SPIES IN THE HOUSE OF QUALITY The American reception of Brideshead Revisited
Oscar Wilde's lecture tour of North America, from 9 January to 13 October 1882, was a pre-electronic prototype for the 'Great Performances'/'Masterpiece Theatre' import. It was, as The New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor said of the later series, 'a uniquely American creation, a [cultural] package'. 1 With his advance publicity criss-crossing the country faster than he could, Wilde was, given the limitations of the day, simulcast to the nation - or at least to thirty-one states and the district of Columbia, along with five Canadian provinces. On tour, swathed in a seal-or otter-trimmed aesthete's coat, a shirt with a Lord Byron collar and small patent-leather shoes, the former Oxonian and Anglicized Irishman disparaged the English and railed against 'that calendar of infamy, English history'.2 Even so, he embodied for shocked and titillated North Americans the romanticized essence of an ephebic culture within a traditional civilization, which they coveted. Wilde represented the best of both worlds for American audiences: a tradition of quality and a history of decline, cohabiting in the form of residual eccentrism. Homosexual aesthete and involuntary wanderer, Wilde ended his days in France under the pseudonym 'Sebastian Melmoth', a forerunner of, although not a named model for, 'Sebastian Flyte', the outsiderlinsider anti-hero of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited.