Jesse's Reviews > Salome

Salome by Oscar Wilde
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's review
Feb 07, 10

bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read in January, 2010

So this has to be one of the oddest, most oddly enthralling things I've come across in a while. Taken on it's own, Wilde's play isn't much: ponderous, dull. But combine it the whimsical illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, and through some kind of alchemical wizardry a rather extraordinary intertextual experience is created.

The text itself seems kind of antithetical to what we now associate with Wilde: nowhere to be found is anything resembling wit, snap, humor, double-entendre. Wilde apparently claimed its genesis was as an experiment involving an author writing in a language that is not his own (which, in this particular situation, is more interesting in concept than execution). It certainly has its moments of interest and several moments of undeniable poetry, and does manage to evoke a dreamy, hothouse atmosphere, but I highly doubt you'll find many people proclaiming it as a masterpiece (and those few that do are probably working on a doctoral thesis with a vested interest in proving as much).

But place the text side by side with Aubrey Beardsley's famous illustrations, and suddenly the written text is brimming with resonances it previously did not seem to possess. The most famous line of the play is probably Herod's pronouncement that "it is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life full of terrors." But that's exactly what Beardsley does: he fills his illustrations with symbols, both plucked from the text and from his own imagination, and the results, while at first glance look like the kind of ironically nostalgic thing a trendy San Francisco coffee shop would hang on its walls, become upon closer inspection quite grotesque, even a bit repulsive.

The result? Beardsley's illustrations work to actively retranslate Wilde's text, both locating within it and imposing upon it a kind of subversive sexuality, embroidering upon Wilde's suggestion of quasi-incest with undeniable overtones of bisexuality, homosexuality, and sexual ambiguity and deconstruction of all sorts. Essentially, Beardsley recontextualizes and reconfigures Wilde's play into something much different than it initially seems.

Making it in the end, rather ironically, much more recognizably Wildean.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Bram (new)

Bram Fascinating illustrations and really nice review. I need to read more Wilde.

message 2: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Wilde rewards the reader. I agree Jesse, the play is not great Wilde, but OH the Strauss opera sure is.

Jesse I actually need to read more Wilde myself, now that I think about it. :)

And I've been meaning to look up the Strauss opera! I was pissed, it got a run here at the SF Opera last fall, just several weeks before I moved here. I would have loved to have seen it.

Sketchbook You nailed it. My copy does not have the Aubrey B drawings. Still, it puts me in the Christmas spirit.

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