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Dancing for an Oath: Salome's Revaluation of Word and Gesture HEIDI HARTWIG The aestheticist philosophy of the late nineteenth century effectively countered a gradual but pervasive cultural degradation of language by revaluing the concept of action for art. Oscar Wilde, the most well-known exemplar of aestheticism in Britain, noted that "action belong[edl to the sphere of ethics" ("Critic" 1042), but would deny it a place in art for that very reason. For Wilde, in true dandiacal spirit, the less practical the action, the more artistic and, paradoxically, the more utilitarian it would be. He wholeheartedly suggested that art itself was the better for being divorced from practical action: "Action! What is action? It dies at the moment of its energy. It is a base concession to fact. The world is made by the singer for the dreamer" ("Critic" 1025). Likewise, Havelock Ellis wrote of the "artist for art's sake" that "in turning aside from the common utilitarian aims of men [hel is really engaged in a task none other can perform, of immense utility to men" (347). Thus aestheticism was patently concerned, if only in a negative way, with the concept of action. Rather than severing the link between action and utility (which always carried with it the nuance, at least, of physical or political enactment), Wilde and other aesthetes simply dislodged action from its strong association with the physical body, its labor, and its products. From this perspective, the best actions were the rarefied products of the imagination. For Wilde, literature in particular distinguished itself as the imaginative act par excellence. Wilde's epitomizing of literature as action finds its theatrical correlative in his one-act play, Salome. In this play, Wilde dramatizes the dynamic relationship between language and action, or in strictly dramaturgical terms, between words and gestures. In so doing, he is able to revalue language as a type of action in its own right, a thematic and formal statem'eut that is both more difficult and more effective for being made in a dramatic work. In Theory of the Modern Drama, Peter Szondi recognizes both speech and action as constitutive elements of the traditional dramatic form, an indication that this Modern Drama, 45:1 (Spring 2002) 24 HEIDI HARTWIG fonn was dedicated to exploring the realm of the interpersonal (7). According to Szondi's elaboration, however, it was more eminently speech, specifically dialogue, that came to serve as a medium for "self-disclosure" and "dramatic realization" (7): "The absolute dominance of dialogue - that is, of interpersonal communication, reflects the fact that the Drama consists only of the reproduction of interpersonal relations, is only cognizant of what shines forth within this sphere" (8). Such a view would seem to encourage readings of plays like Salome - poetic or lyrical dramas - as substantially dramatic despite their often attenuated plots. However, although Szondi's theory of modem drama offers the indispensable insight that "the Drama is a self-contained dialectic" (8) in which the fonn and the content continually revert to one another in Hegelian fashion (4), there are omissions in his treatment of what he diagnoses as the "crisis of modem drama" and various attempts to resolve it. Most pertinently, while Szondi places much emphasis on dialogue as a marker of a play's inner antinomy (i.e. when its dialogue is fonnally traditional but thematically contradictory to the interpersonal dictates of dramatic fonn), he decidedly dismisses lyrical drama from consideration. This oversight is implicitly detennined by Szondi's expedient use of the "epic I" and, more generally, an epic sensibility, as counterpoints to the interpersonal dialogic sphere of the traditional dramatic fonn in order to reveal the extent of the crisis. In his reliance on the epic as the counter characteristic of the dramatic, the possibility tends to elude him that a lyrical thematic might also exist in tension with the dramatic fonn. But Szondi also explicitly justifies his exclusion oflyric drama: Beyond this crisis in the Drama and the attempts at an epic resolution, but fully comprehensible with them only as a background, stands the lyric Drama of the turn of the·century. [".] Dramatic language is tied strictly to an action that unfolds...


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