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Patience History/Commentary

Patience opened at the Opera Comique Theatre on 23 April, 1881, the sixth collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and the fifth produced by Richard D'Oyly Carte. During its initial run, construction was being completed on Carte's new Savoy Theatre, where Patience reopened on 10 October, making it the first true "Savoy Opera." The Savoy was the first public building lit entirely by electricity; incandescent bulbs afforded a more natural light than gas, without the uncomfortable heat and oxygen-poor air typical of the older means of illumination. The Savoy also introduced the system of queuing for tickets, a center-divided main curtain, and, curiously, a brand of fire-extinguishing devices known as Star-Harden Grenades.

As was typical, pirated productions of Patience sprung up in America, the first opening in St. Louis on 28 July. Lawsuits were brought, but American judges found against D'Oyly Carte -- as Sullivan said, "It seemed to be their opinion that t free and independent American citizen ought not to be robbed of his rights of robbing somebody else." An official touring production opened in American on 22 September, not coincidentally following Oscar Wilde on his American tour -- managed by none other than Richard D'Oyly Carte. If Americans had been unfamiliar with aestheticism, the flood of newspaper articles left in the wake of Wilde's transcontinental sweep of eccentricity prepared them. Wilde, who stated to customs agents upon his arrival that he had nothing to declare except his genius, became immensely popular in America, paving the way for an equally successful Patience.

Gilbert's book is based primarily on his Bab Ballad "The Rival Curates." Indeed, he claimed to have written two thirds of the libretto with the intention that Bunthorne and Grosvenor should be clergymen, rather than poets. A surviving letter to Sullivan, however, indicates that he had been toying with this latter idea all along, and Patience was certainly not the first satire on aestheticism to hit the London stage. Sullivan's score captures in music what it describes in art: the bright marches and typically Victorian melodies of the Dragoons contrast with the muted and classical strains of the maidens.

... Patience's continued popularity stems from its being at once the most topical and yet the most universally applicable of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. The person familiar with Victorian social history will delight at this send-up of the aesthetic craze: the affected speech of those who found everything 'precious' and 'utter;' the references to the institutions and individuals that inflated Pre-Raphaelite sentiments into something beyond anyone's control or understanding; the question of whether Bunthorne is supposed to represent Wilde, Swinburne, Whistler, or some composite of the three (in manner, verse, and appearance, respectively, he evokes each one); the prolific allusions to contemporary people, places, and things of varying obscurity. But expert and novice alike will realize the direct relevance this opera can take on in any period of human history. As long as there are artistic, literary and social movements that people rally behind en masse without understanding them, as long as hypocrites, happy or miserable, manipulate ideals for their own purposes, as long as pretentiousness is rewarded and objectors are censured and denounced as philistines, Patience will continue to hit home in a very immediate way.

Douglas R. Miller,
Historian, Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players

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Last modified: November 26, 1996

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