‘Salomé’ at Swan Theatre. Photo: Isaac James
I saw another incarnation of Salomé last night. It was extraordinary – exquisite I might go so far as to say. I think you would have liked it. No, no – I know that you would have fallen in love with – if not the production – then with Salomé herself. Yes, certainly you would have done that!
As I sat there, in the circle, looking down from a height, I am sure I made out your considerable form. You were on the front row. I was as transfixed on you as you were on the performance. You had one leg crossed over the other, a wan smile fixed across your moon face. Rings of smoke rose up to me from your serenely poised cigarette. The ushers would have spoken to you, I am sure, about 21st century laws on smoking, but you would have wafted them away. “Talk to me not of bans and banishment,” you might have said, “for I know of both.” And they would have looked at you, quite at a loss. “Why, I am Oscar Wilde,” you would have uttered in simple explanation, “come to see my play. Didn’t you know?”
You must think them foolish, these letters of mine. I do not blame you for not answering them. I imagine that either you cannot respond, or simply that you choose not to. Who am I to you, after all? Just another critic, and one you’ve never met at that, and you were abused by enough of those in your life time. But in case that phantom form I spied was not you at all but, more likely, a conjuring of my diseased imagination, let me describe what was offered in your name.
An ambiguous, industrial setting – bleak grey, apocalyptic almost. And in this god-forsaken space four twisted rigs rise up, a gibbous silvery moon suspended behind, and in their shadows the revelry of the damned. Who are these people, these stupid and superstitious people? From what swamp and century, garbed as they are in fancy-dress from across the ages, have they been drained?
Iokanaan – ah now, there is a man! Such contours, such finely chiselled masculinity! Quite topless, yes, and smeared in the animal filth of captivity, dropped into the depths of some stinking cistern so that his prophesies, so much like the rantings of a madman, and yet so like the divinations of a wise one, may go unheard by those who fear them.
And Salomé – oh Oscar! You will not have seen such a Salomé – more like a boy! So much like a boy – frail, but fiery, and frisky and fleet of foot. I would say like Peter Pan, in fact, but I cannot know for sure you will know who this is? And of course he goes after Iokanaan with such savage desire – and oh, how Iokanaan, with such purity of preachment, damning her incestuous provenance, repudiates Salomé’s professions of lust.
And of her parents? Well now. Her father, Tetrarch, is a lascivious lush, a Kingly buffoon with a posse of gibbering goons, wrecked on grape, forever in tow. And the wife he plundered from his brother? A matronly, sour-faced madam – a darker, deathlier version of Lady Bracknell. A comic pair they make: when she isn’t plucking at the grapes she is picking at her husband, and no wonder too, for his eyes are forever on Salomé. Oh yes, Salomé. Oh, how we are all entranced by Salomé.
Tetrarch, titillated by his teenage niece, with promise of treats, entices Salomé to dance for him. And of course, after much entreaty, she does. But Oscar – how can I prepare you? If nudity on the Lord Chamberlain’s stage was a thing unheard of in your day, imagine how much more astounded you will be to hear that, when finally Salomé unveils herself utterly before us, we find that she is no Princess at all, but a Prince!
Oh Oscar, imagine how in one instant the meaning of the play is transformed! And how much closer to the plays cloaked desire? Had I read the programme notes beforehand I may have been prepared, but this?
And how much more savage it is, therefore, when this sensuous and sinuous youth demands the butchery of the prophet who spurned him. And would it further please you to learn, Oscar, that the actor playing Salomé, his body a poem of perfection, is a descendant of Lord Alfred Tennyson!
Oscar dear, if I may use such a familiar appellation, how I wish you’d been there. It has been fifty years now – fifty years, Oscar, since the law renounced its cruel proscription on one man’s desire for another. Yes, where once it was the love that dared not speak its name, now it is a love that may be sung across the land.
If you had been there tonight we might have celebrated. We might have walked out onto Shakespeare’s streets with the cast, and the musicians, and revelled under the stars. We might have sat and talked to those who live and love where you were pilloried and persecuted.
And if you had been…well now, stop! Enough of this – I ask for too much! Why demand your presence when your spirit dwells among us, when we live in a world already wrought, in so may wonderful ways, by your compassion, your vision, your wit.
But I’ve said enough. I witter. I am a fool.
You cannot know what it’s like to howl adoringly into the wilderness like this. Unless I hear from you, I can only assume you do not read what I write, or that you do not care to read more than I have written.
As such this letter must be my last. And since I have idled precious hours writing this and not my overdue review, I might well place this on my editor’s desk, instead. And if, perchance, she does not think me a mad man, or thinks me a mad man and publishes it anyway, perhaps my letter will have served some purpose after all.
Salomé is on at the Swan Theatre until 6th September, 2017. Book tickets here.