Salome: Oscar Wilde and Maud Allan

Past display archive
13 July 2009 - 7 March 2010

Room 26

Free



Oscar Wilde; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, by Gillman & Co, May 1893 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Oscar Wilde; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas
by Gillman & Co
May 1893
NPG P1122

The biblical character Salome has long been a source of fascination to artists and writers. The story of Salome’s dance for her stepfather King Herod in return for the head of John the Baptist is one of the most lurid episodes in the New Testament. She has become an icon of deadly feminine seduction - the archetypal femme fatale.

The story was particularly appealing to the ‘decadent’ sensibility of excess, eroticism and aestheticism associated with the 1890s. The most influential artistic response was Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, written in French in 1891. Dealing with themes of sexual obsession, incest and necrophilia, the play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. It nevertheless reached an audience through the publication of a translation of the script with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (1894).

The play was not publically performed in England until 1931. However, a dance interpretation by Maud Allan became the theatrical phenomenon of 1908. The Vision of Salome ran for eighteen months, creating an atmosphere of ‘Salomania’, and making Allan a star. A decade later, her career was ruined by a libel trial focused on her sexuality that mirrored Wilde’s downfall in 1895.