Salome the virgin vamp has had her ups and downs—from the opera stage to burlesque, from fine art to novelty songs like “When Miss Patricia Salome Did Her Funny Little Oo-La-Pa-Lome.” And who can forget Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, finally ready for her close-up, descending the staircase as the delusional Norma Desmond playing Salome? So many Salomes—one can only draw back the veils, one at a time, in order to get at the truth.
Unveiling Salome’s Origins
The mythical origins of Salome reach back to the ancient fertility figure Ishtar who performed a Welcome Dance to celebrate the renewal of nature. In classical times, this fertility figure became Demeter who gave humanity agriculture and her daughter Persephone who personified vegetation, withdrawing into the earth after the harvest only to return again in the spring. Most of us know the biblical Salome, whose name is similar to the Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” and who appears in the books of Mark and Matthew, a beautiful virgin dancing to appease the lust of Herod.
But there was also a real Salome, born about 15 AD and married first to a Palestine governor and later to a ruler in Asia Minor. She also appears in the histories of Flavius Josephus, who was the first to name her as the daughter of Herodias, a detail retained by Seneca, Livy, and Plutarch.
Unveiling the Artful Salome
From these origins, we can already see a number of themes emerging: mysterious femininity, sexual power, a mixture of the earthy and the mystical. Interest in Salome grew as Europeans encountered other cultures through conquest or exploration, especially following Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Syria. A fascination with the orient spread throughout Europe in architecture, painting and the decorative arts. This orientalism (a controversial but useful term) also flowered in literature. The appearance in the late eighteenth century of the French translation of One Thousand and One Nights was followed by English versions in the nineteenth century, some bowdlerized for Victorian readers, some with all the juicy bits. It is easy to imagine Salome as the naughty cousin of Scheherazade, the resourceful and imaginative narrator of Nights who kept herself from being beheaded by entertaining the king with fascinating tales.
Among the most influential literary representations of Salome are Gustave Flaubert’s literary souvenirs from his time in Cairo, namely, Salammbô and Herodias. The creator of the indelible Madame Bovary (1856) had already shown an interest in the female psyche and, with these later works, opened up new perspectives in the psychology of women, in particular overt sexuality and a willingness to flout conventions of public morality.
By the late nineteenth century, orientalism had progressed from a mildly titillating exploration of exotic cultures to a morbid fascination with the forbidden and perverse. Flaubert’s genius inspired a host of artists mesmerized by the shocking. Jules Laforgue’s Moral Tales (1887) parodied classical literary figures like Hamlet and Lohengrin, but more significantly introduced the image of Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist. Salome became the subject of poems by Mallarmé and the obsession of Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, who painted her hundreds of times. Perhaps the archetype of art for art’s sake was Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against the Grain (1884) in which the sensualist Des Esseintes describes Salome as having “the charms of a great venereal flower, grown in a bed of sacrilege, reared in a hot-house of impiety.”
Oscar Wilde, whose name is synonymous with decadence, immortalized Salome in his popular 1892 play—a work that also proved to be the catalyst for what would be a career-ending libel trial in 1895. Wilde’s play not only served as the basis of Strauss’s opera, it also fixed the literary and dramatic nature of Salome the character. Wilde’s play also marked the first use of the phrase “dance of the seven veils,” elevating what had been a narrative diversion into a potent symbol for Salome’s most disturbing qualities—deadly innocence, virginal sensuality and overpowering sexuality.
Richard Strauss had seen Wilde’s Salome and quickly grasped the shock appeal of the story. At the time, there had only been one other major operatic depiction of Salome, Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade (1881), a lyrical but conventional work in which Salome and the prophet (with head attached) fall in love and Salome commits decorous suicide when she learns that her aunt is also her mother.
Wilde’s play, the German translation of which Strauss took as his libretto, offered a choice opportunity for the composer to turn the forbidden into the profitable. He knew that his work might suffer at the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm’s censors but he was willing to take a calculated risk. In 1901, he wrote to fellow composer Gustav Mahler “I can’t dare to hope for a ban. The advertising value of a ban by the censor would be the best thing that could happen to my little opera…”
Strauss’s opera might have been less well received had it not opened at a time of changing views of sexuality. Accusations of homosexuality were common among bored courtiers and the Kaiser himself was long suspected of having homosexual inclinations. Salome (as a play and an opera) contained concentrated doses of all that was deviant: Salome’s class-transcending passion for Jokanaan, Herod’s incestuous passion for his step-daughter/niece, Narraboth’s suicide-inducing desire, the Page’s homosexual attraction to Narraboth, and the necrophiliac kiss of the severed head, the latter being a Freudian metaphor for castration.
What’s more, when Strauss’s Salome took the stage, uncorseted, barefoot and with her hair loose and flowing, she emphatically did not conform to the prevailing images of womanhood—she fit in more with the then-common notions of the pathological female: emotional, hysterical and unpredictable. In the midst of this overheated sexuality, implicit and explicit on stage, it is interesting to note that Strauss also faced another hurdle: overcoming the Kaiser’s edict that forbade the depiction of biblical characters in the theater. As one musicologist put it, if nothing else, “Salome was probably Strauss’s only chance to put a striptease on stage, thanks to its biblical justification.”
Following the opera’s 1905 premiere, Europe and America experienced a decade of “Salomania” in which the craze for all things Salome led our heroine into some decidedly less exalted areas of popular culture. In Paris, modern dance interpreters Loïe Fuller and Maud Allan popularized the Dance of the Seven Veils in long-running shows and on international tours, marketing themselves with provocative photographs in the new illustrated papers and on sheet music covers. Dance cabarets sprang up overnight featuring hootchy-kootchy “artistes,” while society ladies intent on “cultural evenings” attended women-only dinners in Salome-inspired attire.
In staid Edwardian England, Salome lost much in translation. For the London production, censors insisted on removing all biblical references and forbidding the severed head of John the Baptist. Rather than watching Salome lasciviously kissing the bloody head, audiences had to be content with the heroine’s longing glance into what appeared to be a platter of tomato soup. Of this bowdlerized version, conductor Thomas Beecham noted “We had successfully metamorphosed a lurid tale of love and revenge into a comfortable sermon.”
In the United States, touring productions of Salome didn’t fair much better. The highly anticipated 1907 Metropolitan Opera production closed after one performance due to the influence of banker J.P. Morgan. (At the same time, a School for Salomes opened on the roof of another New York theater, reportedly turning out some 150 graduates a month.) In Boston, the show didn’t open at all after customs officials confiscated the papier-mâché head of the prophet.
Unveiling the Americanized Salome
Meanwhile, back in New York, audiences flocked to Salomy Jane, an adaptation of a Bret Harte story in which the heroine, a California cattleman’s daughter, falls in love with a horse thief. Scoff if you will—this bit of light entertainment ran for a total of 155 performances in 1907. (The 1914 silent movie, filmed amid the California redwoods, is available for viewing on YouTube, an invaluable resource for all sorts of Salome silents.) Slight as it may have been, Salomy Jane marked an important point in the Americanization of the Salome story: when filtered through popular culture, the story went from exotic and disturbing to accessible and unthreatening.
Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils and novelty songs built around her character, however remotely associated, were prime material for one of the most important entertainment endeavors of the early twentieth century, Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies. Songs premiered at the Follies, in addition to those penned in Chicago’s Tin Pan Alley, spread “Salomania” even further. Reflecting the expanding immigrant population, many of these songs were sung in dialect and written in vernacular musical styles that reflected dance forms such as the foxtrot, cakewalk or ragtime. Comedian Fanny Brice, who got her start at the Follies, would make another kind of Salome famous, the Sadie, which became a byword for a respectably married lady. (The story goes that Brice first heard the song “Sadie Salome” when Irving Berlin sang it to her in Jewish dialect.)
One of the most famous American Salome interpreters was Aida Overton Walker, whose husband George Walker, along with Bert Williams, founded the Williams and Walker company, the first to produce full-length musical comedies written and performed exclusively by African Americans. Walker’s Salome offered the kind of “racial uplift” then popular with the black middle class who sought to escape its expected roles by taking on ones of higher artistic aspiration. Walker suppressed the exotic and concentrated on a performance characterized by grace and propriety—she even kept the severed head of the prophet behind a curtain, illuminated at the crucial moment by a ray of light.
Unveiling Salome the Feminist
Salome came of age at a time of confused and contradictory, often misogynistic, views of the female sex. From the Symbolists’ morbid obsessions to Freud’s influential theories, modern woman presented society with a number of often-irreconcilable images. None more so perhaps than Salome the feminist.
Salome’s dance is dictated strictly by her own creativity—neither Wilde nor Strauss supplied stage directions on how she should dance. She makes her own determination of how the sight of her dance should be linked to sexual power, accepting the objectifying gaze and becoming not submissive but ascendant. Her displayed body is shown not for exploitation but as a means to an end.
This is reinforced by the opera’s reliance on the act of looking: Herod gazing lasciviously, Herodias narrowing her eyes in jealousy, Narraboth watching against his will—culminating in Jokanaan’s refusal to look. All of these acts of looking feed Salome’s embodied power, changing her status from passive to one who has taken control of the male gaze and usurped it in her own favor.
Salome and her modern dance interpreters broke the traditional conventions of power, whether in the form of social expectations or classical dance training to become symbols of the new woman. This troublesome character—la femme nouvelle—challenged bourgeois domesticity and threatened to take on the male prerogatives of mastery and control.
Even Strauss’s music during the Dance of the Seven Veils implies that there is more going here than mere prurience. The dissonance and musical tumult underscores the expressiveness of the dance, undergirding the synchronicity of body, movement and music so that it becomes central. The only imperative is expression—something over which Salome has complete control.
Having followed Salome from her origins in the ancient past to the modern period’s “Salomania,” we find ourselves back in the darkened theater. We’ve left behind whatever constitutes normal life and we eagerly await the downbeat. In the theatre, we can drop all the veils that we have to wear to get through the day. We become spectators, we are part of the action, and our performance is as crucial as that taking place on stage. Salome’s dance may no longer be shocking to our eyes, but what does still have the power to shock is discovering how eager we are, on leaving the theatre, to wrap ourselves back up in all the veils we left behind a few hours before.
Leann Davis Alspaugh writes about the performing and visual arts.
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Contains nudity and violence. Parental discretion advised.