The 1836-1837 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

Novelty was the order of the day during the Adelphi's 1836-37 season under the management of Frederick Yates. The first of the season's 40 plays opened on 29 September 1836, and was entitled Novelty. It featured the popular comedian John Reeve. Described as "little more than a framework for his American adventures," the play by William Leman Rede was a vehicle for Reeve's return from his U. S. tour (DNB, Vol. XVI, p. 853). Two of the Adelphi audience's favorite plays were revived on the opening bill, John Buckstone's The Wreck Ashore and The Christening, and the manager's wife, Elizabeth Yates, addressed the audience at top of the bill. Assisting in the production of the novelties and other shows were musical director William H. Callcott, costumers Mr. Godbee and Miss E. Rayner, and scenic designers Pitt and Gladstane. Adelphi stage manager, actor, and playwright, Edward Stirling wrote in his memoirs, Old Drury Lane, that "in 1836, Yates collected a company seldom if ever surpassed for talent" (I, p. 89-90). Within two weeks of opening night, the Athenaeum's critic observed, "The old audience of this theatre seem to have returned with the old management and old favourites" (15 October 1836, p. 740).

The most significant novelty to appear at the Adelphi during the 1836- 37 season was the American blackface comedian Thomas D. Rice, whose delineation of "Jim Crow," the black coachman he observed in Cincinnati in the early '30's, had won him fame throughout the United States. (See Nevin, "Stephen C. Foster and Negro Minstrelsy," p. 610). His Adelphi debut occurred on 7 November 1836, in Rede's A Flight To America. He remained at the theatre for a total of twenty-one weeks, "then considered something extraordinary," according to Blanchard's "History of the Adelphi" (Era Almanack, 1877, p. 5.), The management devised several vehicles for Jim Crow including The Peacock and The Crow and The Virginian Mummy. Rede even provided a role for Rice in his adaptation of Dicken's Pickwick Papers that opened at the end of the season. The 31 January 1837, edition of the Theatrical Observer reported that Yates paid Rice 40 pounds a week while Blanchard claims that he cleared 1,100 pounds during his first season at the Adelphi ("History" p. 5).

Rice's impersonation of the crippled black man who sang, "Eb'ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow" was hailed by the Times of London as "a source of profit to the management and amusement to the public," one which would be impossible to imitate (8 November 1836). A "Jim Crow" craze swept through London. Stirling remembered that "Organs, street singers, concerts, were all 'jump Jim Crow mad'" over the latest Adelphi novelty (Old Drury Lane, I, p. 92). The Flight to America ran for 68 performances.

On 24 January 1837, the Times proclaimed that "Novelty is the great attraction at this house." Currently Yates was showcasing the "Real Bedouin Arabs," a troupe of tumblers who were described as "the most active and elegant tumblers that ever exhibited before an English audience." In his March 11, 1837, review of Hassan Pasha, the tumblers' dramatic vehicle, Charles Rice called their performance "the most astonishing thing of the kind I have ever seen" and reported that they were greeted with "four tremendous rounds of applause" (London Theatres in the 1830's, p. 30). Once again, Yates scored a hit with a novelty.

Among the "standard" fare offered by the Adelphi this season were several revivals, including Buckstone's Victorine, Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman, and Henry Holl's Grace Huntley. One premier, The Doom of Marana by Buckstone, was only moderately successful, being labeled by the Athenaeum as "little better than sheer nonsense" (15 October 1836, 740). The reviewer commented that the Adelphi audience would not notice the weaknesses, however, because Buckstone and Yates knew their audiences tastes. He wrote: "the author, who knows his audience quite as well as the manager, drowns their reflection in a flood of laughter, while the manager blinds their eyes with the brilliancy of his scenic display" Another Buckstone script, The Duchess de la Vaubaliere, ran for forty-nine performances and was praised for its "excellent scenic effects" and "exciting incidents" (Theatrical Observer, 4 January 1837).

As a result of an extension of the theatre's license by the Lord Chamberlain, the management was permitted to continue its season beyond the Easter holidays. (See Nicholson, The Struggle for a Free Stage in London, pp. 367-368.) During these final weeks, the Adelphi produced its second play based upon the writings of London's most popular author, Charles Dickens. The Peregrinations of Pickwick by Rede opened on April 2, 1837, after only eight volumes of The Pickwick Papers had been published and with only six days preparation (Theatrical Observer, 4 April 1837). Although critics noted that the opening performance was "rather imperfectly done" (Observer) and needed to "be shortened by at least one third" (Times, 4 April 1837), both agreed that it was a successful dramatization of Boz's stories. F. Dubrey Fawcett writes in Dickens on Stage that Dickens felt "wrath and dismay" over the production (p. 45). Despite Boz's negative reaction, the production ran through the end of the season.

The Adelphi closed on Thursday, 4 May after a total of 185 performances, including benefits for Elizabeth Yates and John Reeve. Frederick Yates reported in his farewell address that his novelties had given the theatre a "very profitable season" and that previous engagements "compelled us to close a fortnight earlier than by law we are allowed to" (quoted in Theatrical Observer, 8 May 1837). The principal members of the company moved on to the Surrey Theatre for the three weeks and afterwards played in Liverpool (Theatrical Observer, 24 April 1837).

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

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