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As this week seemed to be Wilde-orientated, I decided to read his story “The Sphinx without a Secret”. I had heard a lot about it and saw it reviewed recently (here and here), but had never got around to read it. Now, it’s done!
In a few words, the narrator meets his old friend, Lord Murchinson, who, he tells us, “would be the best of fellows, if he did not always speak the truth”. The narrator notices the anxious look of Murchinson and suspects that some woman is involved. He is right and soon Murchinson tells us the story of Lady Alroy, whose face on the photo is the one of “someone with a secret”.
As Murchinson recounts his encounter with Lady Alroy, he tells us that he was excited by her air of mystery. As he begins a relationship with her, he indeed believes that she is hiding a secret from him.
The whole story revolves around this idea of mystery and secret. The reader, like the narrator, gets worked up; we, too, want to know the secret. However, we never learn it and although our narrator thinks that Lady Alroy is “a sphinx without a secret”, we, like Lord Murchinson, wonder…
It is a short and enjoyable story. It is well crafted; Wilde builds the whole story around this idea of mystery and, if you pay attention, there are many clues that draw attention to secrecy, mystery and truth. He is successful in getting us to expect a big revelation and leaves our thirst for discovery unsatisfied. However, the story is satisfying as it is a pleasure to read. Enjoy!
Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.
“Salomey was a dancer, she did the hootchie kootch, And when she did the hoochie kootch, she didn’t wear very mooch“ (skipping rhyme quoted in Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood).
Who is Salomé?
I am not well versed in biblical studies, but, from what I have gathered, Salomé was the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod. It seems that on the occasion of Herod’s birthday, she danced for him and asked, to her mother’s request, the head of John the Baptist. John the Baptist, who had announced Jesus’s coming, had been made prisoner by Herod because he had denounced his unlawful marriage to Herodias. She thus stands as a Christian warning against dancing and female seduction.
This weekend, I read Salomé by Oscar Wilde (you can easily find an online version). It is a short play, which was first written in French in 1891. His version seems faithful to the original story of Salomé but emphasises even more Salomé’s seductiveness.
During the banquet given by Herod, the Young Syrian admires Salomé, while his friend is admiring the moon, which is compared to a woman. The Young Syrian keeps looking at Salomé despite the warnings of his friend: “You must not look at her… Something terrible may happen.” Both also notice how Herod is looking at Salomé. Salomé then leaves the banquet because she cannot stand her stepfather looking at her constantly and joins them. When she hears the voice of the prophet, Jokanaan, she asks to see him. The two friends refuse. However, Salomé, aware of her seductive power on the Young Syrian, convinces him. She immediately falls in love with Jokanaan. She is fickle in her tastes. She first admires his body, but ,after his rejection of her because she is the “daughter of adultery”, she admires his hair and finally his mouth, which she wants to kiss: “Let me kiss thy mouth.” This last remark brings the Young Syrian to kill himself.
When Herod and his wife come out, Herodias keeps asking him to stop looking at her daughter. Not paying attention, Herod begs Salomé to dance for him, offering her whatever she desires in exchange. Salomé asks for Jokanaan’s head to the satisfaction of her mother, who felt insulted by Jokanaan’s words. Salomé, still filled with desire for Jokanaan, kisses his head. The play ends as Herod orders to have Salomé killed.
The way I see this play is as a critique of women’s vanity, fickleness and power of seduction. However, there are some other meanings to it. One could see it as a comment on religion, Judaism in particular, as the Jews keep having ridiculous arguments and never seem to agree with each others.
I do not find this play as enjoyable as Wilde’s other works. I think it is not as entertaining and witty, although I smiled on a few occasions. Maybe more research on it could help me to appreciate it?
I find Margaret Atwood’s take on Salomé in The Tent much more sarcastic and entertaining. Atwood uses the story of Salomé and sets it up in our modern world. The tone is that of gossip and the story becomes a kind of tv drama.
In this little story entitled “Salomé Was a Dancer”, the narrator tells us how Salomé seduced her Religious Studies teacher because he gave her a bad mark. According to the narrator, this is not surprising “with a mother like hers . . . Divorced, remarried, bracelets all up her arms and fake eyelashes out to here, and pushy as hell.” Salomé started to do beauty contests and dance shows at an early age, as in the school play, when “Seven layers of cheesecloth was all she wore.” Salomé also has a stepfather, a banker, who had “promised her a Porsche when she turned sixteen.”
Salomé got caught with her teacher, there was a scandal, but the narrator suggests that the banker pulled a few strings and now the teacher has “grown a beard, looks like Jesus, crazy as a bedbug. Lost his head completely.” Atwood then gives an ending descent of this modern version of the depraved woman and by doing so expands on Wilde’s own version.
Atwood says that “strong myths never die”. Indeed, in this modern version she revives the myth of Salomé and turns it into a satire of pop culture and our avidity for tv drama.
Although it seems that the story of Salomé occupies only a small part in the New Testament, she was not even named, the myth of the femme fatale she created has certainly taken bigger proportions.
You can also read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Salomé”, another modern take on the story. There is also a short story by Flaubert called “Salomé”; I must try to dig it up.
“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
This week, I went to see Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, which was produced by the Everyman Theatre Company with Michael Twomey directing. It was an enjoyable play.
The only work by Wilde I am familiar with is The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Lady Windermere’s Fan is set in the same 19th-century London society and it was great to see it in action. Wilde’s play can be seen as a critique of this society who is highly concerned with class and keeping up the appearances and whose favourite pastime is gossip.
“although they never talk scandal, they – well, of course – they remark on it to everyone”
Everybody in London assumes that Lord Windermere is having an affair with Mrs Erlynne, except his own wife. On her birthday, the affair is revealed to her. Despite her disbelief, Lady Windermere is forced to face this fact when she discovers that her husband has given large sums of money to Mrs Erlynne. As Lord Windermere invites Mrs Erlynne to Lady Windermere’s birthday party, Lady Windermere decides to run away with Lord Darlington, her fervent admirer. However, she is stopped by Mrs Erlynne, whose past is a secret Lord Windermere wants to hide from his wife. Although Lady Windermere never learns this secret, she is convinced by Mrs Erlynne of her husband’s innocence. Most importantly, she discovers that the world is not divided between good and bad people.
Although the beginning was a bit slow, everything contributed to a plot that was intriguing. There were many twists and not a minute of boredom. Many moments in the play were hilarious, such as when the Duchess (Ronnie O’Shaughnessy) reveals the affair to Lady Windermere (Rose Donovan) and begins rambling about men:
“And they never grow any better. Men become old, but they never become good.”
One of my favourite moments was in act three, when the five men wittingly discuss women and their society. It was full of repartee and humour and was particularly well acted.
“Oh! gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. Now, I never moralise. A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain. There is nothing in the whole world so unbecoming to a woman as a Nonconformist conscience. And most women know it, I’m glad to say.”
The play reflects on issues such as love and marriage, good and bad, vanity and pleasure. Lady Windermere, who is the epitome of innocence at the beginning of the play, discovers that you cannot divide the world between good and bad people, that there is a bit of both in each of us.
I thought the acting was good. Vanessa Hyde was particularly impressive in the role of Mrs Erlynne. I also enjoyed the performance of Caroline Murphy. She plays a minor role as Lady Agatha and does not speak many lines, but her attitude as the Duchess’ docile daughter was well enacted.
Overall, it was an entertaining evening.