The 1850-1851 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

During the 1850-51 season, the London Times declared the Adelphi Theatre "the most popular theatre of the metropolis" with the "best company in London" for its purpose (July 17, 1851). The season boasted performances by Edward Wright, Paul J. Bedford, Sarah Woolgar, O. Smith, George Honey and H. Hughes. Samuel A. Emery, son of the actor John Emery, and grandson of the country actor Mackle Emery, also joined the company. Samuel Emery seldom stayed long at any one theatre, perhaps because he had a violent temper. He appeared in 1851 and again in the mid-1870s at the Adelphi. His line was, like his father's, in old men and rustics. Managers Benjamin Webster and Celine Celeste led the company in nineteen comedies, nine dramas, two burlesques and one burletta.

The Times praised Webster and Celeste's management skills:

In badly managed theatres, when the company is weak it is common enough to see the same persons fill every conceivable part. But the Adelphi is no theatre of this kind.... [O]ne great talent in the managers consists in the power of discerning and applying the peculiar capabilities of each individual artist. It is the last theatre in the world where an actor would be made to shuffle through what another could do infinitely better, just for the sake of saving an engagement. Strong casting is the very principle of Adelphi management.

The wide-ranging talents of the Adelphi company provided the theatre with a successful 301-performance season.

The season's most successful production, Mark Lemon's farce, School for Tigers; or, The Shilling Hop, opened on October 28, 1850, and was repeated seventy-nine times. The Times critic described the production as "an unequivocal success" and singled out Sarah Woolgar for particular praise (October 29, 1850). He described her Tom Crop as "absolutely refreshing," writing that "her performance has none of the trickiness in which actresses sometimes indulge when attired in male habiliments." Sarah Woolgar's talents were celebrated frequently throughout the season as she appeared in both comic and melodramatic roles. After her benefit on July 16, the Theatrical Journal wrote that her "deserved popularity is exceeded by few artistes on the modern stage" (July 17, 1851), while the Times noted that her performances in The Road to Ruin, The School for Tigers, and Good Night! Signor Pantalon displayed the actress' versatility. This critic proclaimed that "she is one of the most popular actresses in the most popular theatre in the metropolis" (July 17, 1851).

Also popular during the 1850-51 season were Edward Wright and Paul Bedford, two longstanding members of the company. Bedford appeared in nineteen productions, receiving special notice from the Theatrical Journal in Jessie Gray where he "shewed he could please an audience, independent of acting with Wright" (November 21, 1850). Wright played in fifteen shows, including the popular School for Tigers, during which he gave "an admirable representation of vulgar pomp" (Times, October 29, 1850).

George Honey and H. Hughes attracted the special attention of critics and audiences. Of Honey's performance in Jessie Gray, the Times critic wrote that he "delivered his words with a quaintness that quite took the audience by surprise. Such a success as he achieved last night is enough to make an epoch in an actor's career" (November 21, 1850). Hughes was cited as a "melodramatist of great intelligence" in the same production (Times) and was said to have "acted with remarkable power and judgment" in Thomas Parry's The Disowned which was otherwise panned by the critics (Theatrical Journal, April 3, 1851).

Despite an illness which kept him from the stage for part of the season, Benjamin Webster contributed significantly to the season's success through his management, performances, and playwriting. His play, Belphegor the Mountebank; or, The Pride of Birth, an adaptation of the popular French drama, Paillasse, received praise for its excellent mise en scene and "singularly beautiful" costumes (Theatrical Journal, January 23, 1851) and ran for fifty-eight nights. Webster's performance as Belphegor was singled out by an unidentified critic quoted on the playbill who exclaimed, "Too much praise can scarcely be awarded to Mr. Webster for the intense pathos he throws into the situations" (NN bill, January 13, 1851). Webster scored a similar dramaturgical success at the end of the season with his adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask, called The Queen's Secret. The Times critic pointed out that the script's defects (a result of having been adapted from an opera libretto) were "more than counterbalanced by the striking situation when Roland is captured after the interview with his mother and the very great ingenuity of the denouement" (September 9, 1851). Webster's acting was also cited by the Theatrical Journal as "highly successful" (September 10, 1851).

Webster's co-manager, Celine Celeste, continued to be a favorite with the press and the public. She appeared in twelve productions during the season, including revivals of Buckstone's Green Bushes and Flowers of the Forest and Boucicault's Willow Copse. Her performance of the title role in Jessie Gray and her interpretation of the breeches role, Roland, in The Queen's Secret attracted the special attention of critics. In the former (by Robert Brough and John Bridgeman) Celeste's performance was "remarkable for the purity of its style and pathos," according to the Theatrical Journal (November 21, 1850). Of the latter, the same publication noted that the role Webster had written for her was "admirably calculated to shew off her great versatility of talent" (September 10, 1851). Celeste also directed the Christmas production, La Tarantula; or, The Spider King, receiving praise from the press for the play's extravagant scenery and beautiful effects. Upon her departure for America at the end of the season, the Times commented upon the effectiveness of her management, saying "as a manager, she has displayed the rare merit of conducting an establishment for eight years without any recourse to the 'star system'" (September 9).

© Copyright 1992 by Alfred L. Nelson and Gilbert B. Cross

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