The movie Salome, starring Rita Hayworth, was on TCM the other night. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but it got me to thinking. We don’t really know much about Salome. Most of us think we know her from the Bible, but there she isn’t even mentioned by name, referred to only as the Daughter of Herodias. She’s starred in books, movies, opera – and yet, she was a real person.
Most of what we know of Salome, or think we know, comes from Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. It is here that Wilde creates the most familiar iconic images of Salome, elaborating on the scene from Mark’s Gospel in which, as a reward for her dancing, Herod offers to grant her any desire. It is from Wilde that we get the image of Salome as the teenage temptress with the sexually charged dance, leaving Herod drunk with lust (as well as wine). It’s this version of Salome that most people probably think of, and the version that appears in movies such as King of Kings (which actually uses bits of Wilde’s dialogue).
The best-known fictional portrayal of Salome is probably Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, which was based on Wilde’s play. The role of Salome is a particularly challenging one, insofar as it requires the soprano to demonstrate great vocal prowess while at the same time acting like a nubile teen, particularly in the famed Dance of the Seven Veils (usually performed by the singer, occasionally by a stand-in dancer). It’s a great role, and some of the greatest singers in opera have played it, with varying degrees of success (and believability).
There are other versions of Salome as well, but so much of our iconography comes back to Wilde, which makes the ending of Wilde’s play (and Strauss’ opera) all the more interesting. Wilde fleshes out Salome’s character (no pun intended), but adds a detail that is completely at odds with the historical record: her death.
The climax of Salome (again, no pun intended) features the dancer holding before her the severed head of John the Baptist on the silver platter, after which she proceeds to fondle and caress the head, finally delivering a passionate kiss to the dead head’s lips. Herod, who is terrified and repulsed by this act, orders his soldiers to kill Salome, which they do by crushing her under the weight of their shields.
Now, one is curious as to why Wilde chose to end his play in this fashion. It’s certainly consistent with Herod’s superstitious character – he does, after all, believe for a time that Jesus is John come back to life. But the real Salome actually lived into her 40s or 50s (depending on the account), dying between 62 and 71 AD.
So what might Wilde’s motives have been for introducing such a radical change into his play? There’s no doubt it makes for a great dramatic ending, as anyone who’s seen either the play or the opera can testify. And in a creative sense it does provide closure to a plot which otherwise wouldn’t have much of an ending.
Still, one is tempted to wonder if Wilde was trying to pronounce some kind of a moral statement at the end, with judgment being delivered on Salome for her heresy. We think often of Wilde as the sexual libertine, but in truth the ending of Salome seems much more in line with Joseph Pearce’s portrait of Wilde as a man with a constant fascination with Catholicism and its teachings. As Pearce says in his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, "Once again, Wilde emerges in Salome as a Christian moralist par excellence." And certainly there does seem to be Old Testament justice being meted out in the end.
Heather Marcovitch, in Princess, Persona and Subjective Desire, offers that “Wilde saw Salome as the representation of all the unspoken impulses and desires in Donan Gray.” She suggests that Salome, seen primarily by Herod and his court as an object of desire, uses “power gotten from her persona to destroy the very system that imbued her with this power.”
Other scholars point to Wilde’s use of imagery of the kind favored by Israel's kingly poets “and that the moon is meant to suggest the terrible pagan goddess Cybele, who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took perverse pleasure in destroying male sexuality.”
There’s often a temptation to read either too much or too little into the thought process of artists, resulting in explanations that are either far too simple or exceedingly complex. And yet sometimes it is the simple or the complex that tells the true story of the author’s mind. Pearce suggests that Wilde’s term in Reading Prison, starting in 1895, was what broke him and forced him to come to terms with his life, and Salome predates that, in 1891. It’s frequently true that, prior to a conversion of any time, hints can always be seen in retrospect, and so it may well be with Salome. Whatever the reason for Wilde’s choice, Salome remains one of his most intriguing works, and the character he created one of the most intriguing in art.