One of the most memorable plays I saw in my time as a quasi-regular Broadway attendee was a production of “Salomé” by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons, it starred Oscar-winner Al Pacino as Herod; Oscar-winner Dianne Weist as Herodias; Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei as Salomé; and Oscar-nominee David Straithairn as John the Baptist.
This was a live play I saw with my own eyes from the front row, because they sell front-row seats day-of to students for $20. I was very impressed by Oscar-winners at this point in my life, so you could imagine how I felt. Plus, live on stage, Al Fucking Pacino. I could barely believe it.
“Salomé” is a lesser-known Oscar Wilde play which he wrote while expatriated in France, in declining health, after serving his difficult prison sentence in his native England for the crime of sodomy. He wrote drafts in both French and English, both of which have survived to this day.
Not funny or lighthearted like his best-known plays (wonder why), you might be able to tell from the character names that this is a Biblical story. Herod, in this case, is Herod II aka Herod Antipas, King of Judea at the time of the Crucifixion. The story of Salomé is found in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, although Salomé is not mentioned by name; she is simply referred to as the daughter of Herodias. Contemporary Jewish historian Josephus identifies her by name.
It’s a sordid story whereby Herod has married his late brother’s widow but is incestuously attracted to his new wife’s daughter, aka his stepdaughter and his niece. Herod is holding John the Baptist prisoner, fascinated by his prophecies, knowing he is dangerous on the loose but too afraid of the man’s holy power to execute him. His new wife Herodias, however, wants John dead. John preaches all day, from prison, about the sinfulness of her marriage to her late husband’s brother. She and her daughter Salomé concoct a plan. Salomé is a brilliant dancer, and world-class creep Herod is always asking her to dance for him. Herod offers her anything, up to and including half his kingdom, to see Salomé dance. Prompted by her mother, Salomé asks, in exchange for her enchanting dance, the head of John the Baptist. Herod is horrified, but too intoxicated by Salomé to refuse. Salomé dances; Herod has John beheaded; some shit hits the fan, and Herod impulsively orders Salomé killed as well.
Fun, right? Reminder of the cast:
Herod ……………. Al Pacino
Herodias ………. Dianne Wiest
Salomé …………… Marisa Tomei
Jokanaan ……….. David Straithairn
(Jokanaan is an Anglicized version of the Hebrew name for “John,” so Jokanaan refers to John the Baptist in this play.)
Marisa Tomei was older than the role (I think the historical Salomé was a teenager, and Tomei was in her 30s or 40s). But let’s recall – a dance performance is involved. As the show approached, I became aware of press rumors that during the climactic dance number, Tomei whipped off her top. Some nights, apparently, she was wearing a red undershirt; some nights she was wearing nothing at all on her torso. The New York Times review noted that her breasts remained covered for the entirety of the show he attended. It all had the whiff of urban legend, and I thought it couldn’t be true.
But then, when we got to that moment of the play, Tomei did indeed whip her shirt off, and she was indeed bare-chested underneath it. She ended the dance number lying flat on her back, legs splayed, tits facing heaven, and I swear from my front row seat I had a view up her pants as well. It all happened VERY quickly, I could hardly process what was happening.
To add icing to this cake made of Oscar-winner breasts, there was an incident at the curtain call after the show. The small, very famous cast lined up to take their bows as we all stood and applauded. Pacino, Wiest, and Straithairn were composed; but Tomei seemed to be shouting and cussing angrily at someone in the front rows. Beneath the applause, I thought I could lip-read “Fuck you!” coming from her mouth. I later discovered that someone had smuggled a camera into the show. Like circa 1991 Axl Rose, Marisa wasn’t having that and was ready to throw down. I guess she had a right to – her tits were on the line.
So yeah … the show left an impression on me. If you have access to it, listen to the beginning of my band Trashy And The Kid‘s record “Songs in the Key of Blow Me.” The first track is “Poledancer’s Circus.” It has a creepy organ-grinder intro; between that and the dictatorial screaming in a foreign language, and the weird reversed-vocal recording, you can tell I was going for a very “Marilyn Manson” kind of vibe. That organ-grinder intro also plays over the credits of our Kickstarter video, which you can view here.
Here’s the thing, though … the foreign language I am shouting in is French, and I am shouting a monologue by Herod from the French-language text of “Salomé” by Oscar Wilde. Since I saw Marisa Tomei’s breasts in living color at that show, I figured it had a strong claim to be at the front of a song about strippers. And that spooky backward spoken-word segment? If you reverse the audio of the track, you’ll hear that it’s me saying “I saw the tits of Marisa Tomei, and I liked it!”
What’s the most memorable play you saw, and why?