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...
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