Head Games: Wilde's 1892 Salome, in a Wave of New Productions, Is a Rorschach Test for Artist

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Oscar Wilde wrote it but never saw it. Sarah Bernhardt opted not to purchase it. Richard Strauss set it to music, "Bosie" turned it into English, Norma Desmond pushed herself over the edge adapting it, and Al Pacino can't get enough of it.

Salome has always had an odd pedigree, and, even now, its surreal blend of religious declamation and lusty fervor leaps out at audiences like a flasher in a hair shirt. The only one of his major plays that Wilde never got to see performed (he was in jail during the one performance in his lifetime), Salome has seen its fortunes wax and wane several times. It was by far the most frequently produced of his works in Europe for decades but had essentially vanished from U.S. stages until very recently.

The play had a major resurgence this year, with four major East Coast performances opening in the space of two mouths. First was a visually dazzling production by the Synetic Theater, an offshoot of Washington, D.C.'s Stanislavski Theater Studio, in March. Three more followed in April: PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill, N.C., mounted a lavish new translation rooted in African and Asian traditions; Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern paired the piece with T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in what it called "The Sacred and the Profane Repertory"; and a starry Brooklyn "reading" (with Al Pacino, Dianne Weist and a veil-free Marisa Tomei) came to Broadway under the auspices of the Actors Studio. The Off-Off-Broadway space Here also presented the play in April; elsewhere, director Tristan Codrescu staged a voluptuous version of the drama in February in the rococo auditorium of a Scottish Rite Temple in New Orleans; and Guandaline Sagliocco brought her one-woman Salome to the 8th International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Conn., in June.

Unlike so many once-scandalous works that now play like curiosities, the 1892 play still packs a punch. "To this day, Salome has this mystique bout it," says director Drew Reeves, whose Shakespeare Tavern production was easily the most graphic of the four on display this spring. "The shock value is still there."

Freely adapted from the New Testament tale, Salome concerns the beautiful Princess of Judea, who works her stepfather Herod into such a frenzy that he agrees to give her anything, even unto the half of my kingdom," if she will only dance for him. She finally acquiesces, but her subsequent request--the head of John the Baptist on a silver charger--sends Herod into raves of terror and revulsion. One eaves a production of the play feeling as if one's clothes have been dappled with the pollen of some dazzling hothouse flower (along with other, less savory liquids). As we shall see, ornate comparisons are irresistible when discussing Salome.

The New Testament version is actually rather tame. References are made n the books of Matthew and Mark to in unnamed young woman dancing for her stepfather and then requesting the head of John the Baptist, referred to in the play as Jokanaan. In the Bible, her motivations stem entirely from the prophet's repeated denunciations of her mother, Herodias. Wilde gave the story an added dose of passion: Salome's unrequited desire toward Jokanaan complements Herod's toward her, lending a perverse symmetry to the action. "Wilde's contribution to the legend is that the drama was all inside her," says PlayMakers artistic director David Hammond.

A COMMON ASSUMPTION IS THAT

Wilde's difficulty in getting Salome produced in 1892 London stemmed from the play's lascivious plot, but the problem was more basic. At the time, the Lord Chamberlain refused to license for public performance any play that depicted biblical characters in any capacity, lascivious or otherwise. Ever though rehearsals had begun with Bernhardt to play the title role, the production was shut down. (Later on Bernhardt was reportedly offered the rights to the play for a one-time fee, but she declined. …