'Salome' is a work that has been subjected to an extremely large variety of interpretations over the years - a biblical figure manifested as a late 19th Century play (Wilde), an opera (Strauss), many series of drawings, paintings and illustrations (Moreau and Beardsley among others), a slow-motion drama (Steven Berkoff) and even a homo-erotic fantasy (Lindsay Kemp). Obviously therefore it is not entirely unstageable, and must have some attraction and possible stageability, due to the diverse nature and extent of its representation. But what is it about 'Salome' that gives it this potential diversity? And on the reverse, is it dated and turgid, or can another interpretation be formed? What factors do make it difficult to stage, and how have these difficulties been overcome? In order to assess the issues surrounding the staging of Salome, I would be helpful first to look at the history of its production.
The 'central' text when considering Salome is the Wilde play (1891), as this was the version that formed the basis for the Strauss opera; Beardsley illustrated it, and it was the text used for the Berkoff and Kemp productions. Written in France in the early 1890's, it suffered much due to firstly to what Wilde considered to be bad translations and secondly because it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the grounds that it was illegal in England to represent a biblical figure. This could be considered one issue surrounding its 'unstageability' - audiences in England at the time did not approve of such a production. According to The Times (23 February 1893), it was 'offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of something sacred, [especially as the result was a shocking] arrangement in blood and ferocity' (Cave 379). From this point of view, the action could hardly have been considered 'turgid' but nevertheless made it unstageable. The play gained more acceptance after the ban was lifted almost forty years later in 1931, and as far as social conditions were concerned, the play was considered stageable.
The play is still considered problematic when it comes to staging it, but what aspects of the text itself cause this difficulty? Is it 'dated lyricism' and 'turgid action', or is it something else? Perhaps is has to do with the characters or the plot. Salome's character is almost a society-created heroine but in reality an anti-heroine, rather than Wilde's more common theme of society-created anti-heroine but in reality a heroine, and her situation is one of an almost surreal nature. Her request of Jokanaan's head on a silver platter is surely bizarre, even considering its biblical origins. Also bizarre are the suicide of the Young Syrian and the murder of Salome (a significant departure from the biblical version). However, the nature of a plot and characters may make a play complicated to understand or controversial but still not unstageable. Indeed, these can enhance a play's dramatic qualities and certainly do so in this case. The extreme plot and characters placed in the context of such a short play (at least as far as word-count is concerned) serve to intensify it, not hinder it. 'Deliberately offensive in its perversion of sexuality and religion, Salome was intended as a touchstone for public attitudes: a tool for revealing personal hypocrisy in the audience' (Innes 355). This suggestion serves to illustrate the dramatic quality of the text.
Thus it engages with the audience on a more spiritual plane without needing the "baggage" of traditional 19th Century realism, as represented on both a thematic and textual level. Salome offers a variety of themes: spirituality, authoritarianism, society, lust, revenge, and perception among others. Each different character illustrates different aspects of these themes. Society is shown through Herod to be 'decadent, incestuous and sterile' (Innes 355): 'HERODIAS: You have gotten no child, no, not even from one of your slaves. It is you who are sterile, not I' (Wilde 89). This sterility could be representative of the society's spiritual sterility. Herod leads an almost completely materialistic lifestyle - he offers Salome half his kingdom, the world's largest emerald, the world's finest peacock. But as Herodias says, 'You are ridiculous with your peacocks' (Wilde 94). In many ways, this undermines the materialistic nature of Wilde's society, or even society today also - there is no perception of deeper aspects to life, such as love or spirituality. However, within the play Herodias is revealed as the worst example of such an issue, being entirely unable to see beyond superficial appearances - even Herod can hear the 'beating of wings' (Wilde 82) and is nervous over the omen of slipping in blood. All the characters except Herodias respond to Salome's inner spirituality, as externalised by the moon ('HERODIAS: No, the moon is like the moon, nothing else' [Wilde 80]). In this society, love manifests itself as material obsession and spiritual blindness - the Young Syrian and Herod are blind to all but Salome, Salome is blind to all but Jokanaan, and Jokanaan sees only the Lord, to the ultimate spiritual destruction of all involved. Thus the audience is forced to align themselves somewhere within the play - in turning away from Salome's insanity and lustful desire for revenge over Jokanaan they are forced to her diametric opposite within the play, the grotesque Herod, thereby forcing them to face the hypocrisy of their own society. Surely, then, the action is relevant, not turgid; the dramatic qualities are expressed thematically, and somewhat metaphorically, but they are certainly not lacking from the play.
The text contrasts sharply to the other plays of Wilde due to a complete stylistic departure from the more traditional 19th Century realistic drama to one that is more expressionist, almost surrealist, in nature, and this is where the main difficulties of presenting the play are found. The language, although not necessarily dated, is certainly not given to being used as everyday speech. There is the inclusion of many repetitions of various words and phrases that come across as being clumsy and unnecessary. From the first scene, there are a number of repetitions, for example in the conversation between the two soldiers: 'The Tetrarch has a sombre look.' 'Yes, he has a sombre look.' 'He is looking at something.' 'He is looking at someone.' 'At whom is he looking?' The language becomes awkward and almost parodies its own lyricism with repetition. With such a tightly written, short play, surely is absurd to have so many things repeated? It makes the play almost ridiculous and loses much of the intensity of the action. Or does it? The problem arises when one takes the play in the context of the other plays written during the period - the realistic plays - whereas in fact this play relies entirely upon it's surrealism, or expressionism. When taken in this context, there is more scope for the repetitions and so-called 'clumsy' language to be put across in different ways so they become less awkward. What makes the play so relevant in a modern context as well as in the late 19th Century context is it is a play wholly free of the constraints of 19th Century realism, and thus an appreciation of the play's dramatic qualities lies in it's production as a non-realistic piece of artwork.
Steven Berkoff's production offers one such solution to the 'problem' of staging the play so it works well. In an interview regarding his production of the play, Berkoff equates Salome to a fairy tale, with magic and obsession at its heart. He describes it as having a musical language of intense poetic expression of passion and conflict that engage the senses. Every word is like a precious jewel that should not be lost. But the best analogy he draws is Salome having the quality of a dream. His production was staged entirely in slow motion, so every moment is held and can be focused upon. He likens the text to a 'precious tapestry' - move it too fast and it will rip. In this way, he overcomes the problem of having clumsy repetition. The slow-motion style highlights those aspects of the text and draws them out - the 'chorus' characters, who have most of the repetition lines, are shown to be almost false on their conviviality. They become grotesque objects of parody and ridicule and are shown to have very little to say for themselves as they are always reactive - repeating Herod, each other, or reacting to Salome or the moon. At no point do they initiate anything on their own, and in this way, the stylised and expressionistic production of the play contributes to it's dramatic quality and thematic potential.
As well as stylising the movement, Berkoff has stylised the appearance of the characters, set and props; all three possible production difficulties. The faces are all in white, and there is barely a set or props. This minimalist style contributes to the way in which the play is produced. Berkoff speaks of how music, text and movement come together to make drama - anything else, such as props or complicated set, act as a hindrance. Salome deals with the externalisation of emotions through speech, and the lack of props and set mean the actors and actresses can have a more intimate relation with the text and they can express a totality of emotion that would otherwise be unobtainable, and in this way the text become essential for the dramatic quality of the play, rather than being dated in any way. There is the potential risk of drawing out the characters too much; for example some critics have attacked Berkoff for making the production overlong and Herod [Berkoff]-centric; however the basic concept of how to overcome the potential difficulties of the play remains.
Wilde himself, though, was only partially minimalist in his approach to how the set should be. He did much experimentation with spatial relations between three central aspects of the play - the cistern, the moon and the steps. He wanted to capture the materialistic lushness of Herod's court without detracting from the language or becoming too close to the clutter of the 19th Century. After much discussion with many of his Parisian friends and contacts, he opted for 'aesthetic simplicity focusing on schematic use of colour [silver/white, red and black] and meticulous placing of three symbolic spaces: the cistern, the throne and the dance floor' (Cave 382). He also wanted clouds of incense wafting toward the audience, giving the impression of an exotic lushness without actually putting too many things on the stage. The colour scheme would reflect the action of the play also symbolised by the moon: the white moon present up until the suicide of the Syrian, the red moon noticeable during the dance and the beheading, and the black moon (the moon shrouded in cloud) at Salome's death. There is much use made of chiaroscuro, another externalisation of emotions and themes within the play.
Strauss' opera also overcomes the play's problems. The discordant, atonal nature of the opera in this incidence contributes much to the feel of the play. Strauss uses different motifs to reflect various happenings within the action, and the lavish nature of the opera is able to produce the materialistic aspects of Herod's court while the music prevents the text from becoming clumsy as mentioned earlier. Peter Conrad writes: 'Both the play and the opera are treasuries of images - precious objects, jewels, garments, tropical fruits and exotic creaturesÃ¢ÂÂ¦Wilde names them and Strauss conjures them up in sound.' By using musical representation, Strauss manages to create the atmosphere and imagery that enhances, rather than detracts from, the text, thus overcoming any problems.
Briefly, there are other staging difficulties, such as the kissing of the head and Salome's death. Berkoff's production deals with this firstly by having an imaginary head, thereby giving the actress playing Salome full control, not limited even by gravity, over how she relates to the head; the death scene is dealt with by freeze-framing the scene and going to black just as the chorus have reached her to kill her, rather than actually showing the event. Other productions have used similar methods, or having Jokanaan's body under the stage so just his head can be seen, or in Kemp's production a giant silver cloak covered Salome after the dance, under which lay the actor playing Jokanaan until his head emerges though a slit in the sheet at the appropriate moment. In all cases the directors have used simple yet effective methods, reflecting the minimalist approach to the stylised, expressionistic Salome.
To conclude, it has been shown that, although Salome has the potential to be out-dated and turgid, when produced in the correct context, that is to say, as a non-realistic piece of performance, it becomes a play of great depth, atmosphere and beauty, with much scope for a variety of different interpretations, all of which serve to enhance Wilde's text and bring the ideas and themes behind it vividly into the imaginations of the audience in a highly positive and successful way.