The 1849-1850 Season

By Gilbert Cross

During the recess, the Adelphi had been renovated, the entrance decorated with panels of pink and green with bouquets in the corners. The chandelier was enlarged by the addition of extra gas jets, and the private boxes were hung with damask. More important, two new exits, via stone staircases, led from the pit and box lobbies to Bull-inn-court at the Strand (next door to the Nell Gwynne tavern). By those exits, the public could leave the the theatre in half the time they formerly did (see the Times 23 October, 1849).

Mme. Celeste returned from Paris and the strength of the company from the Haymarket. Many of the stalwarts had served for years at the Adelphi, suggesting it was a congenial house and skillfully managed by Ben Webster and Mme. Celeste as actors' egos are notoriously fragile. (The squabbling of Boucicault and Webster was still some years off.) Except for one season, Richard "O" Smith had been with the company since 1829; William Cullenford had played twelve seasons since 1836, and Mme. Celeste herself was in her eighth year.

Twenty-nine pieces were performed and, for once, there was no adaptation from Dickens. Farces and similar light pieces dominated, and there were the usual borrowings from the French, despite the disturbances in June 1848 at Drury Lane allegedly raised in opposition to French plays. About a quarter of the season's pieces were of French pedigree.

The opening night main piece was Marie Ducange, written in 1841 by William B. Bernard with little to commend it other than new and beautiful scenery. It lasted only 12 nights before it was replaced with The Mysterious Stranger cobbled from the French by Charles Selby in 1844. It too failed to please.

Of more significance in the long run was the commencement of a partnership between Ben Webster, Dion Boucicault and the melodrama that continued, on and off, until just before Webster's death in 1882. The two men had appeared on the same bill in 1839 at Bristol. A few years later Boucicault joined Webster at the Haymarket as playwright. The Willow Copse was the first of Boucicault's Adelphi melodramas to be a hit, playing for ninety-one of the 263 nights.

The Theatre Journal, after showing its erudition by cautioning its readers that the serious part of the play was adapted from Frederic Soulie's La Closerie des Genets (1846), praises the comedy part as "wholly original and the language much superior to the inflated commonplace dialogue that we too commonly find wedded to melodramatic subjects at the minor theatres" (6 December 1849).

The Times, after admitting that the plot of crime and retribution was complicated, bravely summarized it at length. The reviewer singled out Miss Woolgar for playing out of her usual line of business:

She introduces a country accent remarkable for its freshness and its differences from the stage traditions of dialect. The awkward deportment, the clumsy gait, the vacant manner of answering, are perfect in their way, and show not only a decided talent in apprehending character, but a laudable fearlessness in carrying out a true conception (27 November 1849).

Originality was not confined to actors. Joseph Sterling Coyne's farce, Mrs. Bunbury's Spoons was adapted from the famous ballet, Pas de Patineurs. The grand skating scene now took place at a fancy dress ball held on the frozen lake of the Surrey Zoological Gardens where the "dances, executed with skates running on little wheels, are exceedingly well managed" (Times, 16 October 1849).

Apart from Mrs. Bunbury's Spoons, pieces from the French generally did not please, though a burlesque Esmeralda and a farce Playing First Fiddle each ran over a hundred nights.

More than half the plays produced were revivals and one, The Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish, was essentially a vehicle for Mme. Celeste who, it should be recalled, spoke little English when she left France. "Her acting," noted the Theatrical Journal, "in this, the first and most popular of her pantomimic parts, is the perfection of mute eloquence" (27 June 1850).

The pantomime ran a respectable 54 nights. It was a burlesque of Mary Shelley's novel entitled Frankenstein; or, The Model Man. The Times summarized the plot so the reader could note the many liberties taken by Robert and William Brough, its authors. Both the Times and the Theatrical Journal give a favourable mention of Miss Harriet Coveney's debut. The latter comments "Agatha is played by a recent debutante here, Miss Coveney, who acted her part with considerable success" (3 January 1850).

Only one other piece attracted notice in the press, a comic drama White Sergeants; or, The Buttermilk Volunteers. Its thin plot was rendered less obvious by dazzling military uniforms, especially Mme. Celeste's. Four tradesmen, delighted to spend three bachelor weeks at a yeomanry meeting are secretly followed by their wives. Hussars, coming to review the yeomanry, make advances to the wives who rebuff them and contrive it so the Hussars' wives are approached by the yeomen. The Times reviewer felt "The characters are not much developed as individuals, but are opposed to each other in masses, and an agreeable feeling of symmetry is produced by all the couples moving in a parallel direction" (May 7, 1850).

The reviewer also commented, "The representation of drunkenness by Mr. Munyard is remarkable for its strong nature and is one more proof of the original talent of this rising actor" (ibid).

It was a season affected by non-theatrical events. On November 15, the theatre was dark for a public day of thanksgiving for the abatement of the cholera epidemic. Adolphus Frederick, seventh son of George III, and Adelaide, Queen of William IV, both died during the 1849-1850 season, and the Adelphi was closed for three days by order of the Lord Chamberlain.

The season ended on 3 August 1850, and the company adjourned to the Haymarket. The first season of the second half of the century would see the company deprived of the services of Cullenford, Henry Hughes, Mrs. Frank Matthews and Miss H. Coveney (she would return twenty-five years later). As for James Munyard, praised for his originality and called a rising actor by the Times, he would not return. He died in 1850 at the age of thirty-five.

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

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