- Wilde’s Lectures:Britain & Ireland
IN HIS INTRODUCTION, Geoff Dibb notes that the “consensus view of Wilde’s lectures in the UK has been that they were ephemeral events, even being subjects of which he was ashamed.” While the lectures that Wilde delivered during his tour of the United States and Canada in 1882 have been fairly widely documented and discussed, Dibb reminds us that biographies “in the past have paid scant attention” to his British and Irish lectures, despite the fact that they lasted off and on from 1883 to 1889, with the bulk of the lectures taking place between 1883 and 1884. These dates should give us pause. Wilde’s writing career—or the career for which he is best remembered today—is usually taken to be the ten years between 1888 (when The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published) and 1898 (when Leonard Smith-ers brought out The Ballad of Reading Gaol); even then two years from those ten were spent in prison. John Stokes and Mark Turner’s recent edition of Wilde’s Journalism points out that his career as a writer of books coincided with and was partly formed by his career as a journalist. (Indeed even works as well known as Intentions and The Picture of Dorian Gray began life as journalism.) Now Geoff Dibb reminds us too that Wilde’s career as a journalist coincided to a large extent with his career as a lecturer. The proviso that we have to add, however, is that both “lives” of Wilde, those of the journalist and the lecturer entertaining a paying audience, have until now been marginalized virtually to the point of invisibility. But of course Wilde only had one life, and despite his repeated propagandizing of the value of literary art above everything else, it is doubtful whether he experienced his own life as a series of discontinuities in the way many literary historians would have us believe. And we should also remember that lecturing and journalism provided Wilde with a living for most of the 1880s. [End Page 419]
A further narrative thread running through Dibb’s study is the size of the audiences that Wilde attracted. In the later years of his life Wilde was well aware that his name made good copy. But that name had been bringing in the punters from the start. In his “Prologue” Dibb describes Wilde’s final lecture of 1884 given a few days before Christmas in St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow. As he walked on the stage of the Grand Hall
applause broke out, with a theatrical flourish Wilde bowed his head with his waved auburn hair and the applause increased. The audience was enormous: the Grand Hall was absolutely crammed and all standing room had been taken: 5,000 expectant people had braved the “horrible snow” to be entertained by the “Great Aesthete.”… This was something special for both audience and performer: it was the largest audience Wilde would ever have.
Wilde’s tours in the United Kingdom were organized by Colonel W. F. Morse, the impresario who had also organized the North American lectures as a means of promoting Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience. Seats in the stalls at the first United Kingdom lecture, which was on “Personal Impressions of America,” held in the Prince’s Rooms in Piccadilly, sold for half a guinea (10s. 6d.–52½p.) for the stalls and 5s. (25p.) for the balcony. These were not insignificant sums; indeed, in many ways they were comparable to the prices of the cheaper seats of the West End theatres which would stage the society comedies.
Prices and attendances, and therefore the takings of particular lectures, of course varied. After 1885 they tended to fall away, but overall they were successful. Indeed the contracts offered to Wilde, Dibb notes, vary from a flat fee to a percentage of the gross receipts or to one half of the net receipts. Dibb describes how in July 1884...