February 1, 2015

Salome: when a mind disintegrates at time-lapse speed

Confession: I'm one of those lazy guys who will hear an author talk about his latest book and seldom if ever actually buy the book and, you know, read it. If the interview is pretty comprehensive, I'll figure I got the gist of the book and be content with that.
Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of
The Teenage Brain

Recently I heard NPR's Teri Gross interview such an author on "Fresh Air": a neuroscientist, Dr. Frances Jensen, has written a book entitled The Teenage Brain, in which she explains adolescent behaviors in terms of synapses and other technical brain terms that are over my head.

It was interesting.

As I am knee-deep in all things Salome these days in advance of our current staging of the opera in Virginia, one particular remark of Dr. Jensen's reached out and grabbed me. Paraphrasing as faithfully as I can, she said that the lack of complete development in the teenaged brain makes young people especially vulnerable to stress. Stress in teens, she said, if sufficiently intense, can result in chronic life-long depression and other mental illnesses.

Let's apply this concept to Herod's veil-shedding step-daughter and see where it gets us.

First, here's a list of the stresses which Salome has been shouldering:

  • Her parents' marriage broke up. Herodias dumped Salome's biological father Herod Philip I and for all we know, daddy and daughter were very close. Philip might have read Salome bedtime stories, comforted her when she scraped her knee while roller-skating, -- you know: Dad stuff.
  • Now she's got this step-father Herod Antipas, and he's creepy. He's always staring at her, kind of undressing her with his eyes and just generally making her feel like a piece of meat.
  • Her mom doesn't seem very happy with this new relationship either. She and step-dad are always arguing. Herodias is scornful, angry, and has turned into a shrew, if we're being honest.
  • Not only that, but in the culture of the Jewish people in Judea, Salome's mom is a rotten adulteress. At least, that's what everyone says about her, especially that prisoner in the dungeon.
  • In fact, the entire court of Herod is creepy, as if they're all taking their cue from step-dad. The soldier who guard the palace are pretty sex-obsessed as well, and the head guard Narraboth follows her around like a big muscle-bound puppy dog. A big, muscle-bound, randy puppy dog.
All this rampant hyper-sexuality and stress has built up in Salome to the point of erupting. Think of those cartoons in which someone ties a knot in a water hose, causing a huge balloon of trapped water that eventually explodes.

The stress that breaks the camel's back of Salome's mental stability is the rejection of Jochanaan, a.k.a. John the Baptist. When she first lays eyes on John, she coos in girlish fascination about how "terrible" he is. She is, as she feasts her eyes on his skin, hair, and red lips, discovering her own sexuality, unconsciously imitating the grown-ups in her life, the only models available on "how to act grown-up".

In fact, her infatuation with John is a typical act of teen-aged rebellion. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that the REAL attraction of this bedraggled preacher is that her mother doesn't like him. You women amongst my Faithful Readers; did you ever want to date the "bad boy" in high school? The one with tattoos, a nose ring and a pink hair? The one that dismayed your parents? This is Salome, which is why her whispers of "he is terrible!" are said with delight.

But then, the worst happens. John says, in effect, "ewwwww. As IF...", tells the guards to make her stop looking at him, and finally retreats to his cell, cursing her. Total rejection.

Salome is a princess. This means she's gotten everything she wanted. She's never been denied a single thing. She was the first girl in Judea to get an iPhone, a sports car and a skiing vacation in Aspen, or at leat the ancient Judean equivalents. So when John rejects her, the anger that overwhelms her becomes that final bit of stress fracturing her sanity.

You're doubtless aware that actors in non-musical plays are always encouraged to develop sub-text for their characters; they invent an implicit history for their role. In a staging of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, for example, the actor playing the title role might want to consider: at what exact point does Salome go mad? And different actors might answer that question in different ways.

But in Strauss's adaptation there can be no doubt. The composer gives us a moment in time in which she enters into a psychotic break.

Because there is one final bit of stress to cite: the Dance of the Seven Veils. What's remarkable in this orchestral episode is that the musical treatment gives us still more subtext. It's Herod who asked for the dance and since Salome finally complies with his wishes, he reasonably assumes that she is dancing for him. "I KNEW she was into me!!!", you can practically hear him thinking to himself, patting himself on the back.

But the music makes clear that in Salome's mind, there is only one audience: she's dancing for John, as if her were there to watch. We know this since the orchestra parades out all the themes she sang at him when praising his skin, hair and lips. As the dance progresses from section to section, the texture becomes ever more animated, heated, and finally frenzied and wild. Salome is expressing her sexual frustration in her wild gyrations. Right in front of our eyes, she is metamorphosing from a curious infatuated girl to a voluptuous, sexually mature woman. The fetid, putrid stew of corrupt values in which she's been simmering is causing that aforementioned water-bubble in the kinked hose to rupture and spray out in all directions.

UNTIL ------------ until one of the great strokes of music drama genius in all of opera, one Strauss never duplicated again. At the height of the instrumental chaos, Salome (and the orchestra) come to a screeching halt, frozen. High winds and strings trill, creating a white noise like the buzzing in the head heard by a mental patient. One of her themes of infatuation, which originally had been a coquettish, ultra-feminine melody of rhythmic swing and tuneful sweetness, is now an eerily grotesque fragment of its former self, emitting mindless repetitions of the opening motive:


This gesture perfectly depicts, in musical terms, what has happened to Salome. Her mind has been shattered like a crystal vase knocked to the floor. That vase is no longer a vase; there remain only shards of the thing it used to be. Salome's mind is likewise in shards, leaving her with only vestiges of her humanity.

Those synapses described by Dr. Jenson are now firing only sporadically and haphazardly; her decline into a ghoulish, sub-human state will be swift and fatal.

Yes, in a real young woman, all this might take weeks, months or longer to produce this catastrophic result. Oscar Wilde and Strauss have employed a bit of telescoping of time for their artistic purposes for this drama. In the course of some 100 minutes, like time-lapsed video of a flower blooming and withering in seconds, we the audience witness a rapid process: sexually-awakened girl to sexually-frustrated woman to fixated madwoman.

The time frame might not be accurate, but the psychological truth is deadly accurate: stress is toxic to young people. Salome, as imagined by Wilde, is a case study of the phenomenon.

How am I doing, Dr. Jensen?

1 comment:

  1. Glenn - you've discovered my back-story! My sub-text :) I actually have done a lot of research on this topic due to the number of times I've played the role. Good job!

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