The 1838-1839 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

The Adelphi Theatre underwent a complete renovation during the period between the end of the previous season and the opening of the 1838-1839 season on 1 October 1838. According to an account in the Times, "the ceiling [was] heightened and made into the form of a dome, and the whole of the boxes, proscenium, etc., decorated, painted and gilded with great taste." The writer observed "the whole bears an appearance of cleanliness, elegance, and comfort" (2 October 1838). Frederick Yates and Thomas Gladstane promised their audiences a satisfying season by hiring Laura Honey, Mary Ann Keeley, John Webster, Frank Matthews, Edward Wright, and Edward Stirling. Indeed, even though the season was shorter than previous ones (only 144 performances) and featured fewer plays (24), it was one of the most successful seasons of the decade.

Much of that success can be attributed to Edward Stirling and his adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, which opened on 19 November and ran through the end of the season. The Times described the production as an "unprecedented success" (20 November 1838) while the Athenaeum was far more reserved in its praise, "The best that can be said of the Adelphi Nickleby is that the principal characters are well 'cast', dressed, and personated" (November 24, 1838). Although the play opened after only eight parts of the novel had been serialized, Dickens himself was pleased with the production. After seeing it during the first week of its run, he wrote to his friend John Forster, praising "the skillful management and dressing of the boys, the capital manner and ... the careful making-up of all the people.... Mrs. Keeley's first appearance beside the fire ... and all the rest of Smike was excellent" (Letters of Charles Dickens, I, 459). Mrs. Keeley's performance as Smike received universal praise, and equally appreciated were O. Smith's protrayal of Newman Noggs and Yates' delineation of Mantalini. Once again, the Adelphi's association with the writings of the beloved "Boz" brought acclaim and profit.

Most managers might have been satisfied with the success of Nicolas Nickleby, but not Frederick Yates. He constantly sought "novelties" and new attractions to present to his audiences. He began the season with the Bayaderes, a troupe of eight Indian dancers. Much was made in the London press of Yates' efforts to outbid and out-maneuver other managers to secure the dancers' services and the Times reported on 3 September 1838, that he would pay them 5,000 guineas for the season. The young women appeared in A Race for a Rarity, The Law of Brahma; or, the Hindoo Widow, and Arajoon; or, The Conquest of Mysore, whose plots were merely frames upon which to present occasions for the Indians to dance. The Bayaderes received unanimous praise in the London press for their exotic dancing and they remained at the Adelphi throughout the fall.

Thomas Rice returned to the Adelphi during December and played throughout the year. He revived his popular "Jim Crow" vehicle, A Flight to America and premiered two other plays written especially for him, Jim Crow in His New Place by Thomas P. Taylor and The Foreign Prince by an unknown playwright. Like the shows written for the Bayaderes, these plays were acknowledged by the press to be vehicles for the "display of Rice's peculiarities" (unidentified review on a New York bill 31 December 1838). Audiences apparently did not care. They continued to pour into the theatre to see Rice, and Yates and Gladstane paid him 40 pounds per week for his services (Theatrical Observer, 1 January 1839).

The fourth major "attraction" of the season was the appearance of a giant, Monsieur Bihin, who was featured for 57 performances in Stirling's The Giant of Palestine. Loosely based upon Tasso's Seige of Jerusalem, the play provided the giant with numerous opportunities to display his strength against various enemies. The Belgian performer's ability as an actor was never mentioned in the reviews, and his physical attributes, not the script or the interpretation, were the primary attraction to curious critics and audiences alike.

As the season reached its end, Yates premiered the Adelphi's fourth adaptation of Dickens, Stirling's version of Oliver Twist. Although the show only played for sixteen performances, the performers received high praise from the London critics. The Athenaeum wrote that "Mrs. Yates ... as Nancy ... is fearfully true to nature. O. Smith is the burgler [Sikes] every inch of him" (2 March 1839, p. 174). Frederick Yates, as Fagin, gave "a most faithful and appalling picture of the heartless sordid villain; we have never seen a finer histrionic portrait," declared the Theatrical Observer on 4 March 1839. Mary Ann Keeley apparently played Oliver adequately, despite Dickens' warnings in an earlier letter to Yates that the part, "if it be played by a female, it should be a very sharp girl of thirteen or fourteen" (Letters of Charles Dickens, I, 388). Critics disagreed on the success of Stirling's adaptation, which was one of six versions of the novel that had appeared on the London stage since March of 1838 (ibid.). The Times wrote that "a vast deal of the interminable slang of the novel is got rid of ... and so far the auditor at the Adelphi is better off than the reader of the book" (26 February 1839). In contrast, the Athenaeum critic lamented that "the actors ... have to contend with a very poor dramatic version of the story." True to the management's practice of presenting novelties at the Adelphi, these accomplished performers shared the bill with a performance by the "celebrated Parisian monkeys."

After a benefit for Elizabeth Yates on 21 March, Yates and Gladstane closed the Adelphi for the season on 23 March 1839. In his farewell address, Yates "congratulated himself on having made a lucrative and successful season" and promised the audience greater pleasures in the future (Theatrical Observer, 26 March 1839).

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

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