THE OSCHOLARS LIBRARY
La Sainte Courtisane by Oscar Wilde. Dramatic Oxymoron and Saintly Pursuits
This article was first published in The Journal of Drama Studies January 2007, pp.57-71, and is republished here by kind permission.
prison on 9 April 1895 Oscar Wilde was particularly concerned about the lack of
books, nothing to smoke, the difficulty of getting some sleep and the safety of
‘a type-written manuscript, part of my blank-verse tragedy, also a black book
La Sainte Courtisane tells the story of a prostitute of unparalleled beauty, covered with jewels, who makes a pilgrimage to the desert to seek out a handsome young hermit, a very holy man, who lives a life of prayer and never looks women in the face. The prostitute Myrrhina appears to Honorius in all her glory and, while he tries to convince her to mend her ways and to follow the path of holiness, he makes the mistake of raising up his eyes to look into her lovely face. At that point the hermit decides to leave his lonely cavern and go to Alexandria, the city of pleasure where Myrrhina had lived and where he can ‘taste of the seven sins’. Myrrhina, after listening to the holy man, decides, instead, to stay in the desert and live the life of the hermit. At the end, the two characters realize that one has come to replace the other, according to some kind of divine plan:
Honorius: You talk as a child, Myrrhina, and without knowledge. Loosen your hands. Why didst thou come to this valley in thy beauty?
Myrrhina: The God whom thou worshipped led me here that I might repent of my iniquities and know Him as the Lord.
Honorius: Why didst thou tempt me with words?
Myrrhina: That thou shouldst see Sin in its painted mask and look on Death in its robe of Shame.
Wilde in this brief Symbolist moralité (in the sense attributed to this sub-genre by Jules Laforgue) shows how the hermit who converts the prostitute looses his faith. The art of persuasion, which Honorius exercises successfully, draws his attention on his old beliefs while, at the same time, it forces him to see the hidden face of reality represented by Myrrhina’s stunning beauty. What he had avoided to know, now faces him, and is so tempting that he cannot resist it. In three simple tableaux-- Myrrhina and the two men on stage that describe her appearance and make conjectures about her identity; Myrrhina questioning the first man about the life of the hermit; Myrrhina and Honorius exchanging views and practically converting each other to the life they despised before -- Wilde exemplifies the truth of the body searching for its soul and likewise the soul going forth to look for its body.
Honorius, who has limited himself to experiencing only the spiritual side of life, the life of the soul, craves, at the end of the scenario, for a life of the senses, whereas Myrrhina, who has ‘been courting new impressions’ and all the material pleasures of life, the life of the body, feels the need to nourish her soul, obtain forgiveness for the sins of her dissolute ways and live the plain life of the person who shuns all worldly enticements. In this way both Honorius and Myrrhina will live a whole life, complete of spiritual and bodily needs.
With the oxymoron of ‘the holy harlot’ Wilde dramatizes once again the body-soul dichotomy which had deeply engaged his imagination in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). In the second chapter of the novel, while Dorian is modelling for his almost completed portrait, he is warned by the painter Basil of the bad influence that Lord Henry Wotton has over all his friends. Dorian asks Lord Wotton, a dandy in speech and manners, if his influence is really so bad. Wotton replies: ‘There is no such thing as a good influence (…) All influence is immoral (…) Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul’. Wotton then reveals his thoughts about what he calls the ‘Hellenic ideal (…), to live out (…) life fully and completely’, never to suppress any impulse because ‘that which we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons it’ (p. 29). Therefore ‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul’ (p. 31) for Lord Henry Wotton is the secret of living a life of fulfilment, and he paradoxically adds: ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’ (p.32). Dorian then sees his portrait. ‘The sense of his own beauty came as a revelation’ and he realizes that ‘the life that was to make his soul would mar his body’. The very idea drives him to express the wish to be always young and to let the portrait age. In order to achieve his aim he’s prepared to give up everything else, even to ‘give his soul’ (p.34). For the wish to come true, he will lose his soul.
In chapter four Lord Henry Wotton, who is accompanying Dorian to see Sybil Vane perform, is again musing on ‘soul and body, body and soul—how mysterious they were! (…) Was the soul a shadow seated in the house of sin? Or was the body really in the soul, as Giordano Bruno thought?’(p.56) . At the end of chapter eight it is Dorian who, like Narcissus, looks on the portrait as ‘the most magical of mirrors’ that observes: ‘as it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul’ (p.88). Also, in the fatal book that Lord Henry Wotton had lent him, the work of some sophisticated representative ‘of the French school of the Symbolistes’, he notices that ‘the life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy’. Furthermore, as his rakish life progresses from one hedonistic experience to the next, ‘he grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his soul’ which ‘he would examine with minute care’ (p.103). Until, at the end, when Dorian perceives that ‘his soul was sick to death’ (p.141) and that there is nothing that will atone for what he has done, he is surprisingly questioned by Lord Henry Wotton who quotes the Gospel to him ‘what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose(…) his own soul?’ (p.161).
composed the draft of
In his first French Symbolist play, Salomé, which Wilde had started composing in Paris in 1891, he allegorized the struggle of the body and the soul by making Salome a solipsistic, totally profane, sexually-driven princess who desires the sacred body of Iokanaan. In Salomé the nymphet is indeed profaning the body of the saint, Iokanaan, by praising his captivating beauty, his hair, his white skin, his mouth, that she wants to kiss and will kiss on his truncated head, before being crushed by the shields of Herod’s soldiers. The beautiful body, in Salomé, the male body, and, in particular, the sainted body of Iokanaan, becomes an instrument of pleasure in the eyes of a young woman. Iokanaan is recast as a pagan, Hellenic ideal of the beautiful male body, re-contextualized as the mythical sacrificial body. Iokanaan’s body becomes the possession of the woman who wants it dismembered. In the play, Iokanaan is invested with the same drama (action) that is ritualized in the myth of Dionysus. Just as the frenzied Bacchantes tear to pieces the body of the Greek god (sparagmos), so Salome with her dance of the seven veils, prepares herself to partake of the carnal communion. The body of Iokanaan, just like the body of Dionysus, is to be sacrificed. Iokanaan is also like the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden which produces the fall, the ultimate tragedy. Iokanaan as all tragic heroes paradoxically is a scapegoat and his body represents an oxymoron: ‘spiritualized’ flesh, untouchable. But, in Salomé, the will of the body is absolute, until it is crushed at the end.
seems probable that from 1891 onwards Wilde conceived the idea of
Another production, during the same year, was Théodat by Rémy de Gourmont where the protagonist is a bishop who has left his beautiful young bride in order to pursue an ecclesiastical career. Théodat, to maintain his bishopric, must take a vow of chastity, a virtue that he recommends also to his priests, to whom he says: ‘Craignez la femme’. An old woman suddenly knocks at his door asking to see the bishop. When he appears, she takes off her mantle and he recognizes his lovely wife who starts to beguile him with her charms. He resists for a while but then he beckons her to come close to him and undresses her and wraps her naked body in his bishop’s robe.
1893 Hroswitha’s play Paphnutius was staged with Ranson’s marionettes
at the house of Ferdinand Hérold, one of Wilde’s Parisian friends. Hroswitha
was a Benedictine nun who lived in the tenth century and wrote tragedies in
Latin, influenced by the dramas of Terence. Paphnutius dramatizes the story of
saint Thais, the holy harlot who is
converted to Christianity by the hermit Paphnutius. The tale of saint Thais is
closely related to the story of another holy harlot, saint Pelagia. Pelagia was
a stunning beauty, an actress and dancer who was converted to Christianity by
Nonnus and thereafter led a life of piety disguised as a man with the name of
meeting Pelagia, Nonnus is sexually aroused, but he promptly controls himself.
In these stories the Roman ‘courtesan with a golden heart’ makes a new debut as
the holy harlot. The lives of saint Thais
and saint Pelagia, of saint Mary the Egyptian
and of saint Mary Magdalen, all holy
prostitutes, are the sources of Wilde’s
But, perhaps, this is going too far. Undoubtedly, Oscar Wilde, with his light touch and sprezzatura was more interested in staging the oxymoron- body/soul, courtisane/sainte- and lending a new twist to some old stories.
in his Preface to
‘Honorius the hermit, so far as I recollect the story, falls in love with the courtesan who has come to tempt him and he reveals to her the secret of the love of God. She immediately becomes a Christian, and is murdered by robbers. Honorius the hermit goes back to Alexandria to pursue a life of pleasure.’
Guillot De Saix, Le Chant du Cygne. Conte parlé d’Oscar Wilde, Paris, Mercure de France, 1942, pp. 154-55, reported the following version:
La Femme Habillée de Joyaux
En ce temps-là, vivait dans le désert, tout près d’Alexandrie, un jeune et bel ascète qui n’avait jamais volou voir un visage de femme. Les nomades qui passaient près de la caverne où il demeurait le prenaient pour un fou et le respectaient à cause de sa folie même.
Un jour, la plus belle et la plus riche courtisane d’Alexandrie entendit parler du jeune et bel ascète qui n’avait jamais voulu voir un visage de femme, et comme elle était sûre du pouvoir du sein, elle résolut de le tenter.
Myrrhina—elle s’appelait Myrrhina—se fit donc porter en litière et parée de tous ses joyaux jusqu’à la caverne du solitaire. Et les nomades, en la voyant passer, la prenaient pour une déesse, ou pour la fille de l’Empereur.
La femme couverte de joyaux appela l’homme qui était en prière et lui parla. Elle lui dit quels étaient ses plaisirs, ses richesses, ses charmes, mais en vain. Le jeune et bel ascète, gardant les yeux baissés, lui révéla le secret de l’amour de Dieu. Il l’entretint longuement de celui-là qui a dit : ’ Donne tous tes biens aux pauvres, et suis-moi ’, puis il se retira pour prier. Mais, en se retirant, il regarda imprudemment le visage de Myrrhina.
Et tandis que celle-ci ne songeait plus déjà qu’à l’amour de Dieu, il ne songeait plus, lui, dans l’ombre de sa caverne, qu’à l’amour de cette femme tombée à genoux et priant.
Poussé par le désir, il revint auprès d’elle et voulut la posséder, mais elle se refusa, car elle était devenue chrétienne de cœur et d’esprit. Alors, désespéré, le jeune et bel ascète courut vers Alexandrie pour goûter aux joies que Myrrhina lui avait fait entrevoir.
Et la femme couverte de joyaux s’en dépouilla, puis ayant distribué tous ses bijoux aux pauvres nomades, demeura dans la caverne à prier pour celui qui lui avait révélé le secret de l’Amour de Dieu.
v Rita Severi teaches English Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Verona, Italy. She has published ‘La Biblioteca di Oscar Wilde’, Palermo, Novecento, 2005 and is currently preparing a bi-lingual edition of Maurice Hewlett's novella, ‘Madonna of the Peach Tree’ (out in 2007). Dr Severi is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.
 The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by M. Holland and R. Hart-Davis, New York 2000, p. 642
 The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., pp. 687 and 759.
Ibidem, p. 759. The three Symbolist plays, Salomé, A Florentine Tragedy and
 Ibid., p. 797.
 W. Pater, Conclusion (1868) to The Renaissance, Introduction by A. Symons, New York, 1919, p. 197.
 O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray in The Works of Oscar Wilde with an Introduction by V. Holland, London and Glasgow,1969, p. 28. All quotations are from this edition, unless when specified otherwise.
 Wilde had just read Pater’s Giordano Bruno published in “The Fortnightly Review” in August 1889, cf. O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by I. Murray, Oxford, 1998, p. 188, note 48.
 See the chapter on the “poisonous book” in my reconstruction of Oscar Wilde’s library, La biblioteca di Oscar Wilde, Palermo 2004, pp. 67-86.
 It seems that Wilde was particularly obsessed by the idea of living without a soul, as he narrated in the Histoire de l’homme qui vendit son ame, as an apologue which was reported by Laurence Housman, cf. Le Chant du Cygne. Conte parlés d’Oscar Wilde, recueillis et rédigés par Guillot De Saix, Paris 1942, pp. 162-165.
 The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde with an Introduction by V. Holland, cit., p. 251.
 A name with very significant connotations, cf. R. E. Scrogham, The Echo of the Name “Iaokanann” in Flaubert’s Hérodias, in “The French Review”, vol. 71, no. 5, April 1998, pp.775-784.
 Perhaps D.H. Lawrence had in mind Salome’s lustful glance when he described Lady Chatterley who, unseen, watches Mellors strip and wash himself at the fountain.
 Cf. I. Kott, Mangiare Dio (original title: The Eating of Gods), Milano 1990, pp. 193-236.
 Cf. R. Severi, Oscar Wilde &Company. Sinestesie fin de siècle, Bologna 2001, pp.13-54.
 H. Bauër, Pour Oscar Wilde, in Pour Oscar Wilde. Des écrivains français au secours du condamné, Rouen 1994, p. 74.
Salomé was staged on February 11 1896
at the Comédie Parisienne. The cast was made up of the following actors: Salomé
- L. Munte; Hérodias - Mme Barbieri; Le page – S. Auclair; Une esclave – H.
Moore; Iokanaan – M. Barbier; Hérode – Lugné- Poe; Le jeune Syrien – Desfontaines; Un Juif
The influence of Maeterlinck’s early plays,
 He was an anarchist poet who belonged to the entourage of Stéphane Mallarmé and was also a friend of the American-French writer Stuart Merrill, cf. P. Aubery, The Anarchism of the Literati of the Symbolist Period, in “The French Review”, vol. 42, no. 1, Oct. 1968, pp. 39-47 and M. Henry Ilsley, Stuart Merrill, Boyhood Reminiscences, in “The French Review”, vol. 5, no. 6, May 1932, pp. 473-478.
 O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by I. Murray, cit, p. 111 and note, p. 192.
C. S. Nassaar, Wilde’s
 Cf. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., p. 507. Wilde, in a letter dated December 1891 invites his friends Pierre Louys and Paul Fort to dinner chez Mignon in Paris.
 Staged on March 19 and 20 1891 at the Théâtre Moderne.
Veselovskij-Sade, La fanciulla
perseguitata, a cura di d’Arco Silvio Avalle, Milano
 Represented on December 11 1891, at the Théâtre Moderne.
 Cf. M. Maeterlinck, Menus propos: le théâtre (Un théâtre d’Androïdes), in M. Maeterlinck, Introduction à une psychologie des songes et autres écrits 1886-1896, textes réunis et commentés par S. Gross, Bruxelles 1985, pp. 83-87. Maeterlinck discussed the possibility of avoiding accidental and human elements on the stage by employing actors-androids that would not interfere with the key role of the representation of the symbol. Henry Signoret devised a puppet theatre, cf. G. Marie, Le Théâtre Symboliste, Paris, 1973, pp. 157-160.
Cf. the Complete Letters of Oscar
Wilde, cit., p. 1157 and p. 1159n. In a letter dated around July 3 1899
Wilde tells Robert Ross that he has dined with Stuart Merrill and seen Ferdinand
Hérold who gave him his book,
 M. Minghelli, Santa Marina la travestita, Palermo 1997.
 Wilde had certainly read Anatole France’s novel, Thaïs (1890), cf. the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., p. 792.
 Cf. R. Cazelles, Modele ou mirage : Marie l’Egyptienne, in ‘ The French Review ’, vol. 53, no. 1, Oct. 1979, pp. 13-22.
Cf. Marie-Madeleine figure mythique dans
la literature et les arts, edited by M. Geoffroy and A. Montandon,
 Cf. F. A. Pennacchietti, Legends of the Queen of Sheba, in Queen of Sheba. Treasures from Ancient Yemen, edited by St John Simpson, London, British Museum, 2002, pp.31-38 and F. A. Pennacchietti, La reine de Saba, le pave de cristal et le tronc flottant, in “Arabica”, tome XLIX, 1, 2002, pp. 1-26.
 Cf. P. Major, Jumping Josaphat, in “TLS”, July 28 2006, p.15.