Oscar Wilde in Omaha: Flapdoodles and Nincompoops

6:12 AM

This story begins with a return to an opera house that once could be found in downtown Omaha. So again we go to Boyd’s, on Farnam and 15th, which had been built by a man named James E. Boyd. He had been born in County Tyrone, Ireland, but had made his fortune in Pioneer Omaha as the founder of the city’s first packing house. He eventually went on to two terms as Omaha’s mayor and was Nebraska’s 7th governor.

Incidentally, in a story generally left out of the official history, he was also brother-in-law to Dr. Charles A. Henry, who, in 1855, killed a man in a land dispute and was the subject of Omaha’s first murder trial. Dr. Henry later built Omaha’s first pharmacy. I mention this because this is exactly the sort of story you find when you rummage through Omaha’s early history. Great men and criminals often knew each other, or were kin, or were even the same man.

And I mention this because Boyd built the venue for another Irishman to come to Omaha in the spring of 1882, and this was another man who was both great and a criminal. His name was Oscar Wilde.

There was an operetta at the time called “Patience,” written by Gilbert and Sullivan. The production satirized a movement called aestheticism, which favored beauty for its own sake, and was a cousin to decadence, an artistic movement that favored pure artifice. Wilde represented both, and there was a character in Patience named Bunthorne, a giddy, simpering poet, and it was widely thought that this character was based on Oscar Wilde. In fact, Wilde’s connection to the play was a publicity stunt. Wilde shared a theatrical agent with the star of the show, and, when the operetta opened in America, Wilde was hired to publicize the show.

He did this by crisscrossing the country, speaking on aesthetic subjects such as “The English Renaissance” and “The Decorative Arts.” Wilde was not unknown in Omaha. When he began his 1882 American tour, the Daily Herald ran an unexpectedly supportive piece denouncing the “blackguards” in the press who mocked Wilde as being anything other than “an elegant gentleman, a scholar, and a poet of no mean pretensions.” Wilde’s tour created an international reputation for the author, who was, at the time, only 28 and had so far produced exactly one book of poetry.

Despite the Herald’s original defense of Wilde, the author became something of an ongoing figure of sport in the paper. In fact, in five days after they wrote the piece defending Wilde, the Herald wrote of him: “Oscar Wilde, the apostle of the beautiful, is as ugly as a mud fence.”

The World-Herald covered Wilde’s tour across America, continuing their back and forth between supportiveness and mockery. One day they might publish one of his lectures or complain that college youths in Boston who mocked Wilde were “flapdoodles” and “nincompoops,” and on another day they might write “Oscar Wilde acquired his first distinction by wearing a yellow cravat.” That’s it, by the way. That’s the entire news item. Later, an irritated letter writer would accuse the paper of slinging “borrowed mud.”

And then, on March 14, the Herald announced the news: Wilde would appear at Boyd’s Opera House under the auspices of the Social Arts Club, which the Herald sometimes called the Omaha Ladies Art association. And on March 21, Wilde stood before the people of Omaha, as well as curious visitors from Council Bluffs and Lincoln, at Boyd’s resplendent venue. He spoke on the subject of “Decorative Art.” “He wore a suit of black velvet,” the Herald informed readers the next day, “with knee breeches which has been his usual dress in this country. His hair fell about his shoulders in heavy masses and his dreamy, poetic face grew animated, and his large dark eyes lighted up as he entered upon his subject.”

“Do not mistake the materials of civilities for civilization itself,” Wilde informed his listeners. “It is the use to which we put these things that determines whether the telephone, the steam engine, electricity, are valuable to civilization.” He also complained that he did not like machine-made ornaments and demanded schools for design.

The reporter for the Herald also wrangled an interview with Wilde, who was disappointed to discover the reporter could not speak with any authority about the architecture of Omaha. “The west part of America is really the part of the country that interests us in England,” Wilde told the reporter, “because it seems to us that it has a civilization that you are making for yourself.”

“Patience” made it to Omaha eight years after Wilde did, on November 3 of 1890, also at Boyd’s. It was presented by the J.C. Duff Comic Opera Company as part of a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The review the next day allowed that the opera had some “historical interest” but that the actor playing Bunthorne “[did] not speak distinctly enough to bring out the full effect of his lines.”

Another performer was “indescribably unsatisfactory,” and the reviewer complained the second act in this performance was “colorless and insipid.” He also mentioned that the lyrics included “atrocious doggerel,” but since that was the point of the dialogue, it is hard to tell whether this is a criticism or not. One senses that local interest in aestheticism, even in parody form, was cooling, It would cool further as Wilde went from international celebrity to international scandal.

When Wilde died, young and disgraced, in 1900, The World-Herald took the opportunity to take a potshot that strikes me as undeserved, based on Wilde’s gentlemanliness and genuine interest in our city. Discussing his visit, the paper wrote: “It was at a time when ‘aestheticism’ was at the full bloom of its glory and when Wilde, handsome, boyish, with his weakly sweet baby face, his mannerisms and affectations in dress, was at once the chiefest apostle of the cult and the adoration of scores of silly women.”

And with that, in Omaha, the flapdoodles and the nincompoops had their day.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.