It’s been just over 100 years since the censors stopped rehearsals of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé because, well, it made fun of other people’s religion. Though they played the blasphemy card, it wasn’t just the unsavory depiction of biblical characters that riled the rulers. They were also appalled by the spectacle of female desire. Hot for St. John the Baptist, who has been imprisoned by her stepfather King Herod, Salomé seduces the king and thereby wins whatever she demands: John’s head on a platter.
In Wilde’s deliberately shocking finale, Salomé gazes into the cold eyes of the decapitated head and kisses it lustily. And of course she is killed.
Salomé is the quintessential Victorian femme fatale, the insatiable, mysterious wielder of destructive desire. Which is another way of saying she is the symbol of men’s fears of women’s sexuality, and an excuse for their age-old efforts to control, if not kill, it.
That attitude, of course, is still too much with us, most pronounced in religious fundamentalism, but plain enough in prime-time plots any day of the week. The question in the theater is, how to use the stage’s uniquely ironic capacities at once to take up—and to take down—misogynous imagery and action.
Hanne Tierney finds a breathtaking answer in her actorless production of Salomé. Tierney stands half-hidden against an upstage wall, reciting Wilde’s text while she manipulates 77 strings attached to pieces of fabric or aluminum or rubber tubing—the play’s characters. As if strumming a complex harp concerto, she brings each object to life, offering abstract gesture and movement as the most profound means of conveying human feeling. In this symbolist landscape, Salomé is a shimmering piece of cloth that flirtatiously unfolds itself; Jokanaan is a coil of aluminum that uncurls with pomposity and then collapses. Salomé rubs herself against Jokanaan, causing him to quiver noisily: the scene is astonishingly erotic. Accompanied by a sensitive jazz score, the production cuts loose from realist anchors, stirring both the imagination and critical consciousness in revelatory ways.
In her new play Gum, Karen Hartman, too, seeks to deconstruct the image of the femme fatale. In this case, it is Rahmi, a young woman in a “fictitious faraway country” whose giddy sexual awakening involves two boys and a backseat—a defiance of local law that culminates in her violent punishment and death. Hartman makes it quite clear that the two boys—one of whom delivers a beautiful, pornographic speech describing what they have done together—remain free to do more of it, just as Rahmi’s fiancé talks without embarrassment of the prostitutes he has frequented. Hartman taps powerfully into young women’s yearning—for pleasure, self-sovereignty—especially in scenes between Rahmi and her younger sister, Lina, who reveal their sexual curiosity in their mutual fixation on banned chewing gum: “You slip the smoothness in and wait while sugar makes grit against your teeth. The first bite cracks the coating and your mouth goes sweet and liquid all at once.”
Indeed, the play was inspired, in part, by press reports last year that authorities in Egypt believed that local girls were being corrupted by aphrodisiac-laced chewing gum sent in by Israel. Thus Hartman’s “fictitious” country is patently Muslim—and, unfortunately, in the most Orientalist of ways. Every woman-suppressing aspect of any part of the East takes place in her primitive fantasy land: full veiling, genital mutilation as punishment, chattel marriages. One hardly defends such practices by pointing out that matters of class, education, specific location, and so on create great variation in their application. What’s more, Hartman contrasts the backward Orient with the enlightened West—to which Lina triumphantly escapes in the end. Again, one can support, say, the granting of asylum in the U.S. to women running away from genital mutilation and still be troubled by Hartman’s deployment of long-standing stereotypes that allow her audience a sense of superiority. As for the overwrought, self-indulgent acting, suffice it to say that sometimes a little repression is a good thing.
It’s a different (but profoundly related) kind of subjugation that fuels Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing: colonialism. In this engaging, if schematic, history play, set in 1650s Ireland, a marriage between an Irishwoman and an Englishman serves as the fulcrum for a story of political and personal betrayal. Cromwell has come to power in England after the civil war, and the Irish are subjected to “transplantation”—known these days as ethnic cleansing. The marriage deteriorates as the spouses begin to differ over notions of material comfort, national identity, and the demands of friendship. A strong cast, led by Alyssa Bresnahan and Michael Countryman, manages to keep the often declamatory language grounded, and one can hear the complex weave of sexism and nationalism as British authorities begin to denounce “heathen” Irish women as “witches” and bitches. It was Cromwell, after all, who closed England’s theaters.