The biblical story of Salomé was transformed in the late 1800s, breathing new life into the tale. Originally interpreted through the misogynistic lenses of the times, Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé offered new possibilities for the interpretation of Salomé’s story. By elongating the plot line of the story, Wilde gave new space for women, especially erotic performers, to readapt Salome’s image to incorporate more empowering themes.
Salomé’s biblical stardom is brief. In some translations of the Bible her name isn’t even mentioned. Salomé is the daughter of Herodias, who is originally married to Herod II. Herod II’s brother Antipas desired Herodias, so when Herod II died, Antipas married Herodias. John the Baptist saw this marriage as illegitimate and illegal. And he was imprisoned by Antipas for those views. Later, at Antipas’ birthday celebration, Salomé danced, and her dance “pleased Herod [Antipas] so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.” Her mother suggested to her that Salomé should ask for John’s head on a platter. Antipas complied—reluctantly—and Salomé gave John’s newly removed head to Herodias. The Bible provides little detail of Salome’s story, but this allows artists of all media and all eras to use her story as a canvas for their particular view of womanhood and their desire to explore a lurid tale under the cover of telling a biblical story.
Before the mid-19th century, much of the art surrounding the story left Salomé as an afterthought. Instead, the art focused more heavily on John’s beheading. Three pieces in particular show the early interpretations of her story well: Donatello’s The Feast of Herod, Strobel’s Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, and Schalcken’s Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist.
In Donatello’s The Feast of Herod, a bronze relief sculpture, the focal point of the piece is a servant handing Herod Antipas John’s head on a platter. Salomé can be seen standing off to the side with a group of people, looking at John’s severed head.
In the 1600s, we see the use of Salome’s story as a vehicle to depict the ideas and fashions of the age. In Bartholomeus Strobel’s Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St John the Baptist, we find the figures not dressed in the clothing of the first century, but ruffs, suits of armor, and porcelain-white faced women, the dress of the artist’s era. Again, Salomé is not a central figure in the work, and it is not immediately apparent which individual she is.
Later on Salomé’s role in works of art becomes more prominent, starting with Godfried Schalcken’s Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist. We can see this shift simply by observing the emphasis on Salome in the titles of works of art. In the piece, a man grabs the hair of John the Baptist’s severed head over its platter, which is held in turn by Salomé. In contrast to the first two pieces, Schalcken’s piece shows Salomé centrally. Her face is the most brightly lit, and her head is turned just shy of facing the viewer, giving the viewer a full image of Salomé for the first time. Her face is the sole point of light in a completely dark background, and Salomé’s eyes are the only ones visible. This new focus marks a shift in the approach to her story. Pieces that were once focused on the beheading and Antipas are now focused on Salomé herself.
In the mid to late 1800s, this shift in focus becomes more prominent. Nowhere is this better seen than in Gustave Moreau’s famous work Salomé Dancing before Herod, painted in 1874-76. The foreground of the piece features Salomé, balanced on the tips of her toes, as if she were wearing pointed shoes. Behind Salomé, Herod sits atop his throne, with Herodias off to the side. This piece is significant because it began a fixation on not only Salomé, but her dance over the beheading of John. Furthermore, this piece heavily influenced Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.
Among all the artistic interpretations of Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé has been the most influential. It was a transition point in her artistic interpretation, and the play’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” has become the defining characteristic of all subsequent portrayals of Salomé. Working with his friend and actress Sarah Bernhardt, he conceived a single act play that shaped all works surrounding Salomé that followed. From Strauss’s opera of the same name to dance performances through today, Wilde’s embellishments shape and influence all perspectives and themes of the subject. Wilde’s play follows the story laid out in the Bible, but diverges in key aspects, mostly through his plot additions. He separates the play into two main sections: Salomé with John, and Salomé with Herod.
In the first section with John, Salome hears his voice and immediately wishes to speak to him. Even this early in the play, she uses her sexual desirability to convince one of Herod’s guards to bring him out to speak to her. When she succeeds, John is quite unkind to her, but she is undeterred. She states: “I am amorous of thy body, Iokanaan! Thy body is white, like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed … There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body.” John is unwilling, citing his connection to God. Made bitter by rejection, she renegs on her comments on his body, referring to it as like that of a leper. Following this response, she begins anew complimenting his hair, concluding with an echo of her last line: “Suffer me to touch thy hair.” John refuses again, and Salomé again takes back what she had previously said. With one last attempt, she focuses on John’s mouth, saying “Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory …. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red [as your lips].” She again echoes her earlier statements, pleading “suffer me to kiss thy mouth,” and is once again denied her wish. Even though she has faced this series of rejections, she resolves: “I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan.” Upon hearing this, the man whom Salomé early convinced to bring Iokanaan out of his prison kills himself, devastated that Salomé doesn’t reciprocate his own adoration of her. Unfazed by the man’s suicide, Salomé continues to state “suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan” and “I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan” many times more, rejected with each request.
In the second part, Herod is the central male figure in the piece. He is still married to his late brother’s wife, Herodias, and Salomé is still Herodias’ daughter. Wilde elaborates on the biblical tale however, turning a single verse into many pages of dialogue between Herod and Salomé. After dealing with the body of his fallen captain, Herod’s focus shifts to Salomé. He offers her wine, wanting to watch her drink. Salomé declines. He offers her fruit, and she declines. He offers her the seat next to him—her very mother’s throne—and is still rejected. These offers from Herod have distinct sexual undertones, setting the scene for the upcoming events. Following this exchange, Salomé falls into the background momentarily, but is again addressed by the king, who compliments the paleness of her skin. Herod then requests that Salomé dance for him, and like before, is promptly denied. This time however, he doesn’t let the issue drop. His requests turn into demands, demands into commands, and commands into pleas. Herod begs: “Salomé, Salomé, dance for me … I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dances for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. Yes, dance for me, Salomé, and whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.” (emphasis added). This offer piques Salomé’s interest, and upon Herod swearing an oath by his gods to give Salomé whatever she wishes, she agrees to dance.
Following her dance, Salomé reaps her reward. In the Bible, Salomé consulted her mother when determining what she wanted for her reward, but in Wilde’s play, Salome knows exactly what she wants from the beginning: to kiss John. As she said to John before Herod entered, she would have his lips no matter what. She requests John’s decapitated head so that she may kiss him, even in death. Unfortunately, Herod sees this and finds it so abhorrent that he has Salomé killed by his guards.
After Wilde released his piece, Salomé blossomed as a significant symbol in popular culture. First, almost immediately after Wilde’s release, Richard Strauss premiered his opera also titled Salomé. It largely followed the same story as Wilde’s story, but with added vocals, as well as increased length. Like Wilde, Strauss placed heavy emphasis on the Dance of the Seven Veils. In Strauss’ rendition, the dance was so sexual for its time that the lead soprano refused to perform the dance. At the American debut at the Metropolitan Opera, ballet dancer Bianca Froelich stood in for the performer playing Salomé during the Dance of the Seven Veils. The debut was not well received. The board at the Metropolitan demanded an end to the performances, and upon the shutdown, Froelich moved her dance to the Lincoln Square Variety Theatre.
Despite this failure and to some extent because of the notoriety from it, Salomé and her veiled dance captivated American culture. This craze was especially visible in the vaudeville performances of the time. The first performances were inspired by the so-called “hootchy-cootchy” dance of Little Egypt at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, but the first truly Salomé inspired performance was said to be Maud Allan’s quarter-hour performance at the Palace Theatre London: “The Vision of Salomé.” Allan’s 1906 performance was so popular that Gertrude Hoffmann, an American vaudeville performer, travelled to Europe to learn Allan’s dance. Upon returning to America, Hoffmann’s Vision sparked a national obsession. Held at the Victoria Theatre in New York, Hoffmann debuted the result of her time with Allan in July 1908. Almost immediately, all of New York City hungered for Salomé performances. According to Marlis Schweitzer of York University, one New York dancer noted that it was near impossible to book a show without a veiled dance or some sort. The dancer said this only a few weeks after Hoffman’s first show. Hoffman’s success evolved into a 25-week tour of American cities. Her performances were, at least outside of New York, often banned for their obscenity. Her near-naked attire for her performance sometimes proved just too risqué for 1908.
America held such a desire for Salomé in 1908 that one Mile. Dazié (real name Daisy Peterkin of St. Louis, Missouri) opened a “Salome School,” which turned out up to 150 Salomé performers a month. She claimed to be the real beginner of the Salomé craze as early as 1907 and became so famous that she was hired and featured as an exotic dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies. This increased attention again manifested in New York, where Mary Garden played Salomé in the Manhattan Opera House production of Strauss’ opera. On January 28, 1909, Garden became only the second opera singer to perform her own Dance of the Seven Veils, bringing legitimacy to the Salomania sweeping the nation.
Before Garden made her debut, Marie Cahill, a popular Broadway actress, comedienne and vocalist of generous proportion and not particularly fair of face, felt that Salome was corrupting society, infecting the minds of children and men around the country, and campaigned against the performances. She was herself known for never appearing in a revealing costume. In August 1908, she penned a letter to many prominent political figures, such as Roosevelt, the heads of political parties, and presidential candidates. Comparing Salomania to a disease, she implored the recipients of her letters to charter a commission tasked with censoring immoral stage productions. President Taft declined her requests, but Cahill’s goals didn’t go completely unachieved; where Taft wouldn’t intervene, local “vice squads” fought against Salomé-inspired dances and made arrests.
Three years later after Dazié, African-American superstar Aida Overton Walker took Salomé as inspiration for a more modest performance. After a 16-week tour across the Midwest, Walker was invited to perform at Victoria Theatre, the same location as Hoffman’s original and more notorious performances. Walker’s show was a huge success. As a black woman, achieving the successes she did in such times of racial discrimination was impressive.
Although she was not the first to perform the dance, Eva Tanguay’s rendition of the Dance of the Seven Veils is especially notable. A huge star of her time in vaudeville and a woman famous for her unbridled energy and showmanship, she incorporated the Dance of the Seven Veils as one of the defining features of her vaudeville act. In fact, after adding her Salomé dance to her repertoire, Tanguay’s booking price increased to $2500 a week. When asked about her performance, she said: “I can fit the entire costume in my closed fist.” This costume may have been small, but its impact was unprecedented. In fact, this Dance of the Seven Veils is credited as the predecessor to the striptease as we know it today and the rise in popularity of risqué burlesque.
As the name suggests, the dancer begins the performance wearing 7 veils. As the dance progresses, each veil is removed one at a time, accompanied by sexually suggestive dancing. In the final stages of the dance, the woman has little to no clothing remaining on her body. For example, in the 2002 film Salomé, the actress Aída Gómez is completely naked by the end of the dance, and in modern burlesque performances the performers breasts are bare. Eva Tanguay added her own flair, not quite so explicit, but still extremely racy for her time and this only increased the popularity of the “I Don’t Care Girl”. Although often entitled “Eva Tanguay, The Naked Truth,” her performance was not necessarily always perceived as lewd or immoral. Her on-stage antics turned a performance that could be highly sensual into one that, while not exactly wholesome fun for the family, was still presentable in a less sexual context and more akin to self parody and comedy. She noted on one occasion: “I am not beautiful. I can’t sing. I do not know how to dance. I am not even graceful.” She may have lacked grace, but she had no shortage of influence or popularity, especially during the Salome craze.
Eva Tanguay is such an important figure in the history of Salome because of how she leveraged the craze surrounding the story for her own benefit. Her performances created much controversy but she generally felt that all press is good press, and Tanguay took full advantage of that belief. Instead of shying away from the discussions around the appropriateness of her performances, she embraced them, causing her popularity to grow as the discussions of her work carried their way out of the theatre and into the world.
A key issue with the feminist nature of Salomé’s mythos is its focus on her sexuality and sexual desires. In fact, in Wilde’s original play, all of Salome’s actions and decisions, and those of most other characters are motivated by sexual desire for Salomé, or by Salome’s sexual desire for John the Baptist. In Wilde’s play, Salomé was meant to be a symbol of feminine lust and its destructive influence. Although it may have had that effect in its time, the focus on the Dance of the Seven Veils has eroded this symbolism. Instead, Salomé (and her dance) has come to be a vehicle of female empowerment. During the years after the play’s release, the adoption of the Dance of the Seven Veils by performers gave them a way to capitalize monetarily, lifting these women up in an era of intense misogyny.
Similarly, many of the renditions of Salomé’s story, especially later ones, have a decidedly more feminist perspective than others. For example, in Ken Russell’s Salomé’s Last Dance, Salomé takes the seat on the throne while Herod sits on a couch below. Framed by her mother from behind, Salomé looks down upon Herod, denying him his requests and coaxing from him a promise to half of his kingdom. It changes the original dynamic of Herod the king dictating the actions of the less powerful Salomé to two women, Salomé and her mother, taking the throne from the king and dictating his actions. By using her desirability to influence the other characters’ decisions, Salomé develops a multi-dimensionality that she lacked in the Bible. And as a multi-dimensional character, she subverts the objectification found in the original presentation of the story.
Throughout history, Salome’s story has taken on many forms. From its original biblical inception, to the early artistic interpretations, to Wilde and Strauss, to the modern day, Salomé has evolved from a barely mentioned accessory to an embodiment of lust to a powerful symbol of womanhood.
3 (Caravaggio, 1607)
4 (Moreau, 1876)
6 (Wilde, 1891)
7 (Strauss, 1905)
8 (Sensuous, Shocking and Sensational: Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’)
10 (Simonson 42)
12 (Rosen, 2009)
13 (Saura, 2002)
14 (Medianoche, 2016)
15 (Cullen 1088)
16 (Erdman 113)
17 (Russell, 1988)
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da. Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist. National Gallery, London.
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Erdman, Andrew. Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay. Cornell University Press, 2012.
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Salomé. Dir. Carlos Saura. 2002.
Salomé’s Last Dance. Dir. Ken Russell. Vestron Pictures, 1988.
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SALOME SHEET MUSIC OWNED BY THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA SCHOOL OF ANTHROPOLOGY VAUDEVILLE COLLECTION:
VISIONS OF SALOME VALSE 1910 – by Archibald Joyce. From the ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1910. Cover shows Salome dancing with sword before her.