Next week marks the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the three trials in which Oscar Wilde was in seven weeks transformed from Britain’s most famous living man of letters into a disgraced convict. The Victorian “shame culture” which Congressman Gingrich is lately so keen on exhuming, galvanizing and setting loose in the land is seen from good vantage in these trials: The agents of a pseudo-Christian civil folk religion, robed in law, complacently leagued with a platoon of pimps and blackmailers and egged on by an atheist bully, condemning for “indecent acts” a man whose forgivable crime was to mock a hypocritical society where puritanism lacked conscience and wealth entailed no responsibility.
This week’s column looks at Wiled in happier times, in his first fame as a poet and wit, the philosopher and exemplar of aestheticism. At 26, Wilde received the compliment of being lampooned as “Reginald Bunthorne” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, which opening in April 1881. Patience played well in American and its promoter proposed to Wilde a speaking tour of the states to cash in on his new notoriety. Thinking of Charles Dickens’ lucrative American tours a generation before, Wilde agreed. Arriving in New York City Jan. 2, 1882, he began a year-long campaign preaching the gospel of “The Beautiful” in over 150 stage appearances across the continent, even unto Georgia.
Wilde entered Georgia June 30 at Columbus, three days after an agreeable meeting with former Confederate President Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi home. No surviving newspapers document his appearances in Columbus, or in Macon, his second Georgia stop. He most likely spoke at Columbus’ Springer Opera House, and definitely at Macon’s Rolston Hall. His Macon appearance was on July 3 and his subsequent itinerary was Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta on the three succeeding days.
The first advertisements for Wilde appeared in the Augusta Chronicle and the Atlanta Constitution July 2. They showed a left profile of Wilde from a recent etching by James Kelly with his signature, “Yours truly, Oscar Wilde.” The lecture subject, “Decorative Art,” was given, and the Constitution ad bore the additional information, “Apostle of Aestheticism.” Wilde was to speak at DeGive’s Opera House in Atlanta on the evening of July 4 with tickets $1, 75 cents and 50 cents.
Just below the notice for Wilde’s lecture another ad ran in the Constitution, featuring a goggle-eyed, open-mouthed caricature of Wilde in right profile under the legend “WILD OSCAR, Will Appear at De Give’s. Benefit St. Joseph’s Infirmary. Thursday, July 6, 1882. This lecture has been delivered before the crowned heads of Paris—Texas—and London—Tennessee. It will also be spoken before the sceptered monarchs of Jonesboro.”
This parody was the work of Atlantan Smith Clayton and based most likely on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Bunthorne as well as the exaggerated newspaper accounts of Wilde’s speech and manner. Clayton seems to have been doing his act even before Wilde’s arrival in Atlanta; an ad running the day before the performance says “New features will be added and the sunflower dance will be better than ever” (Wilde’s fondness for sunflowers was seized on and overplayed by reporters).
The Augusta correspondent for the Savannah Morning News made an observation on Wilde’s Georgia audience in a letter dated June 29:
We are funny people. After all the ridicule heaped on him, I see the Atlanta people particularly are begging for his extreme costuming—possibly to see with their own eyes what they have been laughing at by hearsay so long…
Wilde arrived in Atlanta on the 4th of July and checked into the Markham House hotel with his advance agent and valet. In short order a Constitution reporter arrived at his room to interview him. Irritated at the sounds of Independence Day revelry from the street, Wilde rose and his conversation with the reporter commenced:
“Oh, the patriots, the patriots, let’s shut down the window and shut out the noise.”
“This is the first 4th of July you ever saw in America?”
“What do you think of it as you see it now?”
I don’t think that anything so fine as the Declaration of Independence should be celebrated at all if it cannot be celebrated in a very noble manner. Amongst the most artistic things that any city can do is to celebrate by pageant any great eras in its history. Why should not the fourth of July pageant in Atlanta be as fine as the mardi gras carnival in New Orleans? …But I am afraid that the only pageants that most American cities have a hope of seeing are the glaring processions of their traveling circuses, and I feel that they deserve something very much better.”
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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