In her later years, the great actress Sarah Bernhardt always denied that she had known what an uproar would result when she announced her plan to open her 1892 London season with Oscar Wilde's new play, Salomé, which he had written, in French, especially for her. Bernhardt wasn't prepared for the shock that followed her announcement, just as the first audiences to encounter Salome‚ largely in Richard Strauss' operatic version, weren't ready for the work itself. England, where Bernhardt had always been warmly received, turned temporarily cold. Editorials inveighed against "French immorality." Pious theatergoers announced their intention to boycott her season. Worst of all, when she was two weeks into rehearsal, a stiff note from the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays informed her curtly that the representation of Biblical characters was forbidden on the English stage. Permission to perform Wilde's one-act play was denied. Bernhardt, outraged, felt that Wilde had knowingly trapped her in a false position by not warning her that his play was certain to be banned. Sloughing off his pleas to premiere the work in Paris instead, she refused to have anything further to do with him. A few years later, when he begged her to appear as a character witness for him at the sodomy trial that wrecked his life, she declined to respond. Bernhardt's connection to Salomé was over.
The work's scandalous career, however, was only beginning. Wilde's then-intimate companion, Lord Alfred Douglas, translated the play into English. Wilde's publisher, John Lane, brought out the translation (after extensive corrections by Wilde) in an elegant volume highlighted by Aubrey Beardsley's lewd, sardonic illustrations. Beardsley's Art Nouveau images of capering satyrs and effete dandies immediately provoked additional scandal: Several were so eyebrow-raising they had to be redrawn before publication. Even Wilde complained that they vulgarized and trivialized his work. (Beardsley's final image shows Salome being laid to rest, by two satyrs, in a giant powder puff.) Even toned down, the volume remained for decades a synonym for licentiousness in book form.
The uproar surrounding Wilde's arrest, trial, and imprisonment caused the temporary disappearance of his works from bookstores and theaters, but did nothing to lessen a prurient public's curiosity about his banned play. Where Bernhardt had declined, the enterprising avant-garde producer Aurélien Lugné-Poe was ready to step in, presenting the work's world premiere, in Wilde's original French version, in Paris in 1896, with its author freshly incarcerated. The blasé Parisians found Salomé perhaps distasteful, but hardly bannable, another opportunity to marvel at the prudishness of their neighbors across the Channel. The relatively favorable reception was one of the few pieces of good news Wilde received while in prison; when he was released, his health broken, he settled in France, dying in Paris in 1900.
Soon enough, Salomé found its way to Germany, where Wilde had passionate defenders not only among the literati, but also within the growing movement for sexual liberation. Wilde became Germany's most popular foreign author. Hedwig Lachmann's translation of Salomé had its Berlin premiere in 1901, playing more than 200 performances, and was eagerly taken up by theaters in other German cities. By 1905, while Richard Strauss was readying his opera for its world premiere in Dresden, Wilde's complete works‹including even his long-suppressed prison letter, De Profundis‹were being published auf Deutsch.
In the latter half of the 19th-century, theaters and opera houses were often the scene of open conflict between artists and authoritarians. Art forms were changing as modernism struggled to be born; technology was altering perceptions; audience composition was shifting. As artists rolled back the Victorian carpet to reveal the dirt piled underneath, the complacency bred by mid-19th-century stability faced challenge after challenge. For nearly a decade, British stage censorship forbade the performance in English of Alexandre Dumas' Lady of the Camellias (1852). When Giuseppe Verdi turned Camille, as Dumas' play was popularly known, into La Traviata, there were fresh outcries from those who thought its contemporary subject "improper" for opera; English opera houses adopted the custom of playing it in the costumes of a century earlier.
On the continent, especially in his native Italy, Verdi's wars with censorship were mainly political. Revolution, church-state conflict, and assassination, all topics through which he continued the grand-opera tradition established in Paris by Eugène Scribe and Giacomo Meyerbeer, were anathema to the rulers of a not-yet-united Italy's tiny kingdoms. They battled him with particular ferocity over Un Ballo in Maschera: Its original subject, the assassination of Sweden's Catholic king, Gustave III, pleased neither Naples' Bourbons nor Rome's Papal censors. At one point, the beleaguered composer sarcastically proposed setting the opera in the Stone Age, with the assassinated leader a Neanderthal caveman! The ultimate solution, making the assassinated king a governor of colonial (and suitably Protestant) Boston, satisfied no one fully.
While Italy struggled with the politicizing of opera, a new challenge to conservative minds arose in Scandinavia, where Henrik Ibsen took the daring contemporaneity of Dumas more than a few steps further, grounding his tautly structured plays in social and psychological realities that had previously been thought undiscussible in the theater. The door slam at the end of A Doll's House (1879) sent reverberations all across Europe. Indeed, the initial reaction from German theaters was so severe that Ibsen actually wrote an alternative ending‹"to prevent it being done worse by someone else," he explained‹in which Nora didn't leave. Still, A Doll's House, like Camille, fell into the theater's realm of permissible shocks, giving no clue to the storms of protest Ibsen's next play would unleash.
Ghosts (1881), effectively staged, can still raise eyebrows today. At a time when sexually transmitted disease was a sort of ultimate unmentionable, it exploded on the public like a grenade. And Ibsen's drama dealt graphically not only with the disease itself, but with its physical consequences, along with such matters as marital rape, incest, and assisted suicide. The outrage against it spread like a fever: It was banned from the stage in every country in Europe. (The world premiere actually took place in Chicago.) Inevitably, the suppression of Ghosts made it attractive to younger and braver spirits. "Independent theaters" and "free stages" sprang up in many major European cities, to give private performances of Ghosts and similarly suppressed works; Lugné-Poe's Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, later to champion Salomé, began by campaigning for Ibsen.
One of the most important such theaters was founded in London by a man who would later play a key role in Salomé's London career, an Anglo-Dutch tea merchant and drama critic named J.T. Grein. When "Jack" Grein's Independent Theatre presented Ghosts, as a members-only event, in 1889, the British press emitted a flood of invective that has remained a high-water mark of critical abuse, comparing the play to everything from an open sewer to a leprosarium. Grein did not flinch; he followed it up by discovering a homegrown Ibsen in Bernard Shaw, whose Widowers' Houses provoked further commotion by displaying a wealthy marriage based on income from slum properties, and a spoiled, selfish ingenue who dragged her maid about by the hair.
Emboldened by his succès de scandale, Shaw pushed the envelope further by writing Mrs. Warren's Profession which even shocked Grein. Today, Shaw's elegantly contrived drama of a successful madam's conflict with her independent-minded but naive daughter has taken on the status of a beloved classic, making it hard for us to imagine the era when it was a topic for angry editorials and police-court proceedings. London held off producing it till 1902, by which time Shaw's fame could mitigate the shock effect. But the shock remained: In 1905, when an enterprising young New York actor-producer, Arnold Daly, presented the work's public premiere, the NYPD swooped down, arresting the entire company, including the ticket-taker, on a charge of public indecency. The judge, having read the script, threw the case out, but the scandal left Daly's management in ruins and Shaw with a lasting mistrust of American censoriousness. When, a decade later, Ireland's Abbey Theatre was charged with obscenity while on tour in Philadelphia for presenting Synge's Playboy of the Western World‹another play that seems harmless to us today, Shaw grumbled to the press, "In America all decent people are arrested."
By the time Strauss, struck by Salomé's stage power, had begun setting Wilde's play to music, Germany had discovered its own censorable bête noire, the cabaret performer and playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), who merged his sardonic wit with a psychologist's compassion, a keen eye for official hypocrisy, and an omnivorous interest in sexual peculiarities that made his work the bane of bluenoses everywhere. His dramatic masterpieces, Spring's Awakening and the two-part "monster tragedy" Lulu (the adjective describes both its breadth and its outrageousness), had to fight their way onto the stage. The former, a compassionate study of teenage sexuality, was published in 1891 but not produced till 1906. The latter's first half, Earth Spirit (1895) was deemed playable, with excisions, as early as 1898, but Pandora's Box, which chronicles the downside of the heroine's lurid sexual career, didn't see print till 1904. Even then, it was seen largely in semiprivate staged readings: It was after one of them, in Vienna, that the eminent satirist Karl Kraus introduced Wedekind to "a young composer who admires your work"‹Alban Berg.
The way to Berg's daring choice of Lulu as a suitable subject for opera was paved in part by Strauss' selection of Salomé‹which, like Lulu, deals with the triumph and subsequent destruction of an adolescent sexual phenomenon. Like Lulu, the Princess Salome becomes a repository for men's fantasies because her own interest is fixated elsewhere. Salome's chosen target is the purity of the prophet Jokanaan; the more modern Lulu feels passion only for the emotionless pimp Casti-Piani, to whom she is merely merchandise. The ideal of beauty that Wedekind and Berg locate in art‹the portrait of Lulu that follows her from scene to scene‹is placed by Wilde and Strauss in nature: Salome's image is the moon, mythic embodiment of female sexuality, the changes of which Salomé's characters note all through the opera.
They didn't, however, in the work's first Berlin production. Germany's opera houses were more staid than its theaters: Strauss had to avoid offense by clearly setting the action before the birth of Jesus. Hence, in Berlin Herod's court gazed at the Star of Bethlehem rather than the moon. The London production in 1910 conducted by the enterprising young Thomas Beecham, suffered from even worse absurdities. Since Wilde's play was still banned in England, the whole story had to be moved to ancient Greece, and the Biblical characters' names changed. The censor also forbade the severed head of the prophet, now called Mattaniah, to be seen onstage; instead, London's Salome gloated over a dish of stage blood.
In London, as elsewhere, critics were sharply divided on Salome's merits. There was virtually no division, however, in New York, where the Metropolitan's first production of the opera, on January 22, 1907, was shut down with almost indecent speed: The morning after the premiere, the Met's board of directors cancelled all subsequent performances. (One source alleges that the cause of the cancellation was the shock felt by board member J.P. Morgan's daughter Louise; another says the shocked party was New York's police commissioner.) Startlingly, the city's leading music critics sided with the ban; even the sagacious W. J. Henderson described Strauss as "a modern harpy" with "a positive mania for writing ugly music."
But in New York and London, as in Berlin, scandal only strengthened Salome. The Met having waived its claim, the work was taken up the next year by Oscar Hammerstein I's less haughty Manhattan Opera, severed head and all, receiving a considerably more tolerant reception. As modern ears became accustomed to the dissonance and violence in its score, Salome became, most improbably, a repertory staple. The Dance of the Seven Veils, which Dresden's diva, Marie Wittich, had refused to do "because I am a decent woman," not only became a favorite pops-concert item, but inspired a succession of modern dancers and vaudeville glamour girls to flaunt their own interpretations, all advertising themselves in the words of an Irving Berlin song spoofing the craze as "the only real Salome baby."
In the London theater where its life had almost begun, however, Salomé still had battles to fight. One of the dancers inspired by Wilde's drama was the Canadian beauty Maud Allan. In 1918, with World War I underway and anti-German feeling high in England, the ever-daring J.T. Grein presented her in Wilde's play, for Independent Theatre subscribers only. They were then scurrilously attacked in a magazine published by a slightly lunatic right-wing member of Parliament, Noel Pemberton Billing, who accused them of catering to perversion (one headline read "The Cult of the Clitoris") and of abetting the enemy cause; he alleged that the German High Command had compiled a "black book" listing every male and female homosexual in England, as likely collaborators in the event of an invasion. Allan, understandably, sued for libel; her opponents turned the courtroom into a demented patriotic circus. Among those testifying for the defense was Wilde's former lover (and the play's translator), Lord Alfred Douglas, who had turned bitterly homophobic and reactionary. Calling his onetime soul mate "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the past 350 years," he testified that Salomé was "a most pernicious and abominable piece of work."
Shockingly, the jury found in Pemberton Billing's favor. The libel case was dismissed, the Independent Theatre shuttered. Allan returned to Canada; Grein proffered his resignation from the paper that he had served as drama critic (which, to its shame, it accepted). Not till 1931 was Wilde's Salomé presented publicly in England. Yet, in the opera house, the daughter of Herodias danced on, tempting her mother's husband and caressing the prophet's severed head. Today, divas singing Salome do their own dancing, and often do not hesitate to remove even the final veil. One wonders what Sarah Bernhardt would say.