From our Annals of History desk

In the late 19th Century, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were entertainment superstars, having written such boffo light operas as H.M.S. Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, both of which were hits not only in England but America as well.

In 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan premiered Patience, or, Bunthorne’s Bride in London, which “[spoofed] the British Aesthetic Movement, the small but influential group of artists and writers who heralded ‘art for art’s sake,'” according to this Wall Street Journal book review of Declaring His Genius by Roy Morris Jr. “They dressed fancily, wore flowers and sought to beautify their surroundings, somewhat pedantically insisting that everyone else do likewise.”

Problem was, “America had no dandies, or at least not the right sort. Satire needs a recognizable object or else nobody gets the joke.”

So Gilbert and Sullivan’s producer Richard D’Oyly Carte sent one to the U.S.


He approached a 27-year-old Oxford graduate with only one book of poems to his name, who nonetheless had gained enough notoriety—primarily because his flamboyant public persona had inspired cartoons in the satirical magazine Punch—that he was widely held to be the model for the ridiculous Bunthorne character in “Patience.”


That would be Oscar Wilde, who became D’Oyly Carte’s weapon of mass distinction, “lecturing to Americans about Aestheticism.”

The tour was Wildely successful.


Speaking mostly on “The English Renaissance” (that is, 19th-century Romanticism and Aestheticism) and occasionally, and less headily, on “The Decorative Arts,” Wilde visited big cities and small towns, opera houses and private residences, upscale restaurants and the bottom of a silver mine. He met Henry James and Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant.


In other words, stealth marketing at its most artistic.


John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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