Strauss And Wilde’s Salome

One who might consider themselves a fan of opera might be familiar with the notoriously unfair treatment that is often received by the female characters in opera.

As Catherine Clement says in the book “Siren Songs”, “…humiliated, hunted, driven mad, burnt alive, buried alive, stabbed, committing suicide – Violetta, Sieglinde, Lucia, Brunnhilde, Aida, Norma, Melisande, Liu, Butterfly, Isolde, Lulu, and so many others…”. The fates such characters have met in their stories is often telling of the time in which the work was written. Specifically, the stereotype that was associated with women of the nineteenth century being that they were weak scared, nagging, and possibly even treacherous. 

In the nineteenth century, pathological ideas dominated the medical field, as well as the cultural view of female sexuality. Discussions in medical and social fields happily chose to reduce women to underdeveloped, childlike creatures. As Cesare Ombroso wrote, “women are big children, their evil tendencies are more numerous and more varied than mens, but generally remain latent. When they are awakened and excited they produce results proportionately greater.” Along with this, the female sex drive was considered volatile, and inherently dysfunctional and dangerous. The medical community at the time linked the insanity associated with puberty in females to the destructive tendency comparable to pugnacity in males, and female menstruation slowly became associated with female violence. It is a recurring theme in the medical literature of the nineteenth century to connect insanity to gender, youth, and menstruation. 

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In the Strauss opera entitled “Salome”, based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, Salome is portrayed with the characterization typical of a femme fatale, following in the footsteps of Carmen, Kundry, Delilah, and Lulu. She embodies the demonic beauty who could lure men to damnation, and through this power can evoke terror as well as desire. However, unlike the typical perception of the femme fatale, Salome is a teenage girl and a virgin. When one considers the views shared by the medical field at the time during which Salome was being written, one must consider the influence that ideas such as hysteria, menstruation, and sexuality in teenage girls may have impacted the characterization of Salome. The body of the young Salome filled the obsessions of late nineteenth-century European culture. The intention held by Wilde in his characterization of Salome was for her to simultaneously embody both sensuality and chaster virginity, and Strauss took his opportunity to accentuate this dramatic contradiction. Salome, as she is depicted in Strauss’s opera, personifies a new characterization of Salome than is depicted in the biblical story. Strauss’s version of her is much more decadent, shown as a beautiful princess who dances for the lustful Herod to fulfill her goal of kissing the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The character she evokes embodies a psychic lack of fit, and due to this characterization, audiences find her powerful, and potentially terrifying. Unfortunately, a multitude of productions have chosen to emphasize Salome as either a virgin or a whore, instead of choosing to sustain this important contradiction between the two. 

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Firstly, it is incredibly important to consider the artistic licenses found in both Wilde and Strauss’ characterizations of the princess Salome. The character of Salome as she appears in the original biblical narrative is virtually unrecognizable to the audience, as in the original biblical telling, she lacks any name, description, or most importantly, a motive. Subsequent re-interpreters, such as Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, have chosen to bring the character to the front of the story, raising her from her original unimportant status. It has been noted by many critics that Oscar Wilde made many alterations to the biblical telling of Salome. Such changes permitted Wilde to treat her not only as a religious figure but instead as an alluring woman who can use her body to evoke pleasure in the audience members as she dances. 

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In Wilde’s version of the narrative, he develops themes of orientalism, as well as counter- cultural ethics, to deeply explore the ideologies and sexual perversions existing in the modern culture of the time. Expanding Wilde’s version, Strauss’s interpretation of the text aims to highlight and reflect the emotions and tone of the play while reacting to nineteenth-century German culture by focusing on the sexually perverse themes that had been previously developed by Wilde. It is important to note such liberties taken by both artists in their development of Salome’s character, as they act as evidence that the characterization of Salome, as she appears in each subsequent version, was due to a decision from either Wilde or Strauss, and not due to the content of the original narrative. By analyzing such decisions, one can observe the influence that modern society and culture had on the character of Salome. 

The concept of feminine sexuality has long evoked anxiety and fear into the hearts of men, and the prejudice they’ve held throughout history continued well into the twentieth century. Throughout history, the inferiority and lack of intellectual status held by women was widely supported in academic circles. Edward Clark wrote that higher education for girls was unhealthy and unnatural, claiming that if women chose to pursue academia, that the blood from their uterus would flood to their brains, making them depressed, infertile, and unpleasant. These ideas and other similar ideas held by many members of society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had continuous effects on the characterization of female characters. Typically, the dangerous woman at the centre of the plot is either killed, married off, or otherwise neutralized by the end of the movie. As is said in the article The Historical Response to Female Sexuality, written by John Studd and Anneliese Schwenkhagen, “In nineteenth-century European literature there is a hardly an example of a female character who has what is called “a past”, or who has had an adulterous relationship, who survives to the end of the novel, regardless of the country of origin. The fate of the fallen woman was suicide, murder, or deportation to Australia.”. Similarly, it is commonly found in nineteenth-century opera that all the heroines with a sexual past die.

One of the greatest historical examples of the trends surrounding societies ideas of women can be found in the medical phenomenon of hysteria. Historically, hysteria has been recognized to have been created by men to subjugate women in their clinics. It first began to be recognized in ancient times, documented in the Hippocratic Corpus’ On the Diseases of Women, in which the connection between hysteria and the female reproductive system is first recorded. Hysteria, as it was first recognized, was defined as a disturbance caused by “the peregrinations of a restless dissatisfied womb,” that traveled throughout the patient’s body, giving rise to various symptoms. At this, the point of its first recognition, the only recognized cure of hysteria was marriage. Hippocrates rejected this theoretical cure, as well as the commonly accepted cause, and instead suggested that the true cause of hysteria was a retention of uterine secretions, while others at the time believed that the cause may lay in a physical displacement of the uterus. It is important to recognize that these early theories surrounding hysteria held no mention of divine or demonic causation, these ideas were not included until the Middle Ages when hysteria morphed from a physical ailment to a disease of one’s soul. For a time in history, clinical trials were held in which men were invited to see in vivid detail the roles that the vulva and clitoris played in causing the hysterical attacks seemingly present in female hysteric patients. Surprisingly, the details of female anatomy and function held by the medical community of the time were quite well informed, however, an important characteristic of the scientific ideas of the time involved a violent condemnation of robust feminine sexuality. 

Moving into the 17th century, English physician Thomas Willis suggested that hysteria was a disorder of the brain, with Jean-Martin Charcot later furthering this theory to suggest that strong emotions would produce hysteria in people that were predisposed to it. In the 18th century, doctors split the representation of the human body into genders. The muscular system was seen as masculine, and the nervous system was seen as feminine, With this, doctors made a gender separation between forms of nervous disorders, assigning hysteria to women, and hypochondria to men. Continuing into the medicine of the late 19th century, some forms of hysteria were described as choreas in the medical terminology that accompanied them, as their physical symptoms shared a strong resemblance to dance. Finally, moving into the 20th century, views surrounding hysteria claiming that it is bound to an aspect of the patient’s organic biology morphed into psychological profiles that directly linked hysteria to femininity. 

A common belief of the medical field of the nineteenth century was that female menstruation and sexuality had a negative effect on the female intellect, which was further advanced by the beliefs already in place claiming that disorders such as nymphomania, masturbation, insanity, hysteria, and neurasthenia were a serious threat to female life, and considered to be caused by reading inappropriate novels or listening to romantic music. Women with hysteria were often affiliated with heightened suggestibility, emotional irritability and instability, hyperaesthesia, and impulsiveness. Some scientists, such as Charcot, held the belief that a majority of female mental diseases were the result of abnormalities or excitation of the external female genitals. Since these ailments were determined to be caused by feminine characteristics, their treatment usually involved the removal of female reproductive organs, including but not limited to, the ovaries and clitoris. Throughout history, there has been an unflattering connection drawn between women and hysteria. Throughout its existence, hysteria has been considered a feminine disease, a disorder regarding femininity or a disturbance thereof. The vast and constantly varying list of symptoms were often reminiscent of many of the characteristics that doctors, and often society as a whole, already associated with women of the time. Among many others, some of the stereotypes 45 associated with women of the nineteenth century claimed that they were fearful, grasping, treacherous, weak, and complaining. Along with this, the female sex drive was considered to be rampaging, volatile, capricious, inherently dysfunctional, and possibly even dangerous. 

Focusing on a more psychoanalytic context, women were seen to be at a disadvantage to men in regards to mastering oedipal tasks and thus were more disposed to hysterical behaviours than men were. Some medical discourse of the time compared the insanity of puberty in female patients to the destructive tendencies associated with male aggression, and female crime and violence became closely associated with female menstruation. Havelock Ellis wrote that “control was physiologically lessened at the menstrual period even in health, while it is much more lessened in the neurotic and imbalanced”. At this time in history, there was also a belief that masturbation could cause insomnia, exhaustion, neurasthenia, epilepsy, moral insanity, convulsions, melancholia, paralysis, and eventually coma and death. The condition was termed as “melancholia” or “masturbator 52 paralysis”, and the result was described as “onanism, that execrable and fatal evil, which soon destroys her beauty, impairs her health, and conducts her always to an early grave.” There has been clear favour held among doctors of the nineteenth century towards biological arguments linking femininity with hysteria. French physician Auguste Fabre claimed that “as a general rule, all women are hysterical and… every woman carries with her the seeds of hysteria. Hysteria, before being an illness, is a temperament, and what constitutes the temperament of a woman is rudimentary hysteria”. Along with hysteria, a recurring theme in the medical literature of the nineteenth century was a connection between insanity and gender, youth, and menstruation. The medical and 56 social discourses of the time were quick to characterize women as morally underdeveloped, and childlike. There was an unspoken tradition in the nineteenth century of associating pubescent 57 women, and thus menstruation and sexuality, to insanity. To audiences of the time, Salome’s 58 open expression of sexual desire towards John the Baptists would have been widely considered as a sign of mental illness, and even evidence of nymphomania. Salome can be considered to 59 be a symbolic interpretation of what might be considered the height of a ravenous madwoman. 

Thus, the terrifying Salome could come to stand for all women. From a very early point in history, there has been a strong belief that dance was inherently dangerous, due in part to its hedonistic, instinctual, and physical nature. Dance has 62 commonly been regarded as a representation of madness, madness, and possession. Arguably, images of madness and hysteria have remained constant in the background of interpretations of dance. The close association between dance and madness in various forms has been solidified strongly through its imagery: the visual resemblance between certain dance forms and some hysteria outbursts can spread quite close. Through its association with hysteria, dance took on a much more medicalized and pathological significance. When Strauss’ opera Salome was being written, this pathology regarding hysteria dominated the medical and cultural discussion of female sexuality. This pathology also 68 included the dancing body to this idea of hysteria. One might consider that the dance of the 69 seven veils make the one moment in which Salome succeeds in finding a language for the unspeakable perversity of her desires. This offers the possibility that through dance, Salome 70 was able to fully express her hysteric nature for the first time, leading to a moment of being lost in passion, finally culminating in her kissing the decapitated head of John the Baptist, ultimately leading to her death. It is common practice in operas of the nineteenth and twentieth century to dole out unfortunate fates to women who freely express their sexuality. It was an equally common practice in society at the same time to associate the medical term of hysteria to the same characteristic. 

Thus, when one analyzes the views of society surrounding pubescent women, sexuality, masturbation, and hysteria, and uses the conclusions to contemplate the characterization of the character of Salome, one will find that there is a clear connection between the cultural views against freely sexual women and hysteria and the treatment of the famous virginal femme fatale, Salome.