The Rarer Oscar

LESSER KNOWN IMAGES RELATED TO OSCAR WILDE
Oscar in profile. Compare to pictures in The Wilde Album, p.57.


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Anatomy of a Cartoon

The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Curtain Call

Take a closer look at the details of the above cartoon.

It is one of the Fancy Portrait series from the long established satirical journal Punch and it appeared in response to the opening night of Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James’s Theatre on February 20, 1892.

It was an event worth memorializing, not least for the occasion of Oscar’s famous curtain call, two aspects of which have become the stuff of legend. 

First, that Wilde took to the stage still smoking a cigarette—which some thought disrespectful. Second, that he gave an amusing speech of playful immodesty—which others thought condescending. Or, at least they did in those stuffy Victorian days. One irate newspaper correspondent referred to Wilde’s “vulgar impertinence”. [1] These were, of course, the Victorians who could neither grasp irony nor face the change in attitudes that Wilde boldly anticipated.

Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance. Indeed, the theatre audience on the night was thoroughly amused, and one report of it found his demeanor “very touching”. [2]

Whichever view one took, everyone agreed on one thing: that Wilde was different. And being different is a sure way in any era of achieving the second worst thing the world: i.e. being talked about. So the story of Wilde’s curtain call  was seized upon by the press at the time and has been well-documented by authors over the years. 

But my analysis begins with the cartoon. In it Wilde’s curtain call is immediately recognizable: the smoking, the speech, and Lady Windermere’s fan. So as we have already alluded to the record of journalism and biography, let us revisit the circumstances through the prism of caricature.

Continue reading Anatomy of a Cartoon

A Saint With A Past

A SINNER IN SAINT LOUIS

During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.

This is an idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time. 

The only difference between the saint and the sinner
is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

A Woman of No Importance (1893)

Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.

Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself [1]—his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882. 

The strain is worth the while, however, as it provides one the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.

INSECT REPELLANT

In late-Victorian America, Oscar Wilde was stung by most U.S. newspapers, and oddly several dozens of them were called The Beethe most prestigious, perhaps, being the extant Sacramento Bee founded in 1857.

But by far the most repellant press treatment Wilde received was from the influential journalist Ambrose Bierce in the satirical journal The WaspIt took the form of a bitter excoriation (read it on this page) that Karl Beckson once described as “unparalleled as an example of creative vituperation”.

And it was also an edition of The Wasp that featured the famous cartoon depicting Oscar on his arrival in San Francisco as an impecunious modern messiah.

With the Victorian telegraph thus a-buzz with various bees and wasps it will be no surprise to learn that there was also a hornet. 

The Hornet was another satirical newspaper, this one published in St. Louis around the time of Oscar’s visit. Although it was short-lived (1880-1882), The Hornet lasted just long enough for its little-known staff artist, F. Welcker, to capture Oscar in a wonderfully camp piece of chromolithography.

The cartoon portrays two odd fellows being acclaimed with bouquets and laurels. Alongside the familiar form of Oscar is the local personality Berry Mitchell in renaissance costume. The two can be identified by judiciously placed labels: Berry’s name on his short trunk hose, and Oscar’s on his sunflower.

QUEENS: BERRY AND WILDE

Berry Mitchell was what you might call a character.

He had inherited the enormous sum of $125,000 when he was young, and he proceeded to devote his life to spending it. Berry was evidently a man of games for in later years he became a billiards instructor, and, after moving to Chicago, he held a concession at Riverview Park playing checkers, offering a dollar-watch to anyone who could beat him—apparently he never needed to hand over the watch.

But his first love was the acting game. I use the word ‘game’ advisedly in this context because he was not, as Shakespeare would have put it, to the manner born.

Indeed, there was something rotten in the state of Missouri and, based on his Hamlet, it was Berry Mitchell’s acting.

TURN OF THE CRANK

Berry Mitchell did become a popular thespian—but it was not by fathoming the depths of theatre; it was rather by flaunting his talent for theatrics. For in reality, his Hamlet was a burlesque.

This might have been a good idea had he conveyed the concept to someone before opening night. For instance, why wasn’t the Danish court, nor anyone else in Elsinore, on the same page—that is the question. The St. Louis Globe and Democrat described how Mr Mitchell’s decidedly amusing turn could have been a very comical piece had the impulsive Laertes, the earnest Horatio, and the poor demented Ophelia not mistakenly imagined they were playing in a tragedy.

Perhaps the cast should have suspected something was afoot at the start, when a representative emerged from backstage to say that the play would be delayed because the ghost had failed to appear on time—in fact, that they could not raise him. 

The packed audience, some sitting on stools squeezed into every available corner, were having none it. One gentleman in the gallery surmising that Mr Mitchell was actually still busy stuffing his calves.

All of this alerted the Globe reporter to an air of frivolity abroad, so when the spirit (and the curtain) were eventually raised he noted that the “ghost failed to inspire anything like the decent respect that should be awarded to the inhabitants of another world”. 

Not that mere mortals were received any better. Bernardo, Horatio, and Marcellus played out the opening scene from frosty ramparts to dumb benches. It was Berry Mitchell they had come to see, and the audience would only thaw and resolve itself when the pastiche Prince himself arrived. And, according to the the Globe, what an arrival! 

Subverting the philosophic Dane’s usual mode of entry in train of the King and Queen emerging solemnly upstage, Berry Mitchell announced himself with “utter disregard for the traditional mode of playing the character” with a “sudden, jerky appearance” into the footlights from the wings, affording himself the all the more opportunity of accepting the plaudits of his devotees while the courtiers filed into place. This was not going to be a performance for the purist.

The press mused on how an unsuspecting stranger, who had been lured into a cozy little theatre on Fifth Street, would be astonished to see Hamlet in his “sable habiliments” provoking “such peals of laughter as would make Grimaldi envious”. 

The critics’ blank expressions must have competed with the blank verse; one hack saying that Mitchell’s reading bore as much resemblance to the original text as the actor himself did to Edwin Booth. 

However, our man from the Globe gave credit where it was due, saying that when Mr Mitchell’s memory failed he, “never hesitated to supply the deficiency with the first words he could invent”. Impartiality prevailed when the journalist pointed out that while this “is doubtless a happy faculty in an actor…it is rather hard on Shakespeare”. 

So in deference to the bard we should construe a rejoinder; some measure for measure for this calumny. We shall update Hamlet’s despairing conclusion “what a piece of work is a man!” by adding that Berry Mitchell was probably the piece of work he had in mind.

THE BELLES OF ST. LOUIS

Another entertainer capable of drawing an admiring St. Louis crowd, was Oscar Wilde, as we can see from the above cartoon that appeared at the time of his visit to the city. [2] 

Here is how the press described Oscar as he arrived at the recently re-built Southern Hotel at the corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets. The comparison clearly linking the two “too-too” cartoon counterparts in the public’s perception. [3]

Interest in Wilde was at fever pitch. Fully five columns of the daily paper were given over to various aspects of his visit. Crowds were anxious for a glimpse of the aesthete, not only upon arrival and departure, but all the while as people thronged the Southern Hotel parlors. 

He visited the (then Crow) Art Galley disappointed in the art; a disappointment  matched by fans at a jeweler’s store that he had thought better of visiting: not perhaps owing to the window-dressings draped with sunflowers, but because more than 200 ladies there awaited him.

Wilde’s lecture at the Mercantile Library Hall on Locust Street was sold out to the best of St. Louis society, “a large and fashionable audience”, except, that is, for a back row of young fellows who failed in their periodic attempts to disrupt the speaker with continued applause.

After the lecture Wilde was given receptions at the Press Club and the Elks Club, where he drank and met the presidents and signed his name in autograph books.

Aesthetic floral emblems were a story in themselves. The laws of supply and demand from the ladies of the city prompted one vendor on Olive Street into the confession that “the present value of the lily is slightly fictitious”.

While over in Missouri Park a somewhat clairvoyant florist produced the Oscar Wilde boutonniere: “a full blown double camellia and bud, shaded from light to dark pink, and fastened with a laurel leaf into a very soulful cluster”. 

Probably by now feeling quite greenery-yallery himself, Wilde spent the next day, February 26 (a Sunday) with a visit to the St. Louis botanical gardens, ensuring always, of course, that he remained never far away from a square meal—his menu in St. Louis being worthy of its own narrative.

So there we must leave Messrs. Wilde and Mitchell now both ghosts of St. Louis past: one a sadly comic tragedian and the other a sadly tragic comedian.

But to our eternal gratitude, two fellows of infinite jest.

© John Cooper, 2020


[1] I shall now live as St. Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr.” Letter to Robert Ross, Complete Letters, p. 1041.

[2] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 1882, 5.

[3] St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri ) Feb 26, 1882, 3.

Anatomy of a Cartoon

The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Curtain Call

Take a closer look at the details of the above cartoon.

It is one of the Fancy Portrait series from the long established satirical journal Punch and it appeared in response to the opening night of Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James’s Theatre on February 19, 1892.

It was an event worth memorializing, not least for the occasion of Oscar’s famous curtain call, two aspects of which have become the stuff of legend. 

First, that Wilde took to the stage still smoking a cigarette—which some thought disrespectful. Second, that he gave an amusing speech of playful immodesty—which others thought condescending. Or, at least they did in those stuffy Victorian days. One irate newspaper correspondent referred to Wilde’s “vulgar impertinence”. [1] These were, of course, the Victorians who could neither grasp irony nor face the change in attitudes that Wilde boldly anticipated.

Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance at all. Indeed, the audience on the night was thoroughly amused, and one report found his demeanor “very touching”. [2]

Whichever view one took, everyone agreed on one thing: that Wilde was different. And being different is a sure way in any era of achieving the second worst thing the world: i.e. being talked about. So the story of Wilde’s curtain call  was seized upon by the press at the time and has been well-documented by authors over the years. 

But it all begins with the cartoon. In it Wilde’s curtain call is immediately recognizable: the smoking, the speech, and Lady Windermere’s fan. 

So as we have had journalism and biography, let us now revisit the circumstances through the prism of caricature.

Continue reading Anatomy of a Cartoon

Quixote of the Queer

don-quixote

Textual Analysis for Students

A verse parody appeared just three weeks after Oscar Wilde arrived in America. It was one many such newspaper items in 1882 that poked fun at Wilde and the aesthetic movement.

It was notable for its affected and satirical overuse of alliteration. Although Wilde was known for his occasional penchant for this verbal prose style (something that Whistler later parodied), it was probably not recognized by the author of this verse when it was written in January 1882.

It is more likely that its use was prompted by expressions such as “too-too” and “utterly utter” that were connected to the also alliterative Apostle of the Aesthetes.

As such, the text is instructional in understanding allusions to Wilde and the aesthetic movement. Let us examine the terminology:

Continue reading Quixote of the Queer

RBS

800px-Uncorking-Old-Sherry-Gillray

When it comes to measuring time, sixty is an oddly benign number. It records the seconds into minutes and the minutes into hours indistinguishably. But when the number is used to mark the passage of years—three score can give one quite a jolt. So when the occasion crept up on me last week, I was need of rejuvenation.

An outing to the theatre would be the tonic I thought. But with the next Wilde play not until later in the month, I would need to find another balm for my (now) furrowed brow.

What then if not Oscar? Perhaps something pre-Oscar…

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The Modern Messiah

wasp

A cartoon printed in the satirical magazine The Wasp to mark Oscar Wilde’s arrival in San Francisco

When Wilde arrived in San Francisco he was greeted by thousands of people curious to see him.

This cartoon, entitled “The Modern Messiah,” which appeared in The Wasp on the eve of Oscar Wilde’s third lecture in San Francisco [1],  shows such a crowd, but in satirical style.

Heavily featured are sunflowers, one of the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement; another, calla lilies, known to decorate Wilde’s table at dinners in America, serve as the donkey’s ears.

Also depicted in the scene are caricatures resonant of Wilde’s visit, some of whom were thought responsible for bringing Wilde to San Francisco, and therefore supportive of him. Here is a rundown of the personalities depicted:

Oscar Wilde

Oscar is shown arriving in messianic style. Compare the biblical:

“… your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

The modern messiah, however, bears a sunflower emblazoned with a dollar sign which reflects the accusation that his motivations were as pecuniary as they were missionary.

The Donkey

Braying, and with sunflower saddle and lily ears, we are reminded of the epithet “ass-thete” that accompanied Wilde across America, but here the donkey symbolizes his visit to San Francisco: attached to the tail is the $5,000 that Wilde was reportedly paid for his series of lectures in California; around the neck, padlocked to the conveyance, is an image of Wilde’s California promoter Charles E. Locke. The words on the padlock are “Bush St. Theatre”, where Locke was manager. Also, at Bush and Montgomery Streets was Platt’s Hall where Wilde lectured four times.

donkeys-ears

Man With the Goatee Beard

goateeCharles Crocker (1822—1888) railroad executive who founded the Central Pacific Railroad that took Wilde on his journey to California.

Man With White Hair

bierceSkulking somewhat appropriately behind proceedings is Ambrose Bierce (1842—c. 1914), who penned a relentless attack on Wilde in The Wasp, March 31, 1882, the text of which can be found at Wilde’s lecture on April 1.

Man at Far Left With Beard

isaacIsaac Smith Kalloch (1832—1887) 18th Mayor of San Francisco serving from December 1, 1879 to December 4, 1881.

Man With Long White Beard (behind sunflower back left)

beardMaurice Carey Blake (1815—1897) 19th Mayor of San Francisco, serving from December 5, 1881 to January 7, 1883.

Short Man With Moustache

danny-boyDaniel O’Connell (1849—1899) poet, actor, writer, journalist, and the grand-nephew of Daniel O’Connell (1775—1847), the famed Irish orator and politician.

O’Connell was co-founder of the Bohemian Club where Wilde was feted and had his portrait painted. The painting of Wilde hung in the club until it was lost in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Man With Broken Sunflower

Possibly impresario Tom Maguire.

aesthetic-fan

Boys in the Foreground

Newspaper sellers, one carrying The Wasp in which the cartoon appeared [1].

Chinese in the Background

While in San Francisco Wilde famously visited Chinatown and expressed his admiration of their decorative arts, such as delicate tea cups.


[1] The Wasp, March 31, 1882 (G.F. Keller)

Oscar Wilde’s Pants Down Again

Another notable advertisement featuring Oscar Wilde on his lecture tour of America in 1882. This time his pants.

The_Inter_Ocean_Tue__Jan_31__1882_

Further to my recent post featuring advertisements that used Oscar Wilde’s name and image during his lecture tour, here is another notable example.

It shows Oscar in a quite demure pose as if he had something to hide. But fear not, he is exposed only below the knee.

Wilde’s long hair and knee-breeches excited many a soirée in 1882, prompting one commentator to note that Oscar “pants” after a certain celebrity, but that he should make it two because a pair of pants is something he obviously needs.

Advertisers, too, had Wilde’s trousers in mind. This example uses an image of a long-haired Oscar and the slogan Pants Down Again—presumably the price. What advertisers did not realise was that Oscar would soon take the slogan literally.

When he returned to America in 1883, he reversed the trend. Instead of long hair and short pants, Oscar confounded observers by wearing his hair short and his pants long.  His Neronian coiffure was certainly a radical change; but while the hair was now up, it would seem the pants were down once again.

NPG P1133; Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony
Oscar Wilde in 1883.

Not A Joy Forever

A cartoon depicting Oscar Wilde at the end of his visit to America in 1882 in contrasting poses.

Oscar Wilde’s American visits resulted in mixed fortunes: he failed to make any material literary advance, and although his tour met with a mixed reception critically, it was a great commercial success. We can see these fortunes reflected in the Judge cartoon.

On the left, recognizing the commercial success of his lecture tour, Oscar is shown surrounded by lilies and sunflowers (the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement), and showered with gold. On the right we see him somewhat shabbier, and with his bags packed at Castle Garden, the receiving station at New York: under his arm is Vera, the play Wilde brought with him and for which he struggled to find interest. The play was eventually staged in New York in August 1883 but was a withdrawn after only a week.

Continue reading Not A Joy Forever