Emily Eells: Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression.


Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression (Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2011) is an admirable piece of scholarship, powerfully presented with clarity and eloquence. The tone is set in the first paragraph, where Dierkes-Thrun poses the incisive question: ‘Why was it specifically Wilde’s play, among the many provocative literary and artistic versions of the Salome story, that proved so popular and fascinating?’ (1). Her response is to highlight Salomé’s pivotal role in modernity, tracing the play’s genealogy from its sources in 19th century French literature to the works of art it has in turn inspired, offering an innovative and informed reading of the play as a ‘forward-looking modernist text’ (2). Dierkes-Thrun’s title gives precedence to Salomé and relegates Wilde to the subtitle, subtly announcing that her focus is on how that particular text engages in modernity and the aesthetics of transgression. In her pertinent introduction, she defines ‘modernist aesthetics of transgression’ as ‘a replacement of traditional metaphysical, moral and cultural belief systems with literary and artistic discourses that develop utopian erotic and aesthetic visions of individual transgression and agency.’ (2). The volume offers an insightful reading of Wilde’s play, and an illuminating discussion of various works composed in its wake, in different media (opera, theatre, film, the graphic arts) and belonging to differing cultures (in the sense of both nationality, and high and low culture).

Salome’s Modernity is divided into five chapters whose astutely chosen titles clearly indicate their content and line of argument. The first – ‘Dancing on the Threshold: Wilde’s Salomé between Symbolist, Decadent, and Modernist Aesthetics’ – is an original reading of Wilde’s engagement with his French sources stressing how he used them as a springboard to move forward into modernity, rather than remain at a standstill or step backwards into Symbolism and Decadence. Although Dierkes-Thrun is covering well-known ground, she does so insightfully by offering a new, forward-looking perspective. In her section on Flaubert, she draws an illuminating parallel between Salammbô’s yearning for the elusive moon goddess Tansit and Salome’s yearning for Iokanaan’s body. Her analysis of Huysmans’s A Rebours goes much further than considering the ekphrasis of Gustave Moreau’s paintings as a visual inspiration for Salome when she suggests that the novel’s protagonist might be a model for Wilde’s Herod. Huysmans’s Des Esseintes is a quintessentially weak man who is ‘constantly on the lookout for something or someone else who could give him a stronger sense of self’ (39), just as Herod is portrayed as vulnerable and insecure, lusting after Salome. Both male characters ‘seek to subjugate themselves to Salome’s overpowering sensual femininity’ (39), as if by uniting with her they would find fulfillment and security. Dierkes-Thrun also shows how Wilde departs from his predecessors, outdoing them in the play’s last scene, when he has Salomé kiss Iokanaan’s bloody head. As Dierkes-Thrun elegantly puts it, her ‘ecstatic Liebestod’ (43) is a ‘decadent tête-à-tête’ (44), a transgressive crossing of the threshold between the late 19th century and modernity. That kiss seals Salome’s fate as a ‘modern icon of transgression, extreme aesthetic affect, and erotic excess’ (43). Dierkes-Thrun takes her readers by surprise when she concludes her first chapter with a section on Bataille’s Madame Edwarda. As she admits, there is absolutely no proof that Bataille had ever read or seen Wilde’s Salomé, or Richard Strauss’s operatic version of it. What reads at first as a mere outline relating the excessive erotic ecstasy and violence in Wilde’s play to Bataille’s Madame Edwarda becomes a bold argument when Foucault’s ‘A Preface to Transgression’ is invoked. The reader is persuaded that even if there is no direct line between Salomé and Madame Edwarda, Wilde’s play had served as a catalyst for a culture in crisis, following the death of the divine and resurrection in the form of erotic and aesthetic excess.

Chapter 2 – ‘’The Brutal Music and the Delicate Text’? Richard Strauss’s Operatic Modernism in Salome’ – addresses the question: why did Strauss pair Wilde’s text with his music ? Dierkes-Thrun argues that the works are linked by conceptual correspondences, and that they share the same artistic goal of staging corporal affect and aesthetic intoxication. She translates extracts from contemporary German and Austrian reviews of Strauss’s opera to give a flavour of its reception (with the reminder that there were no fewer than thirty-eight curtain calls at the première in Dresden, in 1905), making this material available to the English-speaking reader for the first time. She also reveals the existence of an anonymous, never translated, bawdy, anti-Semitic parody of Wilde’s play entitled Salome: Moralisch-musikalisch-hysterisch-altjüdisches Sittendrama frei nach Oscar Wilde, belonging to the Clark Library in Los Angeles. The play was first performed in 1904, and therefore predates Strauss’s opera, which also contains explicit anti-Semitism. The strength of this chapter lies in the presentation of this unknown material, though overall it falls short of a complete account of Strauss’s musical modernity. The eloquent section on Wilde’s play as a Symbolist drama using synæsthesia to create the ‘sensual Dionysian feast’ (63) outweighs Dierkes-Thrun’s thinner analysis of Strauss’s music. The point is made (more than once) that his score thunders with dissonance and dramatic bitonal orchestral effect, but otherwise the analysis contents itself with reference to the dynamics and the tempo markings (66). Dierkes-Thrun is absolutely right that Strauss wanted to compose an opera that conveyed a stronger exotic feel of the Orient than Massenet had achieved in Hérodiade. But the simple mention of the tambourine (‘which always sounds at the mention of Tanz’ 76) and the elusive references to ‘familiar waltzlike orientalist harmonies and rhythms with more eerie modernist passages’ (76) do not suffice as an explanation of how Strauss succeeded where Massenet had failed. One feels that Dierkes-Thrun is slightly ill-at-ease with the musical material: after raising the fundamental question of why Strauss chose to adapt Wilde’s text and offering a slightly cursory answer, she slips into a discussion of the performance of the dance, where she seems to be on much firmer ground. Her analysis of Strauss’s musical brilliance might have gained from further reference to Derrick Puffett’s Richard Strauss: Salome (1989), from which she quotes Robin Holloway’s chapter, and from reference to Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007). Ross opens his discussion of modern music with a significant chapter on Strauss’s Salome, which makes the technicalities of the score understandable to a general readership. Dierkes-Thrun seems hesitant to admit that Strauss’s Salome outshines Wilde’s script in artistic achievement and audacity, and to concede that statistics concerning performances of the opera – and audience attendance – far surpass the corresponding figures for the play. The fact that Wilde Salomé owes its critical fortune to the Strauss’s music does not undermine Dierkes-Thrun’s thesis in the least; on the contrary, Wilde’s play sets the stage for modernism, with the resounding succès de scandale of Strauss’s opera as first item on the programme.

The third chapter – ‘Perverts in Court: Maud Allan’s The Vision of Salomé and the Pemberton-Billing Trial’ – is an informative, compelling presentation of the court case and its context. Dierkes-Thrun’s lively account of Maud Allan’s fame as a dancer celebrated in popular songs about her is complemented by her fascinating study of Allan’s involvement in the suffragette movement, illustrated with a political cartoon. Dierkes-Thrun brings to the fore material which has been neglected in previous discussions of Maud Allan, namely Edith Nesbit’s fictional portrayal of her as a New Woman Salome and the Head: A Modern Melodrama (1909) and the militantly feminist production of Salomé in London in 1911. Dierkes-Thrun’s section on the Pemberton-Billing trial is a concise review of the affair, starting with the publication of the provocatively entitled article ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, libelously reporting on Jack Grein’s production of Salomé starring Maud Allan. The ensuing trial took place in war-time Britain, which gave it international implications, both in terms of cultural relationships with France (mediated through Claude Cahun) and in a complex intermingling of the sexual and the political with the German enemy. On the personal level, the trial had its interest too, as Lord Alfred Douglas was called in as witness and revealed that he was a turncoat homosexual who had become viciously homophobic. In what I consider to be one of the most consummate chapters of her very good book, Dierkes-Thrun underscores the impact of the Pemberton-Billing trial as a cultural, political and social milestone.

Chapter four is devoted to the first surviving feature film of Wilde’s play, Alla Nazimova’s Salomé: An Historical Phantasy by Oscar Wilde, released in 1922. Petra Dierkes-Thrun provides compelling evidence that Nazimova’s stage career as an actress in New York in the mid 1900s had a decisive impact on her artistic choices as a director. She owes her Broadway fame to her performances of Ibsen’s transgressive New Women characters, which led seamlessly to her interpretation of Wilde’s Salomé as a homoerotic text in the queer aesthetics of the silent, avant-garde film she directed. Her film adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House forms a double portrait with her Salomé featuring Ibsen’s Nora Helmer and Wilde’s Salomé as two of modern drama’s ‘most impressive, interesting female enfants terribles’ (134). This chapter reveals the importance of Nazimova’s interpretation of the play, based on a parallel between Ibsen’s complex New Women characters and Wilde’s portrayal of Salomé in the context of the emerging forceful female figure. Nazimova herself became one of the first female film producers, literally staking all when she set up Nazimova Productions. She invested heavily in what has been called her ‘limp-wristed’ Salomé (quoted p. 144), on account of the numerous actors in drag, and the costumes and staging inspired by Beardsley’s decadent homoerotic illustrations of the text. Nazimova’s own gender ambiguity emphasizes the androgynous nature of Wilde’s Salomé, making the homoerotic subtext of the play a distinguishing trope of later film versions, in particular Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance which is given pride of place in the last chapter of Dierkes-Thrun’s book. In that last chapter, she orients the discussion to recent (meaning post 1980) adaptations of Wilde’s Salomé figure in film, theatre, graphic art, and popular literature. She shows how Wilde’s play has been interpreted as a flagship text of same-sex desire, and how Salomé has been seen both as Wilde’s transgendered alter ego and as an aggressively sexual New Woman.

The first four chapters of Dierkes-Thrun’s book sparkle with insight, information and innovative interpretation. The fifth and last chapter is the bouquet final of her intellectual fireworks. It holds a wealth of fascinating material and pertinent, measured analysis. The opening section on Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance is riveting: Direkes-Thrun reads the well-known film afresh, emphasizing its cinematic qualities. She singles out how the director’s use of framing results in a merger of the tragic and the comic, and how his astute editing in the dance scene, which crosscuts rapidly between Salome and a male dancer in identical costume, creates the illusion of androgyny. She points out that by including himself as photographer within the plot of this film (one of the numerous framing devices), Russell thematizes the act of looking, which is central to the play. The look through the camera lens is another instance of voyeurism. She also underscores how Russell’s film conflates Wilde the man with his character Salomé, and even hears anachronistic echoes in the latter’s addresses to the unresponsive Baptist/Bosie. Salomé suffers from unrequited love, anticipating how Wilde will lament in De Profundis that Lord Alfred Douglas has fallen out of love with him. Even if this biographical reading of the play is debatable – precisely because the dates don’t tally – Dierkes-Thrun’s interpretation of the film’s concluding scene is persuasive: ‘as the camera pans out and down behind the forbidding-looking iron fence, the visual metaphor of imprisonment suggests Wilde’s following downfall and shame.’ (167) Dierkes-Thrun’s spirited reading of Russell’s film sets the tone for the rest of the chapter: her lengthy presentation of Suri Krishnamma’s play A Man of No Importance is compulsive reading, as are her discussions of other recent plays and films derived from or inspired by Salomé and Wilde (notably Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine and Doric Wilson’s play Now She Dances!). Dierkes-Thrun coins the expression ‘homosexual humanism’ to define the aesthetic agenda of these ‘queer positive’ productions. She completes her last chapter with a discussion of recent representations of Salomé as a feminist icon of excessive sexuality. She again coins a term – namely ‘regressive feminism’ – to categorize such works as Nick Cave’s play Salomé featuring a hypersexual teenager who even masturbates on stage, Tom Robbinson’s best-seller Skinny Legs and All, Robert Altman’s film Cooke’s Fortune and Sandra Goldbacher’s movie The Governess. Carlos Saura’s flamboyant flamenco film Salome sounds the last note of this dynamic study of the heritage of Wilde’s play, whose vibrant energy is creatively translated into the click of the castanets and the stomp of the heel.

Salome’s Modernity is a first-rate book and an important contribution both to Wilde studies and to studies of modernism. It is well-researched, broad in its approach and precise in its detailed analysis. It is written with clarity and vigour, and the author never loses her reader’s attention. Its title arouses the reader’s curiosity to know more about the impact of Wilde’s Salomé on modern art, and succeeds in surpassing expectations thanks to its scope, insight and compelling interest. Dierkes-Thrun offers a scintillating and richly varied illustration of how Salome embodies the modernist aesthetics of transgression in her pose as iconic rebel and preacher of the secular gospel of erotic perversity and artistic ecstasy.

Reviewed from a French perspective, one could question Dierkes-Thrun’s decision to work from the English version of Wilde’s text which she justifies by explaining that it was Wilde’s final version of the play. That decision overlooks Wilde’s ambition to gain status as a poète français alongside Flaubert, Mallarmé and Huysmans. He made a determined effort to draft his play directly in French, and then took the time to painstakingly revise and correct the French script (with the help of his French speaking friends) in three successive manuscript versions. The English version might contain the last revisions chronologically, but that was only because Wilde intervened to correct Lord Alfred Douglas’s most obvious errors, which did not erase his serious reservations about the translation. Dierkes-Thrun transplants Wilde’s French play – which premiered in Paris – from its native soil and considers its Nachleben first in Germany and then, more extensively, in English-speaking culture. That field of vision does not include such works as French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter’s play C. 33 (a dramatization of Wilde’s imprisonment, performed with great success in Paris in 1995), which could have been added to the list of plays inspired by Wilde’s life on page 178. It also fails to take into account the current revival of interest in Wilde’s French play which has figured on the Parisian theatre billboards in the last few years. There has been a series of new productions of Salomé, by four different directors (Anne Bisang, Olivier Bruaux, Charles Di Meglio and Jérémie Le Louët). Admittedly, the performances take place in small theatres – but the question remains, what has prompted this renewal of French interest in Wilde’s script? One answer must be that the French recognize Wilde’s script as a founding text of French modernism and an icon of French culture. Even if the French identity of Salomé is somewhat obscured in Dierkes-Thrun’s book, it deserves the highest praise for its rich presentation of the works it has inspired and the questions it raises about Salomé’s presence today and tomorrow, here, there, and everywhere.


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