February 2nd, 2012
05:00 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Charlottesville, Virginia (CNN)— As Oscar Wilde imagined it, the execution of John the Baptist was packed with love, lust, incest and murder.
The Irish playwright spun the ancient biblical story into "Salome," a one-act tragedy written in 1863 in French that today is getting a fresh look thanks to Joseph Donohue, a theater historian hell-bent on changing the way the play is read in English.
In the biblical account, John the Baptist was a prophet and the cousin of Jesus. King Herod, who had imprisoned John fearing a rebellion, promised his sultry stepdaughter Salome anything, including half his kingdom, in return for a striptease.
Herod got his dance and Salome, at the suggestion of her mother, who was not a fan of John's proclamations against her, asked for and received the Baptist’s head on a silver platter.
“It’s a rather shocking story,” says Donohue, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on all things Wilde.
Donohue has long loved "Salome" but hated the English translations. So he set out to complete a new translation. Donohue wanted prose that would be closer to Wilde’s heart, using English vernacular and eschewing the Biblical “thees” and “thous” that other translators had shoehorned in.
When Wilde wrote “Salome,” he used poetic license in filling in narrative gaps from the accounts of the head-on-the-platter story in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
“Herod, shall we say, has a thing for Salome. But none of that is in the Bible,” says Donohue, explaining how Wilde used that license to tease out explicitly what the gospel writers wrote implicitly.
Interpreting the head on the platter
The Bible’s account is a complex story that is critical to the New Testament’s overall narrative, according to biblical scholars.
“Theologically, John is lifted up as an important figure in the Christian community, but put in place as less important, as a forerunner [to Christ],” says O. Wesley Allen Jr., a synoptic gospel scholar who is an associate professor at Lexington Theological Seminary.
"It is interesting that so much of the artwork on this theme, Wilde's play and the opera that followed [which was based on the Wilde play], have focused on Salome as the interesting character," he says.
But the main character for Allen is John the Baptist.
“If I were preaching this text I would ask the congregation to focus on why John was considered a threat [by Herod], and how we who strive to live a righteous life can do the same,” Allen says. “It comes back to speaking truth to power, regardless of the risk to ourselves.”
N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, concurs with Allen that the story is very much about John the Baptist.
Wright adds there is a political complexity to the story. John the Baptist’s “criticism of Herod for divorcing his first wife and stealing his brother's wife is not simply a question of marital morals," he says. “The subtext is whether Herod can really be 'the king of the Jews' or not.”
“[John the Baptist’s] point is that if he was the real 'king of the Jews' he wouldn't be doing this stuff,” says Wright. “This then colors the later moment when, in the same geographical location, Jesus is asked whether he approves of divorce. That's rather like asking a bishop, at the height of the Clinton scandal, how he thinks employers should treat young women - knowing that whatever he says will be taken as comment on the big man.”
As a narrative structure for the authors of the gospels, John’s execution was paramount in foreshadowing Jesus’ death, the scholars say. But as for the sexy maven who asked for that execution, Salome is never even referred to by name in the gospels. Most English translations refer to her only as "the daughter" or "the damsel."
For Wilde she is the star.
"Salome" was a commercial flop for Wilde and he missed the premier by an avant-garde Parisian theatre company in 1896 because he was in jail for " 'gross indecency' between men," Donohue writes in the Translator's Preface.
Today the book market for English translations of unsuccessful one-act French plays is small. So Donohue teamed with famed illustrator Barry Moser, whose work on the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, "Moby Dick" and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has been hailed.
Moser would pen portraits of the "Salome" characters to help attract a wider audience in the arts community.
Where the early English translations had Herod begging for his dance as:
"I am sad to-night Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salome, I beseech you. If you dance for me you may ask of me what you will, and I will give it you, even unto the half of my kingdom."
Donohue turned the vernacular French into something closer to contemporary English:
"I'm sad tonight. So dance for me. Dance for me, Salome, I beg you. If you dance for me you can ask me for anything you like and I'll give it to you. Yes, dance for me, Salome, and I'll give you all you ask me for, even if it's half my kingdom."
“My translation is as faithful as an idiomatic translation can be, I would be so bold as to say,” Donohue said.
Raising the curtain on a new translation
In early December, the University of Virginia Press teamed with the school’s drama department for a staged reading of the new translation.
On the night of the reading, as the caterer was milling around the sparse fourth floor theater at Live Arts in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donohue sat in the back of the room waxing poetic about Wilde.
His neatly trimmed gray goatee and wispy white hair made him the perfect model for Moser’s sketch of King Herod. His face lit up with each excited point about the French play.
“Wilde was an amazing scholar,” Donohue said. An Oxford graduate, Wilde was well versed in not just the Bible but also in first century historians like Josephus.
“He could have been, if he wanted to be, a superb classical scholar … but that seemed dry as dust to him.”
Wilde wove that biblical scholarship into the text and characters in "Salome," despite the fact Wilde was not terribly religious. Donohue notes Wilde wasn’t a churchgoer.
“I would like to think this is viable stuff,” Donohue said as he waited for the world premier of his translation.
The actors took their places in front of the packed house of about 100 and Donohue beamed from the front row as the reading got under way. He was listening intently and promised earlier if he heard a line that was “a clunker” he would change the text.
The actors were in partial costume and held their scripts in hand.
King Herod wore a cape and crown with a cable knit sweater and grey khakis. John the Baptist popped up shirtless from behind the cistern with a shaggy beard and spiral-bound script.
At times the actors were a half beat off, looking down at their scripts to dutifully stay on the text. This night was more about the text of the play than the margins, less of a full-blown production and more of an experiment.
There was the occasional unscripted long pause.
“Sorry, probably my line. Indeed!” the actor playing Herodias said, dipping out of character for a moment and drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Wilde wrote "Salome" as a tragedy, but this night was filled with laughs, something the author would have approved. Donohue said Wilde liked to play on an audiences’ awkwardness and dig at social mores.
The crowd laughed nervously when Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist and when Herodias nagged her husband, Herod, about hitting on her daughter – murder and incest not exactly classic comedy moments.
“Sometimes when you laugh at something, it reveals how terrible it is,” Donohue said with a wry smile.
At the end of the play, like in the biblical story, Salome got her wish.
She held the severed head of John the Baptist and finally got the kiss she craved. As she planted a kiss on the lips of the bodiless head, Herod called for her to be killed, too, the lights went dark and the play ended.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.