It’s apparent that a trope has reached cultural ubiquity when it is depicted in cartoons, video games, and popular songs. Salome. Just the name evokes the exotic and the erotic. She is a personification of the eternal Other, literally veiled in mystery and a whiff of incense. She is the femme fatale, the original vamp, so convincing in her seduction that Herod was powerless in the face of it, willingly offering up John the Baptist’s head on a platter upon her request. Or so the story goes. But regardless of embellishments by Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss, and others over the years, the tale of Salome endures because it trades in timeless issues of duality and deception–some of which were foremost at the onset of modernity, but that still persist to this day: the seductress and the innocent, the high and the low, the personal and performative roles of women and race. A woman who exudes power without compromising her femininity is seemingly problematic–both for the men who have difficulty apprehending this combination, and for the women themselves, who must negotiate it. The fact that the figure of Salome (as a tangible symbol of this issue) is still a subject in various artistic media is a testament to society’s continued need to make sense of this female archetype and to place her appropriately in ever-evolving contexts.
Hardly surprisingly, given its iconic placement as a foundation for myth-making in our culture, the first mention of this enigmatic young woman is Biblical, although accounts of her in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark never mention her by name. Here she is only identified as “the daughter of…Herodias” (Mark 6:21-29, KJV) who danced and pleased Herod enough to grant her any wish–and it is at this point it would appear that the elaboration of the Salome myth begins. The Gospel accounts both suggest that (the as-yet-unnamed) Salome makes her macabre request upon prompting from her mother, suggesting that the former half of the “Madonna/whore” duality is the original provenance of Salome, with her mother Herodias possessing the truly evil tendencies. Be that as it may, it is the mysterious dancing daughter who gains the foreground in subsequent artistic renditions, and it is she who is seen to possess both extremes of womanhood from this point forward. Salome is at this point little more than a cypher (only gaining her name in Flavius Josephus’ version of the story in his
Salome is at this point little more than a cypher (only gaining her name in Flavius Josephus’ version of the story in his Jewish Antiquities, Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4), and it is perhaps this incomplete aspect that makes her such an appealing figure in popular culture–as she certainly seemed to be in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, Megan Becker-Leckrone, in her article “Salome: The Fetishization of a Textual Corpus,” writes that “many critics indisputably point out that ‘Salome’ becomes a fuller figure, name and more, in nineteenth-century rewritings than she is in these [biblical and other early] sources” (p. 245). Becker-Leckrone goes on to quote Anthony Pym in “The Importance of Salome: Approaches to a fin de siecle Theme,” who quantifies this claim by reporting that Salome’s “corpus is very convincingly centered on the end of the nineteenth century: 82% of the original versions were produced between 1860 and 1920” (Pym. p. 312, quoted in Becker-Leckrone, p. 245). Limiting discussion to that timeframe gives ample opportunity for analysis of the Salome figure and its implications in popular culture from opera to the music hall and beyond.
By far the most widely-circulated and copied rendition of the Salome story was its dramatic interpretation by Oscar Wilde. Despite Wilde’s British citizenship, the play was forced to premiere in Paris in 1896 due to a ban on stage depictions of biblical characters in the United Kingdom. This small controversy was only a hint of the scandals in store for Wilde’s drama, and for the ongoing perception of his female protagonist. For it was in Wilde’s play that the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils originated; a simple dramatic addition, perhaps, but one that did much to confirm Salome’s place in the pantheons of temptation. Despite Wilde’s limited stage directions for the actual execution of the dance, his requirement that the formerly chaste young woman of the biblical story perform what could be considered an early striptease–while perhaps in keeping with the subtly titillating nature of Oscar Wilde’s prose–juxtaposed notions of the innocent and the worldly in one character (and even in one interpretative performance by this character) and made manifest much of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Upheaval, unrest, changing morals and social mores were common in this period of early modernity, and fascination with the Salome figure at this time could be seen as a reinforcement of the pervading cultural feeling. Udo Kultermann, writing in “the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’: Salome and Erotic Culture around 1900,” suggests that Wilde’s Salome was symbolic of the wider cultural “unveiling” taking place at this point in history:
“Wilde’s conception of Salome differs from the earlier versions of biblical legends and versions of the 19th century. For him the ‘unveiling’ was corresponding with a complete new awareness of independence and articulation of female identity: “The passive child Salome of the Bible had been converted by her nineteenth-century fathers into a classic femme fatale of knowing evil and vicious intent. In a key shift of emphasis from both these previous one- dimensional incarnations, Oscar Wilde gave Salome what she had heretofore lacked: a personality, a psychology all by her own.” (Bentley, p. 28, quoted in Kultermann, p. 195)
This “fleshing-out” and three-dimensionalizing of Salome exacerbated her already complicated position in the cultural landscape. That she might have a distinct personality and psychology of her own made her more real and hence more dangerous to those witnessing her furtively seductive dance, and the “realness” that Wilde imbued within his character possibly made her male viewers have to think differently about the women in their own lives.
Salome as Wilde creates her, then, is a complex embodiment of femininity. Just as much as she is objectified by Herod’s enjoyment of her dance, she is also empowered by his attention and simultaneously controls, manipulates and neuters that dominance by freezing the male gaze within a decapitated head. No wonder she continues to be a controversial example of the femme fatale, that frightening figure who, as Helen Davies suggests in her article “The Trouble with Gender in Salome,” “comes in many guises, but…is always Other…as a sexually fatal woman she represents chaos, darkness, death, all that lies beyond the safe, the known, the normal” (Stott, p. 37-38, quoted in Davies, p. 60). Davies elaborates further, stating that “this symbolic representation of femininity colludes with a patriarchal scripting of gender roles. The femme fatale is defined primarily by her “otherness” to normative, masculine discourses, fulfilling the prescribed role of the feminine subject position in patriarchal culture” (Davies, p. 60). Especially at this tumultuous point in the turning century, the uncertainty and challenge presented by this aggressive symbol of femininity must have been unsettling for all who viewed her, male and female alike.
Mihaela Petrescu, although she is focusing on the cinematic tradition specifically in her article “Domesticating the Vamp: Jazz and the Dance Melodrama in Weimar Cinema,” discusses the evolving role of women at this time as the very beginning of the New Woman movement: “women created a public sphere in which they were no longer simply objects of male voyeurism but also active subjects who shaped their urban environments” (Petrescu, p. 276). The growth of department stores–where women could circulate freely outside the home without male chaperones–was a tangible development of this rudimentary emancipation of women, but Petrescu’s mention of “active subjects” is significant. The freedom of movement that women began to enjoy at this time was not only manifested on a macro level, but also on an individual one. Petrescu mentions that “against this background of women’s freedom of movement during the 1920s there [were] a growing number of inquiries into the New Woman’s physical body movement manifested through gymnastics and various forms of dance” (Petrescu, p. 276).
Salome’s seductive and liberating dance was a catalyst in these initial liberations of women, jumpstarted in the United States with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This version of the World’s Fair (renamed in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America) featured Middle Eastern dance exhibitions and created a star of the personality known as Little Egypt. Several women who performed the “hootchy-kootchy” dance in the Columbian Exposition’s “Streets of Cairo” exhibit claimed to be the one and only Little Egypt, but it was Ashea Wabe who emerged as the foremost embodiment of this role, albeit in the midst of controversy. After the conservative Board of Lady Managers (apparently not yet proponents of the fledgling New Woman Movement) attempted to shut down the Streets of Cairo exhibit and its Persian Palace on grounds of indecency, Ms. Wabe found alternative performance venues for her particular version of Salome’s iconic dance, including the 1897 bachelor party of one of impresario P.T. Barnum’s grandsons. A police raid of this event only proved more lucrative for Ms. Wabe, as she was subsequently hired to perform her artistic interpretation of this event (complete with “dance and pose”) at Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympic vaudeville theatre, for the exorbitant fee of one thousand dollars per week (Bentley, p. 36). These regular appearances fueled the fire for all things Salome-esque in the United States, and the craze known as “Salomania” was born.
In addition to producing Salome spinoff dancers throughout the vaudeville circuit and beyond, this new-found obsession with seven-veiled exotic dance prompted–among other things–the inception of a “school for Salomes” that allegedly produced 150 graduates in a month and inspired the sponsoring of educational trips to Europe by American Salome dancers for purposes of observation and technique-honing (Hamberlin, p. 651). The direction of these voyages was not insignificant, for Europe still held a position of dominance over America’s cultural thought-process at this time. As the United States struggled to reconcile concepts of high and low in its entertainment, the European composer Richard Strauss, in 1907, revealed his one-act opera–based on Wilde’s play and devoted to our heroine and her iconic dance–adding a dimension of “high vs. low” to the complexities of modernity’s femme fatale.
Strauss’s opera was not only unconventional in structure (unfolding in one continuous act with no intermission, it was app. 100 minutes long – short for an opera) but also in format. Approximately one-quarter of the performance was devoted to Salome’s dance and subsequent monologue to her requested severed head, an unusual compositional choice that suspended the opera’s action and essentially turned it into–depending on one’s perspective–either a ballet or a striptease. Changing the focus from aural to visual, Strauss forces the viewer’s gaze, and, as Lawrence Kramer suggests in his article “Culture and Musical Hermeneutics: The Salome Complex,” “Salome’s dance challenges the boundaries of opera as spectacle” (Kramer, p. 281). Kramer goes on to indicate that the following material–Salome’s extended aria to the disembodied head–was also designed to shift the viewer’s focus from listening to watching. The music is unsettling and complex, and the soprano’s voice is less accompanied by the instruments than part of the texture. As Kramer says, “its chief effect is to hold Salome in place: to situate her more for the eyes than for the ears of the audience. Absorbed into the highly wrought instrumental fabric, the singer’s voice becomes–must struggle to become–merely one tone colour among a multitude” (Kramer, p. 282).
Needless to say, audiences struggled to appreciate this newfangled operatic offering. Although Strauss’s Salome appeared to be successful in Europe (its premiere in Dresden was called a “sensation” and drew thirty-eight curtain calls (Puffet, p. 5)), certain Americans had serious enough concerns about its content to demand the opera’s closure on Jan. 23, 1907–after only one performance. Despite it being one of the Metropolitan Opera’s most expensive performances (Hamberlin, p. 634), the production was apparently shut down single-handedly by one J.P. Morgan, an influential member of the Met’s board of directors, upon his daughter’s request. Ms. Louisa Morgan Satterlee may or may not have attended a public dress rehearsal of Strauss’s creation on Sunday, Jan. 20th, where she and her fellow post-church-service audience members were in no mood to see Salome (or her ballerina double) dance in veils and cavort with a severed head. Rumours of such scandalous onstage behaviour only fed public curiosity, however, and it was not for lack of ticket sales that the production was closed. The New York Times review of that single fated performance indicated that it “brought a throng of men and women such as no previous opera [had] drawn to Manhattan” and that “ten extra policemen were required to handle the crowds” (Aldrich, NYT, January 20, 1907). However, an addendum to the (albeit largely positive) review entitled “How the Audience Took It” reveals that the high-society members of that standing-room only crowd had its curiosity rewarded first with shock at Salome’s revealing dance, and then repulsion at her subsequent monologue:
“It is the dance that women turn away from, and many of the women in the Metropolitan Opera House turned away from it. Very few men in the audience seemed comfortable…But when…Mme. Fremstad [as Salome] began to sing to the head before her, the horror of the thing started a party of men and women from the front row and from Boxes 27 and 29 in the Golden Horseshoe [presumably not the cheap seats], two parties tumbled precipicately into the corridors and called to a waiting employe [sic] of the house to get their carriages.” (Aldrich, Ibid.)
So those who came to be seen saw, were righteously indignant at such public indecencies, it would appear, and made their exits obvious. Meanwhile, the article suggests, the hoi polloi craned its necks to get a better view: “But in the galleries men and women left their seats to stand so that they might look down upon the prima donna as she kissed the dead lips of the head of John the Baptist. Then they sank back in their chairs and shuddered” (Aldrich, Ibid.). The difference in audience reaction and reporter Richard Aldrich’s account of it is telling. Of course the refined members of the high class were expected to be horrified and the lower classes to be unrestrained in their literally morbid curiosity, but this stereotypical depiction of class distinctions was a kind of foreshadowing–both of the breakdown of these rigid class distinctions and of the fate of the Salome storyline on North American shores.
Concurrently with the short-lived Met production, the Oriental femme fatale of the moment was dancing up a storm on Broadway in both dramatic (Hermann Sudermann’s John the Baptist) and Western-themed versions (Paul Armstrong’s Salomy Jane) and, despite less favourable critical reviews than Strauss’s opera, both these productions and others continued to play to audiences. The popularity of these more mass-appeal versions of the Salome story contributed to what Hamberlin terms the “Americanization of Salome” (p. 640), and this was only the beginning of a trend that would see Salome-themed popular songs appear on vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, reaching the height of their popularity in 1908. A brief examination and comparison of the thematic material in these songs with the music of the Strauss opera reveals similarities that tangibly illustrate both the establishment and the questioning of high-low boundaries that was a hallmark of this period of modernity.
Analyses of Richard Strauss’s music often attach short phrases of melodic material with individual characters, a technique most closely associated with the compositional technique of Richard Wagner. These leitmotifs are tracked and named throughout the works of these late-nineteenth-century composers, and Strauss’s Salome is not exempt from this scrutiny. The “Salome motive,” as it was labelled by Tethys Carpenter (among others) in her article detailing the opera’s “Tonal and Dramatic Structure,” is most notable for its predominantly descending pattern of A natural-Fx-C#-E-C#: This descending pattern is featured throughout the opera and is always associated with some aspect of Salome: her contradictions (Carpenter, p. 102), her capricious nature (Solomon), etc., all with a hint of the oriental and exotic. Of course classical composers build entire pieces on thematic motifs, and associating a musical phrase with a character in an opera seems like a reasonable assumption on the part of any theorist. What is interesting is seeing this same technique duplicated in popular songs, and–in the case of Salome–aspects of the same melodic material being utilized. Larry Hamberlin’s article delves quite deeply into the analysis of the “Salomy melody” in various popular songs of 1908 and after, and provides numerous examples of this melody as reproduced in songs such as “When They Play That Old ‘Salomy’ Melody” and “Becky from Babylon”. What is significant, however, is these varied melodies’ similarity in contour to Strauss’s apparent leitmotif, as these reproductions suggest: The upward motion of the melody followed by a descending pattern–as per Strauss’s original theme for his heroine–is consistent in all of Hamberlin’s examples of the “Salomy melody,” only a few of which are reproduced here. This seems too regular a pattern to be accidental, and it suggests an interesting borrowing of theme and emotive intent from a high culture art form to one of so-called lower situation, therefore indicative of the boundary-blurring between ideas of high and low that was taking place at this time.
These border transgressions were not occurring in only one direction, however, and were not strictly musical in nature. Despite more positive reception by perhaps more tolerant European audiences, Strauss’s Salome still was not immune to critical reviews that questioned its legitimacy in the classical pantheon, and even today his seat at the adult composer table continues to be questioned. Robin Holloway, in his article “‘Salome’: art or kitsch?” minces no words in dismissing it as “entertaining, with no need to furrow the brow or search the soul…scratch the psychological profundity and you get sensationalized stereotypes in a stock situation…In short the whole thing is pre-digested, processed and (so to speak) served up on a plate” (Holloway, p. 157). Strauss’s Salome was and is popular entertainment, in other words, and while it may not have been considered quite as much so upon its premiere in either Europe or America, the mere existence of its titillating and shocking aspects will always make it subject to scrutiny and/or dismissal by critics who presume to know.
Salome’s provocative dance itself is also a locus for discussion of high vs. low transgressions. Bianca Froelich, the ballerina who presented the Dance of the Seven Veils at the Metropolitan Opera’s single performance on 1907, leveraged her limited visibility in this venue towards appearances on Broadway, where she recreated her character’s seductive dance for perhaps more amenable audiences. Even so, her so-called “highbrow rendition” (Hamberlin, p. 650) was still tame in comparison to other versions of the dance that were circulating at the time, and she herself indicated that her dance on the Met stage was “toned down” from the “European way” she had produced it in rehearsal (Hamberlin, p. 650). These conflicting interpretations (and the dilemmas they presented for the women performing them) are another forum for the duality and deception inherent in the persona of Salome. Were the women inhabiting these roles truly invested in them as elements of popular entertainment, or did they (perhaps in delusion) view these performances as stepping stones to appearances in more respectable venues? A glimpse of the careers of a couple of these interpreters addresses these issues of female performers in early modernity, and – in the case of Aida Overton Walker – adds an important racial element to the complexities of the Salome character. Mrs. Overton Walker, in her teens, was a chorus member in the vaudeville variety act Black Patti’s Troubadours, and moved on to become the choreographer and leading lady in the Williams and Walker company, founded by the duo of
Mrs. Overton Walker, in her teens, was a chorus member in the vaudeville variety act Black Patti’s Troubadours, and moved on to become the choreographer and leading lady in the Williams and Walker company, founded by the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker (the latter also Aida’s husband) to showcase the talents of African Americans. Mrs. Walker received quite favourable reviews for her theatrical talents, but her race was an unfortunate obstacle to achieving any widespread respect. Reduced to notoriety for the performance of such ironic titles as “I’d Like to Be a Real Lady” and “I Wants to Be a Actor Lady”, Walker chose to shift her focus to modern dance, in an effort to have her talents taken more seriously. Unfortunately, however, Salome proved to be a problematic character for this readjustment. African American female dancers at this time constantly risked being dismissed as primitive and exotic no matter what their form or venue of expression, and for Walker to offer an interpretation of an already established femme fatale was courting criticism in the extreme. As Hamberlin writes, referencing David Krasner:
“For Walker the social pressures on her creation of a Salome dance included the black middle class’s pursuit of ‘racial uplift,’ a pursuit that included ‘the ‘policing’ of the black woman’s body, a rejection of any indication of sexuality in favor of self-restraint.’ Yet to emulate white Salome dancers was to emphasize a ‘primitive’ sexuality that audiences were only too ready to ascribe to black women.” (Hamberlin, p. 666)
Aida Walker, it would appear, dealt with these challenges by erring on the side of caution. She attempted to create a proper and graceful Salome, clad in a modest, “properly draped” costume (Hamberlin, p. 667) and with steps expressly choreographed to downplay the erotic. In addition, she abstained from fondling the severed head of John the Baptist, choosing instead to have this crucial prop separated from her by a curtain and only revealing it by a single ray of light at the climax of her dance.
Unfortunately, however, Aida’s best attempts to legitimize her Salome and herself proved ultimately unsuccessful, for various reasons. She incorporated her interpretation of the dance into Williams and Walker’s 1908 production, Bandana Land, where it was subject to lampooning by a cross-dressing Bert Williams. A few years later (in 1912, following her husband’s death), she was able to break free from the stigma of African American musical comedy and present her version of Salome on a vaudeville tour that culminated in a show in Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, the same venue that had ignited the Salome craze in the first place. Her interpretation was “politely received” (Hamberlin, p. 669), but the height of popularity for Salomania had passed, and Aida Walker at this point was merely one of a host of imitators, her bid for legitimacy denied.
Walker’s legacy, whether she would view this a success or not, was to be known as “the black Salome.” Songs such as “The Dusky Salome” and “I’m Going to Get Myself a Black Salome” no doubt reference her performances, but these homages are double-edged swords in that they force the focus to remain on the colour of her skin. Hamberlin elaborates on this, indicating these songs signal an “unwillingness for many in [Walker’s] audience to take seriously her attempt to align herself with the classical dance. Every distinction she made between herself and the lowbrow Salomes–her relatively modest costume, restrained gestures, downplaying of the gruesome head, and understated eroticism–disappears in [these songs]…Walker had little success using Salome as a springboard to artistic legitimacy” (Hamberlin, p. 669).
But rejection was not unique to the African American dancer looking to gain or augment her artistic legitimacy. Maud Allen, a Canadian who had enjoyed great success as the premiere interpreter of Salome’s dance in Europe, returned to her home continent in 1910 in the hopes of extending her fame on North American shores. Unfortunately, she was a couple of years too late. The Salomania craze had waned by this point, and the fact that her papier-mache head of John the Baptist had been confiscated by immigration authorities made her performances lose some of their impact. Audiences were nonplussed, and it was only in San Francisco (her former home after leaving Canada) that she was warmly received. Toni Bentley writes that “Maud found herself in the exasperating position of looking like a weak reproduction of herself, her originality lost on a public already satiated by numerous Salomes performing in every theatrical venue” (Bentley, p. 71). Once again it would appear that Salome’s veils were obscuring the metaphorical vision of her interpreters, and blinding them to the reality of this waning fad.
The various incarnations of Salome in various venues in various countries indicate our culture’s fascination with this version of the femme fatale. She continues to be an enigma that we need to examine and explain, and artistic interpretations of her motives and her dance will no doubt persist for a long time to come. In the nineteenth century she provided a somewhat legitimate focus for the (largely) male gaze, as advancing modernity loosened its grip on morality and allowed men to look. As Kramer writes, “in the nineteenth century, the traditional privilege of men to scrutinize women’s bodies–as aesthetic objects, as sexual surfaces, as virginal enclosures–assumes unprecedented importance…For nineteenth century men, the sexual pleasure of looking, scopophilia, can plausibly be said to rival physical penetration as the chief means of satisfying sexual desire…the gaze was something like the nineteenth-century version of safe sex” (Kramer, p. 273). We’ve come a long way since then, but the figure of Salome still entices and intrigues. We continue to look at and require a place for her–not only in terms of the male gaze, but in a cultural spectrum of high and low, and with respect to women’s views of themselves and their race. Salome’s enigmatic performance continues, even if her veils change texture and form, and we continue to be fascinated by her dance.