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Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. First performed at the Opera Comique, London, on April 23, 1881, it moved to the 1292-seat Savoy Theatre on October 10, 1881, where it was the first theatrical production in the world to be lit entirely by electric light. Henceforth, the G&S comic operas would be known as the Savoy Operas, and both fans and performers of G&S would come to be known as "Savoyards." This was the sixth operatic collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan.
The opera is a satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870's and '80s in England, when the output of poets, composers, painters and designers of all kinds was indeed prolific—but, some argued, empty and self-indulgent. This artistic movement was so popular, and also so easy to ridicule as a meaningless fad, that it made Patience a big hit. The topical nature of the story may make Patience somewhat less accessible to some modern audiences, and G&S fans tend to have strong feelings one way or the other about Patience. Modern productions have sometimes "updated" the setting of Patience to an analogous era, such as a hippie poet versus a beat poet.
A popular myth holds that the central character, Bunthorne, a "Fleshly Poet," was intended to satirize Oscar Wilde. However, this identification is retrospective: In fact, the authors hired Wilde, after the fact, to popularize the opera in America (see below). There is a good case to be made that Bunthorne is based on the poets Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who were considerably more famous than Wilde in 1881. Rossetti had been attacked for immorality by Robert Buchanan (under the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland) in an article called "The Fleshly School of Poetry", published in the Contemporary Review for October, 1871. The makeup and costume adopted by the first Bunthorne, George Grossmith, used the velvet jacket of Swinburne, the hair style and monocle of the painter James McNeill Whistler, and knee-breeches similar to those worn by Wilde and others.
Gilbert and Sullivan's partner, the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, was also the booking manager for Oscar Wilde. It was he who sent Wilde and his green carnation and knee-breeches to enlighten Americans on the English Aesthetic Movement and, incidentally, to build up the box office for Patience. Wilde even agreed to attend one of the early performances of Patience, with suitable publicity arranged by Helen Lenoir, who would become the second Mrs. D'Oyly Carte.
Gilbert originally conceived Patience as a tale of rivalry between two curates and of the doting ladies who attended upon them. The plot and even some of the dialogue was lifted straight out of Gilbert's Bab Ballad "The Rival Curates." During the course of writing the libretto, however, Gilbert took note of the criticism he had received for his very mild satirizing of a clergyman in The Sorcerer, and looked about for an alternate pair of rivals. The aesthetes proved to be a gift to topsy-turvydom.
Some remnants of the Bab Ballad version do survive in the final text of Patience. Bunthorne sings to Grosvenor, "Your style is much too sanctified—your cut is too canonical!" Later, Grosvenor agrees to change his lifestyle by saying, "I do it on compulsion!"—the very words used by the Reverend Hopley Porter in the Bab Ballad.
In front of Castle Bunthorne, a group of "lovesick maidens" are all in love with the aesthetic poet Bunthorne ("Twenty lovesick maidens we"). Lady Jane, the oldest and plainest of the ladies, informs them that Bunthorne, far from returning their affections, has his heart set on the simple, unpretentious milkmaid Patience. Patience herself appears, and, when asked about Bunthorne, confesses that she has never loved him – or anyone else – and is thankful that love has not turned her miserable as it has them ("I cannot tell what this love may be"). Soon, the ladies' old sweethearts, the Dragoon Guards, appear ("The soldiers of our Queen"), only to be coldly rebuffed and mocked by the poetically-obsessed ladies. In contrast, when the poet Bunthorne arrives, announcing himself to be in the throes of poetical composition, he ignores the attention as the ladies throng around him ("In a doleful train") while the Dragoons stand to the side in shock ("When I first put this uniform on").
When Bunthorne is finally left alone, he confesses that his aestheticism is a complete sham, and mocks the field's pretensions ("If you're anxious for to shine"). Soon, Patience approaches and he confesses his love to her, yet she turns him down even after he reveals that he is a fraud. Later, Lady Angela, one of Bunthorne's lovelorn admirers, discusses Patience's inability to love since a childhood crush ("Long years ago"). Lady Angela rhapsodizes upon love as the one truly unselfish pursuit in the world. Impressed by this eloquence, Patience promises to fall in love at the earliest opportunity.
Said opportunity is provided by one Archibald Grosvenor, another aesthete who turns out to be Patience's childhood love. The two declare themselves determined to love one another ("Prithee, pretty maiden"), but are brought up short by the realization that as Grosvenor is perfect in all aspects, for Patience to love him would be a selfish act, and therefore impossible; thus, they must part. Patience goes forth, only to encounter Bunthorne in the act of raffling himself off among his lady followers ("Let the merry cymbal sound"), and proposes to unselfishly sacrifice herself by loving him. A delighted Bunthorne accepts immediately, and his followers, their idol lost, return to the Dragoons to whom they are engaged. All seems resolved, when Grosvenor enters and the ladies, finding him even more aesthetic than Bunthorne, become his partisans instead ("Oh, list while we a love confess"), much to Bunthorne's and Grosvenor's dismay.
Grosvenor entertains the ladies ("A magnet hung in a hardware shop"), while the Dragoons' Major, Colonel, and Duke attempt to earn their partners' love through aestheticism ("It's clear that mediaeval art"). Patience confesses her affection for Grosvenor to Bunthorne, who is naturally furious at the revelation. Confronting Grosvenor, Bunthorne threatens him with a dire curse unless he undertakes to become a perfectly ordinary young man. Grosvenor, intimidated, agrees to do so. This plot backfires, however, when Grosvenor reappears as an ordinary man; all of the ladies follow him into ordinariness, becoming "matter-of-fact young girls." Patience realizes that Grosvenor has lost his perfection in her eyes – and therefore, it's completely unselfish for her to marry him, which she undertakes to do without delay. The ladies, following suit, return to their old boyfriends among the Dragoons. In the spirit of fairness, the Duke chooses Lady Jane as his paramour, for her very lack of appeal. Bunthorne is left to the love he has claimed (falsely) to desire most of all: poetry and flowers.
1 This was originally followed by a song for the Duke, "Though men of rank may useless seem." The orchestration survives in Sullivan's autograph score, but without a vocal line. There have been several attempts at a reconstruction, including one by David Russell Hulme that was included on the 1994 New D'Oyly Carte Opera Company recording.
The original run of Patience in London, split across two theatres, was the third-longest of the Gilbert and Sullivan series, eclipsed only by H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado. Its first London revival was in 1900, making it the last of the revivals for which all three partners (Gilbert, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte) were alive. Gilbert admitted some doubts as to whether the æsthetic subject would still be appreciated, years after the fad had died out. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan after the premiere of this revival (which the composer was too ill to attend), "The old opera woke up splendidly." (Allen 1975, p. 461).
In the British provinces, Patience played — either by itself, or in repertory — continuously from summer 1880 through 1885, then again in 1888. It rejoined the touring repertory in 1892 and was included in every season until 1955–56. A new production debuted on January 28, 1957. The opera returned to its regular place in the repertory, aside from a break in 1962–63. Late in the company's history, it toured a reduced set of operas to reduce costs. Patience had its final D'Oyly Carte performances in April 1979 and was left out of the company's last three seasons of touring.
In America, Richard D'Oyly Carte mounted a production at the Standard Theatre in September 1881, six months after the London premiere. Unlike H.M.S. Pinafore, there were no "pirated" productions before the official version opened, although there were several afterwards.
Patience entered the repertory of the English National Opera in 1969, in an acclaimed production with Derek Hammond-Stroud as Bunthorne. The production was later mounted in Australia and was preserved on video as part of the Brent Walker series. In 1984, ENO also took the production on tour to the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York City.
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
The following tables show the casts of the principal original productions and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company touring repertory at various times through to the company's 1982 closure: