Just as there are many scriptural and apocryphal Marys, there are a number of Salomes too. Salome, derived from the Hebrew, shalom or peace, was present at or just after the birth of Jesus, and was the first to recognize him as the Christ; in some tellings she's a midwife, in others Mary's sister. Salome is the name traditionally given to the (unnamed) wife of Zebedee and mother of apostles James and John. In the Egyptian apocrypha Salome is a disciple of Jesus; she's sometimes called Mary Salome. The only one actually mentioned in the Bible is a Salome who watched the crucifixion from afar and then, with Mary Magdalene, anointed Jesus' body after his entombment.

But the Salome I'm thinking of is a different one. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark relate how John the Baptist condemned as incestuous the marriage of Herod the tetrarch, whose wife was his brother's widow. In retaliation for the slur Herod imprisoned John, but was afraid to kill him because he was regarded as a prophet. On Herod's birthday, his stepdaughter danced lewdly for him; pleased, he promised to give her anything she wanted. On the advice of her mother, Herodias, the girl demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter, a request with which Herod was bound by his word to comply. In the Bible the girl is unnamed, but she is known by convention as Salome. The biblical story lays the blame for the horrific killing at the feet of the vengeful Herodius, though as John the Baptist became more saintly in image Salome became correspondingly more culpable.

Depictions of this story in literature and art have long been common in the western tradition, though often Salome is a minor character, basically a pawn in the conflict between Herod and Herodias. Many earlier works focused on the mother, not the daughter, though Heinrich Heine wrote about Salome, and Gustave Moreau painted her. But it was Oscar Wilde who really put Salome at the centre of the story and gave her creepy power and frightening flesh, flesh which Richard Strauss would later animate with an opera.

Wilde's play "Salome" was written in Paris in 1891 and first published in 1892 or 1893 in French, then in 1894 in English, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. The action takes place in a courtyard at Herod's castle. Wilde's Herod is obsessed with his gorgeous young stepdaughter - to his wife's disgust - as is Narraboth, the captain of the guards. Salome, for her part, becomes infatuated with the voice of John the Baptist - or Jokaanan, as he's called here - prophecying from his dungeon below the stage. Salome convinces Narraboth to allow her to see John, though Herod has forbidden it, and then proclaims her love for the holy man, who spurns her as a daughter of Babylon. Narraboth, increasingly distraught as he watches Salome's fascination grow, kills himself; Jokaanan takes himself back to his cell. Then Herod and Herodias leave the party where they have been and come out to the courtyard, Herod slipping in Narraboth's blood. Herod tries to cajole the indifferent Salome into dancing for him, in spite of Herodius' telling him repeatedly not to look at Salome and forbidding the dance. But when he offers her anything she wants, she dances the infamous dance of the seven veils, and Herod is mighty pleased, though he pales when he hears her demand Jokaanon's head. He offers her jewels and other riches, but she remains firm, and eventually he has the prophet killed and his head brought on a charger. Salome, triumphant, mocks Jokaanan for refusing to look at her before; the play climaxes when she kisses the gruesome severed head, and Herod, disgusted, has her put to death. The text of Wilde's one-act play can be found at www.blackmask.com/books28c/salomedex.htm

Not surprisingly, the play was controversial when it was first performed in 1896 in Paris, and it has been said that its small success there was largely based on sympathy for the criminalized playwright. "Salome" was put on in Berlin by famed theatre director Max Reinhart, first privately in 1902 and then publicly the following year; it was the former production that Strauss saw, and on which he based his opera. Strauss' piece premiered in Dresden in 1905. This version of the story also figures in the movie Sunset Boulevard, where the aging silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) prepares herself to make a comeback in a movie about Salome; Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice made the movie into a musical, which is purportedly now in production as a movie with Glenn Close reprising a turn as Desmond after her successful stage run.

I saw a production of Strauss' "Salome" yesterday here in Toronto. I'm not an opera fan by any means - the singing style leaves me cold - but I thought I'd try to see at least one live, reasoning that I might like operatic music better if it was accompanied by action and pageantry. The production I saw was directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and in his hands it became a multimedia extravaganza, complete with obscure filmic intervals and simulated fellatio. I learned that opera is indeed more bearable with moving singers and innovative staging, but that ultimately, the vocal stylings sound more like cats in heat than music to me. I don't think I'll go see an opera again.


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