The 1853-1854 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

Adaptations of French drama dominated the Adelphi boards during the 1853-54 season under the management of Benjamin Webster. At least five of the season's twenty-five productions derived from plays recently presented on the Paris stage. And while critics occasionally denounced this reliance on foreign sources, the reviewer for the Athenaeum proclaimed, "This theatre, by the production of such carefully written pieces, is gaining a higher position than belonged to it no long time ago, and is already entitled to rank as a legitimate dramatic house" (March 25, 1854).

Benjamin Webster's The Thirst for Gold; or, The Lost Ship and The Wild Flower of Mexico topped the list of successful adaptations. Based upon La Priere des Naufrages by Dennery and Dugue, the play was, according to the Times, "perfect [in its] fitness to the London Adelphi company" (December 16, 1853). The complicated plot involved the passage to the New World of several Europeans seeking their fortunes in gold, providing numerous melodramatic incidents and characters for the Adelphi company to enact. The Times reported that "the division into five tableaux, the incidents drawn to the minutest detail, the circumstances of the play, the very arrangements of the scenes, are accurately imitated from the Ambigu Comique, so that the north side of the Strand completely becomes, for the nonce, the Boulevard du Temple." The Athenaeum's reviewer, writing on December 12, found the production less than satisfying, however, noting that the "dialogue shows ... marks of managerial hurry" and that the "translation ... [is] bald in the extreme." But, he commented wearily that "the Adelphi audience is proverbially indifferent" to such weaknesses and predicted that the show would be a success. Indeed, Adelphi audiences agreed with the Theatrical Journal's reporter who wrote that The Thirst for Gold "surpasses every other attraction that has gone before it" (December 14, 1853) and supported its presentation for ninety-two nights.

Another Webster adaptation from the French which received considerable praise and approbation from audiences and critics was The Discarded Son, based upon Un Fils de Famille by Mayrad and Bienville. However, the Times saw the play as "a sort of commonplace compound of Black-Eyed Susan and She Stoops to Conquer" which had "scarcely the character of a regular Adelphi piece," though he admitted it displayed "excellent situations, and happy management of the characters" (October 11, 1853). The Theatrical Journal singled out actors Leigh Murray, Mary Ann Keeley, and Fanny Maskell for particular praise, calling the production "one of the most interesting [dramas] which has appeared for a long time" (October 26, 1853). It ran for sixty nights.

Two less successful versions of French plays were penned by John Morton and an anonymous author. Morton's Whitebait at Greenwich received praise for the performance by comedian Robert Keeley but apparently lacked variety in plotting. The Athenaeum wrote that "Mr. Keeley ... was triumphant" (November 19, 1854) and the Times declared that "the engagement of Mr. Keeley has given a high tone to Adelphi farce than ever was known before" (November 15, 1854). Nevertheless, the show ran for only twenty-seven performances. Hopes and Fears, the anonymous adaptation of La Joie Fait Peur by Mme. Girardin, did not fare much better. During its twenty-two-performance run, critics praised Webster's performance as the old servant Noel saying, "This is a finished and forcible piece of acting, happily conceived and elaborately executed" yet noted that Celine Celeste's performance was less than satisfactory: "The Mother ... is played by Mme. Celeste in a manner that might be expected from a clever melodramatic actress, who has rather to do with strong outward exhibitions of emotion than with minute psychological details" (Times, July 6, 1854).

Charles Selby's English version of Les Filles de Marbre entitled The Marble Heart; or, The Sculptor's Dream received elaborate praise and commentary from the high-brow critic of the Athenaeum after it opened in May, 1854. Calling the play "a piece perilously elaborate in its development of sentiment and character, and ambitious in its aim as an Art-drama of the imaginative class," this commentator proclaimed it "a daring experiment" in which "the argument and treatment are both intellectual" (May 27, 1854). He also noted "the elevation of the character of [the Adelphi's] performances" under Benjamin Webster's management. The Times critic found some faults in Selby's adaptation from the French, but noted the strength of Leigh Murray's performance as the young sculptor who lost all in pursuit of the hard-hearted woman, played admirably by Celine Celeste (May 24, 1854). Despite the fine performances and his perception of the play's moral and intellectual elevation, the skeptical Athenaeum critic wondered whether "a piece in which dialogue so much preponderates will be ultimately popular with an Adelphi audience." Indeed, his skepticism was well-founded; The Marble Heart played only twenty times during the season.

Despite the large percentage of adaptations from French successes, the Adelphi also scored moderate hits with some home-grown products. Charles Selby's Hotel Charges exploited the contemporary issue of tavern extortion which had received extensive coverage in the Times. The Athenaeum called the topic "worn-out" (October 22, 1853), but the Times critic declared the piece "one dramatic oration to our honour" (October 14, 1854). Another original piece, a genuine "Adelphi drama" according to the Times, resulted from the collaboration of Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. Two Loves and a Life opened on March 20 and ran for fifty nights. The Times noted wryly that it had "the strange peculiarity that it is not taken from the French" and that its plot was "built on an interesting story, with many and various incidents, and with important personages enough to employ a large number of good actors" (March 21, 1854). The Athenaeum critic concurred in his appraisal of the play saying, "the dialogue and interest aim at an intellectual elevation, and appeal rather to the understanding than to the feelings" (March 23, 1854). This mid-decade production of Two Loves and a Life, starring favorite actors Benjamin Webster, Robert Keeley, Sarah Woolgar, and Celine Celeste, elicited the Athenaeum's declaration that the Adelphi had arrived at the ranks of London's legitimate dramatic houses.

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

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