W. S. Gilbert collaborated with the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) on many highly successful comic operettas between 1875 and 1896, of which Patience: Or, Bunthorne’s Bride is a major work. It satirizes both the mainstream and the avant-garde of British Victorian culture. These specific targets, however, are also manifestations of such universal human foibles as the desire to impress the opposite sex, jealousy of rivals in love and publicity, and the fickle nature of fame. Patience was one of the first literary works to recognize and satirize the cultural faddishness made possible by improved communication in the nineteenth century. Patience remains a favorite because of its essentially timeless conflicts and characters, and its highly polished lyrics matched with one of Sullivan’s most accomplished scores.
Gilbert incorporates contemporary debates about art and artists in his libretto. By the 1870’s, an artistic counterculture was challenging the established culture of Victorian England by emphasizing an otherworldly beauty at odds with everyday life. With its roots in the Oxford Movement to respiritualize the Anglican Church in the 1840’s and in the Pre-Raphaelite movement among artists to separate themselves from realistic and popular art in the 1850’s, this counterculture tried to reject everything modern, middle class, and commercial, in favor of whatever seemed ancient, aristocratic, and spiritual. Through newspapers and magazines such as the humorous Punch, these intellectual currents were made familiar to many people beyond the artistic and academic worlds of London and the universities. Medieval art, loose and flowing clothing, and an overly refined distaste for the crude ordinary world became popular among not only a few artists and students but also a wide range of people who wished to identify with the avant-garde.
Playing upon ordinary people’s interest in these debates as well as their suspicion of artists in general and resentment of the counterculture’s attacks on middle-class sensibilities, Gilbert’s libretto parodies avant-garde ideas while ensuring that down-to-earth virtue ultimately triumphs. The central character, the outrageously dressed, hypersensitive artist Reginald Bunthorne, is a composite of several persons who were famous in the 1870’s, including painter James A. McNeill Whistler, painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the playwright and media star Oscar Wilde (whose lecture tour of the United States in 1882 was arranged by Gilbert and Sullivan’s theater manager Richard D’Oyly Carte in part to educate American audiences about aestheticism so that they would attend Patience).
Within this specifically nineteenth century context, Gilbert’s complex, farcical plot turns on the most traditional of themes: the many complications of love (requited and unrequited) and the rivalry between suitors of maidens and fame. In the first of the operetta’s two acts, the major conflicts in love are neatly paralleled. On the female side, twenty lovesick maidens swooning for Bunthorne are set against the individual character Patience the milkmaid, who insists that she has no idea what love is. On the male side, the individual character Bunthorne, who loves only Patience (the one woman not infatuated with him), is set against the mainstream dragoon guards, stereotypical soldiers who expect that “every beauty will feel it her duty” to fall in love with a man in uniform. Bunthorne and the maidens are satirized for their artificial ultrapoetical pose, and Patience and the soldiers for their literal-minded inability to comprehend the pose.
In the second act, the conflicts focus the satire more directly on the masks the characters put on as they try to impress one another. Beneath the humorous surface lie not only tensions between appearance and reality, as Gilbert calls attention to the absurd traps the characters set for themselves, but...
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also a need to disparage any commitment to anti-middle-class values as hypocritical. Thus, Bunthorne, who in his patter song directly admits “I’m an aesthetic sham,” does not really admire the aesthetic women or believe in the values he pretends to personify, but maintains his pose to keep the fawning devotion of the female chorus. The lovesick maidens play a version of the same game, pretending to be aesthetic and, ironically, driving Bunthorne and Grosvenor away by their efforts to win them. Grosvenor feels oppressed by the devotion Bunthorne craves, but tolerates the lovesick maidens because of a misplaced sense of duty until he is given the chance to become commonplace. Even the soldiers, with equal insincerity and the funniest results of all, mimic Bunthorne’s dress and manner in the hope of winning back the love of the maidens.
Only two characters, both women, are not hypocrites: Patience and Lady Jane. In satirizing Patience, Gilbert makes fun of her unsophisticated ignorance of the aesthetic fad and of her naïve willingness to accept at face value the other characters’ overblown puffings about poetry, true love, and duty. In satirizing Lady Jane, however, Gilbert is less playful and shows a strain of mean-spiritedness. The audience is invited to laugh at Lady Jane for being a plain, middle-aged woman in love, and for maintaining her loyalty to Bunthorne and aestheticism when everyone else deserts them. Despite a poignant song in which she laments the inevitable depredations of aging, Jane is more ridiculed than sympathized with.
As is always the case in Gilbert’s librettos, mainstream values triumph in the end. In Patience, that triumph involves Grosvenor’s self-transformation into a perfect representative of the consuming middle class, “a steady and stolid-y, jolly Bank-holiday . . . matter-of-fact young man.” All of the lovesick maidens except Lady Jane similarly reenter the middle class, declaring devotion to the exclusive department store Swears & Wells and pairing off with the soldiers. When the curtain falls with Bunthorne the only character not happily paired off, the cult of art and beauty has been tamed.