The 1839-1840 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

In the final season of the decade, Frederick Yates and Thomas Gladstane, managers of the Adelphi, increased their profits and their reputations by presenting works by some of England's most renowned contemporary playwrights in productions that dazzled audiences with their magnificent scenic effects and costumes. The company, which presented 31 plays in 179 performances, included such favorites as John Buckstone, Paul Bedford, Frederick Yates, James H. Hackett, Thomas D. Rice, and Mary Ann Keeley. When the theatre opened on 1 October 1839, the Times wrote "the house now presents a very elegant and commodious appearance" (1 October 1839).

John Buckstone returned to the Adelphi in 1839-40 in the capacity of playwright and actor. Seven of his scripts were produced, including The Christening, Abelard and Heloise, and The May Queen. By far the most successful of Buckstone's plays (indeed the most successful of the decade) was his adaptation of William Harrison Ainsworth's sensational novel, Jack Sheppard. The piece, which opened on 28 October 1839, and ran for 121 performances, was one of seven adaptations which played in London theatres that fall. While critics generally deplored the Ainsworth novel and occasionally denounced its dramatic cousins, Buckstone's version, according to Martin Meisel, was the most successful (Realizations, 271). The Times, after grudgingly acknowledging that the play would be a hit, proclaimed: "The drama is a much better thing than the book, because the adapter has avoided the blunders and absurdities of the [novelist], and extracted with great skill all that is really good in the original" (29 October 1839).

Buckstone's script was acted well by the Adelphi company, according to the available accounts. Mary Ann Keeley took on the breeches role of the criminal, Jack Sheppard, and Lyon (in the absence of O. Smith) played his antagonist, Jonathan Wild. Reviewers frequently singled out Mrs. Keeley for praise. In the Morning Herald, she was cited for the "genius with which she invested" the character. Not everyone was Convinced. John Forster sniffed "Mrs. Keeley, Mr. Yates, and Mr. Bedford display much misplaced power" (Examiner, 28 October 1839), but the Theatrical Observer declared a day later, "the acting was unquestionably excellent." Even more appealing than the performances, however, was the play's spectacular scenery. Created by Pitt and Telbin and based upon on George Cruikshank's illustrations of the novel, the sets and special effects received universal praise. In his description of the first act, the Times critic wrote: "The whole stage of the theatre is sunk about eight or ten feet.... The storm on the Thames is introduced with a very surprising mechanical effect, and the distant view of St. Paul's Cathedral ... is excellent." Even the disapproving John Forster admitted that the "scenic effects are really most surprisingly good." The Times gave the final word when it wrote, "The scenery is superior to anything that has been shown for many seasons."

Works by William Bernard and William Moncrief also took prominent places on the bills in 1839 and 1840. The season opened with Bernard's The Kentuckian, featuring the American actors, James H. Hackett and Thomas D. Rice, and with Moncrieff's Mount St. Bernard; or, The Goldsmith of Grenoble. The latter piece garnered praise for its scenery from all the critics, including the writer for the Theatrical Observer who declared "We have never witnessed more beautiful scenery than is exhibited in this highly interesting piece" (9 October 1839). Bernard's Rip Van Winkle was also revived as a vehicle for Hackett, but it only ran for 10 performances.

Three revivals of plays by Edward Fitzball were presented: The Pilot, Esmeralda, and Nelson, England's Glory. Another old favorite, Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan was revived with an appearance by T. P. Cooke. Richard Peake contributed two scripts which featured the acting of Frederick Yates: HB, a farce and The Devil in London, a local color drama. Of the latter, the Theatrical Journal said on 25 April, "notwithstanding all the puff and parade about eighty young ladies being engaged in it, it is positively unendurable ... the eighty ladies dressed in armour exhibited (as happily phrased by a contemporary), one hundred and sixty of the worst legs that ever ambulated on the Adelphi boards" (p. 158).

The Adelphi's prolific resident playwright, Edward Stirling, was not without representation in 1839-1840. His highly acclaimed Nicholas Nickleby was revived for six performances in October and in March, a sequel, The Fortunes of Smike, opened. The latter was praised by the Theatrical Observer as "quite as effective as its predecessor," yet it failed to achieve a long run. Martin Meisel writes that "the original freshness had gone, as indeed, it had from the last chapters of the book [Nicholas Nickleby] itself" (Realizations, p. 64). Despite good performances by Mary Ann Keeley as Smike, Frederick Yates as Mantalini, and Buckstone as Newman Noggs, the show "did not enrich the box office" as its predecessor had (ibid.).

Stirling's Knight of the Dragon, on the other hand, was a spectacle of unprecedented scale and appeal. The production, based upon Ainsworth's The Admirable Crighton, provided an opportunity to display the "armour, banners, costumes, and paraphenalia" recently employed in a tournament at Eglinton Castle. Real horses were also utilized, as was scenery that was described as "more than usually effective and ... [is] perfectly surprising in its effects" (Times, 20 November 1839). The Theatrical Observer reported on 3 December, the managers insured the historical artifacts they used for "3,000 pounds, against fire, at the enormous premium of 3 guineas per cent." It is no wonder that an unidentified reviewer wrote in the fall of 1839 that "Yates has earned a deserved celebrity for producing what are called 'effects'; and often have we seen things done upon the little stage of the Adelphi that put to blush the effects of other managers" (quoted by Meisel, Realizations, p. 251).

The final outstanding production of the 1839-40 Adelphi season was the traditional Christmas pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Red Cap. The Athenaeum praised "its diorama, painted by Telbin ... as one of the best painted displays of scenery" (28 December 1839, 989-90). On January 8, after a two-week run on a bill with Jack Sheppard, the pantomime had brought in receipts that "exceeded in amount those of any week in former seasons" (Theatrical Observer). It is not surprising that the same publication declared on 22 January 1840: "Never were such prosperous times known as at present at this very popular house."

On 6 May 1840, Frederick Yates gave his customary farewell address to the assembled audience. He explained that the closing of the theatre three weeks earlier than their license allowed resulted from the need to rebuild the front wall of the theatre and the "unexampled beauty of the weather" (Theatrical Journal, 9 May, p. 139). In a modest understatement, he thanked his audience for the "very fair proportion of patronage" given during the season and promised to devote the summer to finding new attractions. In fact, he began a provincial tour with his wife, Mrs. Keeley, and Paul Bedford playing in the Adelphi version of Jack Sheppard. In Bath, the Theatrical Journal reported, they played to "about thirty people in the pit and a truly beggarly account of empty boxes" (23 May 1840).

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

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