Long Story Short

The princess of ancient Judea dances for her stepfather Herod, and in return asks that he give her John the Baptist's head on a silver platter. Disgusted by the way she makes love to the severed head, Herod has Salome put to death.

Who's Who?

Salome is a beautiful, spoiled teenage princess, intrigued by men's bodies but even more fascinated by the power she wields over them.

John the Baptist, known in German as "Jokanaan," is a well-known prophet.

Herod Antipas is Tetrarch of Judea under Ceasar Augustus. He lusts after Salome.

Herodias is Salome's mother and Herod's wife (previously married to Herod's half-brother). She is jealous of Herod's interest in Salome.

Narraboth, captain of the guard in Herod's palace, is obsessed with Salome.

Herodias's Page, a young man whose voice has not yet broken, is played by a woman. He adores Narraboth.

Two Soldiers keep watch near the dungeon where John is being held.

Two Nazarenes have news of an exciting new prophet from their hometown.

Five Jews love to wrangle as they interpret the Scriptures.

Where and When?

Herod's palace in Judea, around 30 A.D.

What's Going On?

Herod Antipas, the Tetrach of Judea, was the son of Herod the Great (the one who ordered the massacre of the innocents when Jesus was born). Antipas took as his second wife Herodias, once she'd divorced his half-brother. By Jewish law, such a marriage counts as incest, and John the Baptist took to denouncing Herodias. Herodias had John thrown in the dungeon and encouraged her husband to have him killed. But Herod, afraid to harm a man potentially favored by God, lets John least until the night the opera takes place.

When the curtain rises, we're in a courtyard of Herod's palace, on a night of debauchery that is astonishing even by twenty-first century standards. Salome, made uncomfortable by her half-uncle/stepfather's palpable lust for her, steps out from the party raging inside his palace for a breath of fresh air. Intrigued by the voice of John the Baptist, who is howling down curses on the head of her mother, Salome asks the guards to bring John before her. But Herod has commanded that no one is to see the prophet. When they refuse, Salome takes the matter to their captain, Narraboth, who is also in love with her. She tells Narraboth that if he lets her speak to John, she may smile at him the next day. Narraboth gives in.

They bring in John. At first he ignores Salome, but this grows difficult, as she is fascinated by him. She inspects him thoroughly, praising the whiteness of his body, the blackness of his hair, and the redness of his lips. She implores him to let her kiss his lips, insisting even after he rejects her. Narraboth, watching them in anguish, kills himself. Salome doesn't even notice. "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, John, suffer me to kiss thy mouth," she says again and again. John urges her to seek forgiveness, to find Jesus, preaching at the sea of Galilee, and to kneel down before Him and repent. "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth," is all she can say. John curses her and returns to his dungeon.

Herod steps forth from the palace, looking for Salome, whom he finds unresponsive. The Tetrach slips in a puddle of Narraboth's blood and takes it as an evil omen. When he hears the beating of great wings and feels a cold wind blowing, Herodias mocks him and tells him he is going mad. She continues to pick at him as he implores Salome to sit with him, and share wine and fruit. (Salome is uninterested.) He begs Salome to dance for him, and at first she declines, which pleases her mother. But when Herod offers to give her in exchange anything she likes, up to half of his kingdom, she defies Herodias' command and performs the famous Dance of the Seven Veils.

At its wild climax she tells Herod he must have them bring her, on a silver platter, the head of John the Baptist. Herod is horrified, Herodias delighted. Herod tries to talk Salome into accepting some other reward: beautiful peacocks, precious jewels, the mantle of the high priest, the veil of the Holy of Holies. But she persists, and eventually he has his guards bring her what she desires. She sings a crazed monologue of love, desire, and death to the severed head before kissing it. She exults, "I have kissed thy mouth," and Herod orders his guards to kill her as the curtain falls.

The Story's Origin

The Gospel according to Matthew tells the story of the death of John the Baptist:

"For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. / For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. / And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. / But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. / Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. / And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. / And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. / And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. / And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. (Matthew 14:3-11)

The Gospel according to Mark tells the same story (6:17-29). Josephus, the early Jewish historian, provides us with a broader historical picture: Herod the Great, who had ten or so children, divided his kingdom among three of his sons. Archelaus was unpopular with the Jews and banished by Caesar Augustus. Philip, whose territory was not Jewish, is chiefly remembered for his unfortunate first marriage to Herodias. Philip's half-brother Antipas, the Herod of the opera, divorced his own wife and seduced Herodias, who divorced Philip in order to marry Antipas. John the Baptist therefore (correctly, according to the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus), finds Antipas' union with Herodias incestuous. After the death of Jesus, Herod Antipas also fell from favor with the Jews and with the Emperor Caligula, who eventually banished him to Spain. As for Salome, although the character appears in the Bible, Josephus was the first to name her. In the late nineteenth century she inspired a number of artists, including the French painter Gustave Moreau, the opera composer Jules Massenet, and the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Wilde was the first to make Salome a necrophiliac nymphomaniac.

The Contributions of Oscar Wilde

The opera Salome takes a few lines from the Bible and explodes them into an unforgettable hour and a half of musical drama. The link between opera and Bible story is Oscar Wilde's unsettling French play Salomé, which (translated into German) became the opera's libretto. Rarely have words inspired music with such vivid, teeming sensuality. In fact, today the opera is more widely known and admired than the play, which has indeed a checkered history.

The history of the play starts with its author. The great Irish writer Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde lived a life almost as preposterous and over the top as his name. Married to Constance Lloyd in 1884, Wilde's literary genius began blooming a year or two laterĂ‘as he began to acknowledge his homosexuality. His works include many fairy-tales, plays, poems, and a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was attacked by the press for its perceived immorality. In fact, the issues of Dorian Gray—the illusory nature of innocence and the evil inherent in every human being—are issues in all of Wilde's work, only sometimes they lie farther from the surface. In plays such as Lady Windermere's Fan, An Ideal Husband, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest he treats the same issues with such astonishing wit and brilliant stagecraft these plays have always been favorites with the public.

Wilde wrote Salomé in 1892, in French, since he knew the British public would not accept its celebration of sin and depravity. When translated into English by Wilde's lover Alfred Douglas, the play was in fact banned from the English stage. In Europe, however, it was a great success, especially when championed by the incomparable actress Sarah Bernhardt. The play inspired both Strauss's opera and a memorable series of drawings by the art nouveau master, Aubrey Beardsley.

Oscar Wilde has left his fingerprints all over the play and the opera. Most obvious is the veneer of innocence masking hideous evil which Wilde's Salome shares with his Dorian Gray. But look closer: Wilde is best known today as an aesthete, a decadent, and a homosexual martyr. His aesthetic sensibility shines from the very language of his play, which apes a Biblical idiom and in particular the luscious sensuality of the Song of Songs. (Lord Douglas cast his well-known English version in the cadence of the King James Bible.) The play's world reeks with decadence: the very characters who should be the strongest, Captain of the Guard Narraboth and Tetrach of Judea Herod, whine, cajole, and languish. They are alternatively delirious, hysterical, terrified, and suicidal, emasculated by their desire for Princess Salome. The sexual conduct of practically every character in the show cannot fail to remind the audience of Wilde's own trial for "sexual misconduct." In Wilde's England, homosexuality was against the law. Wilde and Douglas became enmeshed in an horrific scandal in 1895, and the author was thrown in prison with hard labor for two years. He was bankrupt upon his release and died shortly thereafter, abandoned by Douglas.

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