In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” the young Oscar Wilde was a model for Bunthorne, the mannered aesthete who minced down London’s Piccadilly road flourishing a poppy or perhaps a lily. With “Patience” a growing hit in America, its producer Richard D’Oyly Carte had the promotional notion of sending over Wilde himself to parade his extravagant manners, costumes, and sallies. Something like, I suppose, road-touring an outsize gorilla to promote “King Kong.’’ Indeed The Washington Post, one among the virtually unanimous number of newspapers to mock him, likened him to the Wild Man of Borneo.
And yet in many of the 140 cities and towns where he spoke, through an incredibly grueling year chronicled by Roy Morris Jr. in “Declaring His Genius,” he drew big audiences. These tended to leave disappointed with the windy substance of his lectures — the need for Beauty — and still more their monotonous delivery. At Harvard and in several other university towns students attempted to upstage him by parading up the aisle dressed to imitate his flamboyance and waving flowers; Wilde took it all in good humor. His comic genius, after all, was for writing and spontaneous retorts carefully prepared in advance, not extended speech. Yet everywhere the socially and financially prominent entertained him lavishly as their imported celebrity and social lion.