A Victorian era play straddles the line between bible story and pornography.
By William Stallings, Kate Gentry, and Jeffery Lou
Who: Oscar Wilde
Where: Victorian England
Why: Portraying biblical characters in a sexual sense
Censorship was a common practice in Victorian England, and a number of writers who tried to express their unique or challenging views fell victim to it. Among them includes Oscar Wilde, one of the most famous English playwrights in the history of the medium. However, not all of his plays during the time period were viewed with the same esteem as they are today. In fact, he had a fairly unsuccessful career as a playwright because of his constant clashing with Victorian censorship regulations. The production of his first play, Vera, had staging cancelled after only three weeks of performances in 1881. Nonetheless, Wilde’s play, Salome, stands out among his work. Unlike any of his other plays, it was a symbolic tragedy rather than a comedy of the upper class , and therefore was censored for different reasons than Wilde’s previous works.
Salome retells the familiar Biblical tale of the beheading of John’s the Baptist. At the same time, however, Wilde’s version of the story explores the theme of incest. The play takes place in the Kingdom of Judaea where Herod, the Tetrarch of Judaea , and Salome, the daughter of Herod’s wife, interact with John the Baptist—or the prophet Iokanaan, as he is called in the play. Iokanaan is imprisoned in a cistern and is worshiped by the first soldier, a side-character, as well as Herod. Herod believes strongly that the prophet is the only one who has spoken to God and therefore, suspects his death would bring great misfortune. Meanwhile, Herod and a young Syrian character are both very attracted to Salome. Aware of their attraction, Salome attempts to take advantage of their feelings in order to pursue her own desire; to kiss the lips of the prophet Iokanaan . She then persuades the young Syrian to bring the prophet to her, which scares every person present. After the prophet is brought to her, her language becomes flirtatious, and she comments on the prophet’s body and hair. She touches and compliments him in the effort to receive a kiss. Salome is almost successful in getting what she wants, but just before she kisses the prophet, the young Syrian kills himself. His body falls between Salome and the prophet in a futile attempt to prevent the kiss from happening. After the young Syrian dies, Herod’s sexual interest in Salome becomes clear through their conversation and the way he looks at her. He offers Salome anything she asks for if she dances for him in a begging manner, “Dance for me, Salome, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. Yes, dance for me, Salome, and whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom”(Wilde 59). After Herod promises to give her whatever she wants, Salome performs for him in a dance called the “Dance of the Seven Devils” (Wilde 66). After the dance, Salome submits her request to Herod, asking for Iokanaan’s head “on a silver charger”(Wilde 66). Although reluctant, Herod obliges. However, after he fulfills his oath, he becomes frightened of Salome’s outrageous action of kissing a dead man’s lips and orders her death (Wilde).
The plot of the play alone would have been controversial for Victorian England society due to its erotic themes and unconventional portrayal of a biblical tale. When paired with artwork, especially artwork commissioned for the piece, the play becomes even more sensation. This artwork was created by English artist, Aubrey Beardsley, and contains graphic and distorted images portraying the male and female characters in their entirety. This type of artwork was very uncommon for Victorian England at a time and is described as part of the Art Nouveau movement. This opposed typical Victorian art defined by Romanticism, and is consistent with Salome’s reputation as an artwork unfit for the era in which it was created (“Your Guide to Modern Art”).
Many of Oscar Wilde’s plays mocked late-Victorian morals, so it should not have been surprising when his play Salome was censored in the late nineteenth century. However, unlike some of his other plays, which are more satirical in nature, Salome was censored by the Lord Chamberlain on the basis that it negatively portrayed Biblical figures on the stage (Parkes). The Lord Chamberlain stubbornly refused to license Biblical plays until 1912, so it was almost to be expected that Salome was censored when the English translation was published (Lewsadder 519). The mere portrayal of a biblical figure was not the only reason for the censorship of Salome. Plays during the Victorian era were commonly censored due to stiff restrictions on their content, such as pornographic portrayals on the stage showing excessive nudity. Dr. Adam Parkes, an English Professor at the University of Georgia and scholar of British censorship, believes 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.” In accordance with late-Victorian morals, Salome was described by Edward F.S. Pigott, the Examiner of Plays, in a letter to the Lord Chamberlain’s office as “‘half Biblical, half pornographic’” when 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’” (qtd. in Lewsadder 525). Salome’s lust for John’s head on a “charger” (525) (i.e. a silver platter) alludes to the idea of cannibalism, which horrified to the traditional Victorian mentality (Parkes).
The Lord Chamberlain’s reaction to Salome highlights the authorities’ restrictions on artistic expressions, especially those concerning sex in late-nineteenth-century Victorian society. Parkes describes Victorian society values as a “narrow-minded culture of strait-laced morality and philistinism.” This society also disapproved of Salome’s display of her sexual desires through the “Dance of the Seven Devils,” which was described as nymph-like and almost enchanting (Lewsadder 529) . However, because Salome did not directly express her sexual desires verbally, critics dismissed the artistic aspects of her dance and instead used it as an opportunity for sexual interpretation (Lewsadder 531). Critics argued that Salome’s sexual desires were not appropriate for the stage. Late-Victorian English women were often portrayed as a “household nun” or a “head-huntress” in literature. This representation presented Victorian women as either always working around the house and performing the tasks of an obedient housewife or, as in Salome’s case, inappropriately lusting for a man (Im). Salome’s sexual desires are frightening to the citizens of Victorian society because of her “obscene advances” (Lewsadder 532) toward the prophet. Herod’s sexual desire for Salome served as an additional reason for the censorship of Salome because it represented incest (Lewsadder 532).
The reaction to Salome highlights the degree of restriction on artistic expression, especially concerning sex in late nineteenth century Victorian society. Dr. Adam Parkes, an English Professor at the University of Georgia who has written on various topics of censorship and British writing, describes Victorian society in a recent interview as a “narrow-minded culture of strait-laced morality and philistinism.” This society also disapproved of Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Devils” at the end of the play. Salome displayed her sexual desires through this dance, which was described as nymph-like and almost enchanting. However, because Salome didn’t express her sexual desires verbally, critics dismissed the artistic aspect of this dance and instead interpreted it as Salome’s lust (Lewsadder).
Critics argued that Salome’s sexual desires were not appropriate for the stage. Late-Victorian English women could be negatively portrayed as a “household nun” or a “head-huntress,” meaning that they were either always working around the house and performing the tasks of an obedient housewife or, as in Salome’s case, lusting for a man she can never have (Im). One reason Salome’s sexuality is so frightening is because she doesn’t stop until she get’s what she wants, regardless of the means. Her sexual desires toward the prophet are described as “obscene advances” (Lewsadder). The vivid portrayal of Salome’s sexuality and her hunger goes against the morals of Victorian England, which revolved around a patriarchal view of society. Herod’s sexual desire for Salome introduces another reason for the censorship of Salome—incest, another topic on the list of material banned by the Lord Chamberlain in Victorian England (Petley).
The staging of Salome that Wilde pictured did not line up with traditional Victorian attitudes. Parkes mentions that “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.’” Even though Wilde himself was Victorian, his new ideas highlight the repressiveness of Victorian society and may tell another story “of writers and artists striving to change the modes of expression, to generate new art forms and new combinations of art forms” (Parkes). The play was not even originally written in English. In explanation as to why he initially published Salome in French, Wilde declared, “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” (qtd. by Parkes). Although Wilde may have viewed his writing process as an experiment in mastering the French language, it may have also become a refuge for representing themes unconventional in Victorian England. France, along with a large portion of Western and Central Europe, embraced more liberal values at the time in comparison with Victorian England (Parkes). In fact, Wilde’s play was successfully staged over 200 times in France and Germany between 1903 and 1904, a time period where the play was still disbarred from stages in England (Parkes).
Upon the censorship of Salome, “Wilde lost almost all of his support from the theater community. Otherwise, actors, theatre managers, critics, and other playwrights deserted him” (Parkes). Wilde’s lack of support in England indicates that people of the late-Victorian period seemed to follow the rules and opinions of authority figures. Dr. Parkes describes this public response to the censorship of Salome:
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.”
Wilde himself was noticeably upset by his play’s censorship and the lack of professional backing he received. He would no longer associate himself with Englishness, but instead reinforced his Irish heritage and claimed that he would move to France (Parkes). Despite his sentiments, Wilde continued writing plays in England that satirized upper-class Victorian customs. Wilde’s focus on the subject of Victorian morals and values as a source of material for his future plays is fitting in the sense that the upper middle class members of society played a significant role in the banishment and widespread disgust of Salome in English society (Parkes).
Salome was written for a generation that could not accept it. The play pushed the boundaries of acceptable social and cultural norms in a way that resulted in its censorship. The play went against the moral standards expected of people, particularly women, and would not be widely accepted as a masterpiece for many years.
Bristow, J. (1994). Dowdies and dandies: Oscar wilde’s refashioning of society comedy. Modern Drama, 37(1), 53-70. Retrieved from http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/198846756?accountid=11107
Im, Y. (2011). Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Disorienting orientalism. Comparative Drama, 45(4), 361-380,455. Retrieved from http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/1000411215?accountid=11107
Lewsadder, Matthew. “Removing the Veils: Censorship, Female Sexuality, and Oscar Wilde’s Salome.” Modern Drama 45.4 (2002): 519-44. Project Muse. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Wilde, Oscar. Salome. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Internet Archive. London:J.Lane, 30 Nov. 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.Petley, Julian. Censorship. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print.
“Your Guide to Modern Art.” The Art Story: Modern Art Movement Timeline. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
Keywords: Art, Banned, Biblical, Censorship, England, Lord Chamberlain, Nouveau, Oscar Wilde, Play, Salome, Sexuality, Victorian