The one thing I knew about W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operetta Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride (1881) is that its central character, Reginald Bunthorne the Fleshly Poet, was a caricature of young Oscar Wilde. So the one thing I knew was half wrong.
The flock of women in love with Bunthorne ask that he read his new poem.
BUNTHORNE. Shall I?
ALL THE DRAGOONS. No!
[The Dragoons are 1) in love with the women enraptured by the poet and 2) per a song a few pages earlier, a mixture of Bismarck, Fielding, Thackeray, Thomas Aquinas and Trollope, so sensible prosy fellows]
BUN. It is a wild, weird, fleshly thing; yet very tender, very yearning, very precious. It is called, “Oh, Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!”
PATIENCE. Is it a hunting song? [a joke nearly lost now]
BUN. A hunting song? No, it is not a hunting song. It is the wail of the poet’s heart on discovering that everything is commonplace. To understand it, cling passionately to one another and think of faint lilies. (Act I)
So if half wrong, also half right. Other details clearly identify Bunthorne as if not specifically Dante Gabriel Rossetti at least a paid-in-full pre-Raphaelite, obsessed with phony baloney medievalisms. But the women “play on lutes, mandolins, etc.” (pre-Raphaelite) but are also “dressed in aesthetic draperies” (rather more Wildean) and think the uniform of the Dragoons should be “made Florentine fourteenth-century” but then “surmounted with something Japanese.” A little of this, a little of that.
PATIENCE. Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.
LADY SAPHIR. Nonsense, yes, perhaps – but, oh, what precious nonsense!
A little self-description there by W. S. Gilbert. If anyone is wondering why I am reading Patience – and not just that one, but H. M. S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879) – which tends to be a little hard on the contribution of Arthur Sullivan, the reason is first that in a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan I only catch about half of the words and second I can linger over the jokes.
SERGEANT. No matter; our course is clear. We must do our best to capture these pirates alone. It is most distressing to us to be the agents whereby our erring fellow-creatures are deprived of that liberty which is so dear to us all – but we should have thought of that before we joined the Force.
ALL POLICE. We should!
SERGEANT. It is too late now!
ALL. It is! (The Pirates of Penzance, Act II)
Awfully funny performed, but similarly funny on the page, funny enough to reread immediately.
In other words, I read the plays to read them. In practice, they are a pleasure to read. They are basically forty-page Bab Ballads, illustrations and all. Sorry, Arthur.