The 1851-1852 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

Although the Adelphi remained under the management of Benjamin Webster during the 1851-52 season, its repertory lacked the originality and appeal of preceding seasons. Revivals of old favorites dominated the bills and, while the company retained the services of Sarah Woolgar, Edward Wright, and H. Hughes, the absence of Webster and his co-manager Celine Celeste from the boards affected the types of offerings the company would provide.

The most popular play of the 1851-52 season, entitled Forest Rose and the Yankee Plough Boy, featured the talents of American actor Josh Silsbee whose "Yankee" impersonation ran for ninety-three performances. The London Times declared Silsbee "probably the best actor of his class ever seen by a London public," writing of his large humor, broad dialect, and his "overwhelming stock of ... 'Jonathanisms'" (September 24, 1851). Yet while praising the actor, the Times critic hinted at the lack of originality that would characterize the 1851-52 season: "A roar greeted his entrance, and a roar accompanied him throughout his performance. This is of itself an evidence of rare merit, for Yankee peculiarities have almost been done to death."

Critical dissatisfaction with the season became more obvious in the Times review of John Morton's farce, Who Stole the Pocketbook; or, A Dinner for Six in early April. The commentator wrote that the production "enlivened the somewhat sluggish course of the performances at this house, which for some time past has been subsisting upon a series of revivals" (April 3, 1852). The play, which like many seen in London that season was based upon a foreign source, featured the talents of Edward Wright, whom the Times described as "the life of the farce" and a "genius comedian."

Other new scripts produced during 1851-52 included John Oxenford's A Leghorn Bonnet (which ran for only 11 performances), Webster and Coape's Queen of the Market (which was adapted from a French play), and Mark Lemon's Sea and Land (which had thirty-five performances). The Times critic labeled the third "of that peculiar kind of drama which is known to Londoners as the 'Adelphi piece,'" explaining that in order to qualify for that distinction a play must employ all the actors well and have a large variety and quantity of incidents, which constantly preserve interest (May 18, 1852). This production featured one of the Adelphi's most highly acclaimed and respected actresses, Mary Ann Keeley, who returned to the house at mid-season. The Theatrical Journal wrote that "the acting of Mrs. Keeley alone will make it have a run" (May 19, 1852).

A collaboration between the talents of playwright Robert Brough and actress Sarah Woolgar produced the most popular new play of the season called Mephistopheles; or, An Ambassador from Below! Opening on April 14, 1852, and running for seventy-five nights, this extravaganza offered the versatile performer four different roles. The Times declared that the actress "depicts to a nicety all the variations of character which the piece requires" and "avoids exaggeration" (April 15, 1852). The critic continued his praise saying, "The set scene in which the action takes place is exceedingly pretty.... [A]nd the impression left by the whole performance is that of completeness in every part."

Current events provided the material for another premiere of the season, Bloomerism; or, The Follies of the Day. Opening on October 2, 1851, this farce by Charles Millward and J. H. Nightingale satirized the then-current "Bloomer costume," which had drawn ridicule to its feminist exponents from the popular press. The plot involved "the retaliation of a party of spirited ladies on the eccentricities of their husbands. The gentlemen, having respectively become adherents of vegetarian, hydropathic, phonetic, pacific, and protectionist doctrines, the ladies become 'bloomerites' and frighten them with the new costume" (Times, October 3, 1851). Apparently the play's satire fell short because Sarah Woolgar, who played the leader of the Bloomerites, wore "the attire in such graceful fashion that she rather [tended] to inculcate than to satirize its use." The farce ran for seventy-one performances. It was rivaled in its popularity only by the Christmas extravaganza, Little Red Riding Hood, which ran for seventy-three nights.

Among the revivals produced at the Adelphi during the 1851-52 season were John Buckstone's The Wreck Ashore and The Irish Lion; the hit of the previous season, Charles Somerset's Good Night! Signor Pantalon; William Bernard's Yankee Pedlar; and Mark Lemon's School for Tigers, another popular script which had premiered the season before. Of the revivals, only John Poole's Paul Pry received extensive comment from the press, primarily because it featured the return to the company of Edward Wright and Sarah Woolgar after bouts with illness. On the morning after the December 1 opening, the Times wrote, "The return of Mr. Wright after his long absence from the boards of this theatre ... is a veritable triumph. His indisposition had created a formidable gap in the company." Then on February 24, 1852, part way through the run, the Times commented on the return of Sarah Woolgar in a similar manner: "Miss Woolgar, whose absence from this house has caused a serious gap in the company for some weeks past, reappeared last night as Phoebe ... and received a hearty welcome." The Theatrical Journal focused upon the accomplishments of these two favorite performers in its notices writing that "Mr. Wright never acted with greater humour or looked better" on Dec. 3, 1851, and commenting that Sarah Woolgar "played with her usual correct perception of character and vivacity" (March 3, 1852).

The season ended on August 7, 1852, after 269 performances of twenty-six plays. On Monday, August 9, the company moved to the Haymarket where it was to open a revival of Buckstone's Jack Sheppard after Mary Ann Keeley recovered from an ankle injury (Theatrical Journal, August 4, 1852).

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

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