Anatomy of a Cartoon


The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Curtain Call

Take a close 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 referring 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 anticipated.

Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance. 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 this 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.

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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:

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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 caricatured personalties resonant of Wilde’s visit, some of whom were thought responsible for bringing Wilde to San Francisco, and therefore supportive of him.

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Oscar Wilde’s Pants Down Again

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

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 bare 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.

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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 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 a week.

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