Salome: from Matthew and Mark, through Oscar, Richard and Atom

It can be enjoyable to trace the changes in the way a story is adapted and/or interpreted.

Salome begins in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

Matthew 14:1-11 (NIV)
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.
6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10and had John beheaded in the prison. 11His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

Mark 6: 13-29
13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
John the Baptist Beheaded
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

In each of these accounts what’s consistent is Herod’s fear of John, his promise to Salome, and the motivation for the murder, namely Herodias’s request of her daughter.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote the play Salome (1891) in French, but banned in England until long after Wilde’s death. He never saw it produced in his lifetime, as it was given a single performance in Paris in 1896 during the time of Wilde’s imprisonment.

Wilde originated the “”Dance of the Seven Veils” and changed Salome’s motivation. Where the Biblical accounts have Herodias’s request as the reason for the dance and the demand for Jokanaan’s head, in Wilde it becomes an expression of Salome’s own desires. Salome kisses the mouth of Jokanaan. Wilde also adds the conclusion, where Herod in disgust orders Salome killed.

Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1905) using a libretto taken from Wilde’s play also met with resistance in some cities, although it has become a standard work in opera houses all over the world.

Directors theatre or Regietheater is sometimes understood as a conversation between existing works and the performance text, an opportunity to revisit works that have been produced so often as to have become kitsch, images and sensations that deserve to be interrogated. The orchestral style of Richard Strauss and composers of his generation that was adopted in Hollywood became a kind of cliché. There is an overlap between the aesthetic we see in conservative productions of Salome that rigorously follow the instructions in the score, and Biblical epics on film such The Ten Commandments (shown here).

A production such as the Atom Egoyan Salome, previously seen in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company and being revived this month, might avoid some of the baggage of the past. Salome opens Friday February 3 at the Four Seasons Centre.

Salome’s Dance from the 2013 COC production directed by Atom Egoyan (photo: Michael Cooper)
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