1884: When the people of Derry went absolutely Wilde for Oscar
The first performance of his masterpiece, '˜The Importance of Being Earnest', and his notorious libel trial were still more than a decade away.
But the crowds did not flock to Derry’s Opera House to see an unknown, for Oscar Wilde, despite the lack of success for his early works, was quickly becoming one of the most celebrated people of the day.
Wilde’s visit to Derry in 1884 came midway through the second of two lecture tours of America - tours that allowed him to earn a living and which, increasingly, brought him to the public’s attention.
It was upon arriving in the United States in late 1881 that he is said to have told a customs official “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
His reputation was growing and he was revered in equal measure for his wit and flamboyance.
Indeed, by the early 1880s, he had become the epitome of the new aesthetic movement putting its stamp on the English arts scene.
Upon his return to his London home, and with a much reduced income, it was time to take to the road again, and embark on another lecture tour.
The ‘Derry Journal’ of Monday, December 31, 1883, advertises Wilde’s visit to the city.
“Mr J F Warden has the honour to announce that Mr Oscar Wilde will deliver two lectures at the Opera House, Londonderry, on Thursday and Friday, January 3rd and 4th, ” the front page advertisement reads.
On Thursday, Wilde would speak on “The House Beautiful”, a subject matter that had proven highly successful while he was in the States, while. on the Friday. an audience would be treated to his “Personal Impressions of America.”
On Monday, January 7, 1884, the Derry Journal carried a full and comprehensive report of the second of those two lectures.
“ There was a large and fashionable attendance, the house being well filled, ” the ‘Journal reported.
“At exactly eight o’clock the curtain rose and Mr Wilde appeared on stage. He met with a cordial welcome, which he acknowledged by gracefully bowing to the audience.”
Beginning the lecture, the Derry audience was told they would not hear any “ useful information about America - neither its longitude or latititude or it chief imports and exports.”
Instead, they would hear only Wilde’s personal impressions of the largest speaking English country in the world.
“If he was asked what most struck him on first landing” the Journal records, “ he would say it was this: that if Americans were not the most well dressed people in the world - and he was afraid they were not - still, they were most comfortably dressed.”
Wilde’s subject matter moved quickly from first impressions to a more considered view.
“One of the great peculiarities of the country was that every true born American was always in a hurry,” Wilde is reported as saying.
“No true born American ever saunters or sits down. They were always rushing to catch trains or attend to business of some kind.”
This, it seems, did not sit well with Wilde.
“For that trait in their character, people in this country thought they were not a romantic race, ” he told the Derry audience.
“Really romantic people were never in time to catch anything and ,as a rule, were not particular whether they caught a train or not.”
The Derry crowd heard that the lack of, or differing form of romance that Wilde found in the US, puzzled him.
“It was not the romance of Shakespeare -it was the romance of commerce, ” Wilde says.
“Everywhere there is the great rush of commerce.”
This was not, Wilde deduces, conducive to the type of beauty seen in European cities.
Instead, this American beauty was to be found in the scale of industrialisation.
“No one ever realised how beautiful modern machinery was until he went to America, “ Wilde is said to have said.
Most pertinent among the new fangled technological developments stateside, Wilde said, was the use of the electric light, which when “placed on poles of considerable height, lit up the streets in a most wonderful manner.”
“One notices about the American landscape that everything is twice as large as anything should be”, he added.
“Standing on the top of Fifth Avenue, one can read the name on a brass door plate of a house three and a half miles away,” he joked.
Wilde went on to criticise and laud American life in equal measure, in a lecture interrupted by laughter and applause.
Abraham Lincoln, and the early father of American science , were praised for their influence on the rest of the world.
Niagara Falls, often the destination for honeymooning newlyweds, seemed to Wilde to be the “ first disappointment in American married life.” American men, Wilde says, were more than matched by American women.
“The American girl is one of the fascinating little despots that it would be possible to find in a country with free republican institutions.
“Men never knew the charms of absolute tyranny until he was taught it by the young lady of this country.”
While the ‘Journal’ gave an almost verbatim account of Wilde’s lecture, one Belfast paper - Wilde appeared in Belfast on the night prior to his appearance in Derry - focused more on his manner and appearance.
A report from the Newsletter of January 2, 1884, says: “It would be impossible to say that the impression created by Mr Oscar Wilde’s first appearance as a lecturer in Belfast at the theatre yesterday afternoon was otherwise than of the most favourable character.
“The eccentricities of style which Mr Wilde thought fit to assume when on his first lecturing tour in America have wisely, we think, been discarded by him at home, so that it is quite likely that many persons among his audience yesterday were somewhat disappointed to find in the centre of the stage instead of the eighteenth-century youth with buckled shoes and the ‘old gold’ velveteen jacket, so excellent type of the modern society youth, with nothing remarkable about his appearance or dress.”