The 1848-1849 Season

By Gayle Harris

The season opened in the newly-renovated theatre. The improvements were practical as well as aesthetic. Dress-circle seats were now provided with backs, slate stairs--replacing a hazardous ladder--connected the private boxes to the lobby, ventilation was improved, and two projecting walls were removed from the stage to facilitate management of scenery. As usual the Theatrical Times praised the decorations:

The decorations are very elegant and tasteful, and reflect great credit on Mr. Sang, who executed them from designs by Digby Wyatt ... it is an imitation of the royal French theatres in use during the reigns of Louis XIV and his successor. There is also a very beautiful curtain, representing a promenade in the gardens of the royal residence. The general colour of the house is buff, with occasional blue and green tints; the lining and fittings of the boxes are of rich crimson. The dome represents the blue sky, intercepted by a light trellised frame, interwoven with flowers, and divided into compartments; the panels of the boxes are made to correspond with the dome, the whole forming a scene of great beauty and elegance ... In a word, the entire proceedings deserve the greatest praise.

Manager Webster continued to provide the fare to which Adelphi audiences were accustomed. The season's long running pieces were a burlesque, The Enchanted Isle, with 93 performances, Slasher and Crasher, a farce with 82 performances, and another burlesque, Devil's Violin, which was presented 65 times.

Throughout most of the season, when new productions were mounted, they were by English authors, or, at the very worst, plagiarized from Shakespeare. Memory of the anti-French revolt of the previous season, however, may have waned, for in May of 1849, the very successful Devil's Violin--a burlesque of a French ballet--was introduced, and was soon followed in July by Webster's Royal Red Book, a translation of a French piece which had been presented the previous year at the St. James's Theatre.

On 3 February 1849, an article in The Theatrical Times provided evidence that all was yet not well with London theatres in general, and with Webster's theatres in particular. Nominating Webster as the most eminent manager in London, the anonymous author offered the challenge, "Let us ask him, in the first place, when he has ever striven to cleanse the Augean impurities of the theatre; or whether he has not always tolerated them for the sake of filthy lucre. To encourage, or even to permit, the resort of prostitutes to a theatre, with a view to ply their polluted trade, what is it but to make the theatre a kind of brothel?" Further, there was still the problem of extortionate practices in seating arrangements. A ticket at the box office was only the first step; one then was expected to bribe the "surly janitors" who held the keys to the boxes. Finally, Webster's preference for the spurious over the legitimate drama was seen as a clear effort to line his pockets: "[He] has done more to comply with the vicious taste of an unsound portion of the public, in defiance of the rational and moral claims of the better part of the community, than any manager living." The writer concluded with a plea that Webster pursue a "right course," and with a threat that "if otherwise, we shall lament the defection of one who might prove such an able assistant in the cause of the legitimate drama."

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

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