Wild yet chaste, impudent and ageless, Sarah Bernhardt was inescapably Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, ‘the most splendid creation’.
When contrasted with Wilde’s social comedies, Salomé seems ‘like a piece of literary driftwood that has made its way across from decadent France to the shores of Victorian England’, writes Norbert Kohl in Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel. When writing this, his fourth play, Wilde drew on the art he was exposed to during regular visits to Paris. One story about Salomé’s conception places Wilde in a Parisian café towards the end of 1891, describing his play to Symbolist poets Adolphe Retté and Stuart Merrill. As his biographer Vincent O’Sullivan attested: ‘He invented, not in silence but in talking.’
Salome, the bloodthirsty, seductive daughter of Herodias and truculent stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, had long been on Wilde’s mind. In 1877, when he was a 22-year-old Classics undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, Walter Pater had introduced him to Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Hérodias’, one of his Trois Contes. While on honeymoon in Paris seven years later, Wilde read Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Decadent novel À rebours, (‘Against Nature’), and identified strongly with its protagonist, Jean des Esseintes, a man obsessed with French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau’s incandescent twin paintings, Salome Dancing before Herod and The Apparition. Moreau’s paintings had caused a sensation at the Paris Spring Salon of 1876, which Flaubert attended.