In pursuit of information about the literary history of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, we contacted expert, Professor Adam Parkes.
Adam Parkes grew up in the English Midlands, attending Wolverhampton Grammar School and Cambridge University before coming to the U.S. to do his graduate work in English at the University of Rochester. After completing his Ph.D. in 1993, he joined the English Department at the University of Georgia, where he still teaches. His publications include Modernism and the Theater of Censorship (Oxford University Press, 1996), Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2001), and A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing (Oxford UP, 2011).
-Kate Genty, Jeffrey Luo, and Will Stallings
Kate Genty & Jeffrey Luo & Will Stallings: How would you describe Oscar Wilde’s play Salome?
Adam Parkes: Scandalous. Deliberately, creatively scandalous, that is. The play is quite inventive in its retelling of a biblical story with entirely different emphases in terms of character and theme. Especially important is Wilde’s risky exploration of themes of death and sexual perversion, including incest. Wilde’s interest in those themes derived, in part, from French Decadence and Symbolism, which were for him major influences. The play serves as a reminder that Wilde was a writer with European ambitions and audiences, not just British or Irish ones. Salome tends to be seen as an anomaly among Wilde’s plays; a Symbolist tragedy, it seems a far cry from the hilarious high-society comedies that made him famous. But Wilde produced several different kinds of writing, and even while his two most famous works, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, were playing to packed houses in London in 1895, he was writing other plays including a blank verse drama and another Symbolist drama in the style of Salome.
KG & JL & WS: Why did Wilde first write the play in French and then in English?
AP: Wilde said that he had wanted to take up the challenge of writing in an “alien language,” explaining that: “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.” I think Wilde also wanted to affiliate himself with the literary and artistic traditions of France. Especially important here are the French Symbolists in poetry and painting, several of whom (Moreau, Huysmans, Mallarmé) had created works inspired by the Salome theme.
KG & JL & WS: Why was the play censored in England?
AP: The Examiner of Plays, who was responsible for licensing plays for public performance, refused to license Salome by invoking a law prohibiting the representation of biblical characters on stage. Salome wasn’t the only biblical drama banned from the English stage – the same fate had been meted out to Racine’s seventeenth-century tragic drama Athalie and to operas by Saint-Saens (Samson et Dalila) and Massenet (Hérodiade). But I think that private comments by the Examiner, Edward Smyth-Pigott, indicate that it was the mixture of biblical narrative with scandalous sexuality that got Wilde in trouble. Emphasizing the incestuous passions at work in Wilde’s play, Pigott described it as “half Biblical, half pornographic.”
KG & JL & WS: What does the censorship of Salome reveal about Victorian values in the late nineteenth century?
AP: That’s a big question, but I’d like to add to my previous answer by noting that censorship of art and literature became increasingly widespread in the late nineteenth century, culminating in the major censorship trials of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow in 1915 and James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Those trials took placed in the second and third decades of the twentieth century might be seen as the end-result of larger patterns of censorship and suppression that started to take shape in the 1880s and 1890s in response to the publication of modern writers such as Ibsen and Zola, whose plays and novels introduced sexual material that scandalized many critics and audiences. The publication of English translations of Zola in the late 1880s caused an uproar; shamefully, the elderly publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was imprisoned (his health never recovered from the experience). Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, provoked complaints about obscenity when it was published in a magazine in 1890, prompting Wilde to revise it in various ways (although he said that he thought the moral was too obvious in the first version). Salome was written and censored in this context.
The obvious story here is one of Victorian repressiveness – repression of modern sexual themes, repression of modern forms of artistic expression. There is another story to tell here, though – of writers and artists striving to change the modes of expression, to generate new art forms and new combinations of art forms. When Wilde was discussing the staging of Salome, he wanted the background to be a “violet sky” and the orchestra to be replaced by “braziers of perfume”: “scented clouds rising and partly veiling the stage from time to time” would offer “a new perfume for each emotion.” All this sounds very anti-Victorian, if by “Victorian” we mean a narrow-minded culture of strait-laced morality and philistinism. But Wilde was a Victorian, too. What he showed upper-class Victorian audiences was a series of pictures of themselves. Those pictures, Wilde himself, wouldn’t make sense without the Victorian context.
KG & JL & WS: What was Wilde’s reaction to the censorship of Salome?
AP: He fell ill, and he complained – first about the narrow-mindedness of the censor, and then about the actors, critics, and playwrights who failed to support him. He said that he wasn’t English but Irish. And then he announced in an interview that he was going to leave for France. He didn’t, of course – not until he’d been released from prison. Instead, he stayed in England and returned to writing plays that satirized upper-class English manners and morals.
KG & JL & WS: What was the public’s reaction to the play’s censorship?
AP: Only George Bernard Shaw and William Archer, a critic and the English translator of Ibsen, stood by Wilde’s side. Otherwise, actors, theatre managers, critics, and other playwrights deserted him. At a Parliamentary hearing in 1892, only Archer spoke against censorship; everyone else supported it. When Wilde published Salome in 1893, The Times described the play as “morbid, bizarre, repulsive and very offensive.”
KG & JL & WS: What were the most common reasons for the censorship of plays in late-Victorian England?
AP: Briefly, perceived immorality, usually of a sexual nature. Sometimes the representation of biblical characters (see above). A useful book on this topic is John Russell Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama, 1824-1901.
KG & JL & WS: How did late-Victorian England’s practice of censorship differ from other European countries at this time?
AP: That’s another big question. In England, censorship was widespread but varied and took place on several different levels. It was considered just fine, for example, for a member of the educated upper classes – a “gentleman” – to keep pornography as part of his personal library. It was another matter, though, if such material were aimed at wider distribution. The legal statutes were explicit in their concern with the “young.” There were also worries about middle-class readers, and women (especially the young and the unmarried). These issues didn’t go away, of course. One famous line uttered by the prosecutor at the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial was, “Is this a book you would want your wife or servants to read?”
How to compare Victorian England with Europe? In general, I’d say that British censorship was less likely to be political than in various European countries, many of which were governed by fairly authoritarian regimes, but more likely to be applied on grounds of morality. France and Germany, in particular, were much more open to the sort of risqué sexual material that offended many British tastes.
It isn’t true that anything could be published in France – French dislike of biblical drama meant that Samon et Dalila, first performed in Germany in 1877, didn’t appear on the Parisian stage until 1890. And 1857 had seen the banning of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on grounds of immorality.
But France was relatively liberal in comparison with Victorian England, and Germany even more so. While the British censor kept Salome out of all but a few independent theatres until the end of the 1920s, Wilde’s play enjoyed a long-running success in Berlin, where a famous production ran for over 200 performances from 1903 to 1904. The Berlin show impressed the German composer Richard Strauss, whose famous opera Salome opened in Dresden in 1905 before playing in fifty other European capital cities within the next two years. No Salome complex there.
KG & JL & WS: Would you like to add anything further?
AP: It’s worth thinking about Wilde’s entire literary career in the context of censorship. Smyth-Pigott had earlier denied a license to Wilde’s first play, the political drama Vera: or The Nihilists, in 1881. He revised The Picture of Dorian Gray in response to allegations of obscenity in 1890 while making countering those allegations in the press. In his long essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), he pursues arguments against censorship similar to those made earlier the same year by Bernard Shaw in “The Quintessence of Ibsenism.” And his most famous plays, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, were effectively censored by the conclusion of Wilde’s libel trials in 1895. When Wilde went to prison, his plays were shut down, and it would be several years before they were revived. Late Victorian Britain’s most celebrated literary star was silenced.