Orva Hoskinson as Bunthorne and June Wilkins as Lady Jane, Patience, 1975
This is the Lamplighters’ 14th production of Patience. The operetta has remained a perennial favorite throughout our history since our first production at the “Contemporary Dancers Center” in San Francisco between March 21 and April 19, 1958. This has perhaps been because of its long association with Lamplighters Founder and first stage director Orva Hoskinson. No show in the entire G&S canon is more closely associated with him––both as actor and as stage director––than Patience. As noted in the out-of-print first volume of the Lamplighters’ history (The Lamplighters: 25 Years of Gilbert and Sullivan in San Francisco), the Lamplighters’ initial 1958 production was “patently designed around Hoskinson as Reginald Bunthorne and [contralto June] Wilkins as Lady Jane,” with “Hoskinson’s most famous characterization spr[inging] into being almost full-grown” in this first production. For years, Orva’s interpretation and performance of the role of Reginald Bunthorne was considered definitive. It is not surprising in the least that a photograph of Orva as Bunthorne––with June Wilkins as Lady Jane––was chosen to adorn the first volume of the official Lamplighters history.
Rick Williams as Bunthorne, 1984
A final anecdote will serve to close this essay. In the winter of 1963, from January 19 through March 30, the Lamplighters presented their third production of Patience, this time at the Harding Theater on Divisadero. That summer, the venerable D’Oyly Carte Opera Company visited San Francisco with their own very traditional, quintessentially British production of Patience. San Francisco theatre critic Arthur Bloomfield was not impressed. In his words: “San Francisco’s lowly Lamplighters, out there on Divisadero Street, have a comic insight into this particular slice of fruitcake which ... surpasses the well-advertised product from abroad ... One could only yearn for the more aggressively mock misery of their counterparts in the Western Addition... It looks as if San Francisco’s Orva Hoskinson remains in firm possession of the largest heap of Bunthornian laurels.” The Lamplighters has proudly continued this tradition, following in the spirit of its Founders, into the 21st Century. - Rick Williams, Artistic Director
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The Aesthetic Movement was a late 19th-century cult inspired by the broader literary and artistic movement in Europe of the same name. It was devoted to the principle of “art for art’s sake” and the rejection of the idea that art should have a social or moral purpose. Inspired by the earlier pre-Raphaelite movement, its most famous exponents in England were the painters and poets Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Aubrey Beardsley, Algernon Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde. Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor, the two “Aesthetic” poets competing for feminine admiration in Patience, are themselves caricatures of several of these famous English aesthetes––most notably, Wilde, Swinburne, and James McNeill Whistler, the transplanted American artist. As the Aesthetic Movement gained increasing public notice, it spawned a popular fad for “preRaphaelite” and “aesthetic” dress, design, style, art-objects and mannerisms. This craze became the butt of a good deal of public notice, remark, wit and joke. By the time Patience was written, there was already a great deal of popular spoofing and caricaturing of the Aesthetes going on both in the popular press and on the stage. George Du Maurier, a well-known cartoonist and caricaturist, had long been creating wickedly hilarious portrayals of the type for years, published weekly in the pages of Punch. His lampoons of Aesthetes have been pointed to as one of several possible sources for the character of Bunthorne. The Aesthetic Craze was also the target of a very popular three-act farce, F.C. Burnand’s The Colonel, produced in London in February 1881, shortly before the opening of Patience. The central character of The Colonel was a Tartuffe-like Aesthetic imposter somewhat similar to Bunthorne. The resemblance was considered great enough that D’Oyly Carte––the theatre impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together––decided to include a note in the opening night program for Patience stating that “The Management considers it advisable to state that the Libretto of this Opera was completed in November last”; in other words, before the opening of The Colonel. THE ORIGINS OF GILBERT’S PLOT
Gilbert was well aware of the Aesthetic phenomenon, and clearly saw its great potential as a ripe target for his own kind of satirical wit. Still, there is some controversy concerning the original seed of Gilbert’s plot concept of a rivalry between two aesthetes for the affections of a crowd of adoring women. In his Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan, Martyn Green describes two conflicting theories, based on Gilbert’s own hints in a letter he wrote to Sullivan in November 1880. In the letter, Gilbert asked to see Sullivan regarding a “new piece” about two rival Anglican curates competing for the love of a village “dairy-maid,” as to which he was having some qualms about a possibly negative public reaction to any portrayal of the clergy in a comic opera. As Green notes, Gilbert’s concerns may have arisen from some criticism of his depiction of Dr. Daly in The Sorcerer. In the same letter, Gilbert alludes to an alternative plot based on his “original idea of two long-haired poets” as rivals for the attentions of a chorus of female devotees to the cult of Aestheticism. As Green points out, the letter does not make it absolutely clear which of these two potential scenarios Gilbert was at that point inclined to favor. Martyn Green as Bunthorne
PATIENCE AND THE LAMPLIGHTERS
AESTHETICISM AS A TARGET OF SATIRE AND PARODY: ARTISTIC MOVEMENT VERSUS POPULAR CRAZE
George Du Maurier Ye Aesthetic Young Geniuses, 1878
However, none of these approaches has caught on, or garnered much favor. Gilbert’s original concept retains its relevance and brilliant satire because it focuses on the ubiquitous phenomenon of fads, cults and crazes in style, taste and lifestyle in general. If anything, because of the internet and social media, contemporary society’s focus on celebrity popularity and social trends has made this theme even more pertinent today. Updating the original show to place it in some more contemporary setting, in an attempt to hammer home this universal relevance, risks undermining the hilarity, perfection and sheer beauty of the original. Gilbert was too great a genius to confine his satire to the superficial attributes of any passing social phenomenon, fad or craze. Instead, as always, he directed the barbed dart of his wit directly at the essential––the universal human failings and foibles which we all share, no matter where or when we live. These things are forever relevant.
Patience, or, Bunthorne’s Bride, was the sixth collaboration of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, counting both the one-act Trial by Jury and the even earlier, rarely-performed “Christmas entertainment,” Thespis. One of their most successful productions, Patience is a rollicking satire that pits the straight-laced ideals of the Victorian era against the eccentricities and indulgences of the Aesthetic Movement, ridiculing each side of the spectrum.
Detail of Dante Gabrielle Rosetti’s Proserpine, 1874
The most frequent complaint about Patience is that its plot and libretto revolve around a specifically British fad or “craze” that vanished altogether more than a century ago, and is consequently forgotten by the general public today. The solution, some say, is to “update” the story, at least in costuming, setting and locale, and sometimes extending even to changing the script itself, in order to make the satire theoretically more “relevant” to our present day and age. Examples have included setting it in the late 1960’s period of “flower power,” competing rock stars and their attendant “groupies”; the 1950’s “beatnik” period; or the 1970’s era of new-age lifestyle cults and self-styled mystic gurus.
Aesthetic lounge jacket, 1880s
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Rosebud Garden of Girls, 1868
CAN A FORGOTTEN FAD RETAIN COMEDIC RELEVANCE FOR MODERN AUDIENCES?
Image from The Rival Curates, 1867
Later, in the introduction he penned for a new American edition of Patience, Gilbert specifically averred that the theme of the plot had come from The Rival Curates, his own earlier “Bab Ballad” about a similar rivalry between two
Photo by Napoleon Sarony, Oscar Wilde reclining with Poems, in New York, 1882
It is sometimes assumed that Gilbert based the character of Reginald Bunthorne on Oscar Wilde. It is true that Wilde was one of the most publicly acknowledged Aesthetes, but he was certainly not the only one. In fact, he was not particularly well recognized at all when Gilbert started writing Patience, and did not publish his first volume of poetry until the end of 1881, after Patience had already opened. However, he gained significant public attention in the course of that year, to the extent that he had become perhaps the most universally recognized of all the Aesthetes by the time the show closed.
The reason Wilde is now associated so closely with Patience in the public mind is probably because of D’Oyly Carte’s decision to send him on an American lecture tour in 1882. Although Wilde did not tour the U.S. with the specific purpose of advertising Patience, it became quite evident that Carte was correct in thinking it would be good publicity for the show. On the suggestion of the manager for the production of Patience in New York, Carte asked Wilde if he would consider an offer for fifty readings in the U.S., and even had Wilde attend a performance of Patience there with accompanying publicity surrounding his presence. Carte took full advantage of the tour by publicizing it in England with the result of increased ticket sales in both England and the U.S. Martyn Green, who performed all the patter roles (including Bunthorne) for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for many years, wrote that despite a “general belief that Reginald The Modern Messiah (Oscar Wilde) - G.F. Keller, San Francisco Wasp, 1882 Bunthorne is a caricature of Oscar Wilde,” he was actually “not a caricature of any single person but of a type.” In Green’s interpretation and experience, Bunthorne most resembled James McNeill Whistler: unruly black hair with a gray streak; mustache; small imperial (the kind of beard also referred to as a “mouche” or “soul patch”); and wearing a monocle. According to Green, Grosvenor was most commonly likened to the aesthetic poet Algernon Swinburne. CRITICAL AND POPULAR RECEPTION Patience opened on April 23, 1881, at the Opera Comique––the same venue where the earlier productions of The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance had been performed––and was a great hit, with at least eight numbers receiving encores that night. The Company’s growing popularity meant that it had outgrown the Comique, and D’Oyly Carte could fulfill his dream of opening a new theatre especially for the works of the two geniuses. This theatre, the famous Savoy, was the first to be completely lit by electricity. With its much larger stage, Gilbert had to completely restage Patience before it reopened there on October 10th, 1881, the very first stage production of any kind to be presented with entirely electric stage lighting anywhere in the world. Gilbert’s witty plot and dialogue won particularly high praise. In its review of the Opera
Many of the reviews praised the stage direction, which of course was Gilbert’s own. One opening night reviewer, from The London Standard, made special note of how well rehearsed the cast were, in keeping with the practice of Gilbert and Sullivan since their very first collaborations. Remarking on how this contrasted with the practice in continental opera, the reviewer singled out the chorus for special praise, remarking how they “take their own part in the business of the opera, and give that animation to the scene which is so rare in other theatres, and is almost absolutely unknown at the Italian operas.”
Patience went on to be a spectacular popular success, running for 578 performances––more than any of its predecessors in the canon, and the most for an opening run until The Mikado obliterated that record with its stunning 672 performances. In subsequent revivals, critics continued to heap praise on Patience and its creators, even though the Aesthetic craze was by then long gone. The 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, and its attendant scandal, had already served as a definite finis to that era when, in 1900, the first revival of Patience was mounted at the Savoy. As The London Times reviewer stated in his review of November 8, 1900: “It is only the minority among the audience of last night who can have remembered that there existed individuals who flopped and posed as Bunthorne is made to do, and of whose eccentricities he was a scarcely exaggerated sample.” Nonetheless, “those who have forgotten the existence of the absurdity can [still] find plenty of excruciatingly funny things in the comic opera founded on it.”
Theatre poster, 1910s
OSCAR WILDE: ORIGINAL MODEL, OR SUBSEQUENT BENEFICIARY?
As was rapidly becoming the norm, the press’s evaluation of Sullivan’s contribution was tempered by laments that the composer’s talents weren’t being put to better use in more “serious” musical works. The London Times opined that much of Sullivan’s contribution to Patience “leaves something to be desired,” with at least one “principal motive showing a striking resemblance to a familiar melody from Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor.” “But in spite of all this,” the reviewer concluded, “Mr. Sullivan’s workmanship is infinitely above the level of opéra bouffe as imported from abroad. One may regret that a musician of his power should occupy so much of his time with this class of composition; at the same time it is a matter for congratulation that in Sketches from the original production at the England the demand for burlesque opera is supplied in a Opera Comique, Illustrated London News 1881 refined and truly artistic manner.” The review in The Glasgow Herald, on the other hand, was less restrained in its praise of Sullivan’s efforts. “Mr. Sullivan’s score contains some of the best music he has written in operetta, and although he shows a tendency to repeat former successes, he seems to be, whether in ballads, Offenbachian music, or patter songs always at his best. His orchestration is distinguished for refinement and grace, and for those delicate touches by which an able musician can invest even a small theatrical orchestra with interest.” George Grossmith as Bunthorne, 1881
Whether Gilbert had originally thought of the rivals as Aesthetic poseurs or country curates, it is clear that the plot of Patience was foreshadowed in both The Rival Curates and another Bab Ballad, John and Freddy, both written in 1867 and published in Fun magazine. John and Freddy pits the “soft,” “graceful” and clearly more Aesthetic Freddy against the “quick,” stronger, and evidently more virile Johnny. The similarities of this story, and the parallel contrast in Patience between “fleshly poet” Bunthorne and the quick-stepping, somewhat awkward but very manly Dragoon Guards, could not be more obvious. In The Rival Curates, the “mild” Rev. Hooper threatens to deal “a deadly blow” to his rival––the “airy,” “blank,” and lamblike Rev. Porter––unless he agrees to change immediately into a frivolous and pleasure-seeking bon-vivant. The latter promptly consents, declaring: “For years I’ve longed for some / Excuse for this revulsion: / Now that excuse has come –– / I do it on compulsion!!!’ ” This scene indisputably parallels Grosvenor’s identical reaction to Bunthorne’s demand that he make “a complete change at once” from aestheticism to becoming “absolutely commonplace”: “I have long wished for a reasonable pretext for such a change as you suggest. It has come at last. I do it on compulsion!” It appears the two Bab Ballad scenarios mixed together in Gilbert’s imagination for years, until the final plot emerged in the completed libretto the way we see it now.
Comique opening night, The London Times enthused: “We are conscious that the bare outline of Mr. Gilbert’s fanciful characters we have endeavoured to draw gives but a very imperfect idea of the quality of the plot, lit up as it is by the incessant fireworks of his wit and humour. In this kind of pyrotechnic display the new piece is certainly not inferior to anything that has preceded it from the same pen. There is, indeed, a perfect embarras de richesses of truly humorous sayings and doings, as harmless as they are laughter-compelling. We need scarcely add that there is not a sentence in the dialogue which, to use Mr. Archibald Grosvenor’s words of his decalet, ‘is calculated to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty,’ the superiority in this as in other respects, of English over French burlesque being again manifested in the most striking manner.”
John Howson as Bunthorne, unauthorized San Francisco production, 1883
From John and Freddy, 1867
country clergymen. He explained that this idea of having the competing lovers be two curates ultimately could not overcome the “stumbling block” of “a charge of irreverence” from persons whose religious sensibilities might be offended. For that reason, he had changed the rivals from neighboring curates to dueling poets.
The Times’ review, in April 1907, was even more effusive, praising it for being “as fresh as ever”: “Much of the delicious nonsense about love is universally and everlastingly true; for here Mr. Gilbert, rising to his greatest height as a satirist, has ridiculed by means of a particular craze one of the ineradicable follies of human nature. It is excusable, perhaps, to regard Patience as in many ways the best of the operas. It contains some of the neatest of the lyrics, and the prose – that dangerous ground for Mr. Gilbert – is more natural than in any other of his writings. In Patience, too, Sir Arthur Sullivan did some of the best of his Savoy work.” Interestingly, this glowing review was written over a decade after the last of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon (The Grand Duke) had been debuted.