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Inspired by Kabuki: Reflections on a Theatrical Experiment with Wilde’s Salomé

Dallas McCurley
p. 185-200


The article first considers the appropriateness of kabuki-inspired stylizations for performance of Wilde’s spectacularly non-realistic play, while stressing what a Japanese kabuki audience would expect that could not be replicated outside of the context of such a knowing audience. The stage space devised for this production is described as a rejection of the illusionism of 3D perspective, and the use of gestures and overall rhythmic dynamics as a fusion of Wildean and kabuki aesthetics, not entirely either. Finally, attention turns to the important kabuki sub-genre of “raw domestic” plays, where the downright sordid is rendered with an eerie beauty; this closing section dwells on the clashing sign-systems through which the play’s disturbing erotics (familial and other) are projected.

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  • 1 Salomé was also performed as the concluding special event of the East/West: Points of Contact Inter (...)

11. Over the summer and fall of 1999, I edited Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (mainly with respect to rhythms and allusions) to work in a form inspired by Japanese kabuki. I assembled a sound-track of music mostly from the kabuki repertoire, choreographed all movement, and taped myself reading the lines in conjunction with the music. In May of 2000, I auditioned and cast students at Queens College-City University of New York for the various parts. Each was given, along with the script, a copy of the voices-to-music tape and told to listen to it carefully over the summer. In October, after a five-week rehearsal period, the play was given five performances at the college’s Little Theatre.1

  • 2 Here “the actor makes several rhythmic movements that culminate in a freeze of several seconds. Oft (...)
  • 3 The banning, and that of the wakasho kabuki (‘boys’ kabuki’), troupes of boys aged between ten and (...)
  • 4 See Brandon (1992: 24): “The typical kabuki performance began around three in the morning and conti (...)
  • 5 Examples of such plays can be found in Brandon and Leiter (2002); see also The Scarlet Princess of (...)

2From the start, I had thought kabuki could provide certain things that a staging of Salomé needed. Kabuki, called by James Brandon “one of the world’s great examples of ‘total theater’” (1992, 47), looks above all to enlarge the actor—black-wigged and white-faced, gorgeously made-up and costumed, moving with music-propelled definition, always deliberately paced vocally (if sometimes at high speed); it seemed ideal for Wilde’s language here, that overall is quasi-remote, quasi-mesmeric: a music of repetitions in its thrust toward the awful, compound climax (Salomé’s chewing on the dead lips of Jokanaan’s head; Herod’s abrupt command to “Kill that woman!” [Wilde 605]). This is not to say, however, that I at any point envisioned a ‘kabuki version of Salomé.’ For one thing, kabuki foregrounds performer skills (in vocal delivery, in dance and combat movement, in striking a mie or pose,2 in flourishes with props, etc.) as sources in themselves of audience delight. These skills require concentrated training over many years; New York students in five weeks could barely scratch them. Furthermore, it would not be a kabuki audience—appreciating the élan with which a certain type of character does the appropriate walk, applauding great effects as they happen rather than waiting until the end of the play, engaging in impromptu banter with the performers, recognizing numerous precisely coded devices (the music, for example, that means ‘snow falls’). At the same time, the proposal that there is a ‘kabuki style’ makes about as much sense as that there is ‘a style of the novel.’ The beginnings of kabuki (‘odd,’ ‘bent,’ ‘far out,’ with a definite erotic flavor) were arguably in a dance performed in 1603 on a dry river-bed in Edo by a young woman named Okuni: “She and her troupe sold tickets for stage performances during the day and, it is presumed, sold their favors to customers at night as prostitutes” (Brandon 1).This was banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1629;3 when kabuki performances resumed in 1653, it was “on condition that all performers would be adult males and that productions would be ‘fully acted plays’. . .instead of the previous variety shows” (2). Brandon lists some general characteristics of these plays: plots elaborately if episodically articulated over four to six acts,4 vivid characterization, and a spirit new to Japanese drama “of vitality, even brashness” (1). In time, there developed broadly three genres of kabuki play: sewamono, ‘domestic plays,’ jidaimono, ‘history plays,’ and shosagoto, or dance plays. In terms of moral feel, Salomé seems set in the luridly violent world of ‘raw domestic’ or kizewamono plays developed by the playwright Tsuruya Namboku and popular in Edo from the early 19th century through to the final overthrow of the Shogunate in 1868.5 Wilde, of course, did not set out to write a kabuki play of any kind, and yet the more I refreshed and extended my sense of Wilde over the summer and fall of 1999, the more appropriate the initial intuition of kabuki as a source for staging methods came to seem.

32. Ironically enough, Wilde criticized the black-and-white ‘Japanese’ style of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for the first English edition of Salomé (1894) on the grounds that “Beardsley had misconstrued the ‘Byzantine’ nature of his play” (Varty 148). To convey a Byzantine feel, Wilde had included a range of Mediterranean figures. In the opening minutes, the Young Syrian (a captain of the guard) and the Page of Herodias alternate with two soldiers, plus a Cappadocian and a Nubian, with the latter sounding an important thematic note in remarking, “The gods of my country are very fond of blood. Twice in the year we sacrifice to them young men and maidens; fifty young men and a hundred maidens. But it seems we never give them quite enough, for they are very harsh to us” (553). In effect, sacrifice is an alibi of those who kill as preferred solution. Later a number of Jews, including two Nazarenes, a Pharisee, and a Saducee, along with a young Roman, Tigellinus, discuss received dogmas regarding prophets and the apparent miracles performed by (it is clear to the audience) the Messiah. Initially I toyed with devising a contemporary framing device to justify why this New Testament story, as revised by Wilde, was being re-revised to be relayed through ostentatiously Japanese means. The classical Japanese theatre forms often make use of narrators. Perhaps Salomé could be supposed to be narrated by a grandmother to her granddaughter? perhaps to put across some kind of moral lesson. . .? It was going from bad to worse. In the end, I did invent a Narrator, who opens the play with some scene-setting remarks, comes forward at various points to set a mood or advance the action, and closes the play with a song-poem evoking a hostile moonlit landscape. But at no point does he provide a diegetic rationale for the mixture of much of Wilde’s Salomé with certain kabuki-like techniques.The Cappadocian and Nubian, along with the later discussions of prophets and miracles, were therefore cut, since they would highlight the production’s peculiar hybridity to the point of confusion, for no good return. I kept the Young Syrian and the Page, and an allusion by Herod to Roman philosophers being famous for killing themselves. The exclusion of Rome otherwise also excludes an entire allegorical dimension of Wilde’s play: when Salomé observes that she “loathe[s]” the Roman occupiers of her country, who “are rough and common, and they give themselves the airs of noble lords” (555), none of Wilde’s compatriots would have had to wonder for a second who in the contemporary world would fit the bill here.

  • 6 With specific respect to the students I was working with, already trained in Stanislavskian techniq (...)

4Occasional contemporary allusions aside, Wilde’s ‘Byzantine’ play was not meant to be “realistic”.6 By the time the projected production at the Royal English Opera House was halted by ban of the Lord Chamberlain two weeks into rehearsal in June 1892, Graham Robertson had designed for Sarah Bernhardt, cast as Salomé, a gold-colored robe with shoulder-straps of painted leather (Wilde had apparently wanted a poisonous-reptile green). Set designer Charles Ricketts was working toward lighting different figures in different colors (Herod and Herodias in blood-red, the Jews in yellow, Jokanaan in white), under a turquoise sky and on a black stage arranging three “essential elements”: the cistern where Jokanaan is held prisoner (located onstage, off-centre to the audience’s left); a curve of stairs (on the right, leading to the back of the stage); and the moon, “off-centre to the right”. It was not a representational but a symbolist set—after all, with a nod to Orientalism: cutting the turquoise sky, half-eclipsing the moon, Wilde had ordered “gilded strips of Japanese matting” (Varty 142).

5Wilde’s famous dictum that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” (1082) derived not least from his concern to keep the categories separate. Vivian, his aesthetic spokesman in “The Decay of Lying” (1891), dismisses “the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola” (1075) as “simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed” (1075). For Zola “is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire?” (1075). But what Vivian desires is art, and Zola, he claims, does not provide it. His characters

have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders. . . . Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of men is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality. (1075-76)

6Unlike T. S. Eliot 30-odd years later, Vivian makes no claim that the people of London are things of an “Unreal City” (Eliot 65); rather, he is urging that we allow the limits of art. Wilde is likewise discriminating as an Orientalist, insisting, again through Vivian, that “the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art,” simply do not exist: “The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact, the whole of Japan is a pure invention” (1088). In general, “To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit” (1091). It will nonetheless become apparent that such a response to straw-man Cyril’s conviction “that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced” (1087), is not so easily secured.

  • 7 Traps through which actors, props, or even sets can appear and disappear were probably in early use (...)

73. I have mentioned the symbolist stage space envisioned by Wilde; we should register here that there is no more a typical kabuki stage space than a typical kabuki play. True, there is invariably a hanamichi or “flower way,” a ramp extending from the stage through the audience. “Entering or exiting, characters pause for effect at a point seven-tenths the distance from the back of the auditorium to the stage. . . Here they can be seen by everyone in the house. Posed in the midst of the audience, their actions or words are particularly effective” (Brandon 40). The set tends to appear wide and low and the stage shallow, enhancing the flatness of a backdrop that does not use vanishing-point perspective. Kabuki’s tradition of exploiting the newest technical effects, however, has made for considerable novelty and variety of staging.7 Our budget for the Queens College production did not permit the slightest emulation of this aspect of kabuki; instead we used lighting and a voiding of natural spatial perspective to provide the atmospheric artifice for a focus on styles of actor movement and vocal delivery that were derived from kabuki.

8Let us consider first, then, the stage in the Little Theatre, which consisted of a black lacquer floor. In front, a platform projected out some four feet, a little way into the audience—the nearest to a hanamichi there was room for in a theatre seating no more than a hundred people. Running across the back of the stage was another platform raised about a foot. Behind this was a moon-box: a circle of white scrim some seven feet in diameter, set in black wood. This was lit from behind with white lights, so the moon would appear stark in a sea of black. As the Narrator finishes his opening lines, we are shown, sitting on boxes on the platform, Salomé, Herod, and Herodias. Salomé is silhouetted against the huge white moon; Herod, on her right, and Herodias, on her left, are sparingly lit from below and above, giving a sculptural dimensionality to their gilded costumes (made from Middle Eastern cushion-textiles). All three figures appear suspended in blackness. We will soon learn that they are at banquet, where Herod is avidly watching his stepdaughter, reclining on the other side of the table from him and her mother, with her back to them, fanning herself, while Herodias stares fixedly at Herod. Yet side by side, they face the audience.

9On either side of the stage are screens in the form of shoji doors, made of rice paper in Japanese houses but here, again, of scrim. In front of the screen to the audience’s right kneels the Narrator; behind the other screen, in chains of exaggerated size, is Jokanaan. If the scrim is lit from the front, it will look solid; if a single light is aimed at the actor’s back, he will appear as a silhouette. A light angled to clear the scrim but hit the actor’s front will make him discernible as a solid figure.

10The Page and the Young Syrian enter and come to the front of the stage. The Page slowly kneels and looks up to the audience’s right. His companion puts his foot on a small black lacquer box brought for him by a koken or black-garbed “stage assistant,” who will remove it when its use is over. The Young Syrian also looks out beyond the audience, although with a differently angled gaze. Their dialogue opens with side-by-side monologues:

The Young Syrian: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!
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.
The Young Syrian: She has a strange look. She is like a little princess
who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess
who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing.
The Page of Herodias: She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly. (583)

11They are on a terrace. The Page is evidently watching the moon, and the Young Syrian the princess, who must be visible in the banquet-room across the courtyard. The Page and the Young Syrian are looking in different directions, but Wilde’s almost oppressively crafted ambiguities promptly fuse the two objects of attention. In each case, we the audience watch a character whose gaze appears to complete itself above and behind us, yet ostensibly is directed at something we can see before our eyes. Behind the staring actors, the moon, with the silhouette of Salomé centered in it, dominates the stage.

12The stage space, then, appears at once self-enclosed and projective. It is symbolist because of the uncertainty of both its boundaries and its dimensionality, and also because of its minimalist furnishings; a symbol’s claim to transcend lies precisely in the amorphousness in which it partakes. At the same time, the almost instant breaking of any sense that we are watching an illusionary space obeying laws of perspective is to a degree in keeping with kabuki principles. These principles apply not only to the wide, low, shallow stage but also to the actors’ stylized gestures; in kabuki, writes Earle Ernst, “The actor’s gesture. . . is a rhythmic and designed ordering of the gesture observed in actuality. The design emerges on the surface of the gesture and therein lies its artistic validity” (Ernst 73; emphasis added).

13Thus the Little Theatre, Queens College, October 2000: not quite Wilde’s Salomé, not quite kabuki, but not entirely foreign to either; a play of tensions, arising and subsisting in its hybrid aesthetic. It is time to turn to the production’s use of kabuki-inspired gesture and rhythmic dynamics.

144. Rehearsals for Salomé began in September with a number of kabuki exercises. From videotapes of play-scenes and my own example, the students mimicked vocal techniques whereby words were extended, phrasal punctuations emphasized, and delivery leant a musical-inflectional flow. These were combined with exercises in movement (walking, individual and group posings, etc.), gestures (the stylized hand-flutters over the mouth, for example, that go with a quasi-sung laugh), and the handling of props—as when Salomé is trying to persuade the Young Syrian to lead Jokanaan out from his prison-cistern so that she can meet him. Here the stage directions are carried out in the course of a flirtatious dance:

  • 8 The lines and stage directions here and in other unpaginated references are from the version of Wil (...)

Salomé: Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and tomorrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers (she suggests with her fan a turning carriage-wheel), I will let fall for thee a lit-tle flow-er, a lit-tle greeeen flo-wer (suggests with her fan a down-fluttering flower). . . . Thou knowest that thou wilt do this thing for me. And on the morrow when I shall pass in my litter by the bridge of the idol-buyers, I will look at thee through the muslin veils (holds up her arm so her kimono-sleeve falls as a curtain, around which she peeps), I will look at thee, Narraboth, it may be I will smile at thee.8

15In a kabuki production, a group of geza (“offstage”) musicians accompany the action almost constantly with appropriate mood-settings, and provide a range of stylized sound-effects: “In all, over four-hundred geza melodies and rhythms are used in kabuki” (Brandon 44). The usual instruments are voice, various stringed instruments (most importantly the three-stringed shamisen), and different kinds of flutes, drums, gongs, and bells. The budget, however, did not stretch to hiring professional musicians. I trained one student to use the hyoshigi, two pieces of hardwood clacked to propel dramatic anticipations, and also to play a rei (bell), gakudaiko (hand-drum played with sticks), and soban (hanging gong). These might underscore certain thematic linkages, for example:

Salomé: How wasted he [Jokanaan] is! He is like a thin ivory (soft gong) statue. . . like an image of silver (bell). I am sure he is chaste, as the moon (bell) is. He is like a moonbeam (bell), like a shaft of silver (bell). His flesh must be very cold, cold as ivory (gong). . .

16Otherwise, work on the play was done from the start to the pre-recorded music tape, against which every actor-movement had to be rigorously choreographed, and every speech timed. As I have suggested, the conventionalized nature of the music can convey to the kabuki audience a verbally paraphrasable meaning (“snow falls”). I could not expect this from the Queens College audience. I could, however, rely on them being accustomed to film and TV sound-tracks working suggestively to set a scene’s mood. I tried, therefore, to select for the tape what seemed to me cross-culturally atmospheric kabuki music that might evoke in our own audience the appropriate emotions, at least. (It seemed largely to work.)

17In similar expectation that kabuki role-types would be cross-culturally evocative, I assigned one to each character. Herod has the aragoto (strong-delivery) mien of a samurai warlord (and the Young Syrian, that of a young samurai). The Page of Herodias acts wagoto (soft-style, dressed in a kimono, wielding a fan). Herodias and Salomé play onnagata or female role-types—reserved for men, as are all the parts, in traditional kabuki, but given here to female actors. Both of them wear the large bow of the obi (kimono-sash), to the front, the ostentatious sign of the courtesan. Herodias, in gold appliquéd kimono, acts the high courtesan; Salomé, in peach-color kimono, moves from the banquet-room to the terrace with a walk that in its rhythms gives a recurrent, delicate suggestion of losing balance (a kabuki audience would further recognize as the walk of a “drunken courtesan”). Her voice, however, is extremely high, suggesting a young and inexperienced girl (it gradually deepens through the play). Jokanaan, in the kabuki setting, is the nearest thing to a cultural irruption. He is introduced as a denunciatory voice electronically relayed round the theatre-space by manually-operated reverbs, while his figure shifts from invisibility to various levels of discernibility behind his screen; and he is brought out from behind this in a chalk-white body-stocking reminiscent of a buto performer’s, but covered with sinuous black marks suggesting barbarous tattoos, and with a rock-star shock of wig around a rather sweet (chalky) face.

18Finally, I wanted to use the structural rhythm of jo-ha-kyo, where a slow introduction is developed through a gradually or suddenly quickening tempo until it reaches a climax; and divided Wilde’s one-act play into two acts when it became apparent that Salomé could lend itself to two climaxes, in both of which the stark-white moon would be lit crimson. In the first, Salomé is pursuing the wild-man prophet, who has been wracked by shudders of religious ecstasy, across the floor, both of them less on their hands and knees than, by their elbows, dragging themselves on their bellies. The Young Syrian has been circling them with drawn sword. Now he comes close and bending over Jokanaan, raises the sword. A slow flute comes to a high note and holds it. The Young Syrian’s gaze, and the sword’s apparent intent, shift to Salomé. The flute stops. In a single movement he pirouettes one-and-a-half times and doubles over side-on to the audience, sweeping the sword around until the blade, on the far side of his body, appears to be pointing up from the small of his back. In slow motion, he staggers a step, turns again, falls to one knee and on back against the Page, who holds him under the armpits. The princess he had hoped to distract or perhaps rebuke sees nothing of it. There is a single clack from the hyoshigi, and in slow-motion ambience but with increasing emotion the Page declares, “The Young Syrian has slain himself. The young captain has slain himself. He has slain himself who was my friend!” With the last four, descending words, he bows his head, silhouetted against the dimming red moon; and he, the Young Syrian, Salomé, and Jokanaan are still.

19At this point, light comes up on the Narrator, who speaks in slow measure words actually adapted from the Page’s in Wilde (560): “Ah, was it not said that some misfortune would happen? It was said, and it has come to pass. To know that the moon was seeking a dead thing, but to know not that it was he whom she sought. Ah! why did he not hide from the moon? If he had hidden she would not have seen him.” The light then goes out on the Narrator. The Page tries to alert Salomé to the captain’s suicide. But she is now crawling again after Jokanaan (“Let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan”), who is backing away from her on his rump (“I will not look at thee. Thou art accursed, Salomé, thou art accursed”). Salomé gets to her feet; drum-beats sound; she takes off in a twirling dance around the Page and the Young Syrian, her arms out, sleeves hanging like flags. She has come into a kind of triumphal serenity, repeating from time to time in a quiet shriek what she said on rising: “I will kiss your mouth, Jokanaan.” The Page, face contorted, is howling with grief. The figures bunch in the center of the red-lit stage, and to a loud drum-beat, snap into a group mie; they hold the pose for three counts, then swivel their heads, and to a final peremptory beat, snap back to the original pose.

205. The high artifice that Wilde sought for Salomé might have left him sympathetic to Brandon’s comment on one of the great “raw domestic” plays, Namboku’s The Scarlet Princess of Edo (1817), that its aim “was to create a sense of beauty irrespective of subject matter. . . . Delicately lyric music accompanies actions that are executed in artfully choreographed dance patterns”; as a result, scenes that “in print [. . .] may seem sordidly real [. . .] in performance [. . .] are eerily beautiful” (23). In a version of this, Salomé and Herod between them cast Wilde’s symbolist moon in a classic virgin/whore alternation. Salomé admires it as “cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses” (586). In fact, Salomé is here not simply identifying herself with the moon, she is lumping her mother Herodias together with “the other goddesses”. Jokanaan’s vilifications of Herodias (“Where is she who, having seen the images of men painted on the walls [. . .] gave herself up unto the lust of her eyes”) give Salomé a delicious tingle: “It is of my mother that he speaks [. . .]. Yes, it is of my mother that he speaks” (588). Meanwhile, Herod, by now tired of Herodias, is scouting her replacement in his own version of the moon, with its “strange look tonight [. . .] like a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked, too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them” (592).

  • 9 Wilde’s wording (586) is here slightly modified.

21The desire Herod will advance to see his stepdaughter also dance naked contravenes the play’s arch-interdiction. “You must not look at her,” are almost the Page’s first words to the Young Syrian. “You look too much at her” (584). In turn, the Young Syrian implores, in reference to Jokanaan, “Princess, Princess. . . look not at this man, look not at him!” while the Page, stunned at the irony, looks on (590). Herodias repeats to Herod, with comic insistence, that he “must not look” (592, 596, 597, etc.) at his stepdaughter: “It is strange,” Salomé muses, “that the husband of my mother looks at me this way. I know not what it means. Of a truth I know it too well.”9 In effect, a desire to ‘see through the veil’ everywhere drives the action. Intriguing in this context is Salomé’s enticement of the Young Syrian, cited earlier, to bring Jokanaan from the cistern where Herod has had him hidden out of people’s sight: passing the Syrian in the market the next day, she suggests, she may “let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower,” and “look at thee through the muslin veils. . . it may be I will smile at thee” (588).

22I will drop for you a green flower—as Joseph Donohue notes, a “covert sign of homosexuality in Paris” (127)—and smile at you through the veil; was prosecutor Edward Carson then correct when at the trial in April 1895 he adduced Wilde’s works as the evidentiary truth of his “‘deviance’ and, hence, of the accuracy of Queensberry’s claim that in ‘posing as a somdomite’ [sic] he was merely and theatrically declaring the truth about himself” (Sammells 55–56)? Was Cyril in “The Decay of Lying” simply accurate “that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced”? But an age has many tempers, spirits, and moral and social conditions, and none appears ‘naked’ (unmediated). Salomé is also a woman: three times the rabid misogynist Jokanaan calls her a “daughter of Sodom” (589–90). The green flower neither points to a resolving sub-text nor renders her sexuality simply ‘ambiguous’. Rather, Salomé is a figure cloven in her surface. What is needed is a performance of contradiction; a kabuki onnagata, a man playing a woman in a highly stylized but not at all camp set of modes, could have brought this to the context of Queens College. I would have cast a male student as Salomé had a suitable one auditioned, and the production would have had a rather different and perhaps more complexly challenging dynamic. But no suitable male student showed up; and so it did not happen.

23As true to Wilde, however, and to the “performance of contradiction,” is the desire pervasive in the play’s characters for sex without sex, for a sex of eyes, ears, voice, and gesture. An obvious example of this is the prurient relish with which Jokanaan lists Herodias’s orgiastic acts of lust; significantly, Salomé is first attracted to the sound of him, invisible as he is in the cistern: “What a strange voice! I would speak with him” (587) and shortly, “Speak again, Jokanaan. Thy voice is wine to me” (589). The desert prophet, aware of the temptation she presents, reiterates, “I will not have her look at me. Wherefore does she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids?” (589). Meanwhile, Salomé’s addresses to him are quasi-comic divagations into a thick, highly mannered impasto of language that is also an erotic tease, a kind of caress before touching:

Salomé: [. . .] It is of thy hair that I am enamoured, Jokanaan. Thy hair is
like clusters of black grapes that hang from the vine-trees of Edom, in the land of the Edomites [. . .]. The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, when the stars are afraid, are not so black. The silence that dwells in the forest is not so black. There is nothing in the world so black as thy hair. . . . Let me touch thy hair.
Jokanaan: Back, daughter of Sodom! Touch me not [. . .].
Salomé: Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust [. . .]. It is like a knot of black serpents writhing round thy neck. I love not thy hair. (590)

24The principal instances of sex at a remove of course are Herod’s desire to see his stepdaughter do the dance of the seven veils, and Salomé’s desire to kiss the lips of Jokanaan. The first of these, in the Queens production, is thwarted by what we might call the eighth veil. From about halfway through the dance Herod is taking great stampings around her in his nagabakama (long trousers, extending a full two yards beyond his own feet). Toward the end we glimpse, through her parted kimono—lose and glimpse again—a white body-stocking with petaled nipples and a pubic cluster of curlicues drawn in black on it: a stylized nakedness that is also the truth of Herod’s frustration so long as Herodias stands between him and Salomé. The second principal instance of sex at a remove entails the king’s subsequent accession to his stepdaughter’s terrible demand to have the head of Jokanaan brought to her on a silver platter; and here a theme common in kabuki, that of giri (‘duty’), comes fully into its own in Wilde’s text.

25Normally, giri is flagrantly disregarded in Herod’s court. When Jokanaan calls Salomé “Daughter of an incestuous mother” (591), he is alluding to the fact that Herodias was first married to Herod’s elder brother; Herod deposed him, married Herodias, and held him for twelve years in the same cistern as would hold Jokanaan before ordering that he be strangled. Herodias thus put retention of her throne ahead of her obligation of loyalty unto death to her first husband. In turn Herod is flouting his (admittedly murky) obligation to Herodias in offering to replace her with Salomé if the latter will only dance for him. Salomé ignores her own giri as a daughter when she refuses to listen to her mother’s repeated pleas not to dance. But initially she has herself refused, and does not change her mind until she has secured carte blanche with respect to what she may demand in return:

Herod: Salomé, if you dance for me you may ask of me what you will, and I will give it to you, even unto the half of my kingdom.
Salomé (rising to a kneeling position): Will you indeed give me whatsoever I ask of you, Tetrarch?
Herodias: Do not dance, my daughter.
Herod: Whatsoever you ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.
Salomé: You swear it, Tetrarch?
Herod: I swear it, Salomé.
[. . .]
Salomé: You have sworn an oath, Tetrarch (She bows to him).
Herod: I have sworn an oath (He bows slightly to her. . .).

26“Let her be given what she asks!” he groans when Salomé refuses to relent in her demand following the dance, adding, “Kings ought never to pledge their word. If they keep it not, it is terrible, and if they keep it, it is terrible also” (603).

  • 10 “Beauty,” Mishima added, “equals eroticism equals death equals the Absolute” (qtd. in Mead 2002).

27Herod’s adherence to royal giri here exhibits corrosive dramatic irony, given the ‘lust of the eyes’ that has led to the bind in which he now finds himself. In turn, both of these things—the gnawing lusts and the travesty of giri—are testament to the all-pervasive presence in Herod’s palace of what Baudelaire called Ennui: more than boredom, a voracious soul-glut who, “eye watering with an involuntary tear. . . dreams of scaffolds while smoking his hookah” (6, 184; my translation). In this smothering hierarchy, Herod, Herodias, and Salomé take as first principle, permission to use others as their toys. ‘Toys’ may be particularly pertinent to Salomé, who in truth is beyond giri, ‘beyond good and evil.’ In effect, I followed Yukio Mishima, who in 1960 directed Japan’s first production of the play, that “Salomé is like a spoiled child—but the child seeking possession of the butterfly involuntarily tears it apart” (qtd. in Mead 2002). This amoral positioning is of course what leaves the way unhindered to the play’s intensities10. Jokanaan’s kinship to her—“I am sure he is chaste as the moon is” (589)—makes him irresistible as a victim; more exactly, this princess beyond whom there is nothing will seek to destroy the prophet’s chastity while retaining her own. Yet the unresponsiveness of the phallic head when she finally has it both awakens her to the impossibility of that and pushes her into disturbed and disturbing delirium:

Salomé: Ah you would not let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will now bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. But why do you not look at me, Jokanaan? Your eyes that were so terrible. Are you afraid of me, Jokanaan, that you will not look at me?. . . Well, now your head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will—throw it to the dogs. That which the dogs leave, the birds of the air shall devour. Ah, you were the man that I loved alone among men! Oh, how I loved you!. . . I was a virgin, and you did fill my veins with fire. Ah! Why do you not look at me? If you would look at me you would love me.
Herod: She is monstrous, your daughter.
Herodias: I am well pleased with my daughter.

It is when Salomé “yanks Jokanaan’s head back and stoops in a stylized kiss in which their lips never meet,” shrilling that on his lips is the “bitter taste” of “blood,” that is, “love,” that Herod thinks to see his stepdaughter’s otherworldly identity not only revealed but also separable from his own:

Herod (turning round and seeing Salomé): Kill that woman! (There is no one to obey the order; he picks up The Young Syrian’s sword and swings to strike Salomé—just before the blade touches, music stops and all freeze in group mie, with Herod in murderous action, Salomé suddenly terrified, The Page of Herodias horrified, and Herodias stoically watching. Lights fade, leaving the actors in red-moon silhouette as lights go up on Narrator and music starts.)

28In the wake of the Narrator reciting his ‘song-poem evoking a hostile moonlit landscape,’ the audience may indeed mull over the ‘eerie beauty’ of the final mie and the ‘sordid reality’ that Herod has sought to expel in making a scapegoat of his stepdaughter—his own court, that should not be seen, should not be heard, should be buried in night: “Come! I will not stay in this place. Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars! Let us hide ourselves in our palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid.”

Figure 1. — Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde at Work, 1914

Figure 1. — Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde at Work, 1914

Figure 2. — Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 2. — Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 3. — Herodias, Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 3. — Herodias, Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 4. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 4. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 5. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.

Figure 5. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.
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Baudelaire Charles, 1982 [1857], Les Fleurs du Mal, trans. Richard Howard, Bilingual Edition, Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

Brandon James R., trans. and ed. 1992 [1975], Kabuki: Five Classic Plays, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Brandon James R. & Leiter Samuel L., ed., Kabuki Plays on Stage: Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864. Various trans. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Donohue Joseph, 1997, “Distance, Death and Desire in Salomé,” in Peter Raby ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Eliot T. S., 1963, Collected Poems 1909-1962, London and Boston: Faber and Faber.

Ernst Earle, 1974 [1956], The Kabuki Theatre, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Mead Donald, 2002, “Salomé in London”: review of exhibition “Salomé: Iconographic Changes of Images in East and West,” Oscholars, vol. II, no5. Search and download as pdf from Accessed May 3, 2009.

Sammells Neil, 2000, Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde, Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.

Varty Anne, 1998, A Preface to Oscar Wilde, Harlow, Essex: Addison Wesley Longman, Ltd.

Wilde Oscar, 1999 [1948], Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Centenary Edition, Glasgow: Harper Collins.

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1 Salomé was also performed as the concluding special event of the East/West: Points of Contact International Symposium held at Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA on March 17, 2001, and was invited to represent the US at the Suwon International Festival and to be included at several European festivals (precluded by an inability to acquire passports for our cast and crew due to the World Trade Center attacks at this time).

2 Here “the actor makes several rhythmic movements that culminate in a freeze of several seconds. Often one foot may be planted strongly. . . arms are thrust outward, head is rotated. . . and, at the final moment, one eye is crossed in a glaring expression. . . that expresses intense feelings”. Beats from two wood blocks hit alternately on a wooden board “accompany the foot planting and the two-part head rotation” (Brandon and Leiter 2002: 367).

3 The banning, and that of the wakasho kabuki (‘boys’ kabuki’), troupes of boys aged between ten and thirteen dancing also, in effect, to advertise their sexual wares, stemmed primarily from a dread on the part of the Shogunate of social miscegenation, and were of a piece with “the policy of nation isolation” over the same centuries, undertaken “to preserve for all time the feudal structure established [in 1603] by [Tokugawa] Ieyasu” (Ernst 8).

4 See Brandon (1992: 24): “The typical kabuki performance began around three in the morning and continued until dusk. . . . Depending upon the circumstances, there could be several main plays, but for the most important programs of the year it was usual to write a single multiact play that would run ten to twelve hours in playing. . .” Today, complete kabuki plays are rarely if ever staged; selected scenes are staged, from plays whose full cast of characters and events the audience nonetheless knows.

5 Examples of such plays can be found in Brandon and Leiter (2002); see also The Scarlet Princess of Edo in Brandon (1992). It should be cause for neither surprise nor smugness that the first Japanese production of Salomé in 1913, according to Kimie Imura Lawlor (2002), played up the erotic, sadistic, and deliciously grotesque elements of the play, adding a demonic mien to the predatory heroine. See Navarre and Mead (2002) for two reports of a one-day event at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, “Salomé: Iconographic Changes of Images in East and West,” which included Lawlor’s lecture and a kyogen (comedic) version of the play directed by the Izumi family school. In 1994 Masakatsu Gunji’s version of Salome combined “kabuki onnagata, modern dance, and shingeki [‘modern theatre’] acting” (Kominz iii). Shingeki emerged in Japan in the early years of the 20th century under the influence of Western realist drama, but has since taken forms as various as contemporary theatre anywhere.

6 With specific respect to the students I was working with, already trained in Stanislavskian techniques of interior generation of motive, I felt the project would provide a valuable learning experience.

7 Traps through which actors, props, or even sets can appear and disappear were probably in early use; in 1758, kabuki invented the mawaributai (‘turntable’) that can rotate one set into another, about a century before it first appeared in European theatre. It is in the more elaborate effects, such as the scene in Benten Kozo (1862) which calls for the metamorphosis of a temple roof into the temple itself, that technical and lighting innovations are today brought to bear, although Orita Koji, Producing Director of the National Theatre of Japan (one of Japan’s two major traditional kabuki theatres), who put an animated hologram creature on stage in 2002, confided to me five years earlier that he felt he would never get away in Tokyo with replacing the live musicians by a Moog synthesizer.

8 The lines and stage directions here and in other unpaginated references are from the version of Wilde’s text edited by the author for the Queens College production.

9 Wilde’s wording (586) is here slightly modified.

10 “Beauty,” Mishima added, “equals eroticism equals death equals the Absolute” (qtd. in Mead 2002).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. — Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde at Work, 1914
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 2. — Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Figure 3. — Herodias, Herod and Salome. Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Figure 4. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Figure 5. — Salome, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA, March 17, 2001.
Fichier image/jpeg, 37k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Dallas McCurley, « Inspired by Kabuki: Reflections on a Theatrical Experiment with Wilde’s Salomé », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 185-200.

Référence électronique

Dallas McCurley, « Inspired by Kabuki: Reflections on a Theatrical Experiment with Wilde’s Salomé », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2736

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Dallas McCurley

Queens College-CUNY.
Dallas McCurley holds a PhD in Asian Theatre from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Since 1999 she has been teaching in the Department of Drama Theatre and Dance at Queens College-CUNY, serving as Area Head of History, Theory and Criticism. She has also taught in the CUNY Honors College program, as well as at the CUNY Graduate Center. Prior to coming to NYC, her teaching appointments have included the National University of Singapore, Cornish Institute of the Arts in Seattle, and Ballet Laboratorio-Firenze, Italia, among others. Published in English, Italian, and Chinese on the topics of early Chinese theatre and on methodologies of training students in Asian theatre techniques, she was invited to author multiple entries for the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China (2009) and the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (2002, Scribners). Her intercultural productions have based both Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (2000) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2009) in the form of kabuki. Professor McCurley’s current projects include a book, Chinese Theatre Before Its Time: Traditions of Early Performance 16,000 BCE-100 BCE.

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