A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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Salome/Elektra, Ethics/Aesthetics: Current Work on Oscar Wilde’s and Richard Strauss’s Salomé and Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard’s Strauss’s Elektra.
by Helena Gurfinkel

As the twentieth century still officially continues to turn, the well-worn predictions of the end of the world and the decline of the West find their way not only into pop-cultural superstitions, political prognostication, and cinema (think Lars von Trier’s friendly planet Melancholy), but also, into literary and cultural studies. 2011 saw the publication of Michael Y. Bennett’s edited collection Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi Press), a researched opera guide Salome/Elektra in the English National Opera guide series edited by Nicholas John (London: Overture Publishing), and Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s monograph Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press).

While these volumes do not relish visions of a catastrophe, they center on two self-destructive princesses who, close to a hundred years ago, served as the symbols, among other things, of female sexual, emotional, and political hunger and discontent, decadence, nervous illnesses, the growing influence of psychoanalysis, the intense magnetism of the “perversions,” and the dawning of modernist aesthetics. Even now, these characters, or, at least, scholars’ return to them, symbolize the sort of fascination with destruction that our ostensibly optimistic and future-oriented culture evinces, possibly despite itself.  Smart, knowledgeable, solidly researched, and imaginatively put together, the texts accord the two perverse princesses the cultural and intellectual significance and relevance they deserve.

 The content of Bennett’s edited collection makes up for the somewhat hackneyed choice of its cover: the omnipresent image of the Hungarian soprano Alice Guszalewicz as Salomé, which, in between the first (1987) and the second (1992) editions of Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde, was taken for a photograph of Wilde “in drag.” Much to its credit, the collection includes research that surpasses the all too familiar biographical readings invited by the hoax. The collected essays give a comprehensive view of the play and its adaptations. They both competently restate essential interpretations and travel in exciting new directions. The combination of work by emerging and established scholars (the trademark of the Rodopi “Dialogue” series) is an added strength. Though the volume is not divided into sections formally, thematically, it can be separated into approximately four categories: Salomé and the matters of identity; Salomé as a play that looks back to Romanticism and forward to Modernism and Post-Modernism; comparisons between Salomé and other literary and dramatic texts; and the aesthetics and politics of the play’s adaptations.

In the first group, for example, Helen Davies enters into a dialogue with Elaine Showalter and Marjorie Garber and produces a “Butlerian reading” that “allows space for the subversion and reiteration of gendered norms to exist simultaneously” (57). And while gender and sexuality have been foremost on the minds of the scholars of Salomé for some time now, Ian Andrew MacDonald’s essay breaks new ground by addressing Wilde’s relationship with the French language. Elizabeth Richmond Garza discusses Salome in relation to Wilde’s Irish identity, simultaneously concealed and revealed by the play. Margaux Poueymirou’s article crosses the (imaginary) adaptation/identity thematic boundary in an innovative way and puts the play in the context of the Harlem Renaissance.

Michael Y. Bennett’s own contribution to the volume, true to the spirit of the playwright, manages to locate itself in two categories simultaneously: the comparative one and the identity one. Bennett applies Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” to both The Importance of Being Earnest and Salomé and reflects on the inability of the characters to inhabit either a constructed or a “true” self. Continuing to find connections between Salomé and its contemporary literary texts, Tom Ue explores similarities in the tragic structures of Wilde’s play and Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native.

By putting Wilde’s tragedy in the artistic and intellectual contexts of its time, or by showing the ways in which it further vitiates already unstable chronologies, several essays form a group that provides extensive background information. This section of the volume is particularly valuable to the first-time readers and students of the play. Joan Navarre’s essay focuses on the symbolism of the Moon, while Tony W. Garland provides a meticulous examination of its historical and cultural contexts, as well as an insightful meta-theatrical interpretation of the relationship between the audience and the protagonist. Kirby Farrell and Robert Combs find inventive ways of connecting Salomé to Romanticism, while Kees de Vries’s article tells us “How Oscar Wilde Became Post-Modernist.”

The notions of post-modernism and post-modernity lead to the discussion of the simultaneous importance of the play’s adaptation across historical periods and genres. Richard Allen Cave informatively compares the dramatic and operatic staging of the “dance of the seven veils” in Wilde’s play and in Strauss’s eponymous 1904 operatic adaptation. Peter Raby assesses thoroughly and generously (perhaps too generously, given the actual quality of the production and acting) the 2010 Headlong Theatre’s production of Salomé in London. Steven Price closes the volume with an intriguing reflection on Salomé’s Hollywood connection, particularly in relation to one of most famous performers of the role, the enigmatic and decadent Alla Nazimova.

All in all, much as this statement contradicts Wilde’s philosophy, the collection manages to overcome its lack of visual glamour and style (one wishes, for example, for more illustrations in a book dedicated to a play so reliant on the visual) with substantive research. One approach that this volume mostly eschews, perhaps intentionally, is psychoanalytic. While Bennett’s collection could have benefitted from a psychoanalytic reading reaching beyond the Herod-Salomé psychosexual dynamic, the opera guide Salomé/Elektra is productively reliant on psychoanalysis.

Unfortunately, if Refiguring Salomé merely defaults to the Guszalewicz picture for its cover, Salomé/Elektra actually perpetuates the misunderstanding that it is “an astonishing photograph of Wilde dressed as Salomé” (10). Equally easily rectified by fact-checking is the calling of “The Decay of Lying” “The Decay of Living” on page 13, though Freud, by whom the volume is rightly haunted, would no doubt have interpreted this typo as symptomatic, given the focus on decadence.

Nonetheless, this is an impressive publication. The volume combines literary and musical criticism and brings together two Richard Strauss’s operas Salome (1904), based on Wilde’s play, and Elektra, created in collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1903, first performed in 1910). This slim but well-illustrated guide (the photographs have been taken on operatic stages across continents and decades) includes the scholarly discussion of each opera from literary and musical points of view, the English text of each play, and the bilingual English/German libretto of each opera. This combination fully prepares the opera-lover, both beginner and advanced, for the artistic and intellectual experience that is in store.

The very Salome/Elektra combination is smart and powerful. Meant to shock and seduce, the two perverse princesses, Salomé, as Wilde and Strauss’s evocation of a Biblical figment, and Elektra, von Hofmannsthal’s capricious revision of the Greek tragedy, pivot on the fear of the feminine, the royal decadence, and the precarious nervous condition brought about by repressed or violated sexuality. Salome’s desire culminates, or climaxes, to steal a pun from Aubrey Beardsley, in the non-procreative, non-genital act of kissing a severed head, while von Hofmannsthal’s equally stubborn princess Elektra, bent on killing her mother and avenging the death of her father, Agamemnon, is, like Freud and Breuer’s hysteric, a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Both heroines are dead at the end of the play/opera, psychically or physically demolished by a present, or absent (and thus, according to Freud, all the more powerful), father figure. Wilde, von Hofmannsthal, and Strauss both launch and predict the fascination of their age, rife with scientia sexualis and new psychoanalytic research, with neurosis and sexuality. Each theatrical and musical experience is a case history, depicting a self simultaneously summoned into being and erased by unleashed memory and desire. Accordingly, the scholarly essays included in the volume analyze both the formal and psychological impact of each text and its adaptation.

In “Richard Strauss and the unveiling of ‘Salome,’” Paul Banks stresses not only the thematic complexity of the play, but also Strauss’s ability to live up to it with his music. In a section entitled “Strauss’s Orchestra in ‘Salome’ and “Elektra,’” Jonathan Burton also provides a detailed discussion of the ways in which orchestration is as daring and distinctly modern as each play’s ideas.

While Banks and Burton focus on the composer’s musical innovations, Christopher Wintle’s “Elektra and the ‘Elektra Complex” establishes a compelling link between Jung, Freud, and von Hofmannsthal. Wintle, who, in the course of the preparation of this essay had consulted the staff of the Psychiatric Department of St. George’s Hospital of the University of London, engages in a productive close reading of the libretto and the score using the Jungian idea of the “Elektra Complex,” a father-daughter alternative to the Freudian Oedipal mother-son attachment. Wintle insightfully contends that

[u]nlike the Greeks, Hofmannsthal was not concerned with to assess the moral worth of his character’s actions, to discriminate between the good and the bad, or the right and the wrong in each instance. He was more concerned to explore and develop the tensions within a relatively closed family circle, in which the hysteria of one member, Elektra, holds all the others to ransom. (63-4)

Wintle’s insight, illustrated in the article’s several sections, each of which focuses on the relationship between Elektra and another character, is worth noting. He rightly places his emphasis not on the Greek ethics but on the fin-de-siècle aesthetics of hysteria. The dead end of Elektra’s wrath and her will to destruction produce an anti-ethical turn, or, more precisely, perhaps, a different kind of destructive ethics. Both Salome and Elektra focus, in their stubbornly destructive way, on carrying out justice. One wishes, then, that the volume had included a comparable psychoanalytic interpretation of Salome, her conflict with the parental figures, both patriarchal and matriarchal, and her blind and seemingly perverse ethics of desire and death.

Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic of Transgression dedicates an entire chapter to Richard Strauss’s opera and its creative interaction with Wilde’s original. The monograph as a whole is a productively sustained investigation of the cultural, literary, and political legacy of the play, as well as of Wilde himself as an artistic and social phenomenon. While most critics explore Wilde’s tragedy solely in the context of turn-of-the-century decadence and symbolism, Dierkes-Thrun proposes to see it also as a modernist, secular text, which, in its artistic and intellectual innovation, confronts the representational and epistemological problems facing the world at the dawn of the twentieth century, from the abandonment of the realist tradition by avant-garde theatre directors, such as Max Reinhardt, to the decimation of the pieties of truth and faith by Nietzsche. As Dierkes-Thrun puts it, the distinguishing characteristics of Salomé include “[t]he secular anthropocentric, even blasphemous individualism and fragmentation of final ‘meaning’…” (82).

The author notes, however, that, according to Foucault, transgression does not exist apart from the very mechanisms of power it seeks to subvert. Therefore, it is also useful to see Wilde’s play as a continuation and amplification of literary traditions. Salomé, she argues, is “a modernist text that built on thematic elements in nineteenth-century predecessor texts, while promoting a genuinely modernist aesthetics of transgressive erotic and aesthetic agency “(11). Dierkes-Thrun contends, finally, that, in the opera Salome, the two modernist innovators, Wilde and Strauss, exemplify not only a break with realism and the innovative urge to engulf and overwhelm the viewer by engaging all the senses on the stage, but a tradition of popular entertainment, seeking to attract and amuse, rather than alienate, audiences.

Besides elucidating the Strauss-Wilde link and looking at the history of the opera in the second chapter, Dierkes-Thrun discusses, in similarly impressive detail, the play’s place among its Continental European literary predecessors and heirs, such as Mallarme’s “Hérodiade,” Huysmans’s A rebours, Flaubert’s Salammbô, and Bataille’s Madame Edwarda. Rigorous and imaginative readings of these works alongside Salome (particularly memorable is the analysis of Mallarme’s hymen and Wilde’s moon located on the threshold of sexual subversion and knowledge) point to the transition Wilde’s one-act tragedy effects from symbolism and decadence to modernism and modernity.

Female sexuality, so central to all these texts, brings out the play’s subversive feminist potential. Accordingly, the third and fourth chapters link Salome to two early-twentieth-century proto-feminist cultural icons, the Canadian-born dancer and actor Maud Allan and the Hollywood star and producer of Russian-Jewish descent, Alla Nasimova. The Maud Allan chapter draws an insightful parallel between Wilde’s gross indecency trials of 1895 and Allen’s tragic, career-ending involvement in the Pemberton-Billing trial in 1918. Coming on the heels of the World War One nationalist revival, the trial accuses those involved in a London production of Salomé in a distinctly unpatriotic celebration of perversion. Like Wilde, the director sued for libel and lost. In court, Maud Allan, known for her defiance of sexual and social norm, de-emphasized the play’s sexuality and her own lack of involvement in women’s movement, as well as played up the play’s spiritual potential, but to no avail.

Alla Nasimova, a formidable force in the theatre world and in Hollywood, a bisexual “doyenne” of the closeted Hollywood (140), a superb performer of Ibsen plays, and one of the first Hollywood female producers, also takes up Salomé and pays a campy, aesthetically challenging cinematic homage to Wilde. Dierkes-Thrun claims that, whenever, in this generally faithful-to-the-source production, words were slightly rewritten, they had acquired empowering, feminist content. Like Allen’s, however, Nasimova’s career did not survive the artistic collision with Wilde’s celebration of female agency.

In the Maul Allan chapter, the author astutely notes that the tragedy of Maud Allen’s trial is also the tragedy of – and at the hands of - realism. A mimetic approach taken by the play’s detractors conflated Maud Allan with Salomé, just as we are still all too often tempted to conflate Wilde himself with his characters. This is a vibrant way of showing the play’s modernist potential and the downfall of realism as an ideology and style, but one wonders if the very connection the author makes between the fearless modernist female artists, such as Allan and Nasimova, and the unexpectedly independent Princess of Judea itself takes a mimetic approach, conflating, as it were, the dancer with the dance. In addition to evincing a consciousness of this possibility, I wish that the chapter on Nasimova had engaged more closely with the actor’s doubly “Eastern” origins and the possibilities of exploring the combined impact of her national/ethic otherness and anti-heteronormative stance. Such a combination (explored effectively in other chapters, in other contexts) seems especially pertinent to a potentially “Orientalist” text like Salomé.

The problem of mimesis re-emerges in Dierkes-Thrun’s concluding chapter, in which she explores the legacy of Wilde and his play on millennial theatre, music, film, and literature. The author takes a “polemical” (161) but necessary stance against the “homosexual humanism” and “regressive feminism” (161) of certain recent visual and dramatic texts that disregard the complexly anti-identitarian modernist aesthetics of the play and its author and pander to simplistic identity politics by portraying a coherent, palatable, pitiable “gay” Wilde and the equally pitiable Salomé, the victim of patriarchy. Among the culprits, Dierkes-Thrun convincingly names, for example, Ken Russell’s film Salome’s Last Dance (1982), the biopic Wilde (1997), the biographical bevy of millennial Broadway plays, from David Hare’s The Judas Kiss to Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency (1998), as well as Atom Egoyan’s operatic limning of Salomé as a passive victim of rape and incest. Conversely, Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine (1998) and the drawings of the San-Francisco-based artist Dorian Katz, whose lesbian Salomé is both unusual and, somehow, logical, are some of the texts that live up to the anti-mimetic, epistemologically challenging, and queer modernist potential of the play. 

All in all, this thorough, and thoroughly original, monograph is quite impressive. In Salomé, Wilde manages to enthrall the audience with a chant-like, seemingly repetitive dialogue. Accordingly, because she explores the play from so many diverse angles, Dierkes-Thrun makes a book dedicated to one play engrossing. The amount of research that has gone into the monograph is astonishing. The author should be credited not only with the knowledge of texts, contexts, and adaptations, but also with bringing to light – and, in some cases, translating from German – hitherto unknown literary works and extra-literary sources, such as opera reviews. Dierkes-Thrun shows a strong command of theory and philosophy but renders their presence organic, rather than oppressive. The writing style is clear and engaging. I am confident that the students and scholars of Wilde, Salomé, and modernism will often reference this volume in the future.

Salome’s Modernity concludes with a meditation on the ways in which studying Salome may help us think about what we mean and what it means to mean (202). The book also holds much potential for tackling the question of ethics, particularly in the context of Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis. Here, I would like to return to the references to psychoanalysis I have made throughout the essay and to sketch out theoretical possibilities for the analysis of Salomé and Elektra, as well as for similar fin-de-siècle literary and dramatic characters.

Both royal daughters demonstrate a preference of funeral to a wedding, of a platonic incestuous, and/or perverse attachment to normative exogamous reproductive sexuality, and of deadly justice to conciliation. In this, they are similar to Antigone, not Hegel’s, or even Sophocles’s, but Lacan’s, in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Antigone represents the Lacanian model of ethics, partly because she stands for absolute commitment to the signifier. According to Lacan’s reading of Sophocles, “Antigone appears…as a pure and simple relationship of her human being to that of which he miraculously happens to be the bearer, namely, the signifying cut that confers on him the indomitable power of being what he is in the face of everything that may oppose him” (282). Antigone’s laying her life on the line for her brother in defiance of Creon’s decree, then, is not a political, familial, or incestuous act. It is, instead, guided by the ethics of desire, the structure of which is produced and laid out by the signifying cut and the entry of the subject into the Symbolic. Her pursuit of justice, like Salomé’s and Elektra’s, has no ethical content in the conventional sense. The counter-intuitive acts of these teenage princesses are oriented towards the order of the signifier, unadulterated by imaginary “meaning,” whether sexual or social. The signifier, or form, located at the core of desire, and, hence, at the center of the subject’s experience, may provide an additional way of investigating these fin-de-siècle plays’ relationship to subjectivity and the (absence of) meaning, particularly given their self-conscious emphasis on representation, rather than on an uncontested, definitive “essence,” or “content.”

The obverse side of Antigone’s and, by extension, of the other two heroines’ desire for justice or revenge is the “ethics of psychoanalysis,” condensed in Lacan’s controversial statement that the ethics of psychoanalysis is the ethic of  “act[ing] in conformity with [one’s] desire” (311). As I have noted in relation to Antigone, the object of the three princesses’ desire is irrelevant. It is the consistency with which they refuse to cede it, despite the obviously dangerous consequences of this refusal, is, one might say, queerly ethical. As Marc de Kesel notes in Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII, for Lacan, desire has no goal or direction: its very endless trajectory of signifies that are sliding or circling around the unrepresentable “Thing” (das Ding) may lead nowhere, other, perhaps, than death. To desire then, functions, in Lacan, as a non-transitive verb. Salome and Elektra reveal to us, in their inscrutable stubbornness, this desire to desire.

Particularly in the case of Salomé, the object of desire, the prophet Jokanaan, is represented as an aesthetic, rather than an “ethical” or affective choice, a signifier to which the protagonist clings, and whose existence as a signifier she dies affirming. Hers is a desire of sliding signifiers aiming at, and missing, the Thing. The impossibility of meaning, then, as a central thematic of Salomé (itself, one notices, a paradox), can be pursued not only through the lens of modernist of symbolist aesthetics, theatre or literary history, or gender studies, but also via a discussions of ethics. The trend that these publications start, and which is to be continued fruitfully, considers fin de siècle drama and opera the harbinger of a “perversely” ethical narrative.  


Works Cited
Bennett, Michael Y., ed. Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. New York, Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2011. Print.

De Kesel, Marc. Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII. Trans. Sigi Jottkandt. Albany, NY: State University of New York P, 2010. Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan P, 2011. Print.

John, Nicholas, ed. Salome/Elektra. London: Overture Publishing, 2011. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997. Print.