Wilde’s Final Farewell Lecture in New York

by Robert Marland and John Cooper (The Wildean, January 2013)

IN the autumn of 1882 Oscar Wilde embarked upon the final phase of his American lecture tour. For ten months he had preached the gospel of aestheticism across the length and breadth of the continent, but, with audiences dwindling and media interest at its lowest ebb, it was in New Brunswick, Canada, that the tour drew to a close. On 12 October Wilde arrived in Moncton, a railway town in the southeast of the province. There a writ was issued that resulted in his arrest when members of the local YMCA branch asserted that he had broken a contract to lecture.[1] The next day Wilde travelled on to St. John, where he appeared before a small but sympathetic audience at the Mechanics’ Institute.[2] All four published itineraries of Wilde’s American lecture tour record that this performance was his last.[3] New evidence, however, reveals that Wilde lectured at least once more before he left North America.

After returning to New York in mid-October, Wilde spent his time negotiating terms for the production of his plays, chaperoning Lillie Langtry about town, and dining at Delmonico’s. On 23 November it was reported that he had visited the Contest of Beauty at Bunnel’s Museum but did not vote for any of the women since there was ‘nobody entered in the contest who looks particularly like a Greek gem’.[4] There seemed to be no indication that the Apostle of Aestheticism wished to return to the stage. Yet, some time before 20 November, he agreed to make another appearance. On that date the New York Sun announced that Wilde would lecture on Decorative Art in New York on the 27th.[5] Perhaps unexpectedly, given his treatment at the hands of their Canadian peers, Wilde would give this lecture under the auspices of the YMCA.

On the 27th the Sun reminded its readers of that evening’s lecture,[6] and an advertisement in the Daily Graphic advised interested parties to obtain tickets from the YMCA’s representative, one G. H. Hallett of 1531 Third Avenue.[7] On the same day, the Tribune ran what is believed to be Wilde’s last formal interview of the tour.[8] Wilde was asked whether he had any plans to continue lecturing and gave the impression that ‘although he may occasionally appear upon the platform again in this country, he does not contemplate giving any further serious attention to the lecture business for the benefit and aesthetic enlightenment of Americans’. It is probable that this interview was given during the week preceding its publication, and so Wilde must have known when he met with the reporter that he had agreed to speak on the following Monday. Surely by advertising this to the readers of the Tribune, he would ensure a healthy turnout. Yet the interview makes no mention of the lecture, instead focussing on Wilde’s less concrete plans such as the production of Vera and his proposed trip to Australia.

There are several reasons why Wilde may have failed to broach the subject of the lecture. He complained that he was suffering from severe nervous prostration and spoke of being attended by four doctors, so possibly work was not on his mind. However, one might expect Wilde to have been reminded of his imminent engagement when he was asked directly about lecturing. It seems more likely, then, that his omission was intentional. Perhaps, aware that his legal entanglements in New Brunswick had been covered by the New York newspapers, he considered it imprudent to publicise another encounter with the YMCA. Alternatively, he may have thought that a lecture for that organisation did not require advertisement: its membership constituted a readymade audience. Or perhaps he felt that this lecture was not a fitting conclusion to his American lecturing career. He had triumphantly taken his leave of the New York stage some months previously at the brand new Wallack’s Theatre on Broadway, making an appearance that was widely advertised as his ‘farewell lecture’.[9] There he gave a crowd-pleasing review of the deficiencies in American art that he had observed on his travels, a performance that was punctuated with applause and culminated in a young lady tossing a bouquet of flowers at his feet.[10] A lecture for the YMCA was unlikely to offer a flattering contrast.

Parepa Hall, where Wilde gave his final lecture, was a mixed use building at E. 86th Street and Third Avenue in the Yorkville district of Manhattan. It was here that the Yorkville YMCA (often referred to in contemporary sources as the Central branch) held their meetings. Reports of the lecture appeared in the New York Sun, Herald and Tribune the following day.[11] Wilde spoke for an hour and, as had become customary towards the end of the tour, without notes. Once more he denounced the double-breasted bronze waistcoats of American statues and defined history as the criminal record of Europe. He had previously lauded the South Kensington Museum’s policy of opening late on Saturdays; perhaps smarting from a thwarted attempt to visit one of New York’s galleries the preceding day, he now argued for the benefit of the Yorkville audience that ‘art museums and galleries should be opened on Sunday’, a recommendation unlikely to have met with approval from the predominantly Christian audience. A reporter who was present that evening remembered both the lecture’s content and the lecturer’s ‘black velvet coat with a profuse ruffle’ from the first farewell at Wallack’s. Six months having passed since that event, these remarks perhaps speak as much to the appeal of the lecture as to the journalist’s powers of recall.

Wilde had complained of wearing his voice and body to death over wretched houses, and, although he had addressed larger rooms, Parepa Hall was certainly not wretched. It housed the six to seven hundred strong congregation of the Park Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church when, from January 1883, its members awaited the completion of their new chapel. The audience that greeted Wilde in November may have neared this size, since the Tribune’s man described it as large. The reporter from the Herald noted, however, that Wilde spoke ‘at the rooms of the branch in Parepa Hall’, which suggests that the lecture was not held in the main hall but in a smaller meeting room. Attendees were ‘placid’ as they awaited their lecturer but ‘made a good deal of noise before he appeared’. It was not Wilde’s best reception, but it was far from his worst. Indeed, this final lecture could be seen as a microcosm of the American tour: it was given in a mixed-use hall before a mid-sized audience of the converted and the curious—who responded politely to a speech made familiar by newspaper reports—delivered by a man dressed ostentatiously in a velvet tunic, knee breeches and silk stockings. It was probably the last time that Wilde would don his aesthetic costume.[12]

It is worth considering why Wilde returned to the lecture stage after an absence of six weeks. Despite contemporary reports that by its close his tour had netted as much as $200,000,[13] Wilde’s earnings after expenses were less than 5% of that figure; still a substantial sum but not enough to sustain him indefinitely. The offer of easy money for an hour’s work—money which, depending on his arrangements, he may not have been obliged to share with his management—might have proved too attractive to decline.[14] It is also conceivable that Wilde missed lecturing. When he felt his lectures were mismanaged or his audiences unreceptive, he complained bitterly, but he was ecstatic when the tour was going well. This was the longest Wilde had gone without addressing a room of paying customers in almost a year, and it may have been his desire for adulation that persuaded him to give one more lecture: a final farewell to New York.

  1. ‘Oscar Wilde a Prisoner’, New York Times, 14 October 1882.
  2. Kevin O’Brien, Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts, (Toronto: Personal Library 1982), p. 125.
  3. We are aware of four published itineraries of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In chronological order: Edward H. Mikhail, ed., Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1, (London: Macmillan 1979), pp. 252-255; Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, (London: Hamish Hamilton 1987), pp. 178-181; Norman Page, An Oscar Wilde Chronology, (Houndmills: Macmillan 1991), pp. 18-24; Karl E. Beckson, ed., The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia, (New York: AMS Press 1998), pp. 189-191. We invite readers to contact John Cooper with information corroborating any of Wilde’s American lectures so that it might inform a new itinerary of the American tour at www.oscarwildeinamerica.org.
  4. ‘Oscar Wilde Sees the Beauties’, New York Sun, 23 November 1882, p. 3, col B.
  5. ‘Hours of Leisure’, New York Sun, 20 November 1882, p. 3, col C.
  6. ‘Hours of Leisure’, New York Sun, 27 November 1882, p. 3, col C.
  7. ‘Oscar Wilde at Parepa Hall’, New York Daily Graphic, 27 November 1882.
  8. ‘Oscar Wilde Thoroughly Exhausted’, New York Tribune, 27 November 1882, p. 3, col B. Reprinted in Matthew Hofer & Gary Scharnhorst, Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2010), pp. 172-173.
  9. ‘Amusements’, New York Times, 8 May 1882.
  10. ‘Oscar Wilde’s American Notes’, New York Sun, 12 May 1882, p. 1, col C.
  11. ‘Oscar Wilde in Yorkville’, New York Tribune, 28 November 1882, p. 5, col D; ‘Mr. Oscar Wilde in Yorkville’, New York Sun, 28 November 1882, p. 1, col F; ‘Untitled’, New York Herald, 28 November 1882, p. 5, col B.
  12. H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde. (London: Eyre Methuen 1976), p. 81.
  13. ‘Untitled’, Washington National Tribune, 23 November 1882, p. 4, col A.
  14. Looking for information on Wilde’s contract with the Yorkville/Central branch, and about his fee/receipts, we contacted Louise Merriam of the University of Minnesota’s Kautz Family YMCA Archives. Unfortunately, she found no references to Wilde in either the records of New York lectures during the 1880s, or the records of the Yorkville branch. We express our gratitude to Ms. Merriam for her efforts on our behalf.