Oscar Wilde’s Salome: Context

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Context

1891                         Salomé (French)

1892                         Lady Windermere’s Fan

1892                        The English theatrical censor bans the play from public performance as rehearsals were in full swing with Sarah Bernhardt in London in June of 1892.  Official reason: presentation of Biblical characters on stage (16th-century law), but privately the censor Edward Pigott writes to a friend, Spencer Posonby, about his real motivations:

I must send you, for your private edification and amusement, this MS. of a 1 act piece … written by Oscar Wilde! It is a miracle of impudence … [Salome’s] love turns to fury because John will not let her kiss him in the mouth – and in the last scene, where she brings in his head–if you please–on a ‘charger’–she does kiss his mouth, in a paroxysm of sexual despair. The piece is written in French–half Biblical, half pornographic–by Oscar Wilde himself.  Imagine the average British public’s reception of it.

Wilde’s original ideas for the planned (banned) 1892 London premiere: 

“a feast for the senses that encompassed a particular style of slow recital of the lines, a stage and costumes symbolically colored in different matching or opposing shades, and scented clouds [of perfume rising from incense basins] rising and partly veiling the stage from time to time – a new perfume for each new emotion!”

1892            Salomé is subsequently published in book form (in French).

1893             Salomé, English translation (by Lord Alfred Douglas, but really Wilde himself) and publication in book form

“A Wilde Idea, or More Injustice to Ireland!”  Punch cartoon by J. B[ernard] P[artridge], 9 July 1892.

In two separate newspaper interviews at the time when Salomé was being considered by the London theater censor (and subsequently banned), Wilde stated his opposition and intent to leave England for France once and for all:

“If the Censure refuses Salomé […] I shall leave England and settle in France, where I will take out letters of naturalization.  I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in its artistic judgement.  […] I am not English; I’m Irish—which is quite another thing” (Oscar Wilde, “The Censure and Salomé,” interview, The Pall Mall Budget, xl, 30 June 1892, 947, quoted in E.H. Mikhail [ed.], Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1, 188).

“My resolution is deliberately taken.  Since it is impossible to have a work of art performed in England, I shall transfer myself to another fatherland, of which I have long been enamoured.  There is but one Paris, voyez-vous, and Paris is France.  It is the abode of artists; nay, it is la ville artiste.  I adore Paris” (“La Salomé de M. Oscar Wilde,” Le Gaulois, June 29, 1892, 1, quoted from ibid.)

The unsympathetic New York Times reported on July 3, 1892:  “[a]ll London is laughing at Oscar Wilde’s threat to become a Frenchman” (cited in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 373).

In March 1895 Wilde’s fatal trials for “Gross Indecency” begin; end on May 27th with subsequent imprisonment at Reading Prison with two years of hard labor.  Declared bankrupt in July 1895.  Prison ruins Wilde’s health, spirit, and career.  Writes De Profundis  (letter from Reading Prison to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas [nicknamed Bosie]), published posthumously by Robert Ross in 1905.

Background: 1885 Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Act which made it illegal to engage in homosexual activities.  The section read: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”

1896             Salomé first performed in France under avant-garde director Aurélien Lugné-Poë at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre, Paris

1900              Wilde dies of meningitis in a shabby hotel room in France, shortly after his release in prison and the death of both his mother Lady ‘Speranza’ Wilde (1887) and his estranged wife Constance (1898).  He never saw his two sons Cyril and Vyvian again before his death.

1905             Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (libretto based directly on Wilde’s play with minor changes) premieres in Dresden

1905             First private premiere of Salomé in England, held at the small Bijou Theatre in suburban London, by the New Stage Club

1910              Strauss’s opera premieres at Covent Garden, London, but only with major changes necessitated by the censor; conductor Sir Thomas Beecham

Wilde’s Salomé not publicly performed in Britain until 1931.

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