Form of Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency”

When considering the form of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” as a play rather than a typical historical fiction or purely biographical book, there are areas where information is both gained and lost as a result of this choice.  A play requires its author to choose words more carefully and concisely to consider timing and audience enjoyment, which potentially leads to less detail than an author compiling all the facts of an individual’s experience into textbook-like or even narrative form.  This potential loss of detail seems to be the primary loss due to the choice of form.  But there are some benefits that this sparser version of history allows.  Though less detailed, a play allows audience members to be engaged in the action.  One can imagine what witnessing these trials might have been like at the time they took place and have more of a stake in the action simply because a play is more action-based than a typical biography.  A greater emphasis on visuals generally can lend itself to inspiring greater sympathy in audience members, since it is sometimes easier to relate to characters you can see rather than people you are just reading about.  Putting names to faces, and hearing the voices of each of the characters, gives greater depth to historical figures than reading off a page.  One can actually visualize and hear Wilde’s wit or the Marquess of Queensberry’s tirades.  There is also the fact that Wilde himself was a playwright, making Kaufman’s choice to write a play feel very true to his subject matter.  Another negative, however, is that with a play it may be easier to dramatize or romanticize history.  While this can be useful in inspiring interest and care, it has the potential to neglect things as they truly were and put characters on a pedestal that they may be deserving of in some aspects of their lives, but undeserving of in others.

Exploitation and Orientalism in Salome

When we were discussing Salome’s character in class, I did not see her agency as much as I saw her exploitation and sexualization. The added conversation about approaching this story through a post-colonial Orientalist lens also made me think about the construction of the piece and the intentions of Wilde behind it.

As we discussed, Orientalism is the production of a romanticized version of the “East” that is not accurate and more of a projection of Western views on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It isn’t a true representation. There is a heavy focus on tropes and stereotypical or projected traits. It is shown in works of art and literature as barbaric, violent, sensual, exotic and emotional. 

The story of Salome, who we know is a young girl, was not inherently sexual in the Bible. As we read in class, her asking for John the Baptist’s head was her mother’s idea, not her own. She was not even named. Her dance could have been out of celebration, or spiritual in nature. I do think that this lack of information on Salome and her unnamed presence made her story attractive for Wilde and other artists to reimagine, as we connected it to the story of W.H. Perhaps she was an opportunity for Wilde to tell his own story, to represent himself in literature and history. 

However, Wilde made Salome into a femme fatale, a sexualised and seductive character who was killed for expressing such sexuality and villainized for having John the Baptist killed, although Herod was really the one who had the power to kill him. I think this is more exploitative of a young girl who did not have these traits in the original story. Her dance of the seven veils changes the nature of her dance into something more sexual, and her desire to kiss the lips of John the Baptist makes her the villain who was responsible for his death.

Thinking about how her story was changed by Wilde’s reinterpretation, and knowing the nature of Orientalism, I feel like the first thing that jumps out at me from Wilde’s version is Salome’s exploitation. Perhaps Wilde was acting on his own desires, wanting to create a popular story, or not thinking about the consequences of this characterization, but I don’t think it was a just choice to Salome.

What’s in a name?

While we were discussing Salomé in class on Wednesday, I was struck by the fact that her character is not named in the Bible. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible story before we discussed Wilde’s play in class, so I didn’t have many preconceived ideas when it came to the play. However, I was surprised by Salomé’s lack of a name in each version of the Bible that we looked at. As someone pointed out in class, a name is a sign of power. It establishes your identity outside of your relationship to anyone else. In the New Living Translation, Salomé is first identified as “Herodias’s daughter” and after that is only referred to as “the girl.” That language completely ties up Salomé’s identity with her mother. The value of having a name is that you have something to identify you irrespective of your relationship to anyone else. Wilde’s naming the play Salomé embodies the newfound agency that she has in his telling of the story. Instead of a girl listening to her mother, Salomé is strong enough to articulate what she wants and what is necessary to get it.

However, I think that it is important not to oversell Salomé’s agency in the play. Although she takes action to get what she wants, she does so in a manner that is relatively restricted and her course of action results in her own death. As we noted in class, Salomé is ultimately killed for expressing her sexuality. She does so in a confined system in which the only way to express her agency is to lean into Herod’s desire for her and perform a dance. Although Salomé has agency in doing what she thinks is necessary to get what she wants, I think that it is important to remember that she is still limited in how she can go about getting it, and that chasing what she wants ends in her death.

Regardless of how independent she is and how clear she is in her desires, Salomé is still restricted to the society in which she lives in which Herod has all of the power. She can try to carve out a space for herself, and is able to trick him into killing John the Baptist, but that is not enough for Salomé to truly be powerful because it only takes three words from Herod for Salomé, too, to be killed. The differences in power are clear throughout the play, and  acknowledging Salomé’s weak position is necessary to understand what happens to her in the play. A queer-desire reading of the play would suggest that Salomé is killed because of her sexuality, which is deemed wrong. In order for that reading to be clear, I think that it is important that Salomé is not the character with the most agency. She still must feel pressure to conform to the society in which she lives, which is why it is so offensive to Herod when she backs him into a corner in which he must kill John the Baptist. Salomé in Wilde’s play certainly has more influence than the character in the original story, but it is important that she is not a hugely powerful character. Ultimately, she is still the girl who dances and then dies.

Salomé and Choices

What I found most interesting about Salomé is how Salomé’s choices have complete control over the direction of the play, and how this control directly comes from her attractiveness. At the beginning of the play, she is able to manipulate Narraboth into bringing out Jokanaan because he desires her. When she meets Jokanaan, she pursues him. She tells him how much he admires his appearance and asks him to let her kiss him. This is an interesting reversal of gender roles because it is usually the man who pursues the woman and tells her how beautiful she is. This reversal of gender roles happens in Wilde’s other works as well, such as in An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern is invested in politics while Lord Goring is interested in fashion. However, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her, and for once, Salomé is unable to get what she wants. 

Salomé is also shown to have the ability to exert control over Herod. Like with Narraboth, Herod seems to desire Salomé, and Salomé is able to get what she wants because of this. There’s an interesting contrast between Salomé and her mother Herodias. While Salomé is able to get what she wants from Herod, Herod never listens to Herodias when she asks him to stop looking at Salomé. This could be because Herod desires Salomé over his wife, and so Salomé can sway him to do things. He offers her anything if she dances for him, including half his kingdom. However, instead of asking for half the kingdom, she asks for the head of Jokanaan. Herod tries to offer her other things, but she refuses them all. Her mother approves of Salomé’s choice. 

What’s interesting about Salomé asking for Jokanaan’s head in the play is that in the original Bible story, it’s her mother that asks her to ask for Jokanaan’s head. However, in the play, Salomé asks for the head of her own volition. This gives her more agency in this narrative. It’s like she’s punishing Jokanaan for being the one man who won’t give her what she wants. After she’s presented with Jokanaan’s head, she laments about how much she loved him. This reminded me a lot of how Dorian mourned Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray and how Sibyl became more perfect to him after her death. 

At the very end of this play, however, power is returned to Herod when he has Salomé killed for her actions. This reminded me a bit of the end of An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern goes back on what she wants when Lord Goring tells her to so her husband can keep his career. No matter how much power Salomé had in the play, power always reverts back to the man.

Responses to Prophecy

In Salomé, the prophet Jokanaan prompts strikingly different reactions in his listeners, showing how the beholder inserts themselves and their presumptions into the words and actions of others.  When we are introduced to Jokanaan, we are told by a soldier that “He is always saying ridiculous things.”  They, along with Herod, are fearful of his words.  This seems to be due to a fear of speaking the truth.  Herod in particular, though he indulges in the prophet’s speeches, wants to hide Jokanaan from others because of the truth he speaks about Herodias.  The truth is unpleasant and dangerous to consider.  Yet Herod remains curious about what the prophet has to say, questioning what the future has in store for him (and often spinning what Jokanaan says in a favorable light, when others consider the words to be against him).  Herodias has no curiosity and is merely enraged by the prophet.  This points to her impatience and selfishness, but more importantly it points to her desire to maintain her public image.  She revolts against the words being spoken against her, and frequently returns to the topic of how she and Herod must treat their guests well by returning to the dinner party in order to preserve high opinions of them.  Herodias wants to maintain a façade of a happy marriage, though beneath the surface there is tension on account of her original marriage and her current husband’s apparent attraction to her daughter.  Salomé’s response to the prophet is the most complex.  She is fascinated by his words and by his appearance, and becomes obsessed with seeing him, hearing his voice, and touching him.  Salomé’s desire grows so strong that she needs to fully possess Jokanaan, which she can only do in his death.  I wonder whether one of the causes of Salomé’s downfall was that she was poisoned by Jokanaan’s beautiful words.

You accept the love you think you deserve

I was at first surprised to see the subject matter Wilde chose for this play. It felt out of place to me, especially in comparison to the other pieces we have already studied, which focused more on Victorian society. But, as I continued to read, I could see the connections between this subject matter and Wilde’s own life, notably when considering the ideas of desire and indecency. 

The play Salome centers itself on the action of desiring, looking, and lusting after. Herod and the Syrian captain both look at Salome with sexual desire. This gaze is condemned by others, with the feeling that “something bad” happening being reiterated over and over again. And, that prophecy is fulfilled, as the Syrian kills himself and Herod is forced by his oath to Salome to behead Jokanaan. Salome also lusts after Jokanaan, which is condemned by almost everyone in the play. For her display of unacceptable lust, and her display of power in being able to get Jokanaan beheaded, she is killed herself. 

The lust that these characters exude is considered to be “wrong.” This makes me think of Wilde and his homosexuality. As we discussed in our last class, Wilde was told that his natural attraction and feelings of love were unnatural, gross, and indecent. Since Salome, the Syrian, and Herod had tragic ends (though Herod doesn’t die, just is forced to behead Jokanaan), Wilde is saying that unnatural lust results in bad things happening to you, either by yourself (in the case of the suicide), or by others. And we see this in Wilde’s case with his imprisonment.

We asked the question in class: what does thinking your natural attraction is wrong do to one psychologically? What does it make you feel that you deserve out of a relationship? I think it would make you think that you do not deserve a traditional, healthy relationship, and this makes sense to me in the context of Wilde and Bosie. Being told you are a bad person may make you think that you deserve bad things being done to you, like Bosie did to Wilde.

The Act of Looking: Salome

It’s interesting reading Oscar Wilde’s Salome as we see once more, a theme of physical attractiveness and beauty. There has been a similar theme with The Picture of Dorian Gray in the sense that Gray carries an obsession with preserving his beautiful physical appearance. However, there lies a difference in the direction of the plot and such themes, as Salome carries a much darker lesson/theme of finding pleasure in viewing or looking at beauty. There is a revolution of this theme, with Syrian and Herod’s somewhat sickening lust for Salome which ultimately results in Syrian’s own suicide as well as Herod’s fall as well as murder of Salome. Salome’s obsession with Jokanaan also depicts a similar obsession with viewing and physical obsession. It seems that Wilde is criticizing the action or tendency to view others; finding pleasure in viewing others is often what brings a character’s downfall in this story. Perhaps such is a reflection of his own experience as a homosexual man living in a publicized life. It seems that Wilde is warning against the action of looking; it makes us wonder whether Wilde was warning against what seems to be a harmless activity anyone, homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, could take part in. Wilde writes, “Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.” Such once again, accentuates this warning against “viewing.” As a whole, the text of Salome, along with Oscar Wilde and his history, portrays the dangers of looking as the action of looking could very well, in many cases, result in much more for such a harmless act.

Enjoying vs. Interpreting Art

One of the most impactful moments in the play is when, after a number of characters spend much time fashioning detailed and meaningful allegories concerning the moon, Herodias dismisses them all, saying “the moon is just the moon, that is all.” I feel that this dismissal of there being a deeper meaning behind the moon’s appearance, while certainly serving as character development for the princess, also serves as a reflection of the opinions of the Aesthes on art as a whole, and perhaps Wilde’s criticism (or support, it can be hard to keep track) of these views. It seems to me that a central battle that is being waged in the background of all of Wilde’s works is whether art exists to be interpreted, or appreciated, and whether those two actions are mutually exclusive. 

For many, interpretation of art is not necessary to fully enjoy it, and even the most pretentious of art critics will agree that there are certain attributes of truly great art that lend themselves to surface level enjoyment of the work. Those critics will also likely argue that, while great works of art can provide surface level enjoyment, those works can only be enjoyed to the fullest extent after carefully analyzing and understanding every element of the art. However, this logic assumes that there is a direct correlation between information known about something, and one’s enjoyment in that thing, which is obviously not always true. For instance, one’s enjoyment of a particular music artist can be completely destroyed if they investigated their personal lives, and found that they were a horrible person. Despite the enjoyment being destroyed, many would still argue that it is better to know the truth about said artist, which suggests that increased information on a subject does not necessarily increase one’s enjoyment, something anybody who has ever watched a Marvel movie with a film major undoubtedly already knows. 

Focusing back on Wilde, what are his opinions on the topic? Does he believe that art should be enjoyed, but not interpreted? That doesn’t seem to make much sense, given the layered nature of most of his art. However, I believe Wilde would certainly argue that art’s main purpose is to be appreciated, rather than put under a microscope. In the end, I find it hard to nail down exactly what Wilde believes concerning the relationship of appreciation and interpretation in art, though I hope I’ll attain a better understanding of it as the course progresses. 

Dance of the Seven Veils

The act of dancing, which allows Salomé to bargain for what she so deeply desires—the head of Jokanaan—intrigued me while reading “Salomé.” When Salomé and Herod reach their sworn oath of giving Salomé her desire if only she will dance, there is only one stage direction: “Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils” (570). She does this solely for Herod’s pleasure, a dance for him and his consumption alone. What surprised me about this part of the play is that we have seen through our close reading of Wilde’s other plays how his way of writing stage directions can be prose-like, as if it has come straight out of a novel. While Salomé dances for everyone at the feats at Herod’s request, Wilde abandons his usual prose-like stage directions. Instead, Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils, and its description passes uneventfully. The audience doesn’t know if she’s dancing with grace, seduction, nervously. Wilde is purposefully leaving these details and the description of her dance out of the play, but why?

            The word “veils” is fascinating here. There have been many other blog posts about how we can arrive at a deep reading to where Wilde’s homosexuality manifests in the act of looking. Similar to staying in the closet, hidden by a “veil,” Salomé slowly unveils herself and her nature through the dance of the seven veils. When she unveils herself and says what she truly wants, Herod no longer gains sexual satisfaction from looking at her; instead, he is terrified at her request to behead Jokanaan so she can have his head. He realizes her true nature after she dances for him. I wonder why Wilde chose “the dance of the seven veils” for Salomé to dance, as this was the first recorded instance of this phrase. Can we read this in terms of Wilde’s homosexuality and the act of unveiling, or are we reading too deep into it all?

If Looks Could Kill

After taking a deeper look into the man behind the works we have been reading this semester, it was interesting to read Salomé, which is all about the act of looking and the consequences of taking pleasure in that looking. Already, this connects back to Wilde and his wild life as a homosexual man constantly in the spotlight for his curious actions. In the play, the consequence of those guilty of taking pleasure in looking at others is ultimately death. The young Syrian cannot resist his lustful looks at Salomé and kills himself when he cannot take her lust for Jokanaan. The investment in his looking seals his fate, but when he dies no one takes care except for the page, who with trademark Wilde style, laments him heavy homoerotic undertones. The other man who falls prey to looking at Salomé is Herod. His incestuous lust for her leads him to the execution of Jokanaan to satisfy Salomé. Being so obsessed with looking at her, he does not realize the consequences of promising her anything she wanted. The culmination of looking comes with Salomé’s disgusting lust for Jokanaan resulting with her kissing the severed head of the prophet. Focusing on this voyeuristic idea of looking, we can see how this reflects Wilde’s own life being sexually attracted to men. Even though looking seems like a passive activity, there is discomfort when that lustful look is focused on someone who society deems you should not be attracted to. Of course this play was written before Wilde ever went to prison, but we can see the consequences of looking which leads to fatal action. In general, looking is the only activity a homosexual person can enjoy without being immediately judged for their desires since there’s no harm in looking. But here we see Wilde highlighting how there is harm in looking. Once we start, there’s no stopping and the desire for something will grow until it must be acted on. We see this not only in the play, but reflected in the events of Wilde’s life being imprisoned for gross indecency. By sticking a foot in the door, Pandora’s box is effectively opened and you must be prepared to face the consequences. Wilde could not deny who he was, and because he was determined to be himself he was arrested. There is harm in a look because a look always leads to something more. Salomé reveals to us the danger of taking a peek into the more curious parts of life.