«Well you saw your God Jokanaan; but me, me you never saw. If you had seen me, you would have loved me!» is the brutal sentence around which the Wildean reworking of the biblical story of Salomé, the Jewish princess, revolves.
Like the tragic Medea, Salomé is a wicked character who, for her own selfish pleasure, brings about terrible injustices, like getting John the Baptist’s head cut off. However, this work by Oscar Wilde is one of the most successful tours de force in the history of modern theatre and, in this one-act play, offers us justification for the princess' desire.
There is little point in talking about Wilde anymore, as it seems that society has decided to make him the scapegoat who everyone falls back on when talking about modern literature and so-called post-modernism – the God of all things hipster. What interests us here about Wilde is the capacity he shows in this drama for giving Salomé a profound psychological dimension.
A lecherous stepfather, a furious mother and a prophet who shouts insults at her are the characters who give the princess the urgent need to be noticed, to be seen and taken into account. Hence her making an exhibition of herself with the dance of the seven veils and her frustration when Jokanaan refuses to kiss her. That frustration (poorly handled and dependent on the power she wields) is what leads to her obsession being taken to the limit when she kisses the severed head of the prophet.
For Salomé, that monstrous vision, as the stepfather Herod calls it, is the fulfillment of her desire for love that is behind everything she does, just like Medea. Although she forgoes the carnal fulfillment of the desire, the princess needs to feel the bitterness of the love, the “fire of lust” that Jokanaan has provoked in her.
In this act of unbridled love (kissing the decapitated head) Wilde sees an act of beauty in the same way that for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler it is sublimely beautiful to die with greatness, with a bullet through her temple. At the turn of the century, audiences were divided by such a “provocative” play. However, Aubrey Beardsley understood the beauty that Wilde was seeking.
Beardsley’s ironic and extravagant illustrations are a criticism of the play and picture Salomé as a bizarre, grotesque figure who is close to the Devil and endowed with eroticism that is not without its wickedness but, above all, with a malevolent beauty that is perfectly in tune with the vision that Wilde the artist had constructed: reworking dramatic religious figures so that they become archetypes of what Joan Brossa calls “the essence of theater: Harlequin, Pierrot and Columbine”.
Salomé has not only sharpened the wit of Beardsley, but also that of creators from a variety of art forms: much like Wilde’s play, the opera by Richard Strauss represented a new way of understanding textuality with lyricism that is akin to dodecaphonism. Robert Ross remarked: “The words have not been transfigured into ordinary operatic nonsense to suit the score, the susceptibilities of the English people”.
In Catalonia, Terenci Moix made ample use of the Wildean version of the legend to present his personal world, and in Salomé he saw an embodiment of eroticism that he championed throughout his career. Thanks to RTVE we can revisit the Estudio 1 version starring Núria Espert, who delighted us with her ability to capture the nuance of how the princess feels in the final monologue, before she kisses Jokanaan’s head:
Princess you shunned me; you deflowered my virgin soul and in the veins of my chaste body you infiltrated the fire of lust. Ah! Why did you not look at me?
Images: Nina Stemme in the role of Salomé in Strauss’ opera (Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2008) and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.