The 1852-1853 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

October 4, 1852, marked the beginning of the season as Celine Celeste returned to the Adelphi from a year-long tour of America. Under her supervision, the season featured prominently the works of playwright Mark Lemon. The London Times hailed Mme. Celeste's return to theatre's management writing,

For eight years she has directed to Adelphi company with scarcely fluctuating success, and ... with a regular permanent company. It is now about thirty years that the Adelphi has been the so-called "pet" establishment of London, but this endearing title was often maintained in the old days by such theatrical casualties as Arabs, giants, dwarfs, elephants, and so forth. On the other hand, during the existence of what the Chinese might call the "Celestial Empire," the attractive powers of the Adelphi have been kept alive by the efficiency of a real body of actors in pieces well suited to their talents (October 5, 1852).

At the end of the season, Celeste's company had produced three hundred fifteen performances of thirty-two plays.

Mark Lemon's contributions to the season's success were substantial. His farce, The Camp at Chobham, received little comment from the critics but ran for an impressive eighty-seven performances. The only reference to the play in the press appeared near the end of a longer review of Sardanapalus (another Lemon effort) in which the critic noted, "we suspect the audience were not sorry to pass from the Assyrian pleasantry to Mr. Mark Lemon's excellent little farce of The Camp at Chobham, in which the author displays real humour and the actors have an opportunity for real acting" (Times, July 21, 1853). The "Assyrian pleasantry" which merited such scorn from the Times reviewer was in fact another of Lemon's hits that season. This play burlesqued the poem by Lord Byron which had been dramatized and was running concurrently at the Princess Theatre. Its visual effects seem to have provided its primary appeal, as the Adelphi staff attempted to imitate the Princess' scenic effects. The critic for the Athenaeum described the production as "one of the most gorgeous spectacles of this spectacular age" (July 23, 1853) and while the Times critic agreed that "considered as a gorgeous theatrical spectacle, the whole work is entitled to high praise," he insisted that "considered as burlesque, the piece is a decided mistake" (July 21, 1853). This critic argued that "the good actors who are employed in the principal characters have little of importance to do" and that "scarcely any humour is displayed in the imitations." He concluded by saying, "One circumstance, indeed, renders the burlesque like the original. The original depends for its success mainly on its decorations; the burlesque depends on its decorations alone." Nevertheless, the Adelphi audiences flocked to see the burlesque and kept it running for seventy performances.

Another major triumph for Lemon during the Adelphi's 1852-53 season was his collaboration with Tom Taylor on a dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Called Slave Life; or, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the play was declared by the Theatrical Journal's critic to be "the most clever version of the novel we have yet seen" (December 8, 1852). According to the Times, Lemon and Taylor took considerable liberties with Stowe's novel, arranging its incidents and combining characters to render the story more stage-worthy. The Times reported

Lemon and Taylor ... have so far departed from general usage, that they have deemed it expedient to compose a drama, with something like completeness in itself, and not to raise a mere heap of scenic crudities.... They have evidently gone about their task with a firm conviction that a remodeling was necessary, and they have shown great ingenuity in diminishing the number of distracting objects, by rolling a couple into one whenever occasion served (November 30, 1852).

The Theatrical Journal concurred that "Lemon and Taylor ... have endeavoured... to construct a complete drama out of materials by no means the best that could be desired for dramatic purposes" and credited the theatre's manager with the production's success, writing "great credit is due to Mme. Celeste, who, during her recent tour through the United States, visited the localities in which the action of the drama is supposed to take place" (December 8, 1852). The production featured Richard John ("O.") Smith as Uncle Tom, Samuel Emery as Simon Legree, Sarah Woolgar as Eliza, Mary Ann Keeley as Topsey, and Alfred Wigan as George Harris and ran for eighty-three nights.

Webster at Home, another Lemon script which appeared briefly on the Adelphi boards, featured Mme. Celeste's co-manager, Benjamin Webster and several actors whom he had recruited for their company. The farce was described by the Theatrical Journal as "a most appropriate sketch ... [which] admirably answers the purpose for which it was intended--to introduce his company to the audience" (March 30, 1853). In the play, art imitates life as Webster, Celeste, and all the members of the company play themselves, gathered in the Adelphi Green Room. According to the Athenaeum, "Mme. Celeste proposes to abdicate the managerial throne in favour of Mr. Webster--who, however, insists on her retaining the sceptre" (April 2, 1853).

In addition to Lemon's contributions, the Adelphi season featured a ballet entitled The Dancing Scotchman, revivals of John Buckstone's Green Bushes and Jack Sheppard, and a popular Christmas pantomime called Nell Gwynne; or, Harlequin Merrie Monarch by Nelson Lee. The young Dion Boucicault premiered his Genevieve; or The Reign of Terror on June 20, 1853. Although the script had flaws which were outlined by the Times critic, it featured "a great deal of good acting" (Times, June 21, 1853). The Times labeled Genevieve "not exactly of the true Adelphi kind ... [but] much more like that kind than anything that has been brought out at the theatre for a long time."

Finally, the 1852-53 season featured a unique experiment by the Adelphi managers and their company. For the first time in the theatre's history the company presented a Shakespearean play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Although the production did not receive overwhelming popular support (it ran for only thirteen nights), critical reaction was favorable. The Times described it as "one of the most creditable productions of the day" and declared that "the bold experiment has proved successful" (May 19, 1853).

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

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