Navigation – Plan du site

‘Subtle Instrument of Music’: Translating the Sound and Appearance of Decadence in Wilde’s Salomé

Le « Subtil instrument de musique » : traduire le son et l’apparente décadence dans la Salomé de Wilde
Erin Dunbar


La Salomé d’Oscar Wilde fut une aventure au cœur de la décadence, de la décapitation et de la langue française. Wilde désigna le spectacle comme sa « première mise au service de l’art, de ce subtil instrument de musique qu’est la langue française » (Hart-Davis 331). Sa première représentation fut interdite en Angleterre, elle ne put se produire sur les planches qu’en 1896 ; et même à cette date-là, la pièce se joua à Paris et non à Londres. Wilde n’allait pas se démonter pour autant ; il poursuivit sa lutte pour la publication. De fait, « indigné de cette censure philistine de son art, avec défi Wilde publia sa pièce en février 1893, enveloppée dans du pourpre de Tyrqui seyait bien aux cheveux dorés d’Alfred Douglas » (Hoare 73). Cette entreprise, cependant, présentait d’autres problèmes. Les lecteurs anglophones ne pouvaient accéder qu’à une compréhension littérale du texte avec une traduction tout aussi littérale de l’original en français. Après deux tentatives exhaustives de traduction, chacune élaborée par des hommes qui le connaissaient (et l’aimaient) bien, Wilde admit, semble-t-il, qu’elles étaient toutes deux les meilleures possibles compte tenu des contraintes qu’imposait la censure victorienne. Les objections personnelles de Wilde aux traductions n’étaient pas l’unique problème. Dans l’Angleterre victorienne, la langue française était considérée comme tout aussi inacceptablement décadente que le spectacle. En réalité, la passion esthétique pour la langue française mène en soi à l’extrémisme du spectacle ; Salomé ne serait pas Salomé sans cela. En ayant rédigé en français et « choisi d’écrire cette version de Salomé sous forme de pièce, Wilde prolonge malicieusement la dynamique du regard esthétique, et sa lutte pour une autorité perceptive au-delà du canevas de son art » (Greger 50). L’intérêt global du spectacle ici n’est pas tout à fait la notion de passion, mais la décadence — c’est-à-dire cette imperceptible frontière qui sépare décadents et jouisseurs. Il émane de l’environnement littéraire multilingue de l’époque de multiples exemples de ceci. Le vin, les femmes, la beauté et le sexe étaient les bases d’un style de vie hédoniste que menaient ceux qui se trouvaient dans les lieux et aux époques mentionnés ci-dessus ; des coutumes évoquées à la fois à travers la voix — ou son timbre — et le sens. Wilde allait ajouter un élément significatif à cette définition moyennant son portrait de la décadence dans Salomé : la mort. Le sexe et la mort comme symboles d’actes ultimes d’auto-indulgence lorsque Salomé convoite la tête coupée d’Iokanaan. Ces actions en soi devraient être suffisamment choquantes pour inspirer les masses, mais Wilde voyait plus loin encore. Pour lui, la seule langue poétique en mesure de porter de tels excès était le français, et par ailleurs la culture française était aussi la seule suffisamment ouverte pour pouvoir les accueillir sur scène. La décadence française — la sensuelle vocalité, les différentes connotations puisées dans l’environnement littéraire polyglotte de l’époque, et les audacieuses présentations extérieures du langage parlé sur scène — se retrouve à la fois dans la voix et dans le sens en interagissant avec le sujet du spectacle, donnant lieu à la plus décadente et jouissive des créations. L’écueil global n’en demeurait pas moins la traduction. L’épreuve qu’avait constituée la traduction du spectacle en termes de langage se reflétait dans une expression du sujet hautement complaisante pour la scène anglaise, d’autant plus quand on sait quelle était la langue d’origine.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Oscar Wilde’s Salomé was an adventure in decadence, decapitation, and the French language. Wilde called the play his ‘first venture to use for art that subtle instrument of music, the French tongue’ (Letters 331). Its initial 1892 performance in England was prohibited—an elaborate production featuring Sarah Bernhardt—and it was not produced on any stage until 1896; even then, it opened in Paris and not London. However, Wilde would not be thwarted by the initial suppression; he still insisted on publication and translation. In fact, ‘outraged at this philistine censorship of his art, Wilde defiantly published his play in February 1893, bound in ‘Tyrian purple’ wrappers to go with Alfred Douglas’ gilt hair’ (Hoare 73). This endeavour, however, presented another set of problems. English-speaking readers could only have an accurate comprehension of the text with an equally accurate translation of the original French. After two exhaustive attempts at translation by men who knew (and loved) him well—Robert Ross and Aubrey Beardsley—Wilde conceded, it appears, that these were the best possible while working within the constraints of Victorian censorship. Wilde’s personal objections to the translations were not the only obstructions preventing the play from being published or performed.

2One may only speculate as to Wilde’s intentions, but he was likely dissatisfied with the translations because English—both the language and conservative culture, in this case—lacked much of the decadence and sexuality he intended to communicate through connotation. The English language lacked that ‘second layer’ to the reading that French so easily provided him. Translation poses a threat to that second layer:

So as long as the resources available for systematizing every translation problem are lacking, we are obliged to say things like ‘English seems to prefer this way of expressing it’. This is a problem of practice, not of principle. At the same time, it is a relatively simple problem. Others, such as the analysis of stylistic differences between the two languages, shade into aesthetics and hence are beyond the scope of rigorous theory. (Armstrong 2)

3Wilde’s use of language certainly ‘shades into aesthetics’ and is up for more than mere linguistic interpretation. The combination of artistic and linguistic inferences complicates translation by broadening the translator’s options for definitions. However, by examining the ambiguity of the language of Wilde’s original text, the play’s themes may be discovered more fully, along with a better idea of what he might have wished to present. This is not only due to the difficulties of translation, but at times even due to editorial liberties that translators take, which often inevitably harm the literature—and, in one so carefully crafted with such dual meanings, connotations, and images, can at times lead the reader to completely misinterpret the text. It is this ‘second layer’ which the English reader most often misses.

4The inherent poetic excess of the French language lends itself to the extremism of the play; Salomé would not be Salomé without it. Through writing in French and, ‘[i]n choosing to write his version of Salomé in the form of a play, Wilde rather archly extends the dynamics of the aestheticizing gaze and its struggle for perceptual authority out beyond the canvas of his art’ (Greger 50). The play’s overall concern is not entirely the notion of passion, but decadence. Defined as ‘behaviour that shows low morals and a great love of pleasure...’ (Merriam Webster’s Learning Dictionary), decadence, for the purposes of this examination, is that fine line between the depraved and the indulgent that is expressed more elaborately via complexity and nuances of French. It is directly related to the composition techniques utilized by the French Decadents. Zola, for example, ‘and his contemporaries used a set of metaphoric devices to convey their sense of decadence’ (Nalbantian 72). The Decadent movement, though it appeared throughout Europe, was particularly popular in France, and in French. Examples of this exist and spring from the multilingual literary environment of Western Europe during the period. Wine, women, beauty, and sex were the bases for the hedonistic lifestyle led by those within the aforementioned place and era, and these are communicated through French in both voice—or timbre—and meaning. Wilde would add another significant element to this definition through his portrayal in Salomé: death. Sex and death become symbolic of the ultimate self-indulgent acts, as Salomé lusts after Iokanaan’s severed head. These actions alone might be enough to shock and inspire the masses, but Wilde had more in mind—for him, the only language poetic enough to support such excess was French. According to some persisting conservative ideals in Victorian England—and after—the French language was as unacceptably decadent as the play.

5Opposition was largely the result of ongoing puritanical concerns over English morality. This disapproval, stemming from centuries of hostility between France and England, was still very present by the time at which Salomé was to be produced: ‘To the tabloid-reading middle class, for whom morality was paramount, the country needed saving, and the puritans and patriots of 1914 looked to the war to purge the country of this foreign influence’ (Hoare 5). Salomé’s decadent appearance and subject matter—though primary causes of concern for the moralists—were undoubtedly not the only anxiety; to many, the French language embodied all that was impure about other, depraved cultures. After Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan reign in the seventeenth century that severely limited theatrical production, ‘English Restoration society began with an injection of French culture and theatre. Charles II, who loved everything French, including the theatre, was actually the first English monarch to visit the public theatre . . .  Samuel Johnson later defined “frenchify” as “to infect with the manner of France, to make a coxcomb”’ (Kuritz 223). The negative and positive sentiments—towards France and the French—waxed and waned over the centuries, depending upon the changing political and social climates. As Victorian Imperialism rose, so did a renewed interest in Cromwell. Cromwell’s views suited ideas of expansion and anti-French sentiment soon followed, making its way into the nineteenth century. Thomas Carlyle, in a collection of letters by Cromwell, referred to English Puritanism as ‘the last of all our Heroisms’ (2). The conservative parties thus continued to search for methods to censor French influence, and art in general.

6Wilde’s relationship with French culture and art has been well documented. Much of his approach to the literary tradition is owed to French masters such as Théophile Gautier and Stéphane Mallarmé. Arguably, Wilde’s venture may have also been an attempt to utilize his fame in order to position himself—socially and artistically—among those whom he revered:

The playwright’s categorical assertion ‘a play ought to be in French’ is symptomatic of an acknowledged debt towards the French literary bohème—which he had repeatedly frequented after his return from the United States—and an attempt to conquer the world’s cultural epicentre. Moreover, Wilde’s personal background anticipated and encouraged his francophile bias. Not only his excellent mastery of the language but also his attitude displayed towards its oral production within society make his manners a sort of living fiction of his works. (Ramos-Gay 272)

7Wilde’s passion for everything French was almost tangible; it revealed itself in most aspects of his life. It is not outside the realm of possibility that he believed composing Salomé in French, in addition to his existing fame, would be an opportunity to elevate his name among the French artists and thereby make him more than a mere dedicated aficionado. As it happened, French was also one of the few cultures open enough to receive the play on stage at the time.

8The sensational play has garnered generous attention and popularity since its creation and publication, moving far past its troubled beginning. It has been critiqued, deconstructed, and its history researched, not to mention the innumerable performances conducted over the years and its transformation into a German opera by Richard Strauss. Indeed, Noel Pemberton Billing’s ‘cult of Wilde’ has proven more genuine than not, despite its clear prejudice; Philip Hoare writes in Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, ‘He may have been dead for more than a decade, but Wilde’s decadence endured’ (5). Richard Ellmann’s essential Wilde biography covers the initial censorship of the play’s performance in 1892: ‘The rehearsals began in the second week of June and had been going on for two weeks . . .  There was an old law that forbade the depiction on the stage of Biblical characters, and since Pigott was straitlaced, prospects were bleak’ (372). The visual excess of the play’s scenes, expressed with the decadence of the French language, was a likely factor in the play’s ultimate cessation as well. In Sisters of Salomé, Toni Bentley claims

Salomé became so popular a lady in the last few decades of the nineteenth century that almost every poet or painter . . .  but mostly French—wrote about her . . .  Much bad poetry was the result. It was left to Oscar Wilde . . .  to give Salomé a fame that would reach far beyond the elite artistic and intellectual circles where she ruled from her distant pedestal. Wilde’s Salomé would become a pop icon. (Bentley 26)

9These studies of the process by which the play was published and translated, and the censorship Wilde encountered, including Billing’s notable—and arguably ridiculous—trial conducted against Wilde and Salomé after Wilde’s death, provide some insight into England’s cultural resistance.

10That resistance and censorship enraged Wilde and he threatened to move to France where he felt he would be more well received. However, he could not resist sharing his art with the English; though Salomé was forbidden on the English stage, its publication was not yet banned. Despite his discontent with the translations, however, Wilde never produced his own. He also never wholly objected to the publishing of either version, suggesting he had accepted that any translation done in English would ultimately fall short. These efforts at translation were the best ones possible while working within the limitations of the English language, as publication was the only alternative to a live production. The conclusion is that any attempt at translation would be inadequate due to inherent differences between French and English—there is good evidence in the text to suggest this is the case. The aesthetic qualities of the French language—an element of the ‘problematic’ foreign influence for the English—were a prodigious tool and inspiration for the composition of the piece, as it was written in French to make use of the language’s sound and enhance its decadence.

11Thus, the English translations were insufficient because nuances in French meaning help develop the play’s excess in many of its most central scenes. Ambiguities and connotations, which sometimes go beyond what was possible in English, allow for simultaneous decadence in simplicity—much significance found on occasion in only one term—and decadence in meaning. In the original text, many words become integral to the play due to their second and entirely separate meanings which add a whole other reading that is largely inaccessible for non-French readers. These secondary meanings lend themselves thematically to the play’s profligacy; and while English might be capable of contextual decadence, it cannot achieve this simultaneous conciseness and myriad meanings that works so well in tandem within the play. There are surely words available in French with singular meanings, but because Wilde chose their more variable synonyms, Salomé overflows with indulgent imagery, where many images are dual images—those having to do with sexual excess, death and greed being the most notable.

12Most often, Wilde’s technique for expressing these elements is found in direct comparisons of imagery in the text. As though the very notion of a woman’s lust-worthy beauty being displayed on the London stage were not problematic enough for the English, when Salomé is discussed in the play, she is most often likened to an exquisite, desirable object. Discovering exactly what object she is being compared to is the tricky part and where the beauty of French meaning really shines. The original version states that, ‘elle ressemble à une fleur d’argent’ (13). In his choice of translation, Lord Alfred Douglas’s version reads, ‘she is like a silver flower’ (19). The interesting part of this translation is that the term ‘argent’, according to The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary (OHFD), is a noun meaning not only ‘silver’ but ‘money’ as well. This brief image becomes the subject of comparison to beauty, and therefore gathers more possibilities in meaning. It is conceivable that by choosing ‘silver’ Douglas attempted to make Salomé’s description more visually attractive to the reader. Silver is known for being lustrous and is also considered very appealing for its monetary value—but it is not only connotations at work here. In a different possible translation in which Salomé ‘resembles a flower of money’, the reading becomes less about physical beauty and more about the attractive nature of material possessions. The passage becomes charged with greed and materialism. The image in Wilde’s French version, when translated with the term ‘money’, is indefinite, abstract. Money can be silver, gold, or paper. If Wilde wanted specifically to project an image of the metal silver, he could have used the term ‘argenté’, which means something silver-plated. He might also have mentioned the word for ‘metal’. He chose, however, to write ‘argent’, making the reading of such a seemingly insignificant phrase far more complex. Through the translation of ‘argent’ with the word ‘money’, Salomé becomes similar to a material possession that may sometimes be physically beautiful but is primarily desired for its economic worth. She is now on the stage and ‘for sale’.

13In the Douglas translation, as Salomé is represented by an object appreciated for its monetary value, another task in translating this passage is the word ‘fleur’ or ‘flower’. The flower, another object associated with beauty, is tied in this part with the image of money to produce an illustration of visual attractiveness joined with an image of profit. The image, then, is one of pure material decadence. Douglas’s translation can be seen in both ways. In his translation, one might see—visualize—silver molded into the shape of a flower. The physical image created by these words is complex, and their enigmatic connection further develops between them an image of aesthetic beauty. Douglas’s version is desirable because it is beautiful, and possibly because it is, in fact, silver, and worth a great deal. A reader may also assume that the ‘fleur d’argent’ refers to coins arranged in the shape of a flower. Pictorially, ‘fleur d’argent’ translated as ‘flower of money’ compels the reader to imagine money, whatever type it may be, organized, rather than melted and molded, into the shape of a flower. The image then becomes both one of attractiveness and of financial acquisition. What Wilde originally intended cannot be communicated as directly in English, therefore cannot be as decadent in its brevity as is the original French. Because he chose a phrase that can be translated in more than one way, it is left to the reader to visualize its meaning.

14Complex images are critical to Wilde’s play. Even those as apparently insignificant as the colour of Caesar’s robe can affect what the reader or viewer experiences. In the play, Caesar’s robe is described as being ‘pourpre’, which Douglas translates as ‘purple’. ‘Purple’ is one of the English equivalents of ‘pourpre’. It was not, however, its primary, contemporary definition. The colour ‘pourpre’ most often translates as ‘crimson’ (OHFD). There are other words for purple, and other words for red, but Wilde chose one for shades of a Roman emperor’s robe that teeters between associations. This subtle difference has a great influence on meaning. If the robe is visualized as being purple, this would indicate royalty, which suits a description of Caesar, as he is the leader of the Roman Empire—the cultural debauchery of which was certainly considered loathed by English conservatives. A purple robe symbolizes wealth and, again, material excess. If his robe is crimson, this may connote the very same thing; however, it may also indicate something quite different. Salomé is rife with violent, bloody imagery, something certainly suggested by a blood-red robe worn by the emperor of a civilization known to sometimes revel in blood sports and in watching the deaths of others for entertainment.

15The decadent possibilities to be found in Salomé extend even further. Wilde was, and is, infamous for his bold writing style and the ideas he communicates through it, so it is not implausible that he may have purposefully trodden beyond the bounds of acceptability when depicting sex in his play—but again, always with precise, ambiguous French subtlety. In one instance, Wilde uses a specific word to briefly depict an extreme and disturbing form of sexuality: ‘baiser’. The term ‘baiser’ is used many times by Salomé in her long florid proposals to Iokanaan—and even more in her final scenes with his head. ‘J’ai baisé ta bouche’, she says (80). In these moments, the term seems, in context, to mean ‘kiss’. However, at the time when Wilde was composing Salomé, ‘baiser’ had begun to take on another, much more vulgar definition. Contemporarily, when used as a verb, ‘baiser’ most often means ‘to be screwed’ or ‘to be fucked’ (OHFD). According to a brief etymological study of the term, by the time Wilde was composing the play, the use of it as a verb had already become commonly associated with sex. In fact, according to one published history of the French language, Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique De La Langue Française, by 1881 ‘baiser’ was even used by some to allude to a passive homosexual partner (166). The speculation about the use of this term is furthered by the fact that there is another much more common term that means ‘to kiss’. ‘Embrasser’ has no apparent links to vulgar terms and causes no speculation as to its meaning or connotation. Wilde had other, less complex—and in this case less controversial—word choices for these passages, but he chose one that doubles as a word for ‘fuck’. Had Wilde wanted to portray no more than a kiss—even a profound, immodest one—it would have been perfectly suitable for him to utilize an alternate word and perhaps some surrounding context to create sufficient depravity. Instead, he chose one that is most commonly used for vulgarity. He chose a word that not only conveys pronounced sexuality but does so under the guise of an innocent kiss. This is conceivably what Wilde meant to achieve, and it develops Salomé’s mad character in ways that the English could not possibly have permitted.

16Another strange and disturbing reading related to the term ‘baiser’ is earlier in the speech above. Salomé says to her beloved severed head, ‘je la baiserai maintenant. Je la mordrai avec mes dents comme on mord un fruit mûr’ (77). When translated with the connotation of ‘baiser’, that means a ‘kiss’, the lines read, ‘I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth like a morsel of ripe fruit’. This translation is innocent enough—decadent, but still innocent—but when the more vulgar term is put in place of the innocent one, an image of grotesque sexuality appears. The sentence becomes ‘I will fuck it now. I will bite it with my teeth like a morsel of ripe fruit’. Here is an image of the vagina dentata. Salomé becomes the fearsome woman who will devour her lovers’ body, or just his head in this case. Even despite the absurdity, in the back of a French reader’s mind, the kiss becomes a fuck.

17When a different translation is applied to the final scene in which Salomé caresses the severed head of Iokanaan, the actions within the scene become far more disturbing than prior suggestions by the word ‘baiser’. They become more disturbing even than those of a woman kissing a severed head, which in the English translation is enough to make a reader cringe. When the more notorious definition is applied, the scene where once, in the English translation, Salomé says she had kissed the mouth of the deceased Iokanaan’s head, the text now reads: ‘I have fucked your mouth, Iokanaan, I have fucked your mouth’. The choice of verb on Wilde’s part is no mistake: it creates the potential for an outlandishly offensive reading. Had he chosen ‘embrasser’, there would be no reason to offer conjecture as to his meaning. Nor would the scene lose much of its decadence. However, the decision to use ‘baiser’ and its attachment to this provocative undertone make for a very intriguing, disquieting, and sexually alarming translation, which, as clues left in the language lead us to believe, was entirely intentional. The scene as rendered in the original French has a much greater impact on the reader than it would have had, and does in the English, otherwise.

18As stated earlier, Wilde chose to write in French because he perceived it as a vocally expressive ‘instrument’, the precise reason he chose it not for a novel but for his most expressive play: ‘I have one instrument I know that I can command, and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it’ (Ellmann 352). The moon, for example, is constantly observed and described by various characters in the play. Herod, the king of Judea, is very expressive and uses sensual language when describing the moon. He says, ‘on dirait une femme hystérique qui va cherchant des amants partout. Elle est nue aussi. Elle est toute nue. Les nuages cherchent à la vêtir, mais elle ne veut pas. Elle chancelle à travers les nuages comme une femme ivre’ (34). Translated as literally as possible, this part reads that ‘they would say a hysterical woman who is searching for lovers everywhere. She is nude also. She is nude everywhere. The clouds search to cover her, but she does not want. She reels across the clouds like a woman intoxicated’. Douglas’s version of this passage reads, ‘She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked, too. She is quite naked. The clouds seek to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman’ (32). Douglas’s translation is fairly accurate, but lacking in the excess the French version expresses. Several of the terms in this passage translate with meanings more extravagant than those Douglas offers. ‘Hystérique’, for example, translates to ‘hysterical’, and provides a much more dramatic image than ‘mad’. A hysterical woman is wild, fanatical, and outrageous. The term ‘chancelle’ also has more denotations than ‘reel’. ‘Chancelle’ also means ‘to stumble’, ‘stagger’, and ‘wobble. ‘Ivre’ can imply different sorts of drunkenness. It can project images of being ‘wasted’, ‘intoxicated’, or just ‘tipsy’ (OHFD). When more definitions are applied, the woman becomes hysterical and searching for lovers everywhere. She staggers, wobbles, and reels across the clouds like a woman wasted, intoxicated, or tipsy. Meaning is rendered more generic in the English version, though in this case it is through no real fault of the language itself. The French language provides a more stunning image, contextually.

19Another example of the English editorial hindrances in translating is found in the first scene with the Page of Herodias’ remarks on Salomé’s mysterious beauty, using the moon as a metaphor. ‘Regardez la lune’, he says. ‘La lune a l’air très étrange. On dirait une femme qui sort d’un tombeau. Elle ressemble à une femme morte. On dirait qu’elle cherche des morts’ (3). In this excerpt the Page of Herodias asks his counterpart to look at the moon. He remarks that ‘the moon has a very strange air. One would say that she searches for the dead’. Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation of this moment reads:

THE PAGE OF HERODIAS. Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things. (11)

20The primary difference in Wilde’s original and Douglas’s translation is the use of the word ‘things’ The word ‘things’ suggests that the original version contains the word ‘chose’, which means ‘thing’. However, the term ‘chose’ is nowhere to be found in the original version. When retranslated appropriately—without the term ‘things’—the result is a reading that says, ‘One would say that she is searching for the dead’—‘des morts’. This arouses a more specific reading. If one reads that this dead woman searches for ‘the dead’, the interpreter will likely infer that she searches for deceased people. The use of the term ‘things’ implies that the woman searches for anything that is dead, whether it be human or not. The image provoked by Wilde’s version is one with more sentiment. It is a vision of a dead woman, wandering in search of others who are deceased, as she is. Perhaps she searches for companionship, or for understanding. Wilde’s choice of words, or his lack of words, creates a moving image that is both emotional and melancholic. With this new interpretation, this image of death, and the search for it, becomes very clear and powerful for the reader.

21These rather grotesque images of Salomé, undoubtedly highly inappropriate for a nineteenth-century London play—particularly a Biblical drama—are more excessive in the foreign language. As the play comes to an end, Salomé grows more and more disturbed. Her insanity is reflected in her speech when she says, ‘Iokanaan, Iokanaan, tu as été le seul homme que j’ai aimé. Tous les autres hommes m’inspirent du dégoût’ (78). When translated as accurately as possible, Salomé says: ‘Iokanaan, Iokanaan, you were the only man that I have loved. All the other men inspire my disgust’. The expression of Salomé’s feelings is interesting because of its elaborate way of expressing irony—the irony being that Salomé is holding a grotesque, bleeding, severed head while at the same time scorning all other men for inspiring her disgust. She finds men in their natural, lively state, disgusting. However, this face made gruesome by being amputated inspires her love. The use of ‘inspire’ and ‘disgust’ heighten the level of Salomé’s hatred for other men, and the disturbing irony of her lust for the head of a corpse. For Salomé’s abhorrence for men must, indeed, be severe for her to desire Iokanaan’s decaying, incomplete corpse.

22English censorship and criticism of Wilde’s play have been posed for many reasons, in addition to the obvious issues of blatant depravity on stage. In Perverse Midrash: Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and Censorship of Biblical Drama, Katherine Brown Downey claims, ‘Much criticism of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, both contemporary with it and more recent, suggests that Wilde intended to create a stir with his play, to flout the censor’s rules, and had written a work he knew could not be performed’ (95). This notion is not accepted by all; Petra Dierkes-Thrun wrote that the ‘sixteenth-century law prohibiting the representation of biblical characters on stage . . .  had never been enforced very strictly’, and that many were surprised by the censorship (4). Additionally, ‘According to [Kerry] Powell, submitting a play in French to mandatory London theatrical censorship also significantly enhanced Wilde’s chances to evade the censors…’ (74). In the same vein, assuming Wilde’s additional choice to compose his play in French was simply for the beauty of the language is compatible with his personal style, but it is a limited notion. Readers—and potentially viewers—would revel in the disturbing scene with the severed head. Yet, readers privy to what was, perhaps, Wilde’s true intended meaning, revel in something even darker and more disturbing. Wilde uses the French language to make the visual experience even more decadent, to push the envelope in almost every conceivable way.

23The grand language expresses the activities of the play in such a way as to make it more vibrant and realistic—a bizarre and sensory experience. Wilde likely believed that the sound of the French language was meant to be pleasing to the ears of the audience, as it was pleasing to him. In addition, of course, the fact that the English censors resisted any foreign inclusion made the language’s application all the more dramatic. For the English, ‘Wilde’s Salomé manifested all the concerns of his contemporaries, who had expressed their fears of the public confrontation with perversity in the Bible and a return to Catholicism with an increasingly restrictive censorship and the rhetoric to defend it’ (Downey 110). Salomé was produced on stage in Paris in 1896, ‘but in England, the ban on Salomé was not lifted until 1927. By the 1920s . . . the abolitionists had discredited the role of the Censor and brought about a relaxation of restrictions on some areas. However, stage censorship continued in England until 1968’ (Sloan 91). Salomé, in French and English, would continue to be too extreme for censors, and so Wilde would never witness his play performed on the great London stage.

24Wilde’s works are well known for being extravagant; they are full of vivid, powerful descriptions and imagery both grotesque and attractive. Even the disgusting things that typically inspire horror have been made beautiful by his talents. Such is the result in Salomé. All this is achieved in a way only the French language could accomplish—a way too shameless and decadent for nineteenth- and some of the twentieth-century London theatre. Wilde felt that the French language was the epitome of decadence, and to twist that reputation using such decadent, not-so-veiled imagery truly makes such a play impressive. Ultimately, Wilde would have it written, read, and performed in French. As he wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse, ‘have no fear but that Salomé will find her way to that delightful library you have . . . and if she be not too Tyrian in her raiment be suffered to abide there for a season’ (Letters 331).

Haut de page


Armstrong, Nigel. Translation, Linguistics, Culture: A French-English Handbook. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2005.

Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salomé. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.

Correard, Marie-Hélène, and Valérie GrundyThe Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary: French-English, English-French. Paris: Hachette, 1994.

Cromwell, Oliver, and Thomas CarlyleOliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1861.

‘Decadence’. Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, 2016. Accessed 13, September, 2016.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2011.

Downey, Katherine Brown. Perverse Midrash: Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and Censorship of Biblical Drama. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Ramos-Gay, Ignacio. ‘Myth and Censorship. Oscar Wilde Re-Writing the French Classics’. Quaderns de Filologia. Estudis Literaris 10 (2005): 271‒83.

Greger, Christoph. ‘Constructing the Aesthetic Gaze: Salomé and the Submissive Art of Spectatorship’. Literature and Psychology 47.3 (2001): 38‒52.

Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century. New York: Arcade Pub., 1998.

Kuritz, Paul. The Making of Theatre History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.

Nalbantian, Suzanne. Seeds of Decadence in the Late Nineteenth-century Novel: A Crisis in Values. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.

Rey, Alain. Dictionnaire historique de la langue française. Paris: Le Robert, 1998.

Sloan, John. Authors in Context: Oscar Wilde. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé, Drame en un Acte. Dessins de Alastair. Paris: G. Crès & Cie., 1927.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act: Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas: Pictured by Aubrey Beardsley. New York: Dover, 1967.

Wilde, Oscar, and Aubrey BeardsleySalomé and Under the Hill. London: Creation, 1996.

Wilde, Oscar, and Rupert Hart-Davis. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Erin Dunbar, « ‘Subtle Instrument of Music’: Translating the Sound and Appearance of Decadence in Wilde’s Salomé », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3382

Haut de page


Erin Dunbar

Erin Dunbar has a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in French, and a Master’s degree in English; both from the University of North Texas. She has completed her coursework and most of her exams toward a Doctorate in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her primary area of study has been gender and sexuality in literature, with a focus on deviant sexuality, and she has applied her research to many periods, languages, and forms of art.
Erin Dunbar est titulaire d’une licence en anglais (mention français), et d’un master en anglais, de l’université du North Texas. Elle a poursuivi ses études et passé la plupart des épreuves de doctorat en anglais à l’université de Louisiane, à Lafayette. Son champ d’étude premier a été le genre et la sexualité dans la littérature, plus particulièrement la sexualité déviante. Elle a exercé ses recherches sur de nombreuses périodes, langues et formes d’art.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • OpenEdition Journals