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Salome stripped down and dressed up for today's stage.





OSCAR WILDE'S one-act Symbolist tragedy Salome (1891) presents an interesting conundrum for modem-day translators. Should they base their work solely on Wilde's original French version, composed from October 1891 to January 1892, or incorporate distinctive elements of the first 1893 English translation, ostensibly done by Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas but heavily involving the author's own hand? Which version stands as Wilde's definitive one, or are they both equal, and how might a new translation best juggle their radically different styles? The French Salome is written in clear, contemporary language with simple, if somewhat idiosyncratic, syntax and turns of phrase. The first English Salome, on the other hand, has a quasi-biblical King-Jamesian style that feels unnecessarily archaic and pompous today. But a whole century's worth of artistic adaptations of the Douglas-Wilde translation into other genres or media (including Strauss's opera, various films and popular culture versions), not to mention previous translations, were influenced by the Douglas-Wilde text and the tragic personal connection it epitomizes, leaving a historical trail today's translator ignores at his or her own peril. The latest translation by theatre scholar Joseph Donohue, with new illustrations by Barry Moser, has done a marvelous job at navigating these troubled waters. In deciding to approach the text through the French original and mostly ignoring Douglas-Wilde's version, Donohue effectively offers us a new, invigorating Salome that both honors and updates Wilde's most difficult, transgressive drama for contemporary stages and audiences.

Salome is Wilde's only French play, and he was greatly invested in it. Donohue points out "how much care, effort, and determination [Oscar Wilde] devoted to getting it right" ("Translator's Preface" xii) during the composition and revision process, as evidenced in three surviving manuscript drafts and the first book version (seen and edited by four friends in Paris: Stuart Merrill, Adolphe Rette, Marcel Schwob, and Pierre Louys, to whom Wilde dedicated the French Salome). Wilde chose to write in French to impress his Parisian literary peers and become the representative connection between avant-garde French Symbolism and Decadence and English Aestheticism. Another reason might have been that French theatre diva Sarah Bernhardt, whom Wilde admired and engaged for the planned London run, only spoke French. In a 1892 interview, Wilde displayed pride in his linguistic prowess: "I have one instrument that I know I can command, and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it." He seemed to cherish the strange musicality of writing in French, appreciating its alienation effect "as one loves an instrument of music on which one has not played before" (letter to Florence Balcombe; 22 February 1893) merging with "the music of [Bernhardt's] flute-like voice" (letter to the Times editor, 2 March 1893).

The French Salome was written specifically for the theatrical context: it was meant to be spoken and not read, acted out and experienced live. When Salome was infamously banned by the censor before its planned summer 1892 London premiere, however, Wilde was forced to change plans: this performance text had to be rethought and remarketed as a book for reading audiences. Hence the first simultaneous Paris-London edition in French in 1892 and the commissioned 1893 translation (organized by John Lane of the Bodley Head) with Aubrey Beardsley's famous illustrations, which Wilde tolerated but did not love. Wilde had thought of Symbolist theatre when he wrote Salome; now he obsessed about Douglas's translation, purple covers, type color, and placing expensive presentation copies with the right people. We know that he quarreled painfully with Douglas about "schoolboy faults," writing in De profundis that the translation was not only unworthy of Douglas's Oxonian education but of the beautiful play Wilde had written. By way of compromise after prolonged negotiations involving Lane, Beardsley, and a legal solicitor, Douglas's name was removed from the title page and channeled into Wilde's dedication "To my friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, the translator of my play," discreetly indicating Douglas's demotion. Although Robert Ross silently corrected some remaining translation blunders in reissued versions, the Douglas-Wilde translation still contains sophomoric syntax and archaisms, gratuitously theeing and thouing all over the place, features that may alienate today's audiences.

Not all Wilde scholars will agree with Donohue's decision to leave the Douglas-Wilde translation behind, of course. The first English translation is crucially important because it constitutes the last chronological version of Wilde's authorship regarding Salome, one may argue: Wilde so actively criticized it that some scholars (myself included) consider it effectively Wilde's own. It is hard to believe that Wilde would have allowed the publication to proceed if he had not felt that the translation was good enough to publish in the end, especially considering the fact that Wilde was always very closely interested in all details from copy editing to materials (paper, binding), and marketing. And yet, given the Douglas-Wilde translation's obvious shortcomings and awkwardness as a stage text today, scholars should welcome Donohue's effort to develop "a more colloquial, familiar, up-to-date idiom" (xxiii) for new stagings of Salome

In the Preface, Donohue writes about his master plan to attune his translation to twenty-first century audiences' and actors' English and staying close to the original French, while avoiding the pitfalls of Wilde's French idiolect on the one hand and Douglas's archaisms on the other: he wanted to "find out whether or not an up-to-date, colloquial yet spare English translation of Wilde's consciously stylized French ... required a King James biblical lexicon to do it justice" and to "bring the play alive all the more for being relieved of Douglas's high-flown verbiage and grammatical obtuseness" (xx). In doing so, he seeks a "middle course between extremes, effectively highlighting a quartet of central characters [Salome, Iokanaan, Herod, Herodias] and adding a cohort of a dozen more speaking roles, all of which 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" (xxii f.).

There are many good examples of this method of simplifying and stripping down. Douglas-Wilde often complicated things unnecessarily. For instance, the Cappadocian's long-winded question, "Is that the Queen Herodias, she who wears a black mitre sewed with pearls, and whose hair is powdered with blue dust?", becomes much clearer in Donohue: "Is that Queen Herodias, the one with the black turban sprinkled with pearls and the powdered blue hair?" (9). When Herod offers Salome his peacocks as a substitute for Iokanaan's head, Douglas--Wilde write: "I will give thee fifty of my peacocks. They will follow thee whithersoever thou goest, and in the midst of them thou wilt be like unto the moon in the midst of a great white cloud" (59). Donohue much improves this to "I will give you fifty of my peacocks. Wherever you go they'll follow, enveloping you like the moon in the centre of a great white cloud" (67). Donohue retains Iokanaan's elevated, preacherly vocabulary, and style but simplifies it: "After me will come another still more powerful than I. I am not worthy even to undo his sandal strap. When he comes the barren earth will rejoice. It will flourish like the lily.... The newborn babe will thrust his hand into the dragons' den and lead the lions by their manes" (9). (The "lily" also restores the French "lys" instead of Douglas-Wilde's odd "rose".) Salome's final monologue does not undergo drastic changes but rather local improvements that make it more sarcastic, urgent, or direct, as when Iokanaan's "red viper" of a tongue that "spat its venom upon me" but "stirs no longer" becomes a "red adder that puked its venom on me" but "isn't wagging any more ... You wouldn't have me, Iokanaan. You rejected me" (71-72). And Donohue adds back the French play's last sentence, strangely missing in Douglas-Wilde: "Love is the only thing" (73, "Il ne faut regarder que l'amour"). These are all real improvements.

The Douglas-Wilde translation stood unchallenged until R.A. Walker's and Vyvyan Holland's translations in 1957, which kept close to the tone and feel of Douglas-Wilde, as did Richard Ellmann's 1982 translation. By contrast, Donohue's effort radically modernizes the play (albeit not to the point of altering significant plot lines or the ending, as Richard Howard's 1978 translation boldly did). Donohue even commissioned a new set of illustrations "more in keeping with the style and subject matter of Wilde's original play" than Aubrey Beardsley's. Contemporary, vaguely orientalist, but mostly realistic in style--except for the almost surrealist, haunting, androgynous "Angel of Death"--they may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they succeed in emphasizing Salome's sensual, intelligent appeal, and help us see her as a living, breathing woman rather than a decadent icon.

By cleaning out the Douglasian cobwebs and turning a new leaf on Beardsley's visual legacy, boldly reimagining Salome for a contemporary context, Donohue and Moser have given us a wonderfully accessible text and images that feel fresh and newly haunting. One of Barry Moser's illustrations takes Donohue's face as a model for Herod--perhaps in a sly bow to Aubrey Beardsley, who incorporated Wilde's features into several of his illustrations, thereby suggesting Wilde's intimate connection with the action and the characters of Salome. If this new translation is any indication, Donohue has already left his own mark on Salome.

--Stanford University
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Author:Dierkes-Thrun, Petra
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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