The character of Salome originates from a brief, unnamed mention in the Christian New Testament, Gospels of Mark and Matthew, yet has inspired vast and substantial cultural references including painting and sculpture, opera, ballet, theatre and films. Within the variety of these forms, Salome represents the full spectrum of femininity from innocent exploited girl to lustful femme fatale. She demurely entertains kings on canvases from the middle ages, and feeds on mortals as a vampire in the television series “True Blood”. From a general awareness of her ubiquity, I was drawn to inquire:
- What is it about Salome’s character and contribution that is compelling enough to keep her alive throughout the ages?
- How have her story and her character been adapted over time to reflect expressions of femininity in each age?
- What does Salome offer that is valuable to a contemporary audience?
- What form would best serve the story of Salome for a modern retelling?
Salome embodies erotic energy in the traditional understanding of Eros, which includes vitality, desire, love, sensuality, passion and connection. These emotions are essential subjects of artistic expression, through which they can be beautifully examined, quantified and reproduced. However, when Eros is experienced firsthand, it can be unruly and contradictory. Salome as a character and as a story address the conflict between attraction to this fiery element, and a desire to control that same fire, lest the handler get burned. This tension between the messiness of Salome’s place in the world, and our cultural preference for intellectual assessment calls for an approach of Creative Inquiry. Intellectual analysis leads us to predict, quantify and assign value to the historical and contemporary role of this woman. However, her story is one of defying that quantification and following desire. She can’t be fully understood through the pages of a report. She must be experienced in flesh and voice to fully appreciate her response to and affect on the world.
Through Salome saturation I am compelled to create a new work of theatre to reexamine who this woman is and what her contemporary offering might be. The process of creating theatre involves workshops with performers who take a writer’s ideas and try them out in real time and space. The body reveals what rings true or doesn’t. If a writer’s ideas don’t make emotional sense, and the writer is open to feedback, those ideas will be reshaped to reflect a more human truth. To the same extent, live performance is a dynamic medium that embodies how ideas behave in the world and offers a visceral understanding that goes deeper than intellectual examination. Audience and performers share a real-time interaction composed of the individual elements present during each unique performance. Actors respond to text and each other as their bodies move them, and their job is to have each performance be fresh and impulsive. This can mean reshaping movement or words within a given performance in response to the impulse of the moment. This kind of theatrical expression is the antithesis of a painting or written story that reflects one author’s ideas about an event, and remains unchanged through time.
I am keenly aware of modernizing Salome from the perspective of a woman standing inside her experience. Salome’s historical interpretation by men – the predominant tellers of history – has limited her expression to a man’s understanding of a woman’s behaviour. The lens of men’s intentions for women is inherently part of her story, however her response to those intentions deserves broader exploration than an outside observer can offer. To the same degree that an intellectual approach to Salome limits our appreciation of her, a male author misses the fullness of Salome’s feminine character.
In order to understand who Salome might be today I began my research with her origin in Jewish history and I tracked her through the ages to the present. In biblical times in the region of Judea, a prophet called Jokanaan, named John the Baptist by Romans, was foretelling the reign of Jesus of Nazareth and baptizing his followers with water to purify their souls. At that time Herod Antipas, also called Tetrarch, ruled a region bordering the River Jordan in Israel. Antipas captured John the Baptist and held him prisoner until the day his stepdaughter carried a request from her mother, Herodias, for John to be beheaded. The story is told in The New Testament, Matthew 14.6-11, and the girl is only described as “daughter of Herodias”.
But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother.
The girl also appears in Mark’s version of the story, found in chapter 6.22-28. In this text she is called Herodias.
When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” she replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
The other surviving information about this original figure is from a Jewish historian named Titus Flavius Josephus who published “The Works of Flavius Joseph” circa 94. In the section titled “Antiquities of the Jews”, he names Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea who is married to Herodias and is responsible for the death of John the Baptist. The marriage between Herod Antipas and Herodias was a second marriage for both of them. Herodias’ first marriage was to Antipas’ brother, Herod Philip, by whom she gave birth to Salome. This makes Salome both the stepdaughter and niece of Herod Antipas. Both ex-spouses were still alive, which means the first marriages ended by divorce. The text also mentions that John the Baptist had great influence over the Jewish people and Herod Antipas feared that John might raise a rebellion against him. The genealogy goes on to record Salome’s adult life. She was married to Philip, son of the tetrarch of Trachonitis until he died, leaving her a childless widow. Salome then married Artistobulus and gave birth to three sons, all of whom lived their own full lives. This is how we know that Salome is the young dancing girl in the bible passages.
From the two biblical references we understand that Herodias wanted the Baptizer killed because he disapproved of the incestuous royal marriage. The Gospel of Mark 6.17-20 gives the most detail.
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.
These three texts establish the character of Salome as an historical figure who played a role in her parent’s personal and political concerns. Herodias is the agent who orders the prophet’s death; she might have acted to defend herself and/or to protect her husband’s power. From Salome’s origin up to the Romantic era she appears in religious paintings in the form of this young girl who obeys her mother’s orders. She is shown holding the head of Jokanaan with expressions ranging from curiosity to remorse to disgust. She is given no more or less prominence than other women from biblical stories.
In 1877, the French writer, Gustave Flaubert, published a short story titled “Hérodias”, in which he thoroughly imagines the historical accuracy of the place, architecture, politics and culture in which Herod, Herodias, Salome and Jokanaan lived. He follows the traditional narrative where Herodias uses her daughter to seduce Herod so that the tetrarch will grant Salome a wish. He also explores marital tension between Herod and Herodias, and imagines that Herod is reminded of the young woman he married when he sees his stepdaughter dance. Herodias’ seduction, through Salome, is an act of love on behalf of herself, her marriage, and her husband’s political leadership. Flaubert’s story contributed to an escalating Salomania throughout Europe; a flurry of creative output focused on this girl who met the Decadent aesthetic of the time. The Decadent movement reflected fascination with darkness, indulgence, excess, ennui, sensuality, artificiality, subverted sexuality and morbidity. “Hérodias” influenced an opera from French composer, Jules Massenet, and a series of paintings by Gustave Moreau, who progressively highlighted Salome’s physical seductiveness and the lavish décor of Herod’s palace. Two of Moreau’s paintings are images of obsession for the protagonist of “Against the Grain” (“À rebours”) written by Joris-Karl Huysmans, published in 1884. This novel, in turn, held great influence for the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s novel, “The Picture of Dorian Grey.”
In 1892, Oscar Wilde wrote the stage play “Salomé”, and recast Salome as the instigator of Jokanaan’s murder. In doing so, he redirected the blame for a tetrarch’s downfall and a prophet’s death onto a young attractive girl/woman. From that moment on Salome became a femme fatale – a woman who seduces her lovers in order to lead them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. An important figure in Salomania was the Canadian dancer, Maud Allan, known throughout Europe as The Salome Dancer for her shows that concluded with a performance called The Vision of Salome. Biographer Felix Cherniavsky explains the phenomenon in “The Salome Dancer: The Life and Times of Maud Allan”.
The Vision presented Salome as a femme fatale and as decadence incarnate. Both views were modern. For centuries Salome had been approved by the Church and was a popular subject for artists in many disciplines. The traditional view, carefully nurtured by the anti-feminist policies of the Church, was simply that she was an evil woman responsible for John the Baptiste’s death. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, artists began to view her as the archetypical femme fatale. Heinrich Heine, Gustave Flaubert, and, a generation later, Oscar Wilde, wove elaborate fantasies around her, and in so doing removed her from traditional associations. (141-142)
All these nineteenth-century artists focused on Salome’s sensuality, perverseness, and seductive powers. By the end of the century she also personified the decadence of an old society on the brink of radical reform or dissolution. (142)
In “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage”, Stephanie Coontz explains the progression of cultural opinion about the nature of women leading up to the moment in which Oscar Wilde wrote “Salomé”.
The beginning of the nineteenth century, however, saw a new emphasis on women’s innate sexual purity. The older view that women had to be controlled because they were inherently more passionate and prone to moral and sexual error was replaced by the idea that women were asexual beings, who would not respond to sexual overtures unless they had been drugged or depraved from an early age. This cult of female purity encouraged women to internalize limits on their sexual behaviour that sixteenth and seventeenth authorities imposed by force. (159)
The version of Salome that Wilde presented, which has been adopted as her essential character, depicts Salome as psychologically oppressed by her predatory stepfather/uncle, and emotionally unstable in her lust for Jokanaan. The men respond to her with disdain, desire and revulsion in turn. The reason for her attraction to the prophet is never quite clear. She has a morbid fascination with his pale emaciated body, and returns to him again and again in spite of his vehement rejection of her, her mother, and her gender. She may be intrigued because she knows that Herod fears this man and her mother hates him. She may simply be playing with her newfound ability to provoke men’s reactions. Within this turbulent atmosphere, Salome harnesses her power of seduction and tricks Herod into having Jokanaan beheaded. She then acts on her lust by crooning to his disembodied head and finally kissing it – a kiss that was denied her while he lived. If the only way for men in the late nineteenth century to interact with the “impure” power of feminine eroticism was to demonize it or declare it volatile, Wilde succeeded.
Oscar Wilde writes Salome’s act of seduction with the simple line, “Salome dances the dance of the seven veils.” He gives no description of what he imagined with this line, and there is no text suggesting that Salome finishes her dance unclothed. The only wardrobe direction is “Slaves bring perfumes and the seven veils, and take off the sandals of Salome.” It is highly unlikely that anyone showed more than a bare shoulder or knee on stage when Wilde first attempted to mount the play in 1892 with Sarah Bernhardt in the titular role, or when it was finally brought to theatre audiences in 1896. However, a woman who dares to embody her desire and who acts on her passions becomes a receptacle for the deviant and rebellious thoughts of those who suffer under the repression of fundamental human sexuality. In most post-modern productions of Oscar Wilde’s play and its many spin-offs, the “dance of the seven veils” requires nudity from the actress playing Salome. Dancer and dance historian, Wendy Buonaventura, in her book “Something in the Way She Moves: Dancing Women from Salome to Madonna”, explores the role that dance has played throughout history, and the conviction of its power to provoke unwanted behaviour.
The female body has been an object of sexual obsession throughout history, the focus of dreams and fears. The fashion and beauty business, organized religion, the entertainment world, the media and the medical establishment have all staked their claim to this fertile territory. Women have long been assumed to reveal their true nature through their bodies, and aside from giving birth this is most in evidence when they dance. According to many historians and other commentators, the main purpose of dance is either to stimulate sexual appetite or act as a substitute for sex. At different periods throughout history, dancing has been banned by governments who feared its potential as a source of social chaos. Professional dancers have been seen as the most dangerous of all women, a reflection of the idea that men are powerless to resist temptation when it’s put on display. (9-10)
It goes without saying that creating a sexual display isn’t necessarily what someone has in mind when they get up and move, urged on by the seductive power of music. But for people obsessed with sex even piano legs or the sight of a woman’s face can send pulses racing. How much more troubling is the spectacle of a woman moving her body rhythmically to music! (11)
Buonaventura recognizes that Salome’s dance, whether a striptease or not – and very likely not – was an act of transgression. This explains the uptake of Salome’s role as femme fatale, and the loss of her mother’s influence in the drama. The original Herodias may have planned the maneuver, but Salome performed it. Oscar Wilde sets Herodias to the side of the action where her function is to complain feebly when her husband leers at her daughter, when the party guests talk too loudly, and when Jokanaan disparages her reputation. Wilde combines Herodias’ architecture of the death from the traditional story, with Salome’s performance of the fatal seduction into one singular female personification who is dangerously emotionally unstable. This simplistic interpretation of Salome’s behaviour, and the ambiguity of her reasons for needing Jokanaan dead, invite the generic label of a tempestuous, irrational female who contravenes both decorum and authority. Wilde knew that a powerful man who has been publicly duped by a girl cannot live on in her company. The last line of his play goes to Herod: “Kill that woman!”
Wilde’s “Salomé” inspired a quick succession of broadly published illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley, an opera from Richard Strauss and another from Antoine Mariotte, poetry from Constantine Cavafy, interpretations by the new wave of modern dancers like Isadora Duncan and Maude Allan, a ballet to feature Loie Fuller, paintings from Alphonse Mucha to Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimt, films staring the likes of Theda Bara and Rita Hayworth, and a permanent place in popular culture’s references for female eroticism. As she moves through the ages Salome reflects whatever evils need to be examined at any given time – and we have clearly not recovered from our cultural discomfort with women’s assertiveness. Salome is rarely shown in painting and sculpture without bare breasts, if not fully naked, revealing that we can only accept her influence over men if she is sexualized. Her posture is mostly triumphant, defiant or exhibitionistic. Where she holds the head of her victim, she is satisfied and/or possessive of the object. Her role as a naive helpmate to a more powerful mother has disappeared.
It’s important to note that men have offered all of these interpretations. Men recorded Salome’s historical existence, kept her alive through antiquity, and rebirthed her as a femme fatale. Women’s voices are rare in historical culture overall, however, among the few women who manage to break through, some of those who have examined Salome present her in a very different light.
Anzia Yezierska was an American writer of Jewish decent who lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her 1923 novel, “Salome of the Tenements”, presents Salome as Sonya Vrunsky, an orphaned Russian Jew residing in the tenements in New York. Sonya wants love and beauty and sets her target as John Manning, an American millionaire philanthropist. Sonya is emotional, ambitious, tempestuous, bossy, commanding, and naked in her desire for a better life for herself and for the community she comes from. John Manning is educated, stoic, privileged, restrained, and romanticizes the poverty of those he intends to help. He sets up a social work office in the tenements to show solidarity with the poor, however the working immigrant community is lucidly aware that Mr. Manning is the wealthy landlord, and not one of them. John is attracted to Sonya’s passion. Sonya wants John to unleash his passion. He never does, and this is their undoing. No one dies in this novel; instead Yezierska explores the tension between the girl/woman’s embodied desire and lust for life, and the saviour/man’s intellectual objectivity toward the human experience. Like Wilde’s Salome, Sonya oversteps her subordinate social standing to harness the power of the men around her. She convinces a Fifth Avenue dressmaker to design and gift her a beautiful new outfit, she charms a heartless landlord into painting her apartment building, and she bargains with a ruthless loan-shark to lend her cash for new furniture so that she can receive her high society visitor in a style that will catch his attention. From these powerful people’s perspectives, she is crazy in her quest to marry a millionaire. However, her strategy to enlist their help is to remind them that they once had dreams and passions too. Her fiery language and conviction of success ignite a spark of hope in each hardened heart that opens up each man’s generosity and allegiance to her cause. When John hires Sonya as his secretary so that she can help him administer the programs he believes will benefit her community, she does her best to educate him about the real needs of the immigrant workers, and how charity feels to the recipient. She, also, wants him to succeed in helping the poor. However, they both eventually learn that his privileged upbringing has so trained him toward emotional restraint that he simply cannot let himself feel genuine compassion. Yezierska’s story about the relationship between Sonya/Salome and John/Jokanaan gives context and complexity to the fiery woman’s behaviour. Like Herodias, Sonya wants to protect, and even enhance, her man’s power and influence. Like Salome, Sonya leverages her internal resources to much greater effect than her social place would presume. Like Jokanaan, John calls himself a friend to those who suffer, but holds a narrow lens on those worthy of his benevolence. Like Jokanaan and Herod, John is attracted to the girl’s passion, but critical of that same passion when it threatens to destabilize him. He is not flexible enough for the presence of an expressive woman to coexist with his need for absolute authority. John Manning agrees to divorce Sonya Vrunsky after a very short marriage, and returns to his uptown social circle without further interaction.
Anzia Yezierska’s approach to the Salome narrative is rare and brings an enriching lens to a story that is often simplified. The Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, published a poem called “Aristovoulos” in 1918 about the politically motivated murder of a child prince. Salome is referenced, presumably as a metaphor for the degree of evil of the poem’s antagonist, with “How those spiteful women, Kypros and Salome, those sluts Kypros and Salome – how they’ll crow now, gloating in secret.” British film director, Ken Russell made a camp version of Salome’s story with the 1988 film, “Salome’s Last Dance”. He sets the action in a brothel where whores and their clients play all the characters. It seems that men’s rage at Salome’s autonomous behaviour pushes her into the category of women who are sexually promiscuous, regardless of whether this is true or not. Over time, even women artists have largely accepted Salome’s identity as a whore. American singer Liz Phair released a song in 1993 called “Dance of the Seven Veils” where the protagonist references killing her boyfriend, Johnny, and includes the lyric “You can rent me by the hour.”
There is an element of prostitution in the Salome story, if we consider that Herodias offers up her daughter’s allure in order to win Herod’s favour. Oscar Wilde’s narrative also hinges on Herod’s assumption that the girl will satisfy him sexually in exchange for a gift. To understand the social role of the prostitute, I consulted the anthology “Women in the Hebrew Bible”, edited by Alice Bach. It contains the essay “The Harlot as Heroine” by Phyllis Bird, who writes:
It [prostitution] is a product and sign of the unequal distribution of status and power between the sexes in patriarchal societies, which is exhibited, among other ways, in asymmetry of sexual roles, obligations and expectations. This may be seen in the harlot’s lack of a male counterpart. Female prostitution is an accommodation to the conflicting demands of men for exclusive control of their wives’ sexuality and for sexual access to other women. The greater the inaccessibility of women in the society due to restrictions on the wife and the unmarried nubile women, the greater the need for an institutionally legitimized “other” woman. The harlot is that “other” woman, tolerated but stigmatized, desired but ostracized. (100)
The actions of both Salome and Herodias are indeed responses to the “unequal distribution of status and power between the sexes in patriarchal societies”. In the traditional stories, Herodias is tormented by a political prisoner who publicly disparages her character and her marriage choices, and who threatens her husband’s authority. Her husband dismisses her requests to have the prisoner silenced because he is entertained by the intrigue. The only way for Herodias to achieve peace of mind is to have the blasphemer killed. Without allies, she finds an indirect way to achieve her goal. Similarly, in modern stories where Salome is the primary actor, she is tormented by men whose role is to protect her, but who instead trivialize her. Her only means of assertion is to use the men’s lust against them to buy herself some space. For each woman, the locus of her torment is her gender. She uses her gender to defend herself. And her gender becomes the target of criticism for her actions.
The elements in the Salome narrative of a mother and daughter relationship, a non-biological father figure, the double-edged criticism of female eroticism, and allusions to prostitution, bring to mind the George Bernard Shaw play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, published in 1893. Like Oscar Wilde’s experience with “Salomé”, Shaw had a four-year wait between publication of the play and its eventual production, while censors debated its suitability for a live audience. The story follows Mrs. Kitty Warren who reveals to her adult daughter, Vivie, that their comfortable lifestyle is funded by a chain of brothels that Mrs. Warren owns. Mrs. Warren’s business partner is Sir George Crofts, who takes a marital interest in Vivie once he confirms that he isn’t her biological father. Vivie has done well at university and faces choices about her future. Her love interest is the age-appropriate Frank Gardener who diminishes Vivie’s career ambitions – unless they will serve his own financial security. Shaw addresses prostitution directly and holds it up for examination from all angles. He explores how, at the time of writing, prostitution was one of few options for women to pull themselves out of poverty into autonomy, and how the economic treatment of women’s bodies has benefits and detriments to both women and men. This story still holds relevance for contemporary culture where negotiation regarding the rights of sex workers is ongoing. The story of Salome also still offers value in its questions about how an assertive, discerning woman acts on her desires in a society where she is evaluated for her sexuality.
I want to build upon the parallels within the quartets found in the Salome story and in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by creating a new stage play, set in the present, that explores the following ideas.
- From Anzia Yezierska’s feminine interpretation of Salome: A woman’s autonomy is sexualized when it makes men uncomfortable, but in the woman’s experience her autonomy occurs within the broader understanding of Eros – the multi-faceted energy that encompasses love of self and others, desire, creativity, connection, expression, and sometimes even transcendence.
- From Gustave Flaubert’s short story: Herod and Herodias, like Mrs. Warren and Crofts, have let their professional responsibilities extinguish their desire for each other. In each case, a young woman reignites the spark of Eros and forces them to face their relationships with each other, through her.
- Phyllis Bird’s articulation that “the other woman” is anyone who doesn’t fit within the narrow expectations of the “wife” or “nubile young women” (virgin) archetypes. This “other” category grows exponentially as more and more women choose not to marry, or choose non-conventional relationship structures. Salome extricates herself from both of the traditional categories, as does Mrs. Warren.
- Salome and Vivie each have male counterparts who, on paper, should be worthy partners for such extraordinary women. Both men betray their women by criticizing instead of enjoying the erotic frisson and thus leave the women un-partnered.
- From Bird’s essay: “the harlot lacks a male counterpart”. What would it be like if women used their contemporary financial autonomy to orchestrate sexual experiences that suit their needs, as men have traditionally done?
- From Bird’s essay: “the harlot is that “other” woman, tolerated but stigmatized, desired but ostracized.” How does an “other” woman negotiate the perceived tension around her existence? What unique value does she offer from her un-institutionalized position?
By bringing Salome into the present and redesigning her role to the extent that Anzia Yezierska did with “Salome of the Tenements”, I want to honour the struggle she has upheld over the past 2,000 years, and explore whether or not this “other” woman’s contributions might finally be acknowledged in contemporary culture and into the future. Women in developed countries no longer have to rely on men for their financial and social security. This means we can make choices for ourselves that override others’ desires for us. However, we still operate within the residue of discomfort about women’s full erotic expression, and so remain aware of the effect of our behaviour on those around us. We have a skill set that goes largely undetected – it acts to protect others from ourselves, while seeking means for self-expression and emotional health, and when used benevolently, can serve to ignite others to their own dormant vitality. This story will explore the tensions between married partners, between the institution of marriage and un-institutionalized attraction, between the predetermined and the impulsive, between commerce and creativity, and between embodied passion and intellectual discourse. Beyond this initial research and outline, I would like to workshop these story elements with actors who will inform the eventual writing of the full stage play.
 Merriam Webster definition: a governor of the fourth part of a province; a subordinate prince
 Some historical texts show that the girl may have also been called Herodias like her mother, but was referred to as Salome in order to avoid confusion.
 In fact, Oscar Wilde has Salome responsible for destroying three men. There is a young Syrian captain of the guard named Narraboth who is so enamored with Salome that he fatally stabs himself rather than watch her attempts to seduce Jokanaan.