Oscar Wilde Uncensored: Re-Discovering Dorian Gray, Re-Interpreting Salomé

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Reviewed: The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nicholas Frankel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 295 pages, hard cover, color illustrations, $35.

Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, by Oscar Wilde, translated from the French by Joseph Donohue, illustrated by Barry Moser. University of Virginia Press, 2011. 108 pages, hard cover, black and white illustrations, $24.95.


In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was arrested for “Gross Indecency,” it was not only his sexuality, but also his art, that stood accused. During his trials, the opposing counsel cited the evidence of some of Wilde’s aphorisms, his poems, a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas — “those red rose-leaf lips of yours … have been made … for madness of kisses” — and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde was convicted and sent to prison, put out of society’s view and literally silenced.  (Talking among the prisoners was strictly prohibited.)  Outside the prison, his plays were closed; his books were withdrawn from shops, and his name removed from subsequent editions. The punishment was in many ways fitting, since Wilde’s crime consisted, to a large degree, in his visibility.  His lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had accused him of “posing as a sodomite.”

It was not the first time that the law had moved against Wilde’s art.  In 1881, his play Vera, or the Nihilists — which concerns an attempt to assassinate the Czar — was cancelled, likely owing to the objections of the Russian government.  Eleven years later, in 1892, his play Salomé was suppressed on the grounds that it was unlawful to portray Biblical figures on the stage — though the true reason was surely its morbid plot and sexual content:  E.F. Smyth Pigott, the Examiner of Plays, described it as “a miracle of impudence . . .  half-biblical, half pornographic.”

Between those dates, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a gothic tale of a young man who trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty; while he becomes increasingly corrupt, his degradation is made visible in his portrait.  When Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s magazine, critics denounced its “esoteric prurience,” its “frank Paganism,” its “moral and spiritual putrefaction,” “its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizings,” and its “obtrusively cheap scholarship.”  Some reviewers suggested that the novel might be of interest to the Treasury, the Vigilance Society, or the Criminal Investigation Department, but surely not to any virtuous or clean-minded Englishman.  The Crown did not take up the case, but in 1891 when Ward, Lock and Company published the novel as a book, Wilde deliberately obscured some of its more homoerotic elements.

It was the Lippincott’s version that was quoted at Wilde’s trial, as opposed to “the purged edition” (in the lawyer’s phrase).  But in fact, Lippincott’s was itself already censored by no fewer than six of the magazine’s staff.  They, too, had feared shocking the public with too clear a portrayal of Dorian’s sins.  And so they removed the occasional adjective, the odd phrase, entire sentences, and in one instance, most of a paragraph.  When Dorian spends a night wandering through London, the sentence — “A man with curious eyes had suddenly peered into his face, and then dogged him with stealthy footsteps, passing and repassing him many times” — was omitted, as was the later remark that “even the sinful creatures who prowl the streets at night had cursed him as he passed by, seeing in him a corruption greater than their own, and knowing too well the horror of his real life.”  Not all the excised passages suggested homosexuality or prostitution, however.  In another place, a reference to Dorian’s “mistress” is also removed.

In one respect, such omissions seem arbitrary.  We are told, for example, that Dorian ruins the reputation of any woman associated with him and that his “friendship” was “fateful to young men.”  Why, then, does the mention of a rented house really matter?  What does the substitution of “vice” for “lust” possibly solve?

As we can now see, such small things matter a great deal.  For the first time, Wilde’s original novel has been made public.  Working from the typescript Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s, Nicholas Frankel has restored the story as Wilde first wrote it — before the meddling of more cautious hands.  The resulting text comes as a revelation.  The restoration of a few details, some lines of dialogue, a bit of narration — and the whole atmosphere of the story is altered.  The purged version only hints at nameless sins, and so the psychology is all wrong: the characters are improbable, their actions inexplicable.  By uncovering the element of attraction — which is, after all, so central to the story — the original text brings the characters, at last, into focus; their motives become clear, their actions plausible.

The artist Basil Hallward, for instance, confesses that as he painted Dorian’s portrait, “There was love in every line, and in every touch there was passion.”  Dorian then reflects, “How much that strange confession explained to him!  Basil’s absurd fits of jealousy, his wild devotion, his extravagant panegyrics, his curious reticences. . . .  There was something tragic in a friendship so coloured by romance, something infinitely tragic in a romance that was at once so passionate and so sterile.”

The 1891 version was not only censored, but also expanded.  Wilde padded out its pages with additional, extraneous dialogue, with an episode of Dorian visiting an opium den, and with a melodramatic subplot concerning his fiancé’s brother and his attempts to avenge her honor.  The result is a less elegant book, and a less compelling one.

Of the three versions — typescript, Lippincott’s, and Ward, Lock and Company’s — the original seems to me by far the best.  Along with the elements of character and plot, Wilde’s writing succeeds better without the editing.  The flow of the language and the rhythm of conversation are more graceful, more lovely — no less artificial, but a great deal less forced.  Frankel’s edition is heavily annotated, with explanations of Wilde’s sometimes obscure references, notes relating the plot to his other works and the events in his life, and illustrations to explain archaisms — along with notes identifying which parts were suppressed, and which were quoted at trial.  And as an objet d’art, the book is beautiful.  The designer, as well as the editor, deserves congratulations.


As coincidence would have it, the past months have also brought us a new edition of Salomé, Wilde’s one-act tragedy recounting the death of John the Baptist (“Iokanaan”), and centering on the young princess for whom the play is named.

In Wilde’s version, Salomé tries to seduce the prophet Iokanaan, and fails.  (“Don’t come near me, Sodom’s daughter,” he orders, “but veil your face and scatter ashes on your head, and go out to the desert in search of the Son of Man.”)  She then appeals to the lust of her stepfather, Herod, the tetrarch of Judea.  She dances for him, and in exchange he promises “all you ask for, even if it’s half my kingdom.”  What she asks for is the head of the prophet.  Herod pleads with her, but at last relents and sends one of his men into the pit where Iokanaan is kept.  When the executioner “emerges out of the cistern bearing Iokanaan’s head on a silver shield,” Salomé takes it in her hands and kisses it.  As Herod departs, he orders the girl killed, and in the last line of the play, the “Soldiers rush forward and crush [her] beneath their shields.”

As a challenge to himself, Wilde composed Salomé in French — with revisions by his more fluent friends.  It was then translated into English by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.  The two men, as Wilde put it “not unnaturally. . .  differed on the question of [its] artistic value,” with Wilde “pointing out the schoolboy faults of your attempted translation.”  Where Wilde composed “recurring phrases . . . that bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs,” Douglas’s prose is simply belabored and repetitive.  The language is too self-conscious, and the characters become empty vessels echoing with strange words.

Wilde was likewise disappointed in Aubrey Beardsley’s grotesque illustrations, many of which depicted scenes not present in the text.  He complained that they were “too Japanese, while my play is Byzantine,” compared them to “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copy-books,” and characterized them as “cruel and evil, and so like dear Aubrey.” The publisher had his own objections — especially to Beardsley’s graphic, and sometimes nightmarish, eroticism.  Some of the drawings were left out when the book went to press.  Nevertheless, the Douglas translation has been the standard for more than a century, and Beardsley’s illustrations are as closely identified with the play as is the actual dialogue.

On the whole, Joseph Donohue’s new translation is much better than that of Douglas.  The dialogue regains some of its natural cadence, which paradoxically enhances rather than diminishes the strangeness of the drama.  The characters seem more alive, and so their passions, their crimes, and their tragedies become more real.  The change comes at a cost, however.  Where Douglas had written:

The moon has a strange look to-night. . . .  She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. . . .  The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them.  She shows herself naked in the sky. . . .  She is like a mad woman, is she not?

—  Donohue offers instead:

The moon has a very strange aura tonight. . . .  Like an hysterical woman, an hysterical woman looking all over for lovers. . . .  The clouds are trying to cover her, but she doesn’t want them to.  She’s showing herself naked in the sky. . . .  She looks like an hysterical woman, doesn’t she?

Douglas’s writing may have been overwrought and oftentimes tedious, but it did have its charms.  At its best, it feels fevered and delirious.  Donohue sometimes trades away poetry for precision — madness for hysteria in the above example — and the results occasionally sound flat and dull, where Douglas’s inflated ambitions may have reached a sublime pitch.

For similar reasons, I was initially doubtful of the substitution of Beardsley’s artwork, so distinctive and so emblematic of the Fin de Siècle.  As Wilde confessed, “He brought a strangely new personality to English art, and was master in his way of fantastic grace, and the charm of the unreal.  His muse had moods of terrible laughter.  Behind his grotesques there seemed to lurk some curious philosophy.”

No one could take Beardsley’s place, and Barry Moser, wisely, does not try to.  Moser’s illustrations — original to this new volume — are as far from Beardsley as they could conceivably be.  Viewing the two sets of images together, one might not realize that they connect to the same story.  Where Beardsley took vast liberties with plot and style, Moser’s engravings are literal, even subdued.  They are also very beautiful, and capture the elegance and sexuality of the story — and then its horror — without resort to caricature or surrealism.  Beardsley’s drawings are dense with sexual imagery, so nothing sets the Dance of the Seven Veils apart from the rest of the action. Moser, however, only reveals Salomé’s nudity at the climax; his approach preserves the power of the moment.

Salomé’s beauty and Iokanaan’s asceticism, necessarily somewhat abstract in the text, become visible to us in the illustrations as they might be on the stage.  She is young, poised, and alluring.  He appears aged, malnourished, and filthy.  Both Donohue’s language and Moser’s images help one, not merely to read the play on the page, but to visualize it as a performance — precisely what the Douglas/Beardsley edition most sharply failed to do.


The moral — or, perhaps better, the tragedy — of both these stories is largely the same.  Dorian Gray tries to free the body from the soul, and he is destroyed as a result.  The painter Basil Hallward only lives in the spiritual realm of his art; he puts in his portrait what he cannot realise in his life.  He, too, is destroyed by the result.  Salomé is driven by lust and vanity and, perhaps, the attraction of the taboo; Iokanaan, the saint, denies the body for the sake of the spirit.  They, too, perish.

Salomé describes Iokanaan as “a slim ivory icon. A silver icon” — but she does not see the significance of her own phrase, just as Dorian’s moment of deepest feeling comes when he falls in love, not with a person, but with the image of a person.  (“When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure.  A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time. . . .  The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation.”) Perhaps it is likewise significant that Salomé‘s most impassioned speech is addressed to a corpse:

Ah, Iokanaan, Iokanaan, you were the only man I loved. . . .  Your body was an ivory column on a silver pedestal.  A garden full of doves and silver lilies.  A silver tower adorned with ivory shields.  There was nothing in the world so white as your body.  Nothing in the world so black as your hair.  In the whole wide world nothing so red as your mouth. . . .  I thirst for your beauty.  I hunger for your body.  No wine, no fruit can appease my desire. . . .  Neither rivers nor great waters can drown my passion. . . and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.  Love is the only thing.

One can, if one chooses, free the body from the soul — and free the soul from the body — but it means death. In the end, Dorian and Salomé and Iokanaan, and perhaps even poor Basil Hallward, all get what they want.  That was, as Wilde reminds us, one of the great tragedies of life.  (The other being, of course, not getting what we want.)

The fatal mistake, Wilde thought, lay in distinguishing body and soul in the first place.  Puritans cloister the soul, and sensualists indulge the body, but both commit the same error.  “Those who see any difference between soul and body,” Wilde wrote, “have neither.”  Though differently presented, this lesson appears in Dorian Gray as part of Lord Henry Wotton’s philosophy, which Dorian either misunderstands or misapplies:  “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”  The sacred and the profane are one.

Kristian Williams is the author, most recently, of Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy (Microcosm, 2012).  He is presently at work on a book about Wilde and anarchism.