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Oscar Wilde, Salome: A Tragedy in One Act.

Oscar Wilde, Salome: A Tragedy in One Act, translated by Joseph Donohue, and illustrated by Barry Moser (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), xxviii + 78 pp. 22.50 [pound sterling]; $24.95.

Michael Y. Bennett (ed.), Refiguring Oscar Wilde's Salome (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 306 pp. 54.00 [pound sterling]; $90.00.

At least since Aubrey Beardsley seated Salome, naked but for a veil, at a dressing-table to be primped and powdered for her performance, Oscar Wilde's Judean princess has been deemed in dire need of a makeover. Originally banned from the British theatre and, in her Straussian reincarnation the following decade, sneered off the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, she remains an outrage and an inspiration more than 120 years after the play, surely the most important Symbolist drama in any language, which was first penned in 1891. As a tribute to its continuing canonical status, the past year has seen two new books, one a monograph by Petra Dierkes-Thrun, which I have reviewed elsewhere, and the other a collection of essays edited by Michael Y. Bennett, devoted entirely to the play, its influence and its performance history; a new English translation by Joseph Donohue of the original French text, with new illustrations by Barry Moser; and a new documentary by Al Pacino. There is also, as usual, a new generation of high-profile new productions of the play and the opera, some of them now available on DVD, that have kept up a lively popular reconsideration of the text's meanings (the high points being, I would say, David McVicar's inventive staging at Covent Garden and Karita Mattila's performance at the Met). Even to speak of Salome as a text proves elusive, given that it is rarely encountered in its original published form but usually in some version of Lord Alfred Douglas's troubled translation into the English of the King James Bible or Hedwig Lachmann's German translation set to music by Strauss.

In Donohue's translation into a more informal, modern, and American idiom (oddly, he retains her French accent mark), Wilde's characters 'express themselves in a spoken not written--language somewhat simpler and better organized but essentially no different from what my intended audience itself might use outside the theatre'. The distinctions between spoken and written, between character and audience and between writer and translator are all a bit murky here, but the cosmetician is poised with his puff to give a fresh new face to Salome--and who could blame her for wanting to look her best for a new generation of Americans intimidated by the words 'thee' and 'thou'? I wonder if that intended audience is partial to terms like 'baldrics', 'chrysoprase' and 'whited sepulchre' in the course of everyday conversation, but Donohue has succeeded in flushing out most such obscurities, along with a fair amount of the play's Decadent and Symbolist style. He is the editor of the forthcoming Oxford standard edition of Wilde's French Salome and the Douglas translation, and so we could not ask for a better-informed authority on the text to fix it for us. He is no fan of the Douglas version, and because of certain ambiguities surrounding its publication, he takes considerable license in dismissing its authority. For reasons that are unclear but not unguessable, Wilde gave Douglas, then his lover, the job of translator, only to complain of the 'schoolboy faults' of the resulting text, which he accepted nevertheless and apparently never re-edited after publication. The choice of a mannered and Jacobean English has nothing to do with Ancient Judea or Victorian England apart from the historical accident of the King James Bible, but those were the archaic words and glorious rhythms through which most Victorians (and many in our own time, myself included) learned the so-called Gospels, Song of Solomon, and Revelation that Wilde treats with ingenious irony in the play. Donohue tells us that 'there was no point in trying to emulate the "foreign" component' of Wilde's idiosyncratic French, and that a translator should temper the 'signature "static" quality' of Maeterlinck that Wilde incorporated into his own style for the occasion. Nevertheless, the question of Wilde's authorial intention remains difficult to finesse in this way. First, we have no clear idea how much of this first translation is actually Wilde's or at least Wilde's idea, and Douglas would certainly not have blithely decided on his own to pitch the whole text into an archaic idiom without Wilde's approval and encouragement. Such pastiche was commonplace at the time. Donohue does mention the nineteenth-century taste for verse dramas in Renaissance pastiche. He refers to Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon as 'moribund' and Shelley's The Cenci as 'horrendous', even though he knows they remain canonical and Wilde thought them the two greatest dramas of the century; nevertheless, we need look no farther than some of Wilde's other dramatic works, such as The Florentine Tragedy, The Duchess of Padua and the Salomesque dramatic fragment La Sainte Courtisane, to see his own frequent indulgence in such archaism.

With King James, Douglas, Maeterlinck and to a certain extent Wilde conveniently set to one side, Donohue feels free to simplify and modernize the original French. The result is clear and accessible, though bland--and somewhat familiar to me from many a subtitle or surtitle for the opera and from Ken Russell's modernization of the text for his 1988 film Salome's Last Dance. Oddly, Donohue's example of his translation skills at their best would be my example of them at their worst. Here are the three versions (Wilde in French, then Douglas and Donohue in English) of Herod as he tries to silence a complaining Herodias:
   Taisez-vous. Vous criez toujours. Vous criez comme une bete de
   proie. Il ne faut crier comme cela. Votre voix m'ennuie.
   Taisez-vous, je vous dis.

   Peace! You're always crying out. You cry out like a beast of
   prey. You must not cry in such fashion. Your voice wearies me.
   Peace, I tell you!

   Stop it. You're always mouthing off. You sound like a predatory
   animal. You just can't talk like that. Your voice makes me crazy.
   Stop it, I'm telling you.

This example shows Douglas in lockstep with the French, while Donohue, insisting on 'something more peremptory and blunt', mistakes meaning, rhythm and tone, especially with the phrases 'mouthing off and 'makes me crazy'. The multiple connotations of Douglas's 'peace and 'cry seem to me exactly right to suggest the richer, subtler paradox of pathos, irony and existential unrest amid what Donohue takes for mundane marital bickering. Herod might as well be addressing Iokanaan or the night itself at this point, so resonant is his exhortation. Although Beardsley's fascinating drawings, in their elegance and sensuality, are a tough act to follow, Moser's gloomy illustrations, more like woodcuts than drawings, are also disappointing. Some of them are no more engaging than the black-and-white headshots of performers in a playbill, and in his rendering of the dance of the seven veils, Salome looks as if she were merely asking us to scrub her back.

Regarding the original version of Salome, Ian Andrew MacDonald's essay 'Oscar Wilde as a French Writer which opens the Bennett anthology, is an incisive and thorough examination of what exactly is idiosyncratic and difficult to translate about Wilde's French usage, including the repetition of 'enfin', the question of 'tu' versus 'vous', and the issue of French biblical sources. Other impressive essays in the collection examine the cultural translation of Salome over the course of the past century, especially the politics of race, gender and sexuality that have made the play both inviting and disturbing as it travels into new contexts. A feminist reading of the stereotype of the femme fatale is by now familiar, but Tony W. Garland, in his essay 'Deviant Desires and Dance', has a sharp eye for ideological assumptions that lead us to believe, for example, that the dance of the seven veils is a striptease or that there is some causal link between the dance and Iokanaan's execution. I would add that Wilde also makes us forget history, insofar as what history we have may be credited: for instance, that Salome was not executed by her stepfather, but instead married his half-brother and later her cousin and became a queen and a mother in her own right. Margaux Poueymirou, in her essay 'The Race to Perform , expands our understanding of Wilde's importance to the homoerotic dynamic of the Harlem Renaissance and its tension between race politics and queer politics in the work of Richard Bruce Nugent, Hemsley Winfield and the Ethiopian Art Players (surprisingly, she does not discuss the black characters in Wilde's text). In production reviews by Richard Allen Cave and Peter Raby, we see glimpses of what is especially challenging to us now in the sexual dynamics of the play, especially in the punky sexual explicitness of the Headlong Theatre staging or the interpretation of Salome as a victim of incestuous child abuse in McVicar's version. Although the collection sometimes suffers from weak writing and poor editing, the continuing fascination of the play, the dancer and the dance are evident at every turn.

Ellis Hanson

Cornell University
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Author:Hanson, Ellis
Publication:Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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