on 3 February 2009
Originally written in French, when Oscar Wilde was in exile in Paris, after his time in prison for having had an affair with young Alfred Douglas, alias Bosie, the future Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (poet, author, critic and correspondent, 1870-1945), then translated by Lord Alfred Douglas, a translation that is in some editions attributed to Oscar Wilde himself. In spite of his perfect bilingualism, Oscar Wilde let a few English mistakes slip into his French text but that is minor and even attractively exotic. It is difficult to really say if the English version is Wilde's or Lord Alfred Douglas's. But the first thing we can say about this play is that the theme itself is symbolical of Oscar Wilde and his time. Oscar Wilde somewhere is John the Baptist and that metaphor is easy. We will try to go a lot farther in a while. But it is also typical of the time, the very beginning of the 20th century. A time when all the princes and princesses, queens and kings, lords and barons, bankers and industrialists were dancing on a floor thickly littered with bank notes. But a time too when people were dying in the bush in South Africa, or all kinds of natives were suffering under the whip of colonialism. It was a time of hypocrisy in which those who wanted to be truthful to themselves, their beliefs, and at times their gods, be they God himself, or herself, the working class or artistic creation, were running against the thick wall of absolute lack of understanding, of mediocrity and bigotry. It was the time when exploitation was an understatement for what was happening in the mines or the factories of the industrialized countries. It was the time when all kinds of fundamentalist ethics were imposed on the world: hemp was banned from our fields because of the competition its leaves represented to tobacco and the empire that was behind. Absinth was banned for no reason at all, except that it was a heavy competition against wine or other alcoholic beverages that represented big industrial and financial interests. All kinds of sexual abnormality was condemned and persecuted in Great Britain, though France was slightly more liberal. This society was qualified as Victorian, though it was reviving the deep roots of puritan England, the heritage of the old Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Puritanism was one of the fundamental characteristic of this time, with tantalizers and teetotalers and other torturous and tortuous social devices. It was the time of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the time of Dorian Gray in Wilde's own imagination. It was a time when well behaved people did not call a spade a spade, did not even call a spade anything at all because well behaved people had no commerce with that thing and had no word for that thing. It was the time of what was to be illustrated later as Lady Chatterley's lover or Maurice, or so many other intrigues and affairs crossing social classes, the acme of criminal activity in Great Britain at the time. And it is that drama Oscar Wilde lives in Salome. The fact that her society rejects the seer, the prophet, the announcer of the future, the liberator, and at the same time does not have the courage to execute him. And in this society she is the daughter of the Queen and step daughter and niece of the present King who imprisoned and put to death his brother, her father, the former king, and remarried his sister in law, Salome's mother, and by being all that, in two words a female Hamlet, she represents the upheaval which will bring the end of that rotten society. She falls in love with the imprisoned prophet, not because he is a lovable man in any way, not because she feels any sentimental attachment to him, but just because she is fascinated by the negation of her society he carries in himself, in his eyes and his body and his voice in a first ternary grouping of vision, doom and apocalypse, and then with his body and his hair and his mouth in a second grouping of sensual flesh, snakes and kissable lips, rebuilding like that the number of Solomon beyond the Christian trinity, the Jew beyond the Christian saint, the flesh of carnal life beyond the vision of the de-carnalized Christian trinity. And Oscar Wilde pushes this very metaphor to the extreme of transforming Salome from a sensual, sensitive and possessive lover into a vengeful, inflexible and purely animal executioner. Since John did not want to kiss her, she will have his head delivered to her on a silver platter just for the pleasure of kissing it, and, to her dismay, finding out that there is no pleasure in kissing a dead mouth and a dead tongue. The dance of the seven veils she paid for that head, that kiss, was of no avail since it did not deliver the sensual pleasure she was expecting in her foolish blindness. And the step father will have her slain by a plain soldier, like an unimportant piece of trash that has to be discarded and disposed of now she has brought the end of this world into being. How could Oscar Wilde be more visionary and see better the catastrophe of the big war, and all that will follow, being brought up in the future by the soul-less enjoyment of material goods and pleasures, wines and dances that are felling not only the tree that could hide the forest, but the forest itself that could have been hidden by the tree of a prophet, since a voice is only prophetic when you bring it to a dead end, the dead end of its own sacrifice, execution, martyrdom.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines