Review: SaloméOdyssey Bookshop Spouse, Barry Moser, was featured in Friday's issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily emailing of news from the book industry. In it, John McFarland reviews the brand-new translation into English (by UMass professort Joseph Donohue) of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome. The University of Virginia Press has put into this book all of the beautiful design and production values that we expect from our university presses, and you can read all about Moser's illustrations below, but you can click here if you want to read the entire issue of Shelf Awareness.
Salome: A Tragedy in One Act by Oscar Wilde, trans. by Joseph Donohue, illus. by Barry Moser (University of Virginia Press, $24.95 hardcover, 9780813931913, November 2011)
During an 1891 sojourn in Paris, Oscar Wilde was inspired by discussions with Stéphane Mallarmé and other Symbolist poets to set himself a challenge: he would take a tale from the Bible and set it as drama, but he would write it in French, not English. Like the Symbolists, Wilde was drawn to tales of decadence and beauty and he couldn't do much better than the story featuring Salomé. A teenage princess of Judea, she became obsessed with John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod, her stepfather, and ended up demanding John's head on a platter in exchange for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. Wilde had a ball piling on out-of-control lust, family dysfunction, artsy striptease, beheading of a prophet and necrophilia for maximum theatrical effect. He did so, however, in highly stylized language that Joseph Donohue argues makes the drama in French one of "the greatest prose poems of them all."
While the play met with success at its French premiere in 1896 and captured the attention of Richard Strauss (who then composed his 1905 opera version), when a German translation from the French was produced in Berlin, Wilde was less well served by the Lord Alfred Douglas English translation that came out in 1894 and has since dominated all discussion of English versions, to the detriment of the actual worth of the piece. Before unveiling his new English translation, Joseph Donohue provides a fascinating essay on Wilde's serious errors of judgment on that score, and readers will take away lessons from Wilde's mistakes, including not hiring your boyfriend for a job when he has no experience and not commissioning Aubrey Beardsley to illustrate a tale that happens somewhere other than an opium den.
Donohue has set himself the task of rendering Wilde's French tragedy in "an up-to-date, colloquial yet spare English translation" that could be performed on stage today. His work reads smoothly, and he's breathed life back into the play (compare his version of Salomé's declaration before she kisses the lips of John the Baptist's severed head: "And that tongue, that red serpent spewing out poisons, it's not wagging any more, it says nothing now," with Douglas's 1894 "And thy tongue, that was like a red snake darting poison, it moves no more, it speaks no words"). The ominous Barry Moser engravings also establish the time and place mercifully free of a single Beardsley peacock feather. --John McFarland