"An arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred."—London Times, 1893
There's a revelatory new edition of Oscar Wilde's Salomé out now from the University of Virginia Press. It's distinctive on two levels: for the masterful woodcuts of Barry Moser and for the new translation and introduction by Joseph Donohue. (The onetime scandalous play was written originally in French, and its fustian language was preserved in the standard translation, tossed off by Wilde's inamorata Lord Alfred Douglas).
Donohue's refashioning of the play's language mirrors the contrast between Moser's illustrations and the famed phantasmagorical imaginings of Aubrey Beardsley (above left).
In the introduction to the Bodley Head edition of 1912, Wilde's friend Robert Ross tells the following story.
"Madame [Sarah] Bernhardt, who in 1892 leased the Palace Theatre for a not very successful London season, had known Wilde from his earliest days. She has recorded her first meeting with him at Dover. He was constantly at the theatres where she was acting in London. She happened one day to say that she wished Wilde would write a play for her. One of his dramas had already appeared with success. He replied in jest that he had done so. Ignorant, or forgetful, of the English law prohibiting the introduction of Scriptural characters on the stage, she insisted on seeing the manuscript, decided on immediate production, and started rehearsals. On the usual application being made to the Censor for a licence it was refused…. Wilde immediately announced that he would change his nationality and become a Frenchman, a threat which inspired Mr. Bernard Partridge with a delightful caricature of the author as a conscript in the French Army (Punch, July 9th, 1892)."
In an article called Lost in Translation: Oscar, Bosie, and Salome, Anne Margaret Daniel writes of the original version:
"Perhaps Wilde wrote Salomé in French to better its chances of being produced in London, with the shock value of the story line coated in foreign language. Perhaps he simply wanted to see if he could. Whatever the case, Wilde's choice of language allowed him to consciously enhance a conception of the feminine in his linguistic treatment of Salome. Having chosen to write the play in French, Wilde completely overloads feminine nouns throughout, particularly when the princess herself is speaking. Much of the feminine sense and sensibility of the original Salome is utterly lost in translation, and Douglas did not, or could not, amend this. A marvelous part of the original French is the repetition Wilde uses, recurring words and phrases and images that build lavishly and make the (religious, after all) drama like a litany."
These deficiences and more, thankfully, are addressed in Donohue's translation.
It didn't take long for Wilde's play to inspire a cinematic treatment. In 1923, a silent film directed by Charles Bryant starred Alla Nazimova. Although it had a big budget (~ $300,000, with costumes and decor modeled on the Beardsley illustrations), it flopped. Vindication came in 2000, when it was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Here's an excerpt; more episodes can be seen on youtube and the complete film seen here. Of course the story showed up again in one of Richard Strauss's most famous operas—a worthwhile but truly harrowing experience!