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OSCAR WILDE, AESTHETICISM AND EFFEMINACY

SARAH MANKOWSKI: I have repeatedly found the assertion that both Bunthorne and Grosvenor were meant to be composites of aesthetic "types". For example, Richard Ellmann writes: "Gilbert wanted his aesthetics to be composites, though he could scarcely ignore Wilde as the most conspicuous representative."

But Wilde seems to have become more closely associated with Bunthorne, and from what I can find, was not entirely unwilling for that association to be made. According to the H. Montgomery Hyde biography of Wilde, Wilde's first collection of poems had been published in America, in the summer of 1881. He wanted to lecture in America, but also hoped to arrange for his play, Vera, to be produced in New York. I quote from Hyde's book:

"For his part, Wilde was quite attracted by the prospect of addressing an American audience, even if he had to do so in velvet jacket and knee breeches. 'I told him he must not mind my using a little bunkum to push him in America,' D'Oyly Carte wrote to Helen Lenoir after he had booked Wilde's passage."

So I have reached this conclusion: A flamboyant Wilde served Gilbert's needs, when developing the characters of both Bunthorne and Grosvenor, for his revised aesthetic setting; Patience served a young Oscar Wilde's desire for greater notoriety. Thus, these two brilliant men benefited from one another.

ANDREW CROWTHER: This seems a very good way of putting it. But what a strange relationship! Was there ever a parallel case of the parody and the thing parodied feeding off each other in quite this way?

SARAH MANKOWSKI: Some quotes from Oscar Wilde by H. Montgomery Hyde:

"Caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius."

"You must not judge our aestheticism by the satire of Mr. Gilbert any more than you can judge of the strength of the splendor of the sun or sea by the dust that dances in the beam or the bubble that breaks upon the wave."

"You have heard, I think, a few of you, of two flowers connected with the aesthetic movement in England, and said I assure you erroneously to be the food of some aesthetic young man. Well let me tell you that the reason we love the lily and the sunflower, in spite of what Mr. Gilbert may tell you, is not for any vegetable fashion at all. It is that these two lovely flowers are in England, the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally adapted for decorative art the gaudy leonine beauty of the one and the precious loveliness of the other giving to the artist the most entire and perfect joy."

And I include this quote from a book of Wilde quotations, not because it concerns Patience, but because I like it:

After receiving a wire from Griggsville asking him to "lecture us on aesthetics", he replied: "Begin by changing the name of your town."

ANDREW CROWTHER: Now that I like! I can forgive much of him, because of moments like this.

But Wilde obviously resented Patience, as the quoted comments show. And this is from Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde: "It was Wilde too who had 'walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand'... or rather, was said to have done so. He would later say that 'To have done it was nothing, but to make people think one had done it was a triumph.'" Gilbert's role in this triumph of Wilde's is entirely set aside, which Gilbert would undoubtedly have thought showed Wilde's Infernal Cheek.

HARRIET MEYER: To which add Wilde's remark as a student at Oxford: "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." Which Ellman links to "such a judge of blue and white and other kinds of pottery".

GWYN AUBREY: There is a story that circulated regarding Oscar Wilde's tour on aestheticism across America.

For some unknown reason, he was booked to speak in a mining town out west, in Colorado. The miners were somewhat taken aback at this very odd person, who went everywhere with some sort of flower. They decided it was too good an opportunity to miss, and proceeded to kidnap him at midnight.

The plan was to take him down a mine shaft, get him drunk, and leave him there. The kidnappers were very well stocked with a variety of liquor, most of it homemade. Mr. Wilde submitted with good humor, and proceeded to lecture all the miners on beauty, truth and aesthetics. The miners matched Wilde drink for drink. Sometime during the night, they all passed out from drink taken. Except Wilde, who apparently was still going strong the next morning when he was rescued by the day shift of the mine.

ANDREW CROWTHER: The lines in the last verse about cultivating a passion of a vegetable fashion must inevitably feel a little uncomfortable if we associate Bunthorne with Wilde, and consider all the things we now know about Wilde's life. Was Gilbert implying, ever so gently, at sexual oddity? Or was he simply making fun of the Aesthetes' wellknown delight in flowers? Or both?

I'm open to correction from those who can be bothered to check their facts, but isn't it true that Wilde's first known homosexual encounters occurred after this date? In short, I suspect that there are aspects of Patience which we are apt to reinterpret in the light of later knowledge, which is not really in keeping with original intentions. But I have no dogmatic view on this: it's just an idea for debate.

ROBERT JONES: I would agree with previous posts regarding WSG's supposed nods in the direction of sexual innuendo. I think he would be mortified by the idea that his spotlessly clean libretti might conjure up lewd thoughts in his audiences' minds. Apart from this, I don't think Wilde's sexuality was common knowledge at the time. No doubt, there would have been rumours, nudges and winks, but I don't believe that WSG would have incorporated such things in Patience. My vote goes to the flowers.

MARY ELLEN KELLY: May I humbly suggest that anyone interested in pursuing a "serious" discussion of gay realities versus gay stereotypes, whether on stage or off, in the light of whatever societal views happen to prevail at a given time and place (but for our purposes, specifically in Britain at the time of G&S and Oscar Wilde) prepare for any discussion by reading the following excellent, thought provoking book:

Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Movement. London: Cassell, 1994.

To quote one review:

"Oscar Wilde looks like the most obvious queer to us now because that is how he has been seen ever since his trial and conviction. But he was not visible as such beforehand..."

The first step in Alan Sinfield's argument is that "until the Wilde trials, effeminacy and homosexuality did not correlate in the way they have done subsequently". Indeed, in earlier times an accusation of effeminacy was likely to mean that a man was taking excessive interest in women and not spending enough time bonding with the lads.

As I said above, this is an excellent book, and one well worth reading before we discuss Patience, Bunthorne, Oscar Wilde, et al.

HARRIET MEYER: How interesting to learn of a historical approach to gender mythologizing! For a biological approach, see Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female by Phyllis Burke, New York, NY, Anchor Books, 1996.

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