The 1837-1838 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

The Adelphi season of 1837-1838, under the management of Frederick Yates and Thomas Gladstane, was distinguished by a series of outstanding performances by new and old members of the company. The house opened on 29 September 1837, (after having been redecorated during the recess) with popular favorites Elizabeth Yates, O. Smith, Cullenford and Wilkinson on the bill and introduced John F. Saville and Power that evening. As the season progressed the talents of Celine Celeste, Harvey Leach, and Louisa Nisbett were added to the bills. During the season 31 plays were presented in 192 performances.

Opening night featured the return to the Adelphi of the Irish comedian Tyrone Power who starred in Samuel Lover's adaptation of his own novel, Rory O'More. Power (grandfather of the American stage star and great-grandfather of the American movie actor) received unanimous praise for his sincere and natural performance as the Irish peasant. Thomas Marshall quotes a critic who wrote that "it is impossible to do justice to the quiet unexaggerated humour--the complete Hibernianism--of Power in this character" (Lives of the Most Celebrated Actors, p. 139). Compared favorably with the broad style of Adelphi favorite, John Reeve, Power seems to have introduced a new style of acting to Adelphi audiences. Marshall's source continued: "Is it not surprising that a public which has the capacity for appreciating, such acting as Power's should take delight in the more and meagre buffoonery of John Reeve? The latter can well be spared at this house." Power earned twenty pounds a night in the role and repeated it ninety times during the season. He also appeared in Irish characters in The Groves of Blarney, Pat and the Potatoes, Irish Tutor, More Blunders Than One, and Omnibus during the 1837-38 season.

Elizabeth Yates, wife of the Adelphi's manager, had been the theatre's leading lady in the first half of the 1830's. Her absence during the 1835-1836 season was felt by audiences and critics alike, but in 1836-37 she regained her prominence. Valsha; or, The Slave Queen by Joseph S. Coyne, which opened on 30 October 1837, was to be her star vehicle during this season. The Times described her performance as "the best piece of melodramatic acting that has been witnessed for a very long time ... almost painfully intense by its strictness to nature" (31 October 1837). The Morning Post, quoted on the bill, described the "fulness of her tragic powers" and their effect on the audience when, during the play's final scene, "a silence like that of the grave attended her last moments. Not a word was heard as she moved across the stage." Elizabeth Yates played Valsha 66 times during the season.

Praise was given to Valsha, rather more for its elaborate spectacle than for the performances. The cast boasted more than one hundred actors and the scenery was apparently nothing short of magnificient. According to the Theatrical Observer, it cost 1,000 pounds to "get up" (13 November 1837). The final scene, the execution of Valsha, which took place on the ramparts of a castle, received breathless praise from critics. The Times critic described the setting this way: "The whole stage ... is sunk many feet, so that great height is given to the general view of castle walls and ramparts. The manner in which the ascent of [Valsha] and her execution is seen ... is also a chef d'oeuvre of scenic triumph, and the apparent fall is actually electrifying by its seeming reality." The Athenaeum critic, who like the Times writer did not like the script, nevertheless proclaimed "so admirable a scene as the last, both as to design and execution, has rarely, if ever, been presented either on the English of foreign stage" (4 November 1837, 820). The writer for the Times concluded, "This piece will be an era in the history of melodramas."

Melodrama was indeed the Adelphi's claim to fame, and the opening of William Bernard's play of that genre, St. Mary's Eve, brought another notable performer to the theatre's stage. Mme. Celeste, who had appeared there in mute roles in the early '30's, made her first appearance in this play which was "written for her and adapted to her peculiar talent of delineating intense feeling with great care and felicity" (Times, 2 January 1838). Ernest Watson claims that St. Mary's Eve was "notably above the level of the ordinary melodrama of the day" and that Mme. Celeste's performance also exceeded expectations (Sheridan to Robertson, p. 357). Watson quotes the Theatrical Examiner's review of 6 January 1838, which praised her "attention to all those minor details that give life and reality to domestic acting, and are but too little regarded by English actresses." Her style was apparently appreciated by Adelphi audiences, for she continued performing there and eventually became the theatre's manager in the 1840's. Watson declared that Celeste "was to melodrama what Vestris had been to burlesque. She brought to it the naturalism of French art as well as the refinement" (Ibid., p. 357).

While employing some of the best actors London could offer, Yates never failed to keep his eye open for a novelty to spice up his bills. He hit upon one of his greatest successes when he out-bid the two Patent theatres (Theatrical Observer, 2 February 1837) and engaged a dwarf named Harvey Leach, who was billed as Signor Hervio Nano, the Gnome Fly. Leach's act, which was incorporated into two plays, The Gnome Fly and The Major and the Monkey, involved acrobatic feats of daring (in the person of a fly or a monkey) such as walking on the walls and ceiling of the theatre. The Times wrote, "he climbs ... along the side of the theatre, gets into the upper circle in a moment, catches hold of the projection of the ornaments of the ceiling of the theatre, crosses to the opposite side, and descends along the vertical boarding of the proscenium.... In a word, [he] performs some of the most astonishing feats ever exhibited within the walls of a theatre" (1 February 1838). Leach appeared 54 times at the Adelphi in the 1837-38 season.

One performer was noticeably absent from the bills of the Adelphi during the season. John Reeve, veteran comedian and favorite of Adelphi audiences, died on 24 January 1838. In his farewell speech on 18 May, Frederick Yates spoke of the "severe loss I sustained ... [of] one of [the theatre's] brightest ornaments," no doubt a reference to his friend's death (quoted in the Times, 21 May 1838). He went on to proclaim, however, the season's success and promised to give his "undivided attention ... next season to the catering for your amusement."

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

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