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A head on a silver platter – rethinking John the Baptist and Oscar Wilde
Salome kisses the head of John the Baptist. A play based on the biblical story is getting a new translation.
February 2nd, 2012
05:00 AM ET

A head on a silver platter – rethinking John the Baptist and Oscar Wilde

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.

Joseph Donohue awaits the staged reading of his translation of Salome.

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.

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“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.

Illustrator Barry Moser added portraits for Donohue

Moser would pen portraits of the "Salome" characters to help attract a wider audience in the arts community.

With Moser on board, the project was an easy sell to the University of Virginia Press, which recently published Donohue’s new translation in plain-spoken English.

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.

Kerry Keihn, a senior from UVA, portrays Salome.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Faith Now • Ireland

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soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. Ahmed

    there's nothing you can add to this it is celpmotely true. It does, however, remind me of the Audrey Hepburn quote, For a beautiful face, smile . and, I picture her absolutely peaceful, beautiful smile.

    July 30, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 3, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Nope

      ~~The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.~~~

      February 3, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Prayer changes things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      February 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  3. Reality

    A more accurate account? Note: No Salome involvement.

    "An account of John the Baptist is found in all ex-tant ma-nuscripts of the Jewish An-tiqu-ities (book 18, chapter 5, 2) by Flavius Josephus (37–100):[45]

    "Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exe-rcise virtue, both as to rig-hteousness towards one another, and pi-ety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remi-ssion] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly pu-rifi-ed beforehand by right-eo-usness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mi-schief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sp-aring a man who might make him rep-ent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's susp-icious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.[46]

    As with other pa-ssages in Josephus relating to Christian themes concern remains over whether the pa-ssage was part of Josephus's original text or instead a later addition – it can be dated back no further than the early 3rd century when it is quoted by Origen in Contra Celsum. According to this passage, the execution of John was blamed for a defeat Herod suffered c. AD 36. Divergences between the passage's presentation and the Biblical accounts of John include baptism for those whose souls have already been "purified beforehand by righteousness" is for purification of the body, not general repentance of sin (Mark 1:4[33])."

    See also Professor Gerd Ludemann's review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 42-43 and also http://www.josephus.org/JohnTBaptist.htm for added history of JB's execution.

    (note: some hyphenation used to defeat the dreaded word filter

    February 3, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  4. Thumb's Up

    When it rained standards of morality, atheists are sleeping soundly dreaming Carribean Cruise.

    February 3, 2012 at 3:58 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      You're an idiot!!! We don't get our morals from a book of fiction...we get them from common sense...we actually use our brains and not buybull to tell us what is right and wrong (we all know that the buybull is 90% wrong and thus we choose to think for ourselves).

      February 3, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • just sayin

      Except that the National Anthem of Canada is a prayer. Canadian morals come from a devotion to God and His Holy Bible, Sorry there 'truthie', you misspelled Bible is that too hard of a word for you to spell?

      February 3, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Just sayin.. which god? we have lots of different beliefs here..... Canadian morals are much higher than those that the bible expounds....

      February 4, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      thumbs up..? but what has raining got to do with a cruse and sleep? what part of the bible tells you anything that we did not already know? Mind you.."Thout shalt not steal " sounds strange coming from a book that got most of its material from other religions and gods..

      February 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.