the time, as Wilde objected to the "schoolboy faults" of Douglas' attempt. The German version, used by Strauss for his libretto, was translated by Hedwig Lachmann; even if shortened substantially, Lachmann's translation is by all accounts a successful one. Conrad notes, in a surprisingly biased account, that Lachmann's edition "has the virtue of rescuing Wilde's play from itself ... German expunges the mannered refinement of the French and gives to the heroine's utterances a guttural, visceral avidity which is genuinely horrifying, where in Wilde's phrasing she is merely peevish."  This may be so; his conclusion is far more satisfying, explaining that the summit of the phrase "Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan" is, in the French, the noun, and thus the prize -- whereas the German stresses the verb, and thus the action, making the entire scene erotic rather than aesthetic.
And it is eroticism which Salome embodies so totally, and yet so ambiguously. On the one hand, Wilde saw the figure of Salome as the epitome of sensuality; he is reported to have asked a friend for advice: "Don't you think she would be better naked? Yes, totally naked, but draped with heavy and ringing necklaces made of jewels of every colour, warm with the fervour of her amber flesh ... Her lust must needs be infinite, and her perversity without limits."  On the other hand, however, she should be guided by "divine inspiration," and be as chaste as a flower: in Wilde's conception of the dance, Salome "undulates like a lily. There is nothing sensual in her beauty." 
Above all, Salome is art. Born as she was out of a mixture of painting and literature, she incarnates the essence of art, and proves this on several occasions in the drama. When she dances and removes the seven veils, she is left not naked, but bejewelled, her body turning into a living work of art. Herod's gaze is that of the spectator, the audience for whom she then dances and performs. Her ambiguity, her placement between eroticism and chastity, is that of the artwork itself: lifeless, yet infused with an artificial sensuality. She is, as we have seen, an artist as well: she creates and destroys, but is in the end herself a creation who meets with destruction.
Wilde's creation of Salome is, too, a work of art, but the question of his originality remains. In nearly every critical assessment, an effort is made to come to terms with the seemingly "derivative" quality of Wilde's play. Drawing on as many different sources and mixing as many different styles and themes as he does, Wilde can surely avoid charges of imitation -- but the line between originality and creative fusion of sources is quite unclear. Ellmann, one of the drama's most vehement defenders, claims that Wilde is "anticipatory rather than derivative,"  and finds his use of simple language to be a precursor of later models, such as the absurd theater. Donahue sees Wilde's true creativity in his "efforts to mix the styles and subjects of other writers," an endeavor which "takes typically circuitous and recondite paths."  There is something unsatisfying, though, in claiming 'originality through creative imitation,' and Praz dutifully notes that, "as generally happens with specious second-hand works, it was precisely Wilde's Salome which became popular."  Instead of seeking a defense of Wilde's originality in the external events of his drama, then, I would like to suggest that it is the cautious modification of Symbolist ideals -- Wilde's affirmation and at the same time questioning of his own poetical mission -- which makes his Salome so unique.
Wilde and the Symbolist Movement in Literature
By 1892, when Salome was published in France and England, the tenets of the Symbolist movement had been outlined by several different theorists, among them Mallarmé and Maeterlinck. The unifying thread behind their agenda was a belief in the importance of poetry: they held that literature should concern itself with creating links, through symbolic language, to the ideals of a different, often transcendental reality. This stands in marked contrast to the Naturalist school, against whose reality-based simplicity of language the Symbolists were revolting; it is also quite different from the traditional poetic realism of the nineteenth century, whose superficiality and tranquility the Symbolists abhorred.
Arthur Symons, in his classic contemporary analysis The Symbolist Movement in Literature, correctly stresses the Symbolists' view of language. Words, they recognized, are quite simply symbols, and can be used to mirror, distort, or otherwise represent whatever reality the poet chooses. Although words have no inherent superiority, they are the only vehicle the poet has for the expression of his truth; thus language -- each individual word itself -- is of primary importance to the Symbolist author. Symons explains, in typical hyperbole, that:
Poetry must only suggest, never describe or explain. By doing so, it can hope to establish, even to make the reader recognize those links which hold the world together: the transcendental reality. Symons explains that this reality is "the affirmation of an eternal, minute, intricate, almost invisible life" which is common to, and yet distinct from, all creations; it is the task of the poet, then, for each individual moment of that transcendence, to "find the symbol which is its most adequate expression." 
Symbolist poetry, although dependent upon language, aimed to approach the abstraction of music. Symbolists poets like Mallarmé were known for their 'orchestration,' and interpretations of their poems often consider the different 'instruments,' 'melodies,' and 'harmonies' present in the composition. Wilde's Salome, as has been noted, also has a musicality of form: as Quigley explains, not only is the language of the play full of tonal opposition, but the dramatic structure depends "as much upon the development of certain rhythmic contrasts and relationships as upon its linear narrative movement from love to death."  Although Wilde's is not a Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense, it does combine varied elements into a visual, verbal, and musical whole -- the difference being, perhaps, that Wilde was not trying to evoke totality for its own sake, but was guided a more symbolic vision. "The tradition of total theatre is invoked not to create the possibility for comprehensive statement but to provide access to new forms of partial awareness,"  an indication, perhaps, of that transcendent reality which the poet attempts to proclaim.
Wilde's affiliation with the Symbolist movement is clear; it should be noted, though, that he had equally strong ties to another movement, itself closely allied with Symbolism: the Decadent poets of the 1890's. Never an exclusive or well-defined school, the Decadents drew their inspiration from many of the same sources as the Symbolists, such as the poems of Baudelaire and the dramas of Maeterlinck. Their emphasis, though, was on the importance of art for its own sake. Art must be independent of moral and social concerns, they believed, and must concentrate on style above all else. "Style in decadent art asphyxiates its subject," Conrad claims, and indeed, most of Wilde's other works, and most certainly his lifestyle and biography, attest to his agreement.  The inspiration for Decadent art was to be found in aestheticism, the cultivation of an ideal art, a new form of beauty -- leading to the extreme pole of Dandyism. Decadent poets, then, did not shy away from shocking or scandalous themes: they took interest in all expressions of human emotion, both the traditionally acceptable as well as the perverse and immoral. Clearly, Salome continues Wilde's tradition of Decadent art; at the same time, though, it calls certain aspects of Symbolism into being, leading to an interesting mixture of styles.
Symbolist and Decadent Moments in Salome
The Symbolist nature of Salome is an issue that sharply divides literary critics, leading to some rather polemical debates. A number of writers claim that Wilde was genuinely convinced of these poetic ideals, and that Salome is therefore a faithful "symbolist drama" -- Quigley remarks, for example, on how Wilde seems interested "in exploring the outer margins of human experience, the margins at which the continuum of human experience makes contact at one end with religious transcendence and at the other with raw animality."  Other critics find that the tone and plot of the play undercut the symbolism, leading to the conclusion that Salome is "a brilliant pastiche of turn-of-the-century Decadent art,"  or that, in another analysis, the drama displays a "humour which one can with difficulty believe to be unintentional, so much does Wilde's play resemble a parody of the whole of the material used by the Decadents and of the stammering mannerism of Maeterlinck's dramas."  I cannot agree with either end of this spectrum: after reading Salome, one is certainly left with strong doubts as to the "truth" of symbolist ideals, but to call the entire play a parody or pastiche is certainly an exaggeration -- the very nature of the conflict, the exquisite treatment of Salome herself, and the final events of the drama prohibit such a conclusion. An analysis of certain symbolic moments in the play should help to clarify Wilde's intention in this respect.
The moon, a recurring leitmotif in the drama, is one of the most important symbolical referents for Wilde, and for the characters themselves. In the opening scene, the Page of Herodias and the Young Syrian discuss its appearance in metaphorical, symbolic language: the Page, in an ominous anticipation of events to come, fears that the moon seems "like a woman rising from a tomb," "like a dead woman ... looking for dead things," while the Young Syrian, ever captivated by Salome, sees the moon instead as "a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver."  Upon her entrance, Salome is relieved to see the serene night and the moon, which she describes as "cold and chaste," since "she has never defiled herself ... never abandoned herself to men."  Then Herod, in yet another premonition of disaster, is distressed by the moon's appearance and claims that "she is like a mad woman .. seeking everywhere for lovers ... she reels through the clouds like a drunken woman."  All of these metaphorical descriptions -- the legacy of Symbolist language -- serve to suggest, in images as well as words, the emotional state of each character, but they also reinforce the power of symbolism, its ability to connect and link the varied elements of the drama. The unity is destroyed, however, by the next statement about the moon, uttered by Herodias, the antithesis of symbolic power: exasperated, she insists that "the moon is like the moon, that is all!"  Conrad duly notes this difference amongst the characters:
We have already examined the role of Salome as art incarnate, and in fact she is the very symbol of art in the drama: her dance, too, becomes a symbolic representation of her power to seduce, a fascinating blend of chastity and erotic manipulation. But the outcome of the drama leaves the reader in a state of confusion: if Salome, the embodiment of symbolism, has succumbed to perversion and met with destruction, and if Herod, also a strong proponent of metaphorical imagery, has been the agent of this destruction, we are left with only Herodias, the down-to-earth realist. Yet her portrayal, throughout the drama, is far from positive, and even her practicality is condemned by the sarcastic tone of her pronouncements. The humorous exchanges between Herod and his wife illustrate the difficulty in trying to determine the play's agenda, and Herod admits a type of defeat, reprimanding himself for overemphasizing the "truth" of symbols: "You must not find symbols in everything you see. It make life impossible. It were better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose petals." 
Could this play, then, be a satire of the symbolist agenda, a critique of the movement for having made life "impossible" by seeking symbols in everything? All things considered, this interpretation is untenable. Historically, the facts are clear: Wilde did not intend for his play to be a comedy. Donahue explains what happened on one occasion, when the "tragic beauty" of the play was called into question:
So too does the outcome of the drama exclude the possibility of a comic interpretation: Salome ends in tragedy, a horrific image so scandalous as to prompt outrage among French audiences -- and to have it banned from public performance in Britain. Indeed, the underlying theme of the drama is at once a most weighty and yet intangible question of human existence: the nature of aestheticism. As Bird sees it, "Salome is the incarnate spirit of the aesthetic woman: remote, desirable, a rapacious belle dame sans merci from whom no man is safe ... but, at the same time, a creature which can be destroyed as easily as it is made." 
Certainly, though, there is an implied criticism of nearly every mode of thinking in Wilde's portrayal. Herodias, the unsympathetic and harping wife, is as questionable as Herod and Salome, who rely excessively on their belief in their own powers of transcendence, as Quigley writes:
Above all, Wilde's drama is personal. He himself stressed the importance of this fact, and saw it as his crowning achievement. In a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, he wrote: "I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation."  Wilde's symbolism, like that of the French poets, relies on indirect suggestion and evocation, but his dramatic technique, his ability to create stage presence out of mere suggestion, mixes, in the figures of Salome and Jochanaan, the "rawly physical with the richly visionary," empowering the audience and providing them with "two different kinds of access" to that mystical truth behind the symbols. 
Added to the personal nature of Salome is the typical Wildean wit and humor. In many cases, as we have seen, this humor functions to question the power of symbolic representation, but on the whole Wilde's wit is much farther-reaching: it calls any authority into question, it negates the very truth of the drama itself. It is a humor based on contrast, just as the structure of the play relies on opposition, and this constant juxtaposition of conflicting practices seems to be a defining characteristic of the play. Donahue, focusing on the elements of Wilde's Dandyism that appear in the play, comes to the conclusion that, for Wilde, "the art of symbolist theatre is simultaneously symbolist and dandiacal ... For the symbolist it is the truth that counts; for the dandy, the appearance."  Wilde's play moves, then, beyond traditional Symbolism, becoming almost "metasymbolist" in its ability to offer access not only to a transcendent reality, but to the reality of other art forms and other authors; this access arises, at least in part, from the combination of the ancient Salome legend with a modern wit and a prophetic vision.
The unique achievement of Wilde's drama lies, then, I believe, in his weaving together an implicit critique of Symbolism while at the same time using his drama to expose the vital strengths and necessity of many Symbolist ideals. He appropriates the metaphorical language, the reliance on symbols in order to suggest a higher reality and to create ties between it and the events on stage, and the aesthetic beauty of Symbolist drama, but subjects all of it to strict examination. "Symbolism in the play is not so much illustrated as interrogated,"  Quigley claims, but I would go even farther, and say that Symbolism is both illustrated, interrogated, and affirmed in the course of the drama. It is a unique, Wildean Symbolism, one that combines elements of humor and solemnity, creation and negation, the real and the symbolic -- mixing ordinary human experience with the voice of prophetic transcendence, in order to expose, even create, the "links" proclaimed by Mallarmé and his followers.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 947 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Salome: A Wildean Symbolist Drama." Website Article. 19 December 1995. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/947paper.html>.