seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” Opens in Paris

Oscar Wilde languishes in jail as his play Salomé opens in Paris on February 11, 1896. Salomé is a one act play based on the biblical tale of Salomé, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who asks for the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a platter as a reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils. The original 1891 version of the play is in French. Three years later an English translation, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, is published.

Rehearsals for the play’s debut on the London stage, for inclusion in Sarah Bernhardt‘s London season, begin in 1892, but are halted when the Lord Chamberlain‘s licensor of plays bans Salomé on the basis that it is illegal to depict Biblical characters on the stage. The play eventually premiers on February 11, 1896, while Wilde is in prison, in Paris at the Théâtre de la Comédie-Parisienne in a staging by Lugné-Poe‘s theatre group, the Théâtre de l’Œuvre.

In The Pall Mall Gazette of June 29, 1892 Wilde explains why he had written Salomé in French:

“I have one instrument that I know I can command, and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it. […] Of course, there are modes of expression that a Frenchman of letters would not have used, but they give a certain relief or colour to the play. A great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language. The same thing is true of Rossetti, who, though he wrote in English, was essentially Latin in temperament.”

A performance of the play is arranged by the New Stage Club at the Bijou Theatre in Archer Street, London, on May 10 and 13, 1905, starring Millicent Murby as Salomé and directed by Florence Farr. In June 1906 the play is presented privately with A Florentine Tragedy by the Literary Theatre Society at King’s Hall, Covent Garden. The Lord Chamberlain’s ban is not lifted for almost forty years. The first public performance of Salomé in England is produced by Nancy Price at the Savoy Theatre on October 5, 1931. She takes the role of Herodias herself and casts her daughter, Joan Maude, as Salomé.

In 1992 the play is performed on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, under the direction of Robert Allan Ackerman. Sheryl Lee stars as the title role alongside Al Pacino. The play costars Suzanne Bertish, Esai Morales and Arnold Vosloo.

Al Pacino says in an interview that a new production of the play where he will star as King Herod is to open in London’s West End in 2016.

In 2018 a production by Lazarus Theatre is performed at Greenwich Theatre. Directed by Ricky Dukes, the performance portrays Salomé as male.


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Premiere of “The Quare Fellow”

Brendan Behan’s first play, The Quare Fellow, premieres at the Pike Theatre in Dublin on November 19, 1954, to critical success. The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer.

The Quare Fellow is initially offered to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but is turned down. The play has its London première in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. On July 24, 1956 it transfers to the Comedy Theatre, London. In September 1956 the Abbey Theatre finally performs The Quare Fellow. It has such success that the Abbey’s artistic director, Ria Mooney, pushes the next play back to allow The Quare Fellow to run for six weeks. Its first New York performance is on November 27, 1958 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

The play is set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. The antihero of the play, the Quare Fellow, is never seen or heard but rather functions as the play’s central conceit. He is a man condemned to die on the following day, for an unmentioned crime. Whatever it is, it revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of the Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, gay man.

There are three generations of prisoners in Mountjoy including boisterous youngsters who can irritate both other inmates and the audience and the weary old lags Neighbour and “methylated martyr” Dunlavin.

The first act is played out in the cramped area outside five cells and is comedic, sometimes rather like an Irish episode of Porridge. After the interval, the pace slows considerably and the play becomes much darker, as the time for the execution approaches. The focus moves to the exercise yard and to the workers who are digging the grave for the soon-to-be-executed Quare Fellow.

The play is a grimly realistic portrait of prison life in Ireland in the 1950s, and a reminder of the days in which homosexuality was illegal and the death penalty relatively common. The play is based on Behan’s own prison experiences, and highlights the perceived barbarity of capital punishment, then in use in Ireland. The play also attacks the false piety in attitudes to sex, politics and religion.

The Auld Triangle“, a song from the opening of the play, has become an Irish music standard and is known by many who are unaware of its link to The Quare Fellow.

In 1962 the play is adapted for the screen by Arthur Dreifuss and stars Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken. Although the film receives some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.