Oscar Wilde in Amherst

History for the Curious with John G. McKay

Published on March 7, 2014

In early October 1882, on his arrival from Boston, Oscar Wilde, the British wit, poet, playwright and raconteur, was asked by a Halifax Morning Chronicle reporter whether it was true that he had discovered the Jersey Lily—Lillie Langtry, the British actress and acknowledged beauty.

“I would rather have discovered Mrs. Langtry than have discovered America,” Wilde replied.

In fact, Wilde was in the process of discovering America for himself, having arrived in New York on January 2 to begin a lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada.

His arrival in Halifax marked his second visit to Canada during the tour; the first performance taking him to Montreal in May, then on to Ottawa before returning to the U.S. to lecture in the south.

Wilde’s second trip to Canada, via Halifax, included a lecture at the Academy of Music, in that city, as well as engagements in Amherst and Moncton. The Moncton booking had caused something of an altercation between the Y.M.C.A., where Wilde was booked for a fee of $75.00 (£15), and another organization that Wilde’s manager had inadvertently booked him for the same night, at a higher fee.

The result was that the Y.M.C.A. issued a writ claiming $200.00 against Wilde for breech of contract. An undisclosed settlement was reached, although the newspapers were abuzz with comment and criticism—generally against the Y.M.C.A.

It isn’t known precisely the date when Wilde lectured in Amherst, except that he was due back in New York in the latter week of October to welcome Lillie Langtry, whom he adored, on her arrival from Britain.

At that time, unlike now, Amherst had several sites where an audience might be assembled to hear Oscar Wilde wax eloquently upon the arts and highbrow gossip in his inimitable witty manner. The Music Hall, upstairs on the corner of Victoria Street and Maple Avenue; the Empire-style theatre, behind the Baptist Church; the Y.M.C.A., above the Bank of Nova Scotia; and another hall on Station Street, were all capable of accommodating a significant audience out of a population of less than 3,000 people.

In those years, entertainment outside the home was largely stage entertainment provided by travelling companies of dramatic players, musicians, lecturers and some local talent. At that time for a town and district consisting mainly of farmers, labourers, and an upper crust that rarely travelled beyond the community, it would be unheard of to allow such roving talents as Wilde and other contemporary entertainers to by-pass the town because there was no stage or auditorium to accommodate them.