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by Shelly F. Marlow
One Thursday, Elspeth and I saw the opera Salome. Lucinda Childs choreographed the dance, where for half an hour, Salome danced, rolled and lay around the stage, making love to the supposedly decapitated head of St. John the Baptist.
Late Sunday night, on my favorite TV show--about a 700-year-old vampire-turned-murder-detective--a murderer's cellar contained jars full of cut-off body parts, including a decapitated head.
The next morning, I dreamt that a woman's head was cut off and we put it on someone else's headless body. The head was still alive, and we were transporting her to a hospital. It was attached by a few arteries. I was talking to her. My friend Willy jogged by on his way to being an outerspace scientist and looked in the car. What he saw was me trying hard to make sure her head didn't fall off in the back seat.
On the Simpsons, the night after I had that dream, Bart had a nightmare that he was a grown up child star appearing on a futuristic version of the Hollywood Squares game show with other aging stars including the live head of Kitty Carlisle in a glass jar.
Turning off the television, I picked up and randomly opened Patricia Highsmith's book, Ripley Under Water, to page 247 and read, "The head's missing....Missing? It probably rolled off, don't you think?" The scene took place in a garage, so I checked the next page to make sure it was not a car part that rolled off. It was definitely a human head.
The next night, a Tuesday, a friend showed me a video of Alice in Wonderland. The queen keeps yelling, "off with their heads," and a big pair of scissors cuts off the court card's heads.
What is the meaning of this? Whatever scares you, finds you? Keep my head, avoid a heart/mind split? Or, all the guilt is in your head, in which case, it might be valuable to lose your head.
I had the flu when I went to the Metropolitan Opera to see "Salome." The music, singing and ebullient theatrics were quite healing, "The Dance of the Seven Veils," humorously bombastic. But during the last 20 minutes, in which Salome sings to the decapitated head, I was sick again. The head was too realistic. Everyone is on the edge of madness in the end. "Madness," according to Chinese medicine, is a split between heart and mind.
Here are a few notes about the old Salome story that seems to resonate with current elements of misogyny.
The story of "Salome" is this:
Salome is a teenager in the court of Herod, her abusive stepfather, who murdered her real father--his own brother--and married his wife, Herodius. St. John the Baptist is held captive there because the king both fears and admires him. Salome meets John and tries to seduce him with poetic expressions of desire. He refuses and instead of even giving her spiritual love, he proceeds to verbally trash her and all women. And he tells her she should go kiss the feet of some guy in the desert (Jesus). John already knows she's a teen living under an abusive patriarch, so why would he expect that she would even consider submitting to some other patriarch?
At the same time, King Herod, wants something from Salome, as well--some energy. He invites her to drink wine with him; she refuses. He asks her to eat fruit with him; she is not hungry. He finally asks her to dance for him, offering half his kingdom, her mother's place as queen or whatever she might request. She dances the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, and, in return, the head of St. John is delivered to her on a plate.
In Oscar Wilde's version as well as the Strauss opera, Herod has Salome executed--she is crushed between the shields of soldiers.
Similarly, in the ending of this new version of the Strauss opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Salome is also ordered to be executed by Herod, who seems to have cracked up. But, everyone is so freaked out that no one seems to carry out his orders. This ending seems to have a potentially feminist intent, where Salome has overthrown Herod's power in the only way the situation seemed to offer, and lives.
Oscar Wilde's play version featuring himself in drag as Salome was banned in England because of the story's biblical roots. Wilde had to leave England to put the play on. In 1905, Strauss made Wilde's play into an opera. From 1907 through the 1920's women around the western world got in trouble for portraying Salome.-1
Maude Allen was a Canadian dancer whose performance of the role, Salome, was written up in an article titled "The Cult of the Clitoris" where the writer referred to the dancer as a lesbian sadist. Maude took the journalist to court. Because the jury men thought that it was improper that she knew the word clitoris she lost her case. This was in 1918.-2
In Ken Russell's film, Salome's Last Dance, 1987, Oscar Wilde is a guest to see his play performed in a mostly male house of prostitution. Herod is played by the male "Madame" and Salome is played by a housekeeper/servant, who "has to play Salome, or else I would murder her" says the Madame. The viewer is lead to believe this servant is female until the "Dance of the Seven Veils," during which, this Salome splits into two people for an instant, one male, one female. Still, for most of the dance, Salome is male. The servant who plays Salome turns up murdered after the play. When the police show up, the death is dismissed as an accident by "Lady So-and-So," a member of the upper class who had played the role Herodius in the play, implying a bleeding of the borders of the Salome story and a more current time.
At the time of--and since--Maude Allen's performances, women-only Salome parties had begun to evolve. I imagine these parties to be much like going to the Clit Club and seeing Julie,one of the founders, on stage performing (partially or completely nude), a fantastic, seductive dance, which seems like one way of subverting and reclaiming the story. I wonder how the story would read as an all-female production? Would a reversal of the power roles--a teen dealing with an abusive matriarch, who has captured a holy woman--work? Since misogyny is still all the rage even today, it seems important to find other ways that the Salome story could be subverted. Would the whole story structure have to be changed, in which, maybe, Herodius the Mom, or Salome, herself, saves the day?
Shelley F. Marlow
Brooklyn, New York
-1, -2--Sexual Anarchy/Gender and Culture at the Fin De Siècle. E. Showalter.
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