A Brief Introduction
Anton Kirchhofer


This is the first edition ever to be published of F. C. Burnand’s The Colonel. It offers an annotated reading text, along with an initial set of materials relating to the public presence of the play, bringing together evidence of when and where it was performed or discussed, and including transcripts of playbills and reviews. While the collection of materials is far from exhaustive at this point, and a final stage of checking the accuracy of the text lies still ahead, what is offered at present is nevertheless the first comprehensive presentation of a text which has so far been limited to a very brief mention in studies of aestheticism.

The play was first produced on February 2, 1881, and its initial run at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre lasted for 550 performances. Simultaneously, a second company was touring the ‘provinces’. On October 4, 1881, The Colonel became the first play in twenty years (in fact, since the death of Prince Albert in 1861) to receive a Command Performance before Queen Victoria. The theatre’s manager, Edgar Bruce, transferred it to the Imperial Theatre in 1883 and the new Prince’s Theatre in 1884. In July 1887, there was a revival at the Comedy Theatre.

Like many English theatrical entertainments in the nineteenth century, the play is based on a French model: Jean François Bayard’s Le mari à la campagne, first produced in 1844, and adapted for the English stage in 1849 by Morris Barnett as The Serious Family (there was also a German version, Er muß auf’s Land, 1846). These comedies are based on a Tartuffe-type plot about a well-situated family infiltrated by a religious impostor who threatens to gain control over the family and its fortune and is thwarted by the intervention of an old friend who comes to the rescue: by a naval officer in the French original; by an Irish army captain in The Serious Family; and by the American colonel after whom the play is named in the later adaptation. In all versions, a young husband uses the pretence of going “to the country” — hence the title of Bayard’s play — as a means of escaping his oppressive domestic circumstances. In all versions, too, the family friend restores the husband’s supremacy in his home by pointing out to the misguided wife the dangers inherent in suppressing innocent and fashionable pleasures in the name of an exaggerated devotion.

Burnand’s most important modification to this plot consists in substituting aesthetic impostors for the religious hypocrites of the earlier versions. In his Records and Reminiscences (1904, ii.151–166), he himself recounts the genesis of the play in a mode that mixes triumph and apology: how Sir Squire Bancroft, manager of the Haymarket, brought him the existing versions and asked him to “bring the piece ‘up to date’” (152); how it struck him that it was “only a matter of transferring the humbugs of an earlier period of the Victorian era to a later” (152); how Bancroft decided not to stage the play, giving Burnand, as he insists, “free permission ... to do what [he] liked with it” (154); how a mutual friend, as it were inadvertently, ‘leaked’ the information that Gilbert and Sullivan were working on and “æsthetic subject” (165) and it became a question of timing to prevent The Colonel from seeming merely a weak imitation of what would undoubtedly be a more distinguished achievement; how Edgar Bruce accepted the play and how revisions were made up to the last minute; and how The Colonel came out just in time to be “firmly established ... before Gilbert’s delightfully absurd Patience with Sullivan’s sparkling music took the town” (166). (Patience opened on April 23, 1881.)

Burnand certainly was an obvious choice for a theatrical manager in need of a playwright who could skilfully adapt a plot of proven popularity to the popular taste of the moment. Who’s Who in the Theatre, a few years before his death, describes him as “one of the most prolific dramatic authors and burlesque writers ever known, nearly 200 works standing to his credit, many of which secured extraordinary success” (2nd ed., London: Pitman, 1914, p. 84). The ‘aesthetic craze,’ on the other hand, was an obvious target for Burnand who had not only been a regular contributor to Punch since 1863, but had become its editor in 1880 (a position he held until 1906). The Observer noted that The Colonel came at a point when it “might, indeed, have been thought that Punch had well nigh played the subject out” (Observer, Feb 6, 1881, Supplement, p. 1). Indeed, The Colonel reproduces not only Punch’s characteristic championing of a determined and self-sufficient Philistinism, but draws on material that would already have been familiar to readers of that comic weekly. One of these is the cartoon “An Aesthetic Midday Meal,” (Punch, 79 [July 17, 1880]) which is evoked in the claim that “intense” persons “can find nourishment in contemplating a dew-drop or a rose-leaf” or in “gazing on a lily in a glass of water” (p. 4). The dialogue about the implications of “living up to” an old and cracked teapot (cf. pp. 36–37) is evidently inspired by Du Maurier’s “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” (Punch 79 [October 30, 1880]). And although he is quite a different character from Burnand’s Colonel Woodd, “The Colonel” was a recurring figure used in Punch to debunk the ignorance and self-importance of aesthetic affectation (cf., e.g., Punch 78 [March 13, 1880]: “Distinguished Amateurs.—2. The Art-Critic”).

Punch in turn contributed at least occasionally to bringing The Colonel to public notice. On February 19, 1881, it devoted a full page of plot-summary, praise and illustrations to the play (“The Colonel in a Nut-Shell,” Punch 80 [Feb 19, 1881], 81; The Colonel also figures together with Patience in the “Design for an Ęsthetic Theatrical Poster” by E. L. S., Punch 80 [May 7, 1881]). Retrospectively, its best-known reference to the play is undoubtedly the review of Oscar Wilde’s Poems, which describes Wilde as treading in the footsteps of the aesthetic impostor:

MR. LAMBERT STREYKE, in The Colonel, published a book of poems for the benefit of his followers, and his own — and Mr. OSCAR WILDE has followed his example. (“Swinburne and Water,” Punch 81 [July 23, 1881], 26.)

Wilde himself barely mentioned either Burnand or The Colonel. He did, however, in a letter to actor George Grossmith written in April 1881, call it a “dull farce,” adding that he expected “something better” from Gilbert and Sullivan (Complete Letters, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, New York: Henry Holt, 2000, 109]). As appears from the memoirs quoted above, Burnand himself was aware that The Colonel was likely to be eclipsed by Patience. Literary scholarship has generally grouped the two pieces together in a similar constellation, discussing – and quoting from – Patience while dismissing The Colonel with little more than a bare mention.

And it is true that there are aspects of The Colonel which would seem to bear out Wilde’s characterization of the play as a “dull farce”. Even allowing for the possibility that not all of the doubtful jokes contained in the manuscript were retained in performance (and the Observer [Feb 6, 1881] suggests cuts in the first act while the Illustrated London News [March 26, 1881] ’quotes’ lines which are not to be found in the licensing copy), one has a sense that many of the numerous puns are obviously set up purely for their own sake: “... my presumption is that you are still a bachelor,” asks Lambert Streyke, without much motivation except to give the Colonel a chance of presenting information that will become important later; and he does, as soon as he has made his repartee: “You presump right,” (p.11;). There is, too, a large dose of conventional class-conscious “humour,” as for example when the late alderman Sir John Tompkins’s putative difficulties with ‘h’-sounds are repeatedly laughed at (he “had no society aspirations,” says Forrester; “And no society aspirates”, replies the Colonel, and later, in talking about Art, gives it as his opinion that Sir John would “have called it Hart”, p. 9). Above all, there is the dynamic of the action itself, with its drive towards the triumphant restoration of patriarchal harmony (or, in its own terms: “Liberty”), achieved by way of the expulsion of the severe and effeminate Aesthetic male characters, and the conversion of the misguided Aesthetic female characters to a proper sense of consulting a “husband’s tastes before everybody else’s” (p. 54).

For all that, The Colonel does make interesting reading, especially alongside The Importance of Being Earnest. Forrester’s pretended fishing excursions into the country definitely qualify him as a Bunburyist. His declaration that he is “Forrester at home; Fisher in the country” (p. 29) cannot but remind a retrospective reader of Jack Worthing’s announcement that his “name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country”. The play makes much of Forrester’s continued need for equivocation with respect to the precise nature of his ‘country existence’ (cf. esp. pp. 24ff), although it rarely becomes as equivocal as in Mrs. Blyth’s observation that “A bachelor can console himself in the country” (p. 25). There is a passing reference to the adoption of new names and to their suggestive power, too: Lambert Streyke has renamed his sister Betsy Gwendoline, on the grounds that “Betsy is not æsthetic. Gwendoline is” (p. 44). While Gwendolen, in Earnest, is “devoted to bread and butter,” Mrs. Blyth confesses to possessing “a regular schoolgirl’s appetite for bread-and-butter” and describes herself as “a bread-and-butter missis” (p. 38). The male characters’ passion for eating is hardly less marked than Algernon’s – both for Forrester and Streyke the desire for exquisite food is a major incentive to a double life. And Streyke’s final exposure over an unpaid restaurant bill contrasts neatly with the ‘Gribsby episode’ in Earnest which was cut only in the final stages of revision (when Wilde was asked to reduce his play from four to three acts) and in which ‘Ernest’ is nearly arrested for his debts over extravagant suppers: In Wilde’s version, the threat of exposure is not only averted but leads to a temporary confirmation both of Jack’s claim to have a profligate brother named Ernest, and of Algernon’s claim to be that brother.

Any ‘echoes,’ in fact, that one may perceive between The Colonel and The Importance of Being Earnest are subject to similar reappropriations and reversals. If the relation between Oscar Wilde’s plays and the contemporary popular stage was marked, as Kerry Powell has put it, by “a revenge upon his sources,” (Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge: CUP, 1990), then F. C. Burnand’s The Colonel may be in for rediscovery as a ‘source’ on which Wilde had very good reasons to be ‘revenged.’

© Anton Kirchhofer (May–June 2004)

Since this edition went online, it has been expanded thanks to additional material supplied by Anne Anderson: she contributes an essay on the Settings and Costumes accompanied by a contemporary illustration of the opening scene, and has added more critical voices to the ‘Criticism’ section.

A.K., July 2004