Poor Salome. The princess’s story, originally laid out in the New Testament books of Mark and Matthew has been pushed, pulled and altered to a hair-splitting, head-losing degree. The original story — about the stepdaughter of King Herod demanding the head of John the Baptist as payment for a sultry dance — has survived several interpretations until Oscar Wilde wrote his play “Salome” in 1891. Wilde’s “Salome” — written in French — was banned nearly everywhere it was performed. Translated into English by Wilde’s young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, “Salome” refracted the extant interpretations of the tale into a thematic gold mine for artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
For Richard Strauss — who modeled his opera “Salome” after Wilde’s version – it was a cautionary tale of feminine power. For Al Pacino — whose film “Wilde Salome” chronicles his own difficulties with a recent Los Angeles production of “Salome” — the play foreshadowed Wilde’s downfall with its cautionary tale of a woman brought low by her weakness to debauched temptation. For Maud Allan, who toured Europe in 1918 with Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Wilde’s Salome was an innocent victim, caught up in a web of deceit and politics. For Mark Jackson, Allan’s performance and subsequent court trial is the subject of his new play “Salomania” at the Aurora Theater.
The play opens with Wilde’s libel-cum-obscenity trial and quickly moves to the trenches of World War I, where a platoon of soldiers awaits news on another trial: that of Maud Allan. Like Wilde, Allan was the plaintiff in a libel case, suing Noel Pemberton Billing, the publisher of the somewhat sensationally-titled article, “Cult of the Clitoris.” The piece accused Allan’s performances of inciting a lesbian cult that was somehow connected to a group of traitorous Britons whom the German Kaiser believed would be susceptible to the immoral temptations of German debauchery. However Billing, like the Marquis of Queensbury in Wilde’s trial, used the courtroom as a platform to espouse his jingoistic conspiracies against the political classes. In “Salomania,” we see the story of the princess come full circle as Allan, like Salome herself, is a pawn in the power play between politicians.
The intelligence and wit of the play’s script is met by the skill of the Aurora theater’s production. Mark Jackson, the playwright and director deftly weaves together several time periods, from the 1890s to 1919, and locations between San Francisco, London and France. The costuming is superb; one could hear the excited whispers of the audience as they identified well-known characters from the era like Wilde and Bosie from their lovingly recreated costumes. The design team also gets in on the game with a set that poignantly interprets the play’s “Theater of War” pun by using the rose petals that are tossed on stage at the end of a production to represent the blood of the lost men on the battlefields of France.
It takes a particularly limber cast to make scenes like the imagined conversation between Wilde and Allen work when sandwiched between a courtroom drama and a high-octane battle, but the cast of “Salomania” don and shed characters as effortlessly, as do their superb costumes. Particular mention should go to Kevin Clarke whose channeling of “Life of Brian”-era Michael Palin was a much needed light point and whose pathos-driven, late-era Wilde was a well-balanced focal point for the audience’s sympathies.
Thankfully, the “Salomania” isn’t all dreary court cases. Jackson has good fun mocking the rather limited knowledge of the female anatomy and sexuality. Billing’s “Cult of the Clitoris” asserts that the salacious vices of lesbianism and sadism stem from an over-stimulated clitoris. Allan’s lawyer has no idea what an orgasm is, and the judge seems convinced that Clitoris is a “Greek Chap” who will eventually make an appearance in Billing’s testimony. It could almost be John Cleese’s sex-ed class from “The Meaning of Life.” Of course, it’s there to illustrate the hopelessness of Allan’s trial — to be attacked, defended and judged by a troika of ill-informed men, but it’s jolly funny too.
Art doesn’t just imitate life. “Salomania” is too nuanced to suggest that. Yes, the Shakespearian connections between the theater of the courtroom, of the battlefield and the theatricality of life itself are here, but “Salomania” shows rather how life reacts to art. Allan, Billing, Bosie, the judge and the soldiers are defined in “Salomania” by their interpretations of Wilde’s play.
Like the story of Salome itself, their interpretations of Wilde’s “Salome” are as contradictory as they are various. They read — or misread — it because of the route their lives have taken, or they deliberately misconstrue its words because of political ambition. “Salomania” is really the story of all the Salomes — whether it is The Bible’s, Wilde’s, Allan’s or perhaps even Pacino’s. It’s about the tragedy of a story and a performer being torn apart and left behind by the selfishness of others and the forces out of her control.