BWW Reviews: Poetic, Exotic, Amoral, and Fascinating: Oscar Wilde's SALOME at SCENA
Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1892) epitomizes what it means for a play to have a reputation for recherché scandal. The very mention of the title conjures up memories of quasi-pornographic Aubrey Beardsley drawings in rare old book club editions. Though it concerns sorts of forbidden love other than the homosexuality that was overtaking its author's life as it was being written, it clearly arises from the same place in Wilde's psyche. The play was composed in French and the official credit for the translation into English (if not necessarily the actual translation) belongs to Lord Douglas, the male lover who was so instrumental in Wilde's social downfall and imprisonment. And it was banned in Wilde's own England for many years (albeit for its depiction of biblical figures, not its themes). Even now, it is not often produced, in part because of competition from Wilde's four great comedies, which are approachable and delightful, while Salome is remote and offputting.
It is therefore greatly to the credit of Washington's SCENA company (operating out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast D.C., convenient to Baltimore audiences) that it has resisted both the aura of scandal and the blandishments of the comedies and tackled Wilde's exotic tragedy (if that is the word for it) instead. Indeed, it is hard to pinpoint exactly the genre into which the play fits. It seems sui generis.
The play is built around accounts of the last days of John the Baptist found in Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11. Those accounts, essential identical, depict Herod's capture of John because John had denounced Herod's marriage to Herodias, his brother's former wife (viewed as some kind of incest), Herod's pleasure at a dance performed for him at a feast by Herodias' unnamed daughter, his promise to her of anything she wanted as a reward, and her choice of John's head as that reward. Wilde renders John's name as Iokanaan (close to the Hebrew), and Shulamith (the name history gives Herod's stepdaughter) as Salomé (the Greek version). This polyglot exoticism with the names signals that we are not exactly inhabiting any precise historical place anymore, that we have been transported to a strange world in which nothing will be quite recognizable.
That unrecognizability is beautifully conveyed in this production, where the characters except for Iokanaan (Joseph Carlson) are costumed in ornate black and white Roaring Twenties dress, and all except for Salomé (Irina Koval) are made up to be reminiscent of mimes. (A tip of the hat to Alisa Mandel, creator of the amazing costumes). Much of the movement of the cast, under Robert McNamara's direction, is mime-like as well.
The thing least recognizable from the original biblical texts is the moral universe; this play lacks any center or sense of moral orientation. The scriptural John may have been domesticated for Christian purposes by two of the Evangelists and his utterances incorporated into that well-defined context; Wilde's Iokanaan, on the other hand, seems close to mad, and his denunciations of the sexual mores of Herod and his party-goers seems appropriate grist for a comment of one of the characters early in the play, who comments of Jews debating the existence of angels: "I think it is ridiculous to dispute about such things."
But if one cannot precisely admire Iokanaan, so one cannot either admire or condemn Salomé. She is both sexual prey (lusted after by Herod) and sexual predator (lusting after Iokanaan even unto his death). In a world of transgressiveness, she is single-minded about her own transgression (as Wilde reportedly was in his pursuit of rough young men). One cannot empathize much with Herod (Brian Hemmingsen), whose folly toward Salomé leads him to consent in the end, Pilate-like, to a killing he would much rather not order, even if he deserves some credit for strenuous efforts to avoid redeeming his pledge to do so. We may pity Herodias (Rena Cherry Brown) as she suffers from public humiliation at the loss of her husband's sexual interest, but the savagery with which she signs onto Salomé's plans for Iokanaan, once they are revealed, is appalling. And the chorus of revelers at the party, lost in effete consumption, mostly inspire contempt.
In short, this is a piece without much of a moral compass, akin to the atonality just about to begin to influence Western music when Salomé was written. But, like much of such music, it exerts a weird unexpected fascination. Like Salomé's dance, stunningly choreographed (if I'm interpreting the program notes correctly) by Kim Curtis, the decapitation of Iokanaan and the process that leads to it, is sexual and disturbing, but not to be looked away from. Wilde asks us not to judge much, just to watch and feel, and to luxuriate.
The language is entirely at one with this process. Wilde was, among other things, a poet, and even though this is not formally speaking a verse play, the lines, whether in French or English, are heavy with it. For instance:
THE YOUNG SYRIAN: The Princess is getting up! She is leaving the table! She looks very troubled. Ah, she is coming this way. Yes, she is coming towards us. How pale she is! Never have I seen her so pale.
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Do not look at her. I pray you not to look at her.
THE YOUNG SYRIAN: She is like a dove that has strayed . . . . She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind . . . . She is like a silver flower.
Or Herod attempting to divert Salomé from her determination to have Iokanaan's head by offering her jewels instead:
I have topazes yellow as are the eyes of tigers, and topazes that are pink as the eyes of a wood-pigeon, and green topazes that are as the eyes of cats. I have opals that burn always, with a flame that is cold as ice, opals that make sad men's minds, and are afraid of the shadows. I have onyxes like the eyeballs of a dead woman. I have moonstones that change when the moon changes, and are wan when they see the sun. I have sapphires big like eggs, and as blue as blue flowers. The sea wanders within them, and the moon comes never to trouble the blue of their waves.
And so forth. This is poetry, poetry for the mind to sink into and be overwhelmed. To paraphrase Mae West, goodness has nothing to do with it. Nor does badness. It comes from some amoral place in Wilde's psyche and appeals to that place in ours. Wilde may overdo it at points (I personally had heard enough of Salomé's oft-repeated signature phrase, "I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan" and the catalogue of jewelry goes on too long to hold the interest) but these are small flaws.
And this production does Wilde's fever dream proud: superb performances, great staging, even great incidental music (I think the creation of Chris Kurtz). It wouldn't do for everyday, this kind of theater, but in small doses, like the 105 minutes audiences spend at the Atlas for this production, it is a wonderful thing.