When events transpire that change world history, who gets left behind? When those who write history work for the colonizing power, how can we trust their accounts of what happened? When a figure from myth lives on, but only as an icon of silence – as gnomic images seen in paintings, in infamous stage directions that describe her dancing, in gospels that shroud her actions in lacunae of motives – can she ever be said to have existed at all? In this new version of Salomé, Yaël Farber reimagines the biblical tale as a narrative that is also a record of erasure, a collective ritual that is also a history of violence, a play that is also a dance, a painting, a continuous stage direction, a voice of the voiceless.
Farber’s work on this Salomé began in late 2014 with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, where I functioned as her dramaturg, alongside other key members of the artistic team and cast. The piece began as an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, but as Yaël began her research, she realized how much of the story was Wilde’s invention. For instance, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John there is mention of a girl dancing, but no seven veils, and Salomé isn’t even identified by name. A more radical premise for the piece emerged, one in which ancient sources bleed into the text, opening up the story to all-but-forgotten voices.
The world that Farber envisioned is one that remains shrouded in mystery, while probing issues that have remained throughout the centuries. The persistence of the colonial. The new (and always) Rome. The end of times and the dying planet. The politics and poetics of silence. It is a world where many stories coexist, where everything has more than one name. According to Farber, “Salomé’s body is Jerusalem itself. A holy battle ground upon which we cast all our own passions, fears, grief, sense of the sacred, losses and and longings.” These layers lie on top of one another, these sites of the collective theatrical unconscious, intertwined, inseparable. Jerusalem and Machaerus. The Wailing Wall and the Holy of Holies. John the Baptist. This Salomé is, in a sense, a palimpsest, an overlayering of narratives, cultures, perspectives, an attempt to see a figure who remains largely unseeable, unknown and misunderstood.
As Farber says, “the context of Salomé’s story is the rich field in which to harvest the multiple metaphors implicit to this retelling.” The Wall in Jerusalem. For centuries, its Hebrew name was the Western Wall, or Ha- Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi. In the 19th century, the British started calling it ‘The Wailing Wall,’ from the Arabic El-Mabka, ‘the Place of Weeping.’ Inside the Wall is the Temple Mount. It has been used as a religious site for thousands of years, by all who have lived there, of every religion. A series of concentric rooms, at the centre of it lies the Holy of Holies, a place so sacred that nothing is allowed inside. A Hole, and also a Whole.
Nowadays, the area surrounding Machaerus (‘The Black Fortress’) looks much as it did thousands of years ago, when Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judaea, ruled over Galilee. Towering sandy cliffs look out over the Dead Sea. The Sea of Salt. The Hebrews have two names for it. Yam ha-Melah. Yam ha-Mavi. Nothing grows there, nothing can live there. In Arabic it is al-Bahr al-Mayyit. The Sea of Death. The Sea of Death is a very different thing to the Dead Sea, and yet the same.
It was here, in Machaerus, that a man known to the Romans as Iokanaan, in the New Testament as John the Baptist, was imprisoned. A deeply spiritual figure, Iokanaan has also been understood by recent historians – an idea central to Farber’s vision for this work – as a political animal. He had been living in the desert, subsisting on a diet of locusts and honey, wearing a loin cloth of camel’s hair, which rubbed his skin raw. Punishing his own body, he thereby asserted dominion over it. Much like his people, residents of an occupied holy land, their own and not their own.
Iokanaan had been leading hundreds across the River Jordan. In land still contested, on the modern-day borders of Syria and Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, Iokanaan predicted the end times, freedom from Roman occupation, a new Hebrew nation rising from the ash, centuries after their Mosaic forefathers had come from Egypt. An exodus, and a diaspora. An eternal return.
Iokanaan’s water ritual remains mysterious – many believe he was a member of the Essenes, an apocalyptic first-century sect who practiced a ritual involving full immersion baths, and who produced the corpus known as the Dead Sea Scrolls – but it was almost certainly not Christian baptism. The Hebrew Bible is replete with references to ablutionary practices, nowhere more so than in the Temple, where the Sanhedrin High Priests were required to cleanse themselves before and after worship. By assembling in the Jordan, threatening to turn the sea of death into a landscape of life, plenury, cleansing, Iokanaan was implicitly challenging their power, and that of Rome, the occupying power. To the political powers that be, he posed a new and hereotfore unfathomable challenge: if he died, it would only empower him further.
Locked up in the Black Fort of Machaerus, Iokanaan lay in an underground cistern, where waters bled through the surrounding rocks. All one could see from above was the salt sea, and hear the holy man’s prayers rising up in a strange tongue.
[pull quote: The name Salomé is Greek, but again suggests other, overlapping ones: Solomon. Suleiman. Shulamith. Shalom. In Hebrew or Arabic, it always means the same thing. Peace.]
Into this society, this explosive situation, teetering on the brink, walked a woman. As Farber said recently during rehearsals for the piece, “the reduction of this woman to a harlot or sexual manipulator says everything about us as a patriarchal society, and nothing of her political agency and acumen.” What she did next in fact changed the course of world history. Farber – interested in restoring women erased from the political sphere throughout history—is keenly aware that rebellions for self sovereignty would rise in the wake of this woman’s actions that one night in Machaerus. Rome, returning in retribution, would raze the Temple, forbidding any circumcised man (any Hebrew) from entering the Holy City. Jerusalem would become a military garrison. Judea would become Syria-Palestina, subject to the Arab Conquest in 638 and the First Christian Crusade in 1099. As Farber writes: “Rome went to war in defiance of the girl” Without her, it is not too much to say that the course of the three Abrahamic religions would have been irrevocably altered. Yet she has been erased from her own story. “Reduced to tawdry sexual scandal. For always the victor scribes the story that reaches us through time.”
We don’t know who she was, a servant girl or a high-born aristocrat playing a sadistic game. We don’t even know her name. A Roman-Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus (another case of multiple names, he was born Yosef ben Matityahu, in Jerusalem, in a priestly family, before moving to Rome and becoming a citizen) was the first to identify her as the princess Salomé, Herod’s stepdaughter. The name is Greek, but again suggests other, overlapping ones: Solomon. Suleiman. Shulamith. Shalom. In Hebrew or Arabic, it always means the same thing. Peace.
From Flavius’s identification arose the myth of the femme fatale, the death-obsessed seductress, Oscar Wilde’s apocalyptic whore of Babylon with the fatalistic desire to kiss the mouth of John the Baptist.
There are few stories that have more of a vexed relationship to the western canon than that of Salomé, the woman who danced before Herod and asked for John’s head on a charger. It stands both inside the canon, in cryptic passages from the New Testament, and outside it, attracting apocryphal retellings and rescriptings. To Farber, the reframing of this woman is the articulation of our deepest fear as a society of feminine power. As well as our desires. Most of all, we dream about her dance. We have to squint to see her, standing in this room of powerful men with names and titles, this world where the political and the religious are inextricable, this world where only death can give one a name and immortal life. Who was this woman? We will never know.
The “real” Salomé remains beyond our ken. Like the desert, she is figureless, undeniable, a landscape beyond our pale of settlement. In the thousands of years since Flavius, countless western men have looked at this figure from the Middle East and tried to give her a local habitation and a name. Like a land under occupation, she has been harvested for images, sold for pro t, fashioned into a grotesque that tells us much about our own transgressive desires, but little about her. Gaining a name, this nameless woman has lost her voice. Her story, even the language of her body, has been told by others, her own and not her own. As she has been written into history, she has also been written out.
Standing on the Machaerus cliffs, this Nameless Woman looks out over the Sea of Death. She hears a voice chanting prayers in a strange language from the cistern he has been incarcerated in. She recognizes a kinship with this man, a prisoner like her, without a voice, without a name, nor sovereignty over the body. What power does a woman’s voice have, when it has been written in man’s name?
She has no words. In this place of many names and stories, she is the presence who is also an absence, the one without name, the gesture that lies beyond language.