Tragically, although Ada Leverson, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends, insisted that he cared little for any of his plays except Salomé since it most fully ‘expressed himself,’ Wilde never saw Salomé performed. Refused a licence by the English Examiner of Plays, it was staged during Wilde’s lifetime by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, founder of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, but its author was in prison at the time.
When Lugné-Poe visited London after Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labour, he was shocked at how apathetic and powerless the playwright’s supporters appeared to have become. In an act of solidarity, he staged the world premiere of Salomé in his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris on 11 February 1896, performing the role of Herod himself and casting Lina Munte, a trained dancer, as Salomé.
Several French newspapers reported on the performance and critics were unanimous in their praise for Munte; La Matin reported that she ‘was absolutely remarkable with her ferocious sensuality,’ while Francisque Sarcey of Le Temps noted that she imitated the diction of Sarah Bernhardt, the actress Wilde had originally intended for the part.
A number of critics noted the sympathy expressed for Wilde by the French public. L’Événement described the staging of Salomé as ‘a protest against English morality’. The Journal des Débats reported that:
When the curtain fell, the audience responded to the name of the playwright with rapturous applause.
Wilde, who received no payment for the performance, assured his lover Lord Alfred Douglas:
‘All I want is to have my artistic reappearance, and my own rehabilitation through art, in Paris, not in London. It is a homage and a debt I owe to that great city of art’.
The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe by Stefano Evangelista, Bloomsbury Publishing
Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, Duckworth Overlook