“Kings Have But One Neck”
Obscenity in Art
Everyone knows the historical refrain that claims the 20th century did not truly begin until the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. This was the event that ushered in the Great War and shuttered for good the Belle Epoque of the old European aristocracies. Politically, this notion that the 19th century died with the Archduke has merit but it does not align comfortably with the prevailing artistic winds that preceded the year 1900. For the writers, painters and composers who strove against subjective excess in the 1890s, the new century had already been revealed.
Conspicuous among the guests at Stéphane Mallarmé’s mardis (Tuesday receptions) in 1891 was one Oscar Wilde. Wilde had recently turned his considerable attention to France and the famous gatherings of the great master poet were on his must-do list. Mallarmé was impressed with The Picture of Dorian Gray and saw a kindred symbolist soul in Wilde but Wilde’s attendance at the salons was short-lived. There were at minimum two reasons for the cessation. First was his long-standing feud with the painter James McNeill Whistler, another of Mallarmé’s disciples, who waged a concerted campaign against Wilde’s inclusion into the set. Second, and likely more germane, was Wilde’s decision to take up the story of Salome. Mallarmé had long been toiling over the topic but his Herodiade was still incomplete and Wilde, feeling himself every ounce the equal of his erstwhile host, was ready to forge ahead. And in French, no less!
Salome was hardly a new obsession among the elite artistic minds of Europe. Many poets and painters had already paid homage to the biblical daughter of Herodias and Wilde must have taken these extant works as a challenge to his budding creation. Wilde’s long-time friend Robert Ross once recounted a conversation during which Wilde complained that a certain famous novel had stolen its central idea from him. Ross objected that Wilde himself was a “fearless literary thief” and Wilde responded, as only Wilde could, by saying “…when I see a monstrous tulip with four wonderful petals in someone else’s garden, I am impelled to grow a monstrous tulip with five wonderful petals, but that is no reason why someone should grow a tulip with only three petals.” Wilde clearly intended his depiction of Salome, a monstrous tulip herself to be sure, to exceed her forebears.
Wilde completed the play in 1892 and ran into immediate trouble with the English censors. Sarah Bernhardt had planned to open her London season with Salome and was well into rehearsals when a curt note from Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays informed her that it was illegal to represent Biblical characters on an English stage. That rather technical complaint was just the beginning. Critics who had the opportunity to read the play decried its “Frenchness” and its immorality (the same thing, to some of them). When Salome was published a short time later in an English translation by Wilde’s life companion Lord Alfred Douglas, the edition included drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley’s drawings were patently lewd by the standards of the day (even Wilde found them a bit much) and they did the reputation of the play and its author no favors. That English-language volume, far more than French original, damned Salome as an emblem of decadent obscenity. No matter that French and German audiences would find very little to object to in the drama. The damage was done.
Controversial or banned art occupies a robust and growing subset of human creativity. From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Ulysses to Lolita, sexually explicit literary works that have been labeled as offensive upon publication carry the weight of their indictments to this day. When you add to that list Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, certain photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and the work of so many other daring visual artists, you can fill a gallery with books and art that someone with a little decision-making power did not want you to experience. Strauss’ great operatic treatment of Wilde’s Salome had its share of censorship issues to endure as well. In addition to trouble with church leadership in Vienna and elsewhere, the Met withdrew the opera after only one performance in 1907, so loud was the scandal.
One wonders if, in the case of Oscar Wilde, the scrutiny over his artistic work was related to the growing distaste for his personal life. His 1895 conviction on the charge of “gross indecency” ruined and no doubt shortened his life. Some artists are never allowed to stray very far from what they create and Oscar Wilde was punished severely for both his social “crimes” and his indulgences as a writer. Wilde was in most ways a highly refined product of his waning century. In other, arguably more important ways, he may well have fared better in ours.
There is an interesting moment near the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (also mentioned by Charles Osborne in his wonderful essay on Strauss’ opera) when one of Herod’s guests, The Cappadocian, is fretting over the cruelty of the cistern where Iokanaan is interred. The Second Soldier to whom he is speaking shrugs away the concern and offers up a conciliatory story and a pithy bit of proletarian wisdom.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: What a strange prison!
SECOND SOLDIER: It is an old cistern.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: An old cistern! That must be a poisonous place in which to dwell!
SECOND SOLDIER: Oh no! For instance, the Tetrarch’s brother, his elder brother, the first husband of Herodias the Queen, was imprisoned there twelve years. It did not kill him. At the end of the twelve years he had to be strangled.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: Strangled? Who dared to do that?
SECOND SOLDIER: [Pointing at the Executioner] That man yonder, Namaan.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: He was not afraid?
SECOND SOLDIER: Oh no! The Tetrarch sent him the ring.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: What ring?
SECOND SOLDIER: The death ring. So he was not afraid.
THE CAPPADOCIAN: Yet it is a terrible thing to strangle a king.
SECOND SOLDIER: Why? Kings have but one neck, like other men.
Strauss chose to leave this dialogue out of the opera. Anxious to move the drama forward, he probably saw it as unnecessary in his version of the plot. Though Strauss’ music suffers not one bit from the cut, the original play would be less effective without these words. Not only does the scene give us early insight into the character of the brother-murdering, wife-stealing Herod (the Tetrarch), we get to enjoy a touch of Wilde’s wit and unintended prescience. He could not have known that by the time his play finally premiered in 1896 he would be imprisoned in his own “poisonous place” and himself subject to the caprice of an intolerant ruling opinion. And to the extent that he saw himself as a “King” of letters, namely an artist above all, Wilde must certainly have wished he had been born with more than one neck to wring.