Sunday, December 10, 2017

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Duchess of Padua" and "Salome"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 5: Plays I: The Duchess of Padua, Salomé: drame en un acte, Salome: Tragedy in One Act. Ed. by Joseph Donohue. Oxford University Press, 2013. 0198119577. xviii + 780 pp.

This is the fifth book in the Oxford English Texts edition of Wilde's collected works. It includes two of Wilde's plays (The Duchess of Padua and Salome); according to the introduction (p. xiii), there will eventually be three more volumes of plays in this series.

The Duchess of Padua

Wilde wrote this tragedy relatively early in his career, around 1883, and didn't have very much success with it. He tried to get a noted American actress named Mary Anderson to buy the rights to the play and act in it, and although she was initially interested, she changed her mind once she read the finished play (pp. 2–6). It was eventually performed for three weeks in 1891 (p. 15), and after that apparently never again during Wilde's lifetime, and very few times afterwards (p. 16).

One of the main objections seems to have been the same as in the case of Wilde's poetry around the same time: experienced readers felt that it wasn't original enough (p. 26). (Another objection from Anderson's point of view was that the play might appeal more to people who want to merely read plays and not go see them performed on stage; p. 44.) This sort of thing doesn't bother someone like me, who am not really familiar with most of the sources that influenced Wilde; but it might have bothered the regular theatre-going audience of Wilde's time, or at least Anderson seems to have thought so. Anyway, I rather enjoyed reading this play, and if I was a theatre-going type of person (which I'm not) I imagine I would also enjoy seeing it on stage.

Nevertheless, I was also very interested to read the editor's introduction and commentaries, where he points out numerous instances of earlier plays from which Wilde borrowed ideas, plot elements, even names (p. 29), and sometimes words or entire phrases. The only hint of derivativeness that I could notice if I hadn't read the introduction and comments would be that the play is written in a style that, for want of a better term, I would think of as vaguely Shakespearean; but I wouldn't see it as a problem as I would imagine that this is simply the normal way in which English tragedies were written before the 20th century or so :)

But judging by the editor's commentary, the influences go way beyond a vague similarity of style; the commentary points out numerous specific instances where this or that line in The Duchess of Padua is an echo of this or that specific line from some play by Shakespeare. Other influences include Thomas Otway's 17th-century play Venice Preserved (p. 26) and several romantic tragedies from the earlier part of the 19th century (Shelley's Cenci, pp. 34–9; and several plays by Victor Hugo, pp. 29–33, especially his Lucrèce Borgia).

Another thing I found particularly interesting in the editor's comments are extensive passages from Wilde's letters to Mary Anderson, in which he explains his intentions behind this or that passage in the play, or why he wanted the scenery done in a particular way, and so on. Rationally, we all know that a play, or indeed any sort of work of art, doesn't spring forth ready-made from the artist's inspiration (like Athena from her father's forehead), and that its creation in fact involves a fair bit of craftmanship, premeditated planning, revising, and the like; but we don't often get to see this process in action, as it were: usually, when you read a play, you just see the end-result of this process. But here we get a few glimpses into the creative process itself, which I found quite interesting.

One thing bothered me a little about this play, but isn't really specific to it; many other plays, movies, novels etc. suffer from the same problem. (There's even a tvtropes page page for it.) Namely, to set up sufficiently dramatic situations which will suitably stir the reader's (or viewer's) feelings, the author has to have his characters behave like idiots — if they behaved more reasonably, much of the drama simply wouldn't happen.

<spoiler warning>

In this play, Guido intends to avenge his father's death by killing the Duke of Padua, and has joined him as a courtier to wait for a suitable opportunity. The Duke is not only a tyrant but an all-round asshole; his wife unsurprisingly hates him, for many good reasons, and she and Guido soon fall in love; but then he is reminded of his oath to kill the Duke, and decides that this is incompatible with his love for the Duchess, so he callously sends her away, which pretty much breaks her heart. Here we already see the first instance of idiocy; he knew how much she hates the Duke, so he could easily confide his plan in her, they could plot the Duke's death together and then ride away into the sunset together, and all would end well. His scruples that he couldn't aspire to love after his conscience would be burdended by the horrible murder of the Duke, which he is planning to commit soon (2.453–460), are likewise stupid; murder might not be exactly commendable, but if you do decide to commit it, you should at least have the sense to not be all guilt-ridden afterwards. This is doubly so if you believe that your causes for murder were just, and indeed Guido's planned murder of the Duke would be as well justified as any murder could reasonably hope to be.

Then in the next act, Guido, in a sudden flash of magnanimity, decides that instead of stabbing the Duke in his sleep, a better revenge would be to leave him alive but put a dagger and a note on his chest while he sleeps; the note would explain what this is all about, how Guido could have killed him but didn't, and Guido would meanwhile run from the city. In a way, this is not a bad idea, though its efficacy depends largely on whether the evil old Duke would feel suitably shocked by knowing how easily he could have been stabbed in his sleep that night — and I'm not sure that he would be; he might just as well cynically mock Guido's weakness and simply ramp up the security measures in his palace a bit. (Guido isn't sure either, but he decides he doesn't care; 3.196–201.)

Anyway, just as Guido is on the way to the Duke's bedroom to carry out his plan, he meets the Duchess carrying a bloody dagger — it turns out she has just killed the Duke. In the previous act, Guido hadn't explained properly why he suddenly spurns her love, so she thought that it was because she was still married to the Duke, and this intensified her hatred of him enough to make her kill him. (Here's idiocy again — this misunderstanding could have been avoided if people could just be bothered to communicate plainly. But maybe I shouldn't complain too much, as this type of idiocy is very widespread in the real world as well.)

Further idiocy sets in at this point. If Guido had any sense, he should now decide that even if things didn't go exactly as he planned, his revenge is nevertheless accomplished as well as it can reasonably be, given the circumstances, and that he and the Duchess should run away from the city before the Duke's death is discovered — as indeed she urges him to do. But instead, he decides that he now cannot love her any more, because she murdered her husband or something like that. They keep arguing at great length, until eventually soldiers show up and the Duchess, now angry at Guido for rejecting her yet again, has him arrested and claims that it was he who murdered the Duke.

In the next act, Guido is on trial for killing the Duke, and although he has an opportunity to explain that it was actually the Duchess that killed him, he does not do so, because apparently he still loves her after all, and would rather get executed himself than try to save his life by blaming the Duchess. This is nice, but if he still loves her that much, why the hell did he reject her idea to run away together in the previous act?! I suppose the idea is that he doesn't want to live without her (because he still loves her), but not with her either (because she murdered the Duke, or something like that); but that's idiocy, as far as I'm concerned. They should have ran away together while there was still time, and they could still break up afterwards if they wanted to.

High drama continues in the last act. After she saw how Guido refused to betray her during his trial, the Duchess is in love with him again; she visits him the night before his execution and tries to convince him to run away, wearing her cloak so the guards will think it's her. He refuses, either because he doesn't want to live without her, or because he thinks she'd get in trouble for helping him escape; he might be right about this second part, though I'm not sure if we really find out enough about the legal machinery of Padua to know how this would turn out. (We definitely see that the Duchess's influence on the judicial system is relatively limited. Still, in one of the earlier manuscripts of the play, the Duchess does seem to think that she could get away with it: “he will escape tonight and I being Duchess/ am set above suspicion”, p. 306.) In any case, she wouldn't stay alive anyway, as she took poison before this whole conversation started, but he doesn't know it yet. They keep bickering long enough that the soldiers almost show up to take Guido to his execution, and then he, learning that she has taken poison (and is indeed by now almost dead from it), commits suicide by stabbing himself with her dagger (the same with which she had killed the Duke). So instead of having at least one of them, possibly both, get out of this mess alive, we end up with both of them dead. I suppose this is very passionate and very romantic, and appropriate in a tragedy, and they might even hope to meet again in the afterlife or something like that; but I still couldn't help feeling annoyed by so many instances of people making so many unreasonable decisions throughout the play.

</spoiler warning>

I wonder if it's possible to make a decent tragedy without having your character make annoyingly idiotic decisions. I suspect you can already see this problem in ancient Greek tragedies, but at least they had a better excuse — they could blame the characters' stupid behavior on the influence of the gods.

Some of my favourite lines in the play come from the Duke's deliciously wicked and cynical opinions: “Why every man of them has his price,/ Although, to do them justice, some of them/ Are quite expensive.” (Act I, ll. 269–71; p. 110.) “Have prudence: in your dealings with the world/ Be not too hasty; act on the second thought,/ First impulses are generally good.” (Act I, ll. 282–4; p. 111.) And he says of his wife: “Why, she is worse than ugly, she is good.” (Act II, l. 2; p. 117.) You can practically see him twirling his moustache while saying this stuff :))

“I like no law at all,/ Were there no law there'd be no law-breakers,/ So all men would be virtuous.” (Spoken by the Second Citizen in Act IV, ll. 429–31; p. 172.)

From Act V (ll. 252–5, p. 185): “Guido: Sweet, it was not yourself,/ It was some devil tempted you./ Duchess: No, no,/ We are each our own devil, and we make/ This world our Hell.” This passage reminded me of some fine lines from Donne: “Tentations martyr us alive; a man/ Is to himselfe a Dioclesian.”

Introduction and commentary to Salome

I was really impressed by this part of the book. I'm accustomed to extensive introductions and generous commentaries in the OUP edition of Wilde's works, but here they have really outdone themselves; the total length of introductions and commentaries to Salome is approx. 330 pages, and they touch on a number of interesting topics.

There's an interesting discussion on the sources and historical background of the Salome story. It is briefly mentioned in two of the gospels (Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29; quoted on pp. 366, 429), but Salome's name doesn't appear there at all. The other early source is Josephus's history of the Jews (pp. 419, 422), which gives Salome's name (p. 423). The editor mentions several 19th-century works that deal with the story of Salome, although many of them refer to her as Herodias (same name as her mother). For example, there's a little-known play The Daughter of Herodias by Henry Rich (who later became a notable politician; p. 372), and several by an American author, Joseph Cameron Heywood (Salome, Herodias, and Antonius; p. 386). Wilde was also influenced by Flaubert's version of the Salome story, Herodias (one of his Three Stories; p. 381; Wilde borrowed a number of details from it, p. 383); as well as by his Salammbô and Temptations of St Antony (pp. 384–5). Another big influence on Salomé was the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (pp. 391–412), who seems to be a kind of pioneer of Symbolist drama. And the editor even identified exactly which French translation of the Bible Wilde was using as an inspiration for Iokanaan's ravings (de Sacy's 17th-century translation, p. 413).

The extent of Maeterlinck's influence on Wilde's Salome is demonstrated by the reaction of his friend, W. Graham Robertson: when Wilde read a few passages of Salome to him, Robertson thought it was intended to be a parody of Maeterlinck's writing; Wilde, for once, was not amused (pp. 405–6).

The editor also points out how Wilde took a number of liberties with the historical background; for example, in earlier versions of the story, it is Salome's mother that tells her to ask Herod for John the Baptist's head, whereas Wilde's Salome explicitly says that she is doing this for her own pleasure and not at her mother's suggestion (p. 431; though the mother is definitely very pleased by the prospect of being rid of the saint, whom she finds very annoying: p. 726).

There's an interesting discussion of the early performances of Salomé in Europe. Sarah Bernhard, the famous French actress, was going to play Salome in London (p. 467), but the censor forbade the play, describing it as “written in French—half Biblical, half pornographic—by Oscar Wilde himself” (pp. 439, 470), and in fact it remained banned in Britain until 1931 (p. 487)! So the first performance of Salomé was in France (with a different actress, Lina Munte; p. 476), and in the next few years it was performed in many countries, being quite successful in Germany (p. 485), and even coming as far as Greece (p. 486). Richard Strauss turned it into an opera of the same name (p. 400).

See also p. 470 for more shocked comments by the British censor, E. F. Smyth Pigott (“a miracle of impudence”, “[Salome's] love turns to fury because John will not let her kiss him in the mouth—and in the last scene, where she brings in his head—if you please—on a ‘charger’—she does kiss his mouth”). Foreign-language plays were treated more leniently by the censors since the average British playgoer was unlikely to see them (p. 471), but in Salome's case that still wasn't enough.

I was also interested by the discussion of the process of creating Salomé and its English translation. Many decades later, Lord Alfred Douglas claimed in one of his autobiographies that Wilde's French was so poor that he initially wrote the play in English and then asked his French friends (writers such as Pierre Louÿs, André Gide, and Marcel Schwob) to translate it into French. But the editor of this edition points out that there is no evidence of this, and in fact several manuscript drafts of Salomé are extant, from which you can clearly see that Wilde worked in French throughout this process (although he did ask his friends for comments at some point); p. 673.

The story of Salome's English translation is even more interesting. It is well known that Wilde was unhappy with Douglas's translation, but it's unclear just how much he revised it before its publication. Judging by the introduction to the English translation of Salome in this book, it seems that Wilde didn't actually modify Douglas's translation much; for example, many phrases or even entire sentences from the French original are missing in the translation, and Wilde would have presumably fixed these omissions if he had revised the translation carefully (pp. 692–4). (Nevertheless, Douglas caused a ridiculous amount of drama by objecting to even the slightest changes and demanding that he not be mentioned as the translator if anything is changed in his translation. Wilde tried to smooth over the issue by dedicating the translation to him instead of mentioning him as translator; p. 665–8.) The editor suggests (p. 664) that Wilde didn't care much about the translation since his main interest in Salome had been in writing the original French text (he compared writing in French to a musician trying to play a new instrument; pp. 327–8).

I also remember reading in several biographies (e.g. Ellmann's life of Wilde, and Sturgis's life of Beardsley) that Aubrey Beardsley prepared his own translation of Salome as well, though Wilde eventually chose Douglas's anyway. But it seems that this is all based on just one mention in a 1931 memoir by Douglas, which is unreliable in several other aspects, and there's no other solid evidence that Beardsley even started such a translation, let alone finished it (pp. 669–73).

Robert Ross, Wilde's friend and literary executor, later prepared a slightly improved version of Douglas's translation in 1906, and a still further improved version in 1912, but neglected to announce these changes explicitly enough. As a result, for the rest of the 20th century, various reprints and theatrical productions used either the original 1894 translation, or the 1906 version, mostly without knowing which one they are using or even that they are different at all; whereas the 1912 version was largely forgotten and never reprinted (pp. 676–80, 690).

A note on p. 690 mentions that five other people have also translated Salome into English, most recently Donogue himself (in 2011). He comments that “[o]ther English translations [. . .] have been slow in emerging”, but TBH I find this number of translations impressively high. I always imagined that Douglas's translation is so closely associated with Wilde that it's almost like an original, so it didn't occur to me that anyone would attempt to make a new English translation.

There's an interesting discussion of “closet drama” (i.e. plays intended to be read rather than seen on the stage) on p. 390; apparently, for much of the 19th century, this was “considered a purer form, a breed apart from a script intended for performance before a live audience”.

There's a delightful anecdote on p. 335, from the memoirs of Vincent O'Sullivan, who recorded what Wilde told him of how he had written Salomé: “He went out to a nearby café, where he said to the leader of the gypsy orchestra, ‘I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want you to play somthing in harmony with my thoughts.’ The orchestra played ‘such wild and terrible music’ that it stopped all conversation. ‘Then,’ Wilde concluded, ‘I went back and finished Salomé.’ ”


As for the play itself, it was pleasant to read Salome again; and I regretted more than ever that I don't understand any French so I could read the original instead of just the translation. I found it beautiful, enjoyable and suitably decadent, but I also have to admit that I mostly have no idea what it's meant to tell us. Judging by the many mentions of Symbolism (and Maurice Maeterlinck) in the editor's introduction, I guess this play also belongs to that school; unfortunately I know next to nothing about Symbolism and as always I'm no use at trying to figure out what exactly the symbols are and what do they stand for. On the face of it, it seems just a silly (but pleasant) little episode of art for art's sake, with its stupid drunken monarch, his hasty oath, a spoiled princess with her ridiculous obsessive lust for John the Baptist, etc. — but I'm sure there's much more to the play than this, I'm just not the sort of person who would notice it.

I know the play is supposed to be a kind of tragedy, but I also liked the fact that there are many funny passages in it, most of them involving Herod's wife, Herodias, who is constantly upbraiding him for his stupid superstitiousness (pp. 716–7; “the moon is like the moon, that is all”), his lechery towards Salome (his stepdaughter! “You must not look at her! You are always looking at her!”, p. 716), and even his supposed humble family background (“My daughter and I come of a royal race. As for thee, thy father was a camel driver! He was a thief and a robber to boot!”, p. 718; he seems to have forced her into marriage after he killed her previous husband, p. 721). There are also some funny scenes in which representatives of different Jewish sects bicker about some of the finer points of their theology (pp. 718–20).

One of my favorite passages in Salome is near the end, when Herod is desperately trying to get Salome to change her mind and ask for something else than Iokanaan's head (and eventually manages to sound like a modern-day TV salesman: “But this is not all”, p. 728); the result is a long paragraph of extremely purple prose in which Herod lists all kinds of exotic treasures, offering them to Salome. According to the editor's comments, this list was partly inspired by certain passages in Flaubert's Temptation of St Anthony (where the Queen of Sheba is trying to tempt the hermit with offers of treasure; p. 647), and to some extent Wilde drew on the same sources as for the famous Chapter 11 of the Picture of Dorian Gray, which he wrote a year or two before Salomé.

At some point, Herod lists something like 15 different kinds of gems, including three kinds of topazes, one of which is “pink as the eyes of a wood-pigeon” (p. 728). By then I was so accustomed to the exhaustive thoroughness of the editor's notes that I knew there would be a long paragraph about each of those gem types, and I was not disappointed (pp. 647–50); and I was indeed rather surprised that there was no discussion of the wood-pigeon's eyes so we could find out if they really are the same color as that type of topaz :)


One very nice improvement compared to the previous volumes in this series is that there are very few typos in this volume — they are pretty much negligible compared to the heaps of typos in e.g. volume IV. I guess that at some point between 2007 and 2013, OUP finally hired a proofreader :P

There are a few instances of wrong indentation, e.g. on line 154 on p. 145, line 163 on p. 163. There's a typo on p. 244 (“Dikstra” instead of “Dijkstra”), and another on p. 420 (“putrified” instead of “putrefied”; but it's in a quotation from Josephus, so maybe it's just quirky spelling in the source material); and there's “Pharoah” on p. 569, “Huysman's” on p. 614, “Huysman” on p. 621; and two spaces are missing on p. 733.

One thing that annoyed me about the book is that the paper seems to be much thicker than necessary. This volume is almost twice as thick as volume IV, but it has just 14% more pages (800 vs. 700). The book would be much easier to handle while reading if it was a bit thinner.

I also wished that the book had more illustrations. The only illustration in it is a sketch of how the stage should look, from one of the manuscripts of Salomé (p. 508). But for example on pp. 362–3 there is a long, detailed description of a kind of logo (or ‘device’) designed by Félicien Rops for the title page of the French edition of Salomé; and on pp. 479–80 there is a detailed description of a photo of the actress Lina Munte in her role as Salomé on the French premiere of the play — it seems to me that it would make a lot of sense to include these things as illustrations instead of just describing them.

An interesting difference compared to previous volumes is the number of references to resources on the web. This is often to online texts of various old books (e.g. there's one from, cited on p. 613); and there's even one reference to a Wikipedia page (“Shaving in Judaism”, p. 587)! I was pleasantly surprised by all this, since my impression so far has been that academic authors, especially in the humanities, have a huge distrust about citing web sources, especially the Wikipedia. I still have a little bit of a prejudice myself — namely, I can't help feeling that URLs look extremely ugly in print.


A huge number of potentially interesting books are mentioned in the notes of this volume:

  • André Gide: Oscar Wilde, tr. by Bernard Frechtman (NY, 1949). P. 329.
  • Jonathan Fryer: Andr & Oscar: The Literary Friendship of Andr Gide and Oscar Wilde (NY, 1997). P. 329. Gide got to know Wilde during the latter's visits to Paris.
  • Vincent O'Sullivan: Aspects of Wilde (London, 1936). P. 335. Another book of memoirs by one of Wilde's friends.
  • Jean Paul Raymond and Charles Ricketts: Oscar Wilde: Recollections (London, 1932). Pp. 336, 360, 468.
  • William Rothenstein: Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein (NY, 1931). P. 384.
  • Max Beerbohm: Letters to Reggie Turner, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1964). P. 384, 662.
  • Edgar Munhall: Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat (Paris: Flammarion, 1995). Montesquiou was the aesthete upon whom Huysmans based his des Esseintes. P. 448.
  • Holland: Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. P. 465.
  • Margery Ross (ed.): Robert Ross Friend of Friends: Letters to Robert Ross (London, 1952). P. 486.
  • Edgar Saltus: Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression (Chicago, 1917; rpt. NY, AMS Press, 1968). P. 657. Wilde met Saltus during his American tour and they remained in contact (vol. 6, p. 297).
  • Norman Page: An Oscar Wilde Chronology (Boston, 1991). P. 325.
  • E. H. Mikhail (ed.): Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollection (2 vols., London, 1979). P. 328.
  • Arthur Symons: The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London, 1889). P. 401.
  • Arthur Ransome: Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (London, 1912). P. 403.
  • Stefano Evangelista (ed.): The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe (London, 2010). P. 328.
  • John Stokes: In the Nineties (Chicago, 1989). P. 352.
  • Karl Beckson: London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (NY, 1992). P. 353.
  • Jean Pierrot: The Decadent Imagination 1880–1900, tr. Derek Coltman (Chicago, 1981). P. 353.
  • Linda Dowling: Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton, 1986). P. 353.
  • A. H. Church: Precious Stones Considered in Their Scientific and Artistic Relations (London, 1883). P. 387. This book was one of the sources for Wilde's decriptions of gems in Dorian Gray and Salomé.
  • W. Graham Robertson: Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1931). P. 406, 592.
  • Helen Grace Zagona: The Legend of Salome and the Principle of Art for Art's Sake (Geneva and Paris, 1960). P. 353.
  • Neil Bartless: Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (London, 1988). P. 592.
  • Peter Raby: Aubrey Beardsley and the Nineties (London, 1998). P. 669.
  • Henry Maas, J. L. Duncan, W. G. Good (eds.): The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley (Rutherford, NJ, 1970). P. 669.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: Lord Alfred Douglas: A Biography (London, 1984). P. 662.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1931), also published in the US as My Friendship with Oscar Wilde (NY, 1932). The first edition of 1929 is missing some footnotes, so use the 2nd ed. of 1931. See p. 673.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: Without Apology (London, 1938). P. 673.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up (London, 1940). P. 674.

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