Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"Severely commonplace": Audience and press responses to Wilde's early lectures

In early February 1882, Oscar Wilde's lecture tour of North America was just getting under way. His rather dry address on The English Renaissance had drawn a big crowd to his debut performance in New York. However, elsewhere in the north east, Oscar was not exactly setting opera houses and music halls ablaze with enthusiasm.

Wilde in early 1882, during his lecture tour of the American north east.


A wordy rag bag assortment of Goethe, Keats, Japanese wickerwork and philosophical musings harvested from books by Pater, Ruskin and Morris, Wilde's first lecture failed to impress audiences in Baltimore, Boston or Brooklyn. The New York Times (4th Feb 1882) reported that Wilde's reception in Brooklyn was "not a warm one". The audience soon grew restless, finding the lecture "incomprehensible". Some young men in the circle took to clapping at inappropriate moments, or sniggering whenever Wilde touched the tails of his coat, which appeared to be an unconscious tic. In Washington, yawning ladies and bored gentlemen left before Wilde was done, drowning out the speaker's voice.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle's man found special fault with Wilde's delivery: "He read in a dull monotone, failing of emphasis, neglectful of his periods and drawling altogether as if he had ... caught a bad cold" (4th Feb 1882). The New York Times thought that Wilde's "pronunciation was at times indistinct ... The only manner of emphasis adopted by the lecturer was that of oscillating his head. There was scarcely a change in the expression of his face during the hour he was on the stage." Although Wilde would in later years be hailed as one of the greatest talkers who ever lived, at this early stage his oratory was unpractised. He only had a fortnight's lecturing under his belt, and before arriving in America his public speaking was limited to a single after dinner speech at a supper club.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music at 176 Montague Street, where Wilde gave his English Renaissance lecture on 3rd Feb 1882.  


Nevertheless, as the man who would later write "there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about", Wilde must have been pleased by these endless column inches. He claimed to savour bad press, comparing "the reading of a good vigorous attack" to eating "a dish of caviar". What must have stung, though, was many reporters' indifference. "As a lecturer his performance is severely commonplace," said the Waco Daily Examiner (4th Feb 1882) of the Washington lecture. Accurately identifying the sources of Wilde's second hand ideas in Ruskin and Swinburn (sic), the reporter pronounced Oscar's "diluted" pronouncements "perfectly harmless". Ouch!

Wilde complained publicly over his treatment in the press, but was optimistic. "'If I survive, I shall go West,'" he told the New York Times. "'I want to be in California when the flowers are in bloom.'" Wilde would eventually reach California. Before he would descend the Sierra Nevadas into that "very Italy without its art", however, there stretched before him two long, hard months of lecturing to mostly unappreciative audiences. Whether he would survive remained to be seen.




Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com