6 JUNE 1931, Page 12

The Theatre


THE history of Wilde's Salome is surely one of the strangest in the records of the stage.

Written in a French that a clever undergraduate might submit with a certain assurance for admiration amongst his " private friends "—a French of which Marcel Schwob refused to correct even the obvious errors lest he should spoil the " spontaneity " of the style—it was accepted for production by Sarah Bernhardt more than forty years ago. The Censor forbade it, and I do not know that any explanation has ever been offered of its later production in England, with full publicity, as a loud opera. Perhaps it may be supposed that the din of an orchestra makes alleged immorality unintelligible to all but the musical, who are irredeemably lost already. The play was surreptitiously produced in 1905 and 1906. Few of us had seen it until Mr. Peter Godfrey gave it the discreet publicity of the Gate Theatre last week.

Meanwhile, all over the rest of Europe, what a furore ! Played in eleven languages, translated into Russian, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Magyar, Polish, Yiddish, Swedish and Catalan to pick out only a few of the more difficult tongues recorded in Mr. Walter Ledger's bibliography—it is, or was, the most prodigiously pleasing article of export produced in our country since Byron's death. And if we were to take seriously Mathew Amold's reference to enduring fame as best ascertainable by the cosmopolitan recognition of a work of art, we should have to conclude that Salome is the greatest play produced by the nineteenth century. Odd contrast with the silence, or merely passing allusions, in our manuals of literature To give one instance : Professor Allardyce Nicoll's comprehensive survey of the British drama mentions Salome once only, and then to dismiss it as " notorious."

Did all this point (as William Archer suggested) to a " political demonstration—a wilful glorification of a man whom England had cast out " ? We hoped not as we went to the Gate Theatre ; because this account of the mystery would mean that an eighth veil of propagandist ennui had been thrown over the seven others, beneath or behind which the daughter of Herodias danced in the play—a dance less lovely to the eye than the exquisite description of it in Flaubert's story is to the imagination. Up to that point, the English Salome (Miss Margaret Rawlings) had unintentionally exhibited a defect of Wilde's style, which wobbles between his customary late-romantic and rather sickly childishness of sensuous description, and a slap-dash employment of conversational clichés which collide with Biblical comparisons ; the whole made monotonously rhythmical by a borrowing of Maeterlinck's repetitions and echoings of phrase by responsive phrase.

Thus the recurrent " motive " of the moon which appears to the characters as " like " everything but a planet—except to Herodias who refreshingly remarks that the moon is nothing but the moon—is interrupted by phrases like " abso- lutely ridiculous " and " altogether monstrous " ; as though, in the exhausted epithets of these later days, one speaker were to recite bits of the Song of Songs while another punc- tuated the recitation with cries of " marvellous I " or " shy- making I "—no matter which. This " spontaneity " has an effect of dissonance. So Miss Rawlings boldly decided to drop Flaubert, Maeterlinck, the mystery-play tradition, and, if you like, the Bible, and to stick to Bloomsbury ; her utterance reminding us of the petulance with which a pretty woman declares that she won't have any of those stupid cocktails, but will go to the cinema, if only Herod, or another, with eyes like flagons of wine, would buck up and take her. A devastating error, this, because the only safe manner of reciting a deliberately artificial poem is, not to modernize it, but to murmur it as a poem—dreamily, the rich similes and analogies being breathed as in a trance, and an air of doom—Cassandra in the Agamemnon—being per- mitted to brood over the whole. The Roman Tigellinus may be allowed a little naturalism. But Jokaanan, the prophet, should be a " marvellous " voice, and beyond that, little but a head. Alas, Mr. John Clements's howls from off stage reminded one of a porter vociferating the names of stations ! Mr. Robert Speaight's Herod was better,

especially at the end. But on the whole the acting, like the play's phrasing, fell between the stiff waxwork style and an unlucky realism. In consequence, one was interested, not moved ; never thrilled. And I am still utterly unable to explain the enormous appeal of Salome to the minds of all good Europeans, except ourselves.

Rereading the play, in its non-native French, after Mr. Godfrey's production, I seemed to see that Wilde has tried to better the Bible (a thing one can never do) by throwing his high light upon this inexplicable girl, this Salome. He has scorned the obvious dramatic effect to be secured by employing her as the blank receptacle of her evil mother's will. But theatrically it is more impressive to watch inno- cence, or ignorance at the mercy of craft—witness Othello. Herodias is nothing in this play. And, having chosen to neglect her, Wilde has been forced to invent a silly and " notoriously " repugnant impulse for Salome's infatuation for the Prophet and his head. Her morbidity is not inter- esting. She would be infinitely less tedious as the Princess of Mallarme's masterpiece—a far-away figure of purity. And this she seemed to become for a moment when Miss Rawlings, after dancing in a " daily dozen " or Swedish- abdominal manner, behind veils, annexed one of them to cover nudity, and, with a garland of rose-buds, appeared suddenly as Perdita or Miranda, an English maiden strayed into that bad Syrian company. But really, one couldn't believe in her for a moment !

The imagination of Marlowe revelling in visions of Tambur- laine, Shakespeare reanimating Romans out of a quaintly translated Plutarch, even stiff Ben Jonson in his " learned sock "—all these boldly adopted their own uniform con- vention and managed, without embarrassment, to fetch pieces of the far past into their Elizabethan atmosphere. This movement of a free imagination is—I still think—lacking in Wilde's tragedy, which is an affair of decoration, of self- conscious insinuations, and of many literary reminiscences.