The 1831 Summer Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

In the summer of 1831, the English Opera Company, under the management of Samuel J. Arnold, occupied the Adelphi theatre for its second season due to "circumstances still preventing Mr. Arnold from having a theatre of his own" (Athenaeum, 16 July 1831, p. 460). During its residency, which began on 4 July 1831, the company presented 23 plays in a total of 75 performances. They included primarily operettas, operatic farces, and burlesques. Commenting on this fact, the Theatrical Observer said: "We understand that it is the intention of Mr. Arnold to confine the performances this year as much as possible to melodrames, vaudevilles, and ballad operas. We think him quite right. The capabilities of the house are not sufficient for the performance of legitimate opera, and it is, therefore, far better not to attempt it" (6 July 1831).

The play which opened the season, The Feudal Lady, gained a negative reaction from the critics. The critic for the Theatrical Observer wrote on 6 July 1831, "It is quite out of our power to say one word in its favor." The play ran only four nights. The managers replaced it with an equally unsatisfying piece, The Irish Girl. Declared "utterly devoid of all merit as to composition or plot" by the Theatrical Observer (12 July 1831), it closed after six performances. The management then premiered The Haunted Hulk by Edward Fitzball on July 12. This heavy schedule had apparently begun to take a toll on the actors because the Theatrical Observer's reviewer wrote that "none of the actors were perfect in their parts" (13 July 1831). He indicated that "the failure of The Feudal Lady had caused this drama to be brought out prematurely; which, by the way, was bad policy." It appears that only John Poole's Old and Young pulled the company out of its early-season doldrums. It proved a success and ran 31 performances.

The most popular production of the summer was Richard B. Peake's The Evil Eye, which opened on 18 August 1831, and ran for 36 performances. The Theatrical Observer critic praised this musical romance for its "pointed dialogue, highly dramatic situations, picturesque scenery, good music, and excellent acting" (19 August 1831), declaring that "we know no author of the present day who invariably shows so much tact in arranging the stage-business, or who possesses so correct a knowledge of dramatic effect, as Mr. Peake" (20 August 1831). The same critic noted that the English Opera House "was but indifferently attended in the early part of the season; but ... from the moment [Evil Eye] was upon the stage, the theatre began to look up" (1 October 1831).

A notably unsuccessful offering was an entertainment called Harmony Hall, presented on 9 September 1831, the day after the coronation of William IV. Described as "a loyal effusion to commemorate the coronation of Their Gracious Majesties," the play struck the critic for the Theatrical Observer as "a most trashy affair" (10 September 1831). It was withdrawn after a second performance which reportedly "converted the theatre into the temple of discord, nothing but hootings and yellings of 'Off! Off!' being heard during its progress" (Theatrical Observer, 12 September 1831).

The English Opera Company boasted several major players during the summer of 1831. Fanny Kelly played several soubrette roles, and John Reeve remained at the Adelphi to take on the principal comic male roles. O. Smith also joined the company that summer, as did Mary Ann Keeley, Harriet Cawse, and Frank Matthews. Reeve received the title of "first comic actor of the day" from the Theatrical Observer (6 July 1831), despite the fact that he frequently did not know his lines on opening nights. The Theatrical Observer credited Miss Kelly with saving several weak scripts from total failure, noting that "never did that highly gifted actress perform better, or exert a more powerful control over the feelings of her audience" than in Sister of Charity (22 July 1831).

As the season ended on 28 September 1831, the Theatrical Observer noted that it had "proved a profitable one, which is mainly to be attributed to the very great attraction of ... The Evil Eye" (29 September 1831). Mr. George Bartley, the company's stage manager, spoke for the management at the end of the final performance, announcing that Mr. Arnold had "every reasonable hope of receiving [the audience] next summer in a new and commodious theatre" (Theatrical Observer, 29 September 1831), but it was not until 14 July 1834 that the Royal Lyceum opened its doors.

© Copyright 1988 by Alfred L. Nelson and Gilbert B. Cross

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