The 1840-1841 Season

By Franklin Case and Mary Case

Under the proprietorship of Frederick H. Yates and Thomas Gladstane, the Adelphi Theatre opened its 1840-41 season on 5 October 1840, and closed on 4 September 1841. For this season, considerable expense went towards improving ventilation and making other alterations to the theatre. For example, two new act drops and curtains were painted by W. Telbin.

Historical dramas were popular this season. Robespierre; or, Two Days of the Revolution, elicited a justification from the author, William Bernard, which was printed on the bills:

To place him (Robespierre) more forcibly before an audience and at the same time to realize some of the most striking features of his career, the Author has selected for the action of his story, two separate days of the Revolution--respectively illustrating its gaiety and its gloom--the First being the Jacobin Festival, on the 10th of August 1793, when Paris was involved in a delirium of enjoyment. With its fraternity and equality, its Boulevards and its Ball-rooms--and the Second that of Robespierre's fall--nearly a twelvemonth afterwards, when the Reign of Terror was at its height, and to use the words of Tallien, 'had become a game in which men played for their lives'.

The Theatrical Journal was impressed. "Mr. Yates, ever true to nature, acts the part of Robespierre to life ... Dumond was represented by Mr. Lyon in a very effective manner, the best thing we can remember him to have done. Mrs. Yates is a prize to any manager, her voice is so pathetic ... it would move the most hardened villain" (17 October 1840).

Much more controversial was the production of Laffarge; or, Self-will in Woman since the heroine had been accused of poisoning her husband. The following letter, addressed to the Lord Chamberlain, appeared in the Morning Herald: "If English audiences are to be thus brutalized under the 'express sanction' of the Chamberlain's office--if the popular mind is, in its recreations, to be familiarised with lust and murder--the sooner the House of Commons relieves your lordship of your present theatrical privilege the better."

Frederick Yates indignantly answered the "playgoer," printing his letter to the Morning Herald in the playbill. He said in part, "Can anyone discover in this announce [sic], an intention on the part of the manager.... to 'familiarise the public with lust and murder'?"

The Theatrical Journal (31 October 1840) supported Yates' position and praised the production.

Some stupid person thought proper to apply to the Lord Chamberlain to suppress the performance of it. It is now before the public and affords a splendid night's amusement, without injuring the morals of the rising generation; on the contrary, it is a lesson to those who might err through jealousy. The dramatist ... has thrown aside all the circumstances connected with the death of her husband and the sequent trial of Madame Laffarge on the accusation of administering poison.... The tragic portion tells well, and Mrs. Yates does ample justice to that which is set down for her. The part played by Mr. Yates ... is well portrayed; no other actor we know of could give it so complete an effect (p. 383).

The policy of putting on a dramatization of a Dickens' novel was continued with Yates playing Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. The Theatrical Journal said: "The scene where Quilp puts his bill of sale in force is admirable, likewise that of the races.... All concerned in the piece deserve great credit" (14 November 1840, p. 392).

Yates also brightened up the dreary month of November by getting up a one act version of The Beggars' Opera Burlesqued in which Paul Bedford played Polly Peachum and Mrs. Keeley Macheath. The piece was successful. The Theatrical Journal commented "one unbroken laughter peals through the house, and when the curtain falls, you return home with aching sides" (28 November 1840, p. 408).

The Christmas pantomime was Harlequin and the Enchanted Fish, or, The Geni of the Brazen Bottle. The following description is taken from the bill.

Legend--The Sultan's lost son, Prince Floridore, attempting to elope with Amanda, the beautiful ward of an old Magician, he confined them both in his Black Castle; when Floridore's four Servants, plotting their escape, the Magician changed them into Four Fishes, and had them thrown into an obscure pond. Meantime the Geni, Polyphlosboie Thalasses, who, by the arts of the Magician, has been shut up at the bottom of the sea in a copper case, being accidently extricated by Mustapha, a Fisherman, the pond was pointed out--and the Fish caught, etc. etc.--Old Turkish Tale

Particularly significant about the casting of this piece was the appearance of the great harlequin, "Old Tom" Ellar, who had fallen on evil times. Arrested while appearing at the Royal Victoria Saloon in January, he was brought before a magistrate who recognized him. Ellar explained age and distress had so bent him down he was glad to make a penny any way he could. Yates engaged him for the pantomime at four guineas a week and offered him an engagement for the following season. Ellar died in 1842 aged sixty-two.

A new melodrama, Agnes St. Aubin, by Julia Pardoe, tapped a familiar domestic vein. The heroine, played by Mrs. Yates, is placed in a series of harrowing situations by the return of her villainous husband, Doligny (played by O. Smith) who was thought to have died in the galleys. He blackmails Agnes, who is suspected of infidelity by her second husband. All turns out for the best when Doligny dies after a last minute confession. The Theatrical Journal praised the piece. It was "beautifully acted." "We are glad to see O. Smith on these boards, he seemed to be at home and amongst old friends and played with the same earnestness of manner of former days" (23 January 1841).

The scene painters came in for particular praise from the Theatrical Journal. A reviwer wrote of Satanas and the Spirit of Beauty, "it abounds with everything that can please the senses--scenery of the most gorgeous description from terraced gardens to tessellated pavements with sparkling fountains and alabastic statues, two glimpses of the harem, caverns of gloom to fairy homes of dazzling brightness" (20 February 1841, p. 59). The first scene of the piece took twenty-five minutes to set.

After the regular season, Henry Anderson "The Wizard of the North" took the theatre and was a great success. One of his attractions was his frankness; he assured the audience his tricks were all deceptions made possible by his great practice and experience. One of his most popular sleights of hand was the handkerchief trick. Borrowing seven handkerchiefs, he tied them together and then found them singly in various places. Finally five of them were discovered in a bottle. The other two appeared genuinely to be lost, but the Wizard, taking the violin from the leader of the band, smashed it into pieces and discovered the missing handkerchiefs.

Anderson gained even more respect by being the first performer to hold a benefit for the company of Astley's Amphitheatre--the building having been destroyed by fire.

All did not go smoothly, however. On 26 June 1841, Anderson attempted the "gun trick" in which he caught a bullet with his teeth. The ball lodged in his mouth, and the gentleman chosen to fire the pistol was obliged to remove the errant bullet. Despite the blood, the Wizard was able to continue his performances.

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

Thank you for visiting this site. If you wish to contact the various Editors, please visit the Editor's Home Pages.