Essay From the Archive: Oscar Wilde in Belfast
Writing in The Linen Hall Review in 1988, Wesley McCann explores Wilde's visit of 1884
The visit to Belfast by Oscar Wilde came midway through the second of two extensive lecture tours which, before his success as a playwright, were the chief means by which he was known to a wide public.
On completing his studies at Oxford in 1879 Wilde at first aspired to follow an academic career, but then as now openings were few and he moved instead to live in London where in dress and manner he soon became the very embodiment of the aesthetic movement.
So much so that Gilbert and Sullivan took him as a model for Bunthorne in their operetta Patience, and it was this which led to his first lecture tour to America in 1882. D'Oyly Carte had taken Patience to New York in the previous September, and he had the idea of arranging a series of readings by Wilde so as to introduce American audiences, as it were, to Bunthorne's original.
The plan was that Wilde would give a series of readings from his own work, rather as Dickens had done 15 years earlier, but this was later changed to a programme of lectures. Wilde sailed to New York in December 1881, and on his arrival at customs (it is said) that he announced 'I have nothing to declare except my genius'.
He embarked on an exhausting lecture tour which took him to 140 venues throughout America and Canada between January and October 1882. At first he had only one lecture to offer - 'The English Renaissance' - but finding on arrival in each new city that the audience often read up on the detailed newspaper reports of the previous appearances, he decided to add two other topics to his repertoire.
One was a lecture on 'The Decorative Arts', the second on 'The House Beautiful'. His American tour was a huge success, and as the late Richard Ellmann has written in his biography of Wilde in 1987: 'lf America did not bend the knee to its conqueror, half the United States and half of Canada had been lectured to, and the unlectured halves had obliged to take notice.'
Wilde returned briefly to New York in 1884 for the opening of his play Vera which he hoped would launch him on a career as a playwright. The critics, however, didn't warm to it and it closed after a week. Once back in London Wilde set off on another extensive lecture tour, this time through Britain and Ireland, to bolster his much reduced income.
He offered a choice of four subjects, usually giving them in pairs on successive days. The topics he had chosen were 'Dress', 'The Value of Art in Modern Life', 'The House Beautiful' (which had been such a success in the States), and, not surprisingly given the long period he had just spent there, 'Personal Impressions of America'.
Ellmann lists many of these British and Irish appearances on page 27 of his biography, but omits to mention Wilde's visit to Belfast on January 1 and 2, 1884.
The Theatre Royal in Arthur Square where Wilde gave his lectures had recently reopened following a serious fire in 1881. With some 2,500 seats it was the largest theatre in Ulster. JF Warden had managed the Theatre Royal since 1861 and in 1895 he opened in addition the Grand opera House.
Both Belfast morning papers, the Belfast Newsletter and the Northern Whig sent along reporters to cover Wilde's two lectures, and taken together they provide a full account of what took place. The Northern Whig gave an almost verbatim account; the Belfast Newsletter chose rather to comment at length on Wilde's manner and appearance.
It is worth noting the opening paragraphs of this account as it appeared in the paper on January 2.
"It would be impossible to say that the impression created by Mr Oscar Wilde's first appearance as a lecturer in Belfast at the theatre yesterday afternoon was otherwise than of the most favourable character. The eccentricities of style which Mr Wilde thought fit to assume when on his first lecturing tour in America have wisely, we think, been discarded by him at home, so that it is quite likely that many persons among his audience yesterday were somewhat disappointed to find in the centre of the stage instead of the eighteenth-century youth with buckled shoes and the 'old gold' velveteen jacket, so excellent type of the modern society youth, with nothing remarkable about his appearance or dress.
"The truth is Mr Oscar Wilde resembles much more closely the modern 'masher' than the obsolete 'aesthete'. His handsome, frank features, and his substantially moulded figure - for nature has not been parsimonious with him - were certainly not of suggestive of the 'haggard lank young man' for whom, some people would tell us, Mr Wilde stood as the model when the craze of Mr George Du Maurier was at its highest - the aesthetic craze, we have often tried to point out in these columns, was Mr Du Maurier's only; the real craze was that on the part of the English people, who believed that Maudle and Postlewaite existed in society and had followers.
"Of course the use Mr Gilbert made of the craze of the people was quite legitimate, for 'Patience' is nothing more than a fairy tale, representing an imaginary state of society in which the grossly real and hardly definable ideal meet. Mr Oscar Wilde may have thought fit to go out to America and pose in the lecture halls as the original of Mr Gilbert's Bunthorne, but assuredly in England he poses only as a lecturer on the subject of art - the art of the carpenter, the art of the bricklayer, the art of the upholsterer.
"Among the many lecturers who have appeared from time to time in this country we have heard none who seemed to know so thoroughly what he was talking about as Mr Oscar Wilde; we have known none whose delivery was so singularly free of affectation - none who posessed the power of securing the attention of the audience for so long without resorting to any tricks of style. Mr Wilde is refreshingly natural both in language and delivery.
"He speaks with a degree of earnestness, but invariably employs only the simplest language in order to convey his ideas ... his language is of a type that, for want of a better word, we may venture to call 'cultural colloquialism'. It is so easy to understand that even the most ordinary audience could listen to its flow for hours without a sense of weariness."