Aesthetic and poetic : Patience 140

Gilbert and Sullivan’s sixth comic opera, Patience, opened on 23rd April 1881 at London’s Opera Comique. Later the same year, on the 10th October, it was the first production to be shown at the newly opened Savoy Theatre.

1881 Programme for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Clement-Smith & Co. (London), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, satirized the late 19th Century vogue for ‘aestheticism’ with a plot about two rival poets, a chorus of rapturous lovesick maidens, a regiment of indignant dragoon guards, and Patience, the down-to-earth village milkmaid. Critics were quick to speculate as to who might have been the inspirations for Gilbert’s rival poets, and well-known poetic personalities such as Swinburne, Rossetti, and Whistler were all suggested, as well as, most famously, Oscar Wilde.

The aesthetic movement was not always intended to be the main theme of Patience, however. During the writing of the libretto, Gilbert wavered between the idea of rival poets and rival curates, an idea which had appeared before in one of his Bab Ballads. Eventually coming to the conclusion that making fun of poets was less likely to offend his audiences than making fun of curates, Bunthorne and Grosvenor were born. Far from causing offence, the association with Patience seems to have been embraced in ‘aesthetic’ circles, with the 26 year old Oscar Wilde agreeing to a lecture tour of America in order to introduce audiences to the fashion for aestheticism ahead of the show’s US opening, so paving the way for the success of Patience in America.

While the subject matter of Patience and the quite specific trends and personalities it made fun of might seem likely to be a recipe for ageing badly, the story is very adaptable. Being essentially a plot based around fads and popularity, it is easy to re-imagine Patience for modern day audiences and settings, and there have been versions set in high schools, hipster bars, and the world of social media ‘influencers’. Even in its original form, though, the show seems to hold its appeal. The first London revival of the show, some years after the height of the Victorian fascination with all things aesthetic, had Gilbert worried about the relevance of the plot to audiences. The reception was still favourable, however, Gilbert noting that the opera “woke up splendidly” (Allen, R. The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan, p. 461).

Gilbert was not the first to poke fun at the aesthetic movement. A play called The Colonel by Francis Burnand (who, incidentally, founded the ADC during his time studying at Cambridge) also parodied the craze, and opened in London just a few weeks before Patience, having been hurried along to beat Gilbert’s show to the stage. George Grossmith’s 1876 sketch Cups and Saucers satirised the obsession for blue and white pottery which often went along with the aesthetic craze.

Anyone wanting some Patience-related reading to mark the anniversary can find a wealth of information and resources on The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive website. As well as information about Patience and the other Gilbert and Sulivan operas, it also has sections on Grossmith’s Cups and Saucers, and Gibert’s Bab Ballads, including The Rival Curates.

At MusiCB3, you can find a set of facsimile librettos and programmes from the opening nights of the fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the UL Music Special Colections – ‘The first night Gilbert and Sullivan / edited by Reginald Allen ; and a foreword by Bridget D’Oyly Carte ; illustrated with contemporary drawings.’ (MR463.a.95.6-7). The Pendlebury holds a DVD of Opera Australia’s 1995 production of Patience (DVD.C.279).


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