Book Review : ?Salome? *

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The Fly
Jul 26, 2000
Review : Book : ?Salome? *

By Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Author: Oscar Wilde


Herod said, "I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?"

This month I?m not reviewing a complete book but rather a play but the outstanding writer Oscar Wilde. The play is ?Salome.? In this play, Wilde attempted to rewrite the Bible and offer a more decadent, more voluptuous and more threatening interpretation of the events leading up to the death of John the Baptist. The play was a pleasure to read despite the unsettling incidents that occur within.

In the accounts offered by Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke, Herod is celebrating his birthday. His wife?s daughter, unnamed in the Bible, agrees to dance for him. Herod is so pleased that he offers her whatever she desires. The daughter asks for the head of the prophet John, which she then presents to her mother.

Wilde turned that story inside out and added his own inimitable touch to the dialogue and characters. He also wove a theme into a story that reflected the struggles of his life - the pain, suffering and death caused by love out of control.

Wilde begins his Biblical revision by naming the dancer in the story Salome. The literal meaning of the word is Salome is ?peaceable; perfect; he that rewards? and the irony of that name is apparent early in the story. Salome causes unrest in many figures. Because of her beauty, everyone is looking at princess her too much for things to end peacefully.

Salome is not the only sight to attract the attention of the strange, doomed group. The moon figures prominently throughout the play. The perspective of each character is revealed through their descriptions of the moon. It is, perhaps, a mirror, or rather a scry, that reveals to them the near future. To each figure, the moon is a dead woman, a princess dancing, a virgin, and a drunken, reeling madwoman searching for lovers. Finally, as the climax approaches, the moon is drenched in blood.

The setting of the play is Herod?s palace. Iokanaan, as Wilde names John, is imprisoned in a cistern outside of the palace. Salome wanders out to the terrace where she hears the words of Iokanaan. He is alternately announcing the coming of Christ and condemning Salome and her mother. Herod, his wife Herodias, and the rest of the guests follow Salome on to the terrace. It is there that the fateful dance occurs that leads to Iokanaan death - and Salome?s. Wilde empowers Salome in his version. She does not demand Iokanaan head for her mother?s sake, but for her own lustful hunger.

Uncontrollable love or desire leads to much death and destruction in this play. The sins begin when Herod murders his own brother to take the throne, and his brother?s wife, Herodias. The dangers of lust continue. Salome is overwhelmed by desire to see the prophet Iokanaan and when he rejects her advances, she dances to bring about his death. Herod, ignorant of Salome?s desire for Iokanaan, succumbs to his own lust and begs Salome to dance for him. She agrees when he promises to give her anything - and what she demands is the head of the prophet. Once dead, Salome can kiss Iokanaan?s mouth over and over. Once the dance is over, Herod pays the price for his lack of control. Not only is the prophet he feared dead, but also he kills the object of his lust, Salome. In this way, both hatred and love in extremes are shown to be dangerous, frightening things in the hands of humanity, a truth that reared its ugly head in Wilde?s own experiences.

Wilde uses this story to explore the intricate web of causality. Where is the start of it all? Salome?s desire for Iokanaan brings about her own death. But Iokanaan?s rejection of Salome causes his death. Herod?s murder of his brother and marriage to his brother?s wife is the root of Iokanaan?s condemnation. Herod?s desire for Salome brings about the dance that brings about more death. No one is blameless and no one emerges without suffering.

Wilde chose an excellent Biblical tale to present the themes of sex and love, desire and danger. His ability to convey intense emotion through is inescapably evident with this play.

One of Wilde?s strongest talents lays in character creation. The single-mindedness of his characters and the irrevocable consequences of their words and deeds are chilling. But Wilde truly gives his characters the breath of life through skillfully constructed dialogue. Herod?s reaction to the news that Jesus is raising people from the dead is so enjoyable, so vintage Wilde, it?s hard not to smile.

Herod: He restores the dead to life?

The First Nazarene: Yes, sire. He restores the dead to life.

Herod: I do not wish him to do that. I forbid him to do that. I do not permit anyone to restore the dead to life. Find out this man and tell him that I do permit him to restore the dead to life. Where is he at present??No matter. But let him be found and told from me that I do not permit the dead to be restored to life. Changing water to wine, healing lepers and blind men?he can do as much of that as he likes. I have no objection. I recognize that healing lepers is a good deed. But I will not permit the dead to be restored to life?It would be terrible if the dead came back.

Herod doesn?t react with surprise or exclamations of miracles. Rather, he wants this man raising the dead to cease and desist immediately. Laced in and around every line is the slightly bored but totally commanding tone of the elite British lord.

A reader?s knowledge of how these characters are playing small roles in a much larger story taps into the prophetic tone of the play. Iokanaan is the predecessor to Jesus, but Jesus does not resurrect Iokanaan after his death. Instead, Bible passages tell us that Jesus was mistaken for the resurrected John.

In regards to U2, this play?s tremendous influences are massively apparent throughout the Achtung Baby album. Fans familiar with the ?Salome sessions? will see how Wilde?s work was undoubtedly a creative well for Bono to draw from, a captivating confusing story that shakes one?s trust and evokes a feeling of unease in the soul as it is read. Elements of the dance of the seven veils are scattered through ?Mysterious Ways,? but the song doesn?t come across as bloody as the actual story. In ?So Cruel,? Bono poignantly conveys the destructive power of love and lust. Bono doesn?t assume the point-of-view of any particular character of the play. The power of love, one that is both destructive and yet, heals, was an integral theme that Bono extracted from this play and injected into his own lyrics. Take the following lines:

?And all men kill the thing they love
By all let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword?

Taken from Wilde?s last poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, where Wilde explores once more the destructive power of unrestrained love, the same theme and almost exact wording found itself into Bono?s lyrics for numerous songs on the album. But don?t think now that Bono is only taking from other writers, because Wilde himself took from one of the oldest books in the world. The danger of love, its terrible beauty, is a timeless force that will be hurting, twisting, killing, lifting, and saving souls long into the future.
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Sorry, I should have replied sooner. I for one loved reading this!!! It has stayed on my mind and I have been listening to Salome with new ears. :yes: :yes:

Salome Mojo

I have come across many print and online discussions about the Salome motif in "Mysterious Ways" and the single "Salome." However, I have never heard anyone suggest the possibility that Richard Strauss' 1905 opera _Salome_ may have influenced the "Salome Sessions" that culminated in _Achtung, Baby_.

Strauss used Wilde's play as his libretto, although he edited it for his own purposes. Like _Achtung, Baby_, Strauss' music is captivating, beautiful, mystical, sensuous, and passionate in expressing the emotions that words cannot completely convey (though Bono's voice more than compensates for it).

The allusions to _Salome_ (Wilde and/or Strauss) in the lyrics have been discussed eloqunetly elsewhere. I would add subjectively that whenever I hear "Mysterious Ways," its own percussive opening sounds like an understated response to the opening of the opera's "Dance of the Seven Veils."

"So Cruel," the appallingly underrated song that got me hooked on _Achtung, Baby_, strikes me as similar to the opera's final scene (which is over twice as long). At that point, Salome has "crossed the line," singing to Jochanaan's severed head with vengeance, tenderness, and uninhibited passion. "So Cruel" is an ethereal complement to the final scene's Teutonic fireworks, but its rich layering make me think of Strauss' own tendency to orchestrate a piece for all it's worth.

Another interesting connection is the fact that U2 was recording the "Salome Sessions" in Berlin around winter 1990, when a lot of "Salome mojo" seemed to be happening in that city. The Berlin Philharmonic and Deutsche Oper Berlin both recorded the opera in November and December 1990 respectively. A performance at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was also recorded sometime in 1990 as well. So, one wonders if Bono/U2 may have attended an undocumented performance of the opera. U2 is not adverse to influences from other genres. It has collaborated with B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and..... Luciano Pavarotti....., so why not think that they may have drawn inspiration from Strauss' opera?

Perhaps U2 wasn't thinking of Strauss' opera during the Berlin "Salome Sessions." It may have just been coincidence.

Or maybe some "mysterious ways" were at work, connecting these two innovative pieces of music from different times and genres.

(Thanks to my wonderful wife Diane, who introduced me to _Achting, Baby_, and who let me introduce her to _Salome_.)

Jason Neal

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