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What is Patience?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride is an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Sir William Schwenck Gilbert wrote the libretto, and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed the music. Patience was their sixth operetta together, following The Pirates of Penzance.

Paitence premiered in London at the Opéra Comique, Richard D’Oyly Carte’s theater, on 23 April 1881. Unusually, Patience had a second opening on 10 October 1881, this because it moved to the just-finished Savoy Theatre. But the second opening took a backseat to theater accoutrements: the theater was the first to be equipped with electric lights, which created great excitement.

The opera is a study in contrasts. Two aesthetic poets with contrasting outlooks woo a milkmaid named Patience. A group of dragoons tries to win back their lady loves from their attachment to one of the poets. And, as is often the case in Gilbert’s work, there is an older woman, Lady Jane, who is set as a foil for the youth and beauty of the other women in the production.

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In Act I of Patience, Bunthorne addresses the twenty love-sick maidens who have abandoned their love of dragoons to follow him, in a burlesque of aesthetic doctrine. We discover that Bunthorne is in love with Patience, who has no knowledge of nor interest in love. Unbeknown to the ladies, the dragoons, or Patience, Bunthorne is a sham, pretending to be an aesthete in order to get attention. When Grosvenor, another poet and a childhood friend of Patience, appears on the scene, he and Patience renew their acquaintance and discover that they are in love, but according to aesthetic doctrine, as Patience understands it, it would be too selfish of her to love someone as perfect as Grosvenor, so she must resign herself to loving Bunthorne, which is painful, and therefore proper love.

In Act II, with Bunthorne now spoken for, all the maidens fall in love with Grosvenor, who has no interest in their attentions. Bunthorne’s jealousy knows no bounds, and he essentially calls Grosvenor out and threatens to curse him. Grosvenor is happy to have the excuse of compulsion to give up the aesthetic stance. Since Bunthorne is happy, and therefore less unpleasant, and since Grosvenor is now plain and everyday, and therefore not perfect, Patience’s conscience allows her to give up Bunthorne and marry Grosvenor. The maidens return to the dragoons, and—contrary to the expectations set by the title—the ending of the opera is that nobody shall “be Bunthorne’s bride.”

One of Gilbert’s abilities was to transform his own works from one medium to another. This is true of the operas that were based on material that he had first published in his Bab’s Ballads, including Patience, which Gilbert realized out of “The Rival Curates.” Having changed the rivals to poets, Gilbert used them to parody the contemporary cultural phenomenon of aestheticism, which had great influence in the arts. In fact, Bunthorne, one of the two poets, has often been taken as a caricature of the aesthete Oscar Wilde, though some think Bunthorne is more likely a composite figure.

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