Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in a Striking Modern Aesthetic (1894)

December 11, 2019

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Beardsley was a young aesthete with a literary imagination. In his short career—he died at the age of 25—he illustrated many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, forefather of the American Gothic. Beardsley also famously illustrated Oscar Wilde’s scandalous drama, Salome in 1893, to the surprise of its author, who later inscribed an illustrated copy with the words, “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.” Beardsley’s drawings first appeared in an art magazine called The Studio, then the following year in an English publication of the text.

Beardsley and Wilde’s joint creation embraced the macabre and flaunted Victorian sexual norms. After an abrupt cancellation of Salome’s planned opening in England, the illustrated edition introduced British readers to the play’s unsettling themes. The British Library quotes critic Peter Raby, who argues, “Beardsley gave the text its first true public and modern performance, placing it firmly within the 1890s – a disturbing framework for the dark elements of cruelty and eroticism, and of the deliberate ambiguity and blurring of gender, which he released from Wilde’s play as though he were opening Pandora’s box.”

Wilde’s play was ostensibly banned for its portrayal of Biblical characters, prohibited on stage at the time. Furthermore, it “struck a nerve,” writes Yelena Primorac at Victorian Web, with its “portrayal of woman in extreme opposition to the traditional notion of virtuous, pure, clean and asexual womanhood the Victorians felt comfortable living with.” Wilde was at first concerned that the illustrations, with their suggestively posed figures and frankly sexual and violent images, would “reduce the text to the role of ‘illustrating Aubrey’s illustrations.’”

In December 1896, Beardsley suffered a violent hemorrhage, leaving him in precarious health. By April 1897, a month after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his deteriorating health prompted a move to the French Riviera. There he died a year later, on 16 March 1898, of tuberculosis at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Menton, France, attended by his mother and sister. He was 25 years old. Following a Requiem Mass in Menton Cathedral the following day, his remains were interred in the Cimetiere du Trabuquet.

In the 1982 BBC Playhouse drama Aubrey, written by John Selwyn Gilbert, Beardsley was portrayed by actor John Dicks. The drama concerned Beardsley’s life from the time of Oscar Wilde’s arrest in April 1895, which resulted in Beardsley losing his position at The Yellow Book, to his death from tuberculosis in 1898. Beardsley is also featured on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A BBC documentary, Beardsley and his Work was made in 1982. For Beardsley’s centenary in 1972, Sussex University student Titus Alexander wrote a one-man play, The Legend and True History of Aubrey Beardsley, produced by Alan Smith and performed by Christopher Pope at the Brighton and Edinburgh Festival fringes.

Beardsley was a public as well as private eccentric. He said, “I have one aim— the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.” Wilde said he had “a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair.” Beardsley was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, ties, yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher’s in a morning coat and court shoes.

Although Beardsley was associated with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and other English aesthetes, the details of his sexuality remain in question. Speculation about his sexuality includes rumours of an incestuous relationship with his elder sister, Mabel, who may have become pregnant by her brother and miscarried.