Wilde's greatest works "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" were a dozen years in the future, but he had published a book of poems and was all the rage in London as founder of the Aesthetic Movement. In Atlanta he would play the opera house built by Laurent DeGive, pronounced "De-jeeve." Edwin, the brother of John Wilkes Booth played the house in February and warmed the stage for Wilde's summer engagement.
Wilde's celebrity had been magnified a thousand-fold by Gilbert & Sullivan whose latest London hit "Patience" included a character named Bunthorne, a thinly disguised (and much thinner) Oscar Wilde.
Rather than take umbrage he took advantage, and soon after "Patience" opened in Manhattan in September 1881, Oscar Wilde sailed to America to play a lucrative year of one night lecture stands, presented by Richard D'oyly Carte, agent to G&S as well as the twenty-seven year-old Aesthete, shown below in a portrait taken in New York. "His appearance was striking indeed," reported the Atlanta Constitution, "so odd he appeared."
Right prior to playing Atlanta, Wilde had stayed overnight at the Biloxi residence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whom he greatly admired. Wilde told the Constitution reporter that "We in Ireland are fighting for the principal of autonomy against empire, for independence against centralization, for the principals for which the South fought."
President Davis "did not like" Wilde and retired to bed, but Mrs. Davis did, and she sketched him while they chatted past midnight.
Wilde arrived in Atlanta where everything was new and built upon the ashes left by Sherman when he had burned the city to the ground twenty years before. Wilde traveled with a valet and a private secretary, and an advance man proceeded them.
Wilde was presented by the Atlanta Young Men's Library Association as a fundraiser toward the goal of building a public library, which they eventually did with the underwriting of Andrew Carnegie. Wilde chose to stay the night at the Markham House (center) across from Union Station (right).
The "Young Men" were dubious, but the Constitution reported that "the lecture was an agreeable surprise" probably because Wilde told the audience at the DeGive Opera House (below) that "You have the two perfect essentials for a cultivation of high art: beautiful flowers and beautiful women."
On the portico of one Southern Belle, Wilde remarked "How beautiful is the moonlight falling on the water." "It is beautiful indeed," she replied, "but oh, Mr. Wilde, you should have seen it before the War." No shrine commemorates Oscar Wilde's visit to Dixie, but he is not forgotten in Dublin, with tongue in cheek.
To see and hear an excellent comic number from "Patience" (featuring Bunthorne) click here.
Hudson Strode, "Jefferson Davis"(Volume III)
E. H. Mikhail, "Oscar Wilde"
Roy Morris, Jr., "Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in America"
John Cooper, Oscar Wilde in America.org
Steve Goodson, "Highbrows, Hillbillies and Hellfire: Public Entertainment in Atlanta 1880-1930"
The Atlanta Historical Society, Helen Matthews
Title illustration from "Atlanta: The Pinnacle City" 1930