Sometimes old plays come along that seem mysteriously tuned to their moment, and so it is with our student production of Oscar Wilde's Salome, which opens this week at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre. And how is it that this precious and sometimes tedious play, a relic of the decadent movement of a century ago, can speak to us now? It's because the play exotically mirrors the cultural chasm about sex that now seems to be ever widening in our country. Rush Limbaugh's grotesque response to Sandra Fluke is only the most recent and sensational illustration of the deep conflict between passion and puritanism that pervades our society. The whole thing is admirably spelled out in Paul Harris' essay in the London Guardian today, worth reading in its entirety.
Harris explains what anyone can see--America is currently in the grip of a fervent new Puritanism at exactly the moment when sex in our country has never been more promoted or widespread. The war on contraception arrives just at the time when the porn industry is worth more than $12 billion a year. In the article, Dr. Marty Klein, a sex researcher, explains that when he is asked if America is getting more progressive sexually or more conservative, he simply answers,"yes."
Such a radical conflict between freedom and restriction is at the heart of Wilde's play. Salome, as we all know, has the the hots for John the Baptist--and he wants no part of her. He is the enemy of desire, a tormented fanatic lurking like a spider imprisoned in the cistern of Babylon. Salome is desire incarnate. Her dance of the seven veils is the oldest and most celebrated strip tease in human history. But that's only the beginning, since what really turns her on is the prophet's head on a platter. The scene is an emblem of perverted lust, chronicled through the centuries. Here it is in the Renaissance:
"Salome Receiving the Head of St John the Baptist," Bernardino Luini, e. 16th c.
This is a comparatively tame version--but note where the locket is lodged. Now jump to the movies--a silent film of 1927, not exactly an outake from The Artist:
And finally, from a modern production of the Strauss opera based on Wilde's play:
The image yokes together violence, death, insanity, castration and desire--it remains powerful and disturbing no matter how many times or ways in which it is re-imagined. Wilde's brocaded language swirls lust, beauty, and psuedo-biblical phrasing into one toxic cocktail. Here is Salome talking to her lover, when he is hers at last:
Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I said it; did I not say it? I said it. Ah! I will kiss it now. . . Thou didst bear thyself toward me as to a harlot, as to a woman that is a wanton, to me, Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judaea! Well, I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will.
What Salome does with her head, her most stimulating new sex toy, remains in the hands of each producer. I will not spill any bloody beans, but I would strongly suggest that any members of our community who tend towards the conservative side of our sexual chasm avoid this production. Or perhaps they will be inclined to picket it. Or perhaps they will point to it as a textbook example of what happens when sexual impulses go uncurbed, just as they often do today. Herod's Babylon might well serve as a puritan's image of contemporary America, with Herod himself as its dead-souled porn addicted Tetrach.
Oscar Wilde, of course was a moral aesthete and famous provacateur, and while he knew full well that Salome was crazy and dangerous, there was a part of him that felt deeply connected to her radical excess. He was given to saying things like this:
"Do you really think ... that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not -- there is no weakness in that."
Salome remains a transgressive story tricked out as a moral fable, and Wilde's version is in half in love with this transgression. To my mind Salome is not really a good play--its many repititions are inert, plastered over fin de seicle Babylon like old cake frosting. The play lacks the one quality Wilde is deservedly most famous for: wit. But others have found Salome a sensual feast, a kind of masterpiece. It certainly is one of a kind. And this decadent oddity arrives on our stage with perfect timing. What would Wilde have written if he were were writing this story now, with Sandra, Rush and Rick in mind? Let's not go there. Please. It may be enough to say that Wilde's Babylon, polarized between oppressive restriction and corrupt sexuality, looks strangely familiar, and that on both sides of the yawning divide what is missing is the essential word of Jokannon's prophet. And that word is love.