Satire, always as sterile as it is shameful and as impotent as it is insolent, [is the] homage which mediocrity pays to genius. To disagree with three fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity. (Wilde)
ilbert and Sullivan's fifth Savoy Opera, Patience (1881), is a shining example of the critical role of satire in popular culture, and a most important record of how many self-righteous upper middle class contemporaries viewed fringe schools of thought and pop culture during the dissipation of the Evangelical church. The operetta's premise is that Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor--characters reputedly based upon Oscar Wilde and Charles Swinburne respectively, although the actor who originally played Bunthorne drew on Whistler--are shams as bogus as the aesthetic movement that they embody.
Bunthorne, after waxing sentimental about the joys of nice china and lilies, and then reading a poem about the world's shallowness which is replete with bathos, admits to the innocent Patience that his demeanor is a ploy to lend himself the appearance of intelligence, and to attract women:
Am I alone, And unobserved? I am!
Then let me own I'm an aesthetic sham!
This air severe Is but a mere Veneer!
This cynic smile Is but a wile Of guile!
This costume chaste Is but good taste Misplaced!
Let me confess!
A languid love for lilies does not blight me!
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do not delight me!
I do not care for dirty greens By any means.
I do not long for all one sees That's Japanese.
I am not fond of uttering platitudes In stained-glass attitudes.
In short, my mediaevalism's affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration. [I.373]
The lyric continues in the mode of such nineteenth century satirical peers of Gilbert's as Punch magazine and the innumerable other writers, cartoonists, and magazines which echoed a jealous, conservative response to the aesthetes.
Although the amusing subject matter of Patience is hardly original--not only is it derivative of humor magazines, but there had already been a number of plays and light operas based on it--it is one of the few instances of parody that aesthetes like Wilde and Whistler enjoyed. Wilde purchased box seats for the opening night--and found Gilbert and Sullivan's satire somewhat amusing--although he had long refused to see a similar, earlier production entitled The Colonel, which he dismissed as "poor" when he did. Whistler was flattered when his trademark white tuft of hair was adopted by a member of the cast.
The aesthetes' uncharacteristically warm reception of the operetta probably had to do with the popularity of its author. Each of the Savoy Operas had rapidly become in demand with the middle classes, and Patience was no exception. The exposure it provided the aesthetes had the paradoxical effect of widening their popularity and, as Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann observes, of both defining and prolonging the waning popularity of the slightly nebulous movement. Considering that it would be half a decade before Oscar Wilde would begin to publish the works for which he and the movement are most commonly remembered, it might be too much to claim that Patience was soley responsible for furthering the aesthetic movement. The aesthetes' Golden Age was still to come, not only with the production of Wilde's novel, plays, stories, but also with the art of Aubrey Beardsley, and Walter Pater's best work. Marius the Epicurean was not issued until 1885, and Appreciations did not emerge until 1889. But it is uncontestable that until Wilde and company brought about the aesthetes's second wind, the light opera--performed nearly six hundred times within a few years by D'Oyly Carte's company alone--held a place in the national consciousness for a movement that Max Beerbohm said was already dead in 1881. D'Oyly Carte--promoter of both the Savoy Operas and Oscar Wilde's 1881 tour of the United States--apparently used Wilde's speaking tour to arouse American interest in an operetta that Americans might otherwise have had trouble relating to, so certainly there was a mutual interest in the success of both endeavors.
It is also awfully likely that the aesthetes identified with those librettos of William Gilbert which, in their parody of Victoria's conservatives, solicitors, politicians, and commissioned officers, mocked people who represented a social class that Wilde and other dandies rebelled against--namely, the middle classes. In Patience, as if in expression of fairness, jealous soldiers are portrayed in as ridiculous a light as Bunthorne and Grosvenor.
Equally importantly, the satire of Patience helped to define precisely what the middle class consciousness of Britain of the early 1880's was. Historian F.M.L. Thompson points to the profound impact that the "evangelical ideology" had on the people of Victorian Britain during the middle of the century, suggesting that "its grip on the language of public discourse on manners and morals became very nearly total" and that " puritain disapproval resounded from the press and pulpit (The Rise of Respectable Society, 259)." Curiously, Thompson points to the popularity of the work of Gilbert and Sullivan to suggest that thirty years later "the late Victorian middle classes had shed the husk of earnestness and self-righteousness and embraced the notion of fun (260)."
However, one finds it easier to believe that the Protestant "self-righteousness" that Thompson describes was merely transferred to a more general--a less specifically "Protestant church"--container, in the sanctimonious satirical entertainment of none other than the likes of William Gilbert and William M. Thackeray. As interest in formal religion declined, ideas previously fuelled by Protestantism found shelter in popular entertainment, for assuredly, satire yields an abundance of self-righteousness.
Most significantly, the aesthetes were frequently associated with the materially corpulent (from the middle class satirist's point of view) Roman Catholic Church, with its reliance on mystery, ritual and displays of opulence. These elements of Christian service, of course, and in daily conduct, Evangelicals were fundamentally opposed to. Interestingly, Patience had at times during composition been based on one of Gilbert's "Bab Ballads" (very popular, early satirical pieces for Fun Humor Magazine) named "The Rival Curates," which is about two meek priests. The fluency with which Gilbert switched his libretto's subject matter between Catholicism and the aesthetic movement shows that both shared in the characteristics that the middle class audience rejected. Specifically, the aesthetes--many of whom were indeed attracted to the Catholic faith--shared with the church a love of everything the Protestants detested: a marriage of religion and beauty, ceremony, mystery, and such. The officers of the Dragoon Guards' shock, upon discovering that their lovers affections have been diverted by the effeminate Bunthorne, radiates the feelings of the part of the conservative middle class which morbidly applauded--with an affected secular piety--Oscar Wilde's incarceration for sodomy two decades later. The military remained an important avenue of social advancement for sons of the middle class. Tension between Patience's soldiers and its aesthetes realized an existing social strain between those who violated social norm and those who represented middle class social order, aspirations to aristocratic standing, and still-Protestant morality. The middle class did not need religion to preserve a rigid moral structure, for, increasingly, satire that gossiped about social outsiders provided part of such structure. A loosening grip on evangelical faith might have made the upper middle classes more "fun," but its affection for satire showed that it was certainly no less self-righteous, and that a hardly definable class devoted to ambition needed to find ways to characterize itself by what it was not.
Is it possible, if many of those who had been the most socially ambitious in the middle of the century were also the most Evangelical, that many who were dedicated to "getting on" in the latter part of the century were the most addicted to the satire of Punch, Gilbert and Sullivan, etc.? Indeed, it is from the upper middle classes that these kinds of satirical entertainment drew a following. What are other ways in which satire might have substituted for Protestantism, in addition to voicing popular moral judgments about who was acceptable and who was not, or defining a class by its professed morals?