- Wilde's Salomé
Petra Dierkes-Thrun's Salome's Modernity has two main ambitions: to reclaim Wilde's drama from the late-Victorian milieu in which it was written—from what she terms "a backward-looking compendium of fin de siècle themes and styles"—by repositioning it as a "forward-looking modernist text"; and to demonstrate the importance for modern culture of Wilde's particular version of the Salome story by tracing its "curious legacy" in more than a century's worth of "cultural reinscriptions, adaptations, and transformations."
On the face of it, neither of these aims is particularly new: so Dierkes-Thrun is by no means the first critic to highlight the innovative nature of Wilde's part-secularization of his familiar biblical source, with its controversial transformation of Salome into a complex combination [End Page 396] of purity and innocence with a ruthless self-determination and overwhelming physical desire. By the same token, much of the groundwork for tracing the subsequent influence of Wilde's vision was laid several years ago, most significantly in William Tydeman and Steven Price's 1996 Wilde: Salome, a volume that covers (although in less detail) most of the "selected renditions"—as Dierkes-Thrun terms them—that are the focus of the first four chapters of Salome's Modernity. These include: the influence on Wilde of contemporaries such as Mallarmé, Flaubert and Huysmans (in chapter one); Strauss's opera (chapter two); Maud Allan's performance of Salome's "danse de sept voiles" and her involvement in the notorious Pemberton-Billing trial (chapter three); as well as (in chapter four) the 1922 art-house film Salome in which the title role was taken by the Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova. Nazimova's theatrical reputation derived from her interpretation of Ibsen's heroines, while in Hollywood she was known for her "vamp" roles. As Tydeman and Price suggest, it was this latter identity in combination with her rumoured lesbianism that strongly influenced Nazimova's interpretation of Salomé and which enabled her film, with its all-gay cast, to be seen as "a coded act of resistance to perhaps the most influential contemporary medium in the regulation of sexual behaviour"—a judgment which Dierkes-Thrun broadly endorses. Only in the final chapter of Salome's Modernity does Dierkes-Thrun break new ground when she abruptly shifts her focus from early twentieth-century modernism to modernity—that is, to "Wilde and Salomé in Popular Culture since the 1980s." Covering a wider range of works than in previous chapters, here Dierkes-Thrun identifies two "dominant trends" in late-twentieth-century engagements with Salomé which she terms "homosexual humanism" (represented by Ken Russell's Salome's Last Dance and Suri Krishnamma's A Man of No Importance) and "regressive feminism" (examples of which are Nick Cave's "Salomé" in King Ink and Tim Robbins's Skinny Legs and All). Dierkes-Thrun suggests that both sorts of works ultimately do a disservice to Wilde's transgressive aesthetic by undermining "the very antihomophobic and feminist projects they aim to support," and in this conclusion she echoes Oliver S. Buckton's earlier claim in his 2008 essay "Oscar Goes to Hollywood" (in Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture) that despite "the earnest promise of Hollywood to rescue Wilde from misprision" we end up with a "cultural conventionality." Finally Dierkes-Thrun provides a brief analysis of what she sees as examples of "more truly innovative and interesting" engagements with Salomé, works such as Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine and Doric Wilson's Now She Dances! [End Page 397]
This brief summary of Salome's Modernity points to a number of possible questions. The first concerns the plausibility of Dierkes-Thrun's thesis taken as a whole: whether the evidence she marshals makes a convincing case for Wilde to be seen as a "founding figure of modernism" and therefore for Salomé as a "key text in modern culture's preoccupation with erotic and aesthetic transgression." Here we might wonder how her definition of "modernist aesthetics," as "a...