The following analysis of Salomé was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 51-54.
Salomé, like most of Oscar Wilde's plays, is a rich and ornate picture: it was written for the purpose of displaying its neat and well-balanced plot, for the sheer pleasure to be derived from its esthetic appeal. The stage-directions offer the reader something of what is put into the production. The gorgeous and figured style of the dialogue is the work of a poet who plays with words. In the original the style is something of a patch-work: there are many speeches reminiscent of Maeterlinck's early manner, and occasional snatches of Baudelaire and Flaubert. The play is, however, remarkable for its well-handled plot: it is thoroughly dramatic and holds the attention of the audience to the end. As the dramatist in a one-act play cannot afford much space for lengthy and careful exposition, he often sums it up within a few pages or even a few lines. He is forced to concern himself with the play proper. The exposition of Salomé is not in the usual form: it is largely the revelation of facts at second-hand, and is done in a more or less summary fashion. The first eight or ten pages are devoted to conversation carried on by the Nubian, the Cappadocian, Herodias's Page, First and Second Soldiers, and the Young Syrian. This is once interrupted by the Voice of Jokanaan. Nowadays we should perhaps regard this sort of exposition as "talky"; it would "retard the action," yet in a poetic play a certain leeway may be allowed for the decorative side of the piece, the inherent beauty of the words, and we are willing to have the atmosphere created, and wait for the entrance of Salomé herself before the story is appreciably advanced.
Compare the opening scene of Salomé with the corresponding scenes of Galsworthy's Strife and Augustus Thomas's Arizona.
As in most tragedies and in many plays of various kinds, there is a continual insistence of what may be termed the "fate motif." The Witches' scenes in Macbeth are the classic example. How does Wilde make use of it in this play?
Contrast is a basic principle of all art. In Richard Strauss's music for the opera of Salomé, he makes use musically of the interruptions by Jokanaan, in order to afford a striking contrast to the scene. In the play itself the first interruption -- "After me will come another greater than I," etc... -- is a good example of Wilde's use of contrast. The First Soldier and the Cappadocian have been conversing in short sentences:
- FIRST SOLDIER: The Jews worship a God they cannot see.
- THE CAPPADOCIAN: I cannot understand that.
- FIRST SOLDIER: Indeed they believe only in those things they cannot see.
- THE CAPPADOCIAN: That seems absolutely ridiculous to me.
Then comes the Voice of Jokanaan. -- Again: Salomé speaks of the moon:
SALOMÉ: How good it is to see the moon! She resembles a small coin. One might say she was a little flower of silver. She is cold and chaste, the moon -- I am sure she is a virgin. She has a virgin's beauty -- yes, she is a virgin. She has never soiled herself. She has never given herself to men, as the other goddesses have.
THE VOICE OF JOKANAAN: He is come, the Lord! He is come, the Son of Man. The centaurs have hid themselves, and the sirens have quitted the streams and lie under the leaves of the forests.
Notice other examples of dramatic contrast such as the two above quoted. Is contrast sought by any other method?
Although Salomé was not written primarily to be played, it is one of the most effective of its author's dramatic works. Its success cannot be attributed to the accessory qualities -- the literary style in particular -- but rather to its inherent theatrical appeal. Few other one-act plays move so swiftly, so surely, so rhythmically, straight up to a climax so well-devised and thrilling as this.
Simplicity is the keynote to the action: from Salomé's first inquiries about Jokanaan -- "Is he an old man, the prophet?" there is a steady procession of climaxes, or crises, each leading to another and a greater. Salomé's curiosity, then her strange abnormal love for the uncouth prophet, Herod's entrance, the momentary pause in the tension, then the upward flight of the action, Herod's demand for Salomé to dance, then another moment of suspence, and the rapic climax -- here, in brief, are the qualities, here the unity, the effectiveness of Salomé.
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