The 1854-1855 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

Short runs and frequent changes of bills characterized the 1854-55 season during which Adelphi manager Benjamin Webster sought to present plays that would win the approval of his audience and the critics. Disagreements arose among the critics about the worthiness of certain pieces for continuation upon the boards. Audiences ignored critics' advice and supported artistically unsatisfying works. Audience members divided amongst themselves in their opinions on the merits of a particular piece. In fact, reviewers criticized not only the Adelphi productions but the tastes of its spectators during the 321-performance season.

Dion Boucicault's Janet Pride received almost unanimous approval from audiences and critics alike when it opened on February 4, 1855. This play showcased the talents of the Adelphi's co-managers. Webster's portrayal of Richard Pride received praise from all quarters. Henry Barton Baker summarized critical opinion when he wrote,

Richard Pride is only a very ordinary melodramatic part, but as played by Webster it was an elaborate psychological study; Richard Pride is drunk almost throughout the play, but there was no monotony in Webster's performance, for in each scene he gave a different phase of the vice (p. 430).

The Theatrical Journal found Celeste's performance equally compelling writing, "Mme. Celeste ... shows herself an accomplished melodramatic actress throughout the piece, but in the scene where she parts with her child, she rises far above this level, and her wild despair belongs to the higest [sic] order of pashionate [sic] expression" (February 14, 1855). The Athenaeum's critic found Boucicault's script particularly praiseworthy: "Janet Pride is a kind of dramatic novel, dealing with old materials and incidents, but trusting for their effect to a new and startling combination" (February 10, 1855). Audiences agreed with the critics regarding the company's success with Boucicault's script; they supported a sixty-four night run.

Equally successful at the box office was Bona Fide Travellers; or, The Romance of the New Beer Bill which failed to receive wide critical acclaim. Grounded in the contemporary issue of temperance and the passage of a Beer Bill by parliament, William Brough's farce consisted of "a mere tissue of absurdities loosely strung together" according to the Times (October 31, 1855). The Theatrical Journal's writer attributed the play's success and "eclat" to the performances of Robert and Mary Ann Keeley (November 8, 1855). In this he concurred with the Athenaeum critic who noted that "the power to support broad farce, without 'overstepping the modesty of nature,' is the special gift of the Keeleys" (November 4, 1854) and the Times writer who felt that piece was "solely rendered attractive by the acting of Mrs. Keeley." The Athenaeum reviewer used this production as an occasion to comment upon the tastes of the Adelphi's audience as well as the talents of its actors. He cynically forecasted the play's popularity writing, "In pieces of this sort the public are easily satisfied. If the intention be obvious, they dispense with plot and probability, and are content with strong situations." This prediction proved accurate; the show ran for sixty-three nights.

The next most popular play of the season, Railway Belle by Mark Lemon, received little notice in the press. During the months of November, December, and January, the farce was played fifty-six times. Its cast included Charles Selby, James Rogers, Mrs. Stocker, and Miss Wyndham. By contrast, The Summer Storm by Tom Parry, failed to please both critics and audiences. The Times critic had anticipated a "real Adelphi piece" after having endured a series of adaptations from the French stage, but the play did not fulfill his expectations. He wrote, "On the fall of the curtain the success of the piece was, for a time, rather equivocal, for though the applauders were a large majority the dissentients were perservering" (October 20, 1855). The Athenaeum writer complained that the piece was "scarcely worthy to take rank with [Parry's] The Harvest Home," commenting that "nothing takes place in the manner proposed, and, accordingly, the audience suffer one disappointment after another, until, at the end, they are thoroughly dissatisfied" (October 28, 1855). The Summer Storm vanished from the boards after only nine performances.

One month later, Celeste and Webster met further audience and critical opposition when they premiered Slow Man by the celebrated farceur, Mark Lemon. The Athenaeum scorned the production in its November 25, 1854, review saying that "the actors pushed the absurdity with which they were entrusted to the utmost limits." The Times was even less charitable calling the play "an attempt to amuse the public by maintenance of a perpetual 'row' upon the stage" (November 17, 1854). He conceded that it "occasionally becomes amusing," but argued that "Mr. Keeley's part is faintly sketched, and mere noise, without some notion at the bottom of it, is scarcely sufficient even for farce." He reported that the audience's reaction was somewhat more supportive but noted dissent among them: "Mr. Keeley succeeded in announcing the piece for repetition amid much applause ... but the opposition party was vigourous, and would not be conquered without a sharp struggle." One should not be surprised to learn that the show played for only nineteen performances.

Finally, Dion Boucicault garnered praise from the Athenaeum and the Times with Pierre The Foundling, a drama based upon George Sand's novel, Francois-le-Champi. The Times conceded that while the play was "no Adelphi drama," it presented "pictures of human life, as contemplated under somewhat exceptional aspects" (December 14, 1855). The acting received special notice from the Athenaeum, which singled out Sarah Woolgar's portrayal of Marie as "extraordinary for the minuteness of its detail and the expressiveness of its general action" and described Benjamin Webster's performance of Pierre as "remarkably lifelike" (December 16, 1854). Despite these positive assessments, the Times questioned the Adelphi audience's ability to appreciate such a subtle piece and wrote, "Whether the attempt to inure an Adelphi audience to pieces of such a simple outline, and so thoroughly intellectual in their character, will prove successful in the long run we cannot say, but certainly the attempt is highly creditable on the part of Mr. Webster." Indeed, the play, like so many others offered during the 1854-55 season, did not satisfy its Adelphi spectators; it closed after only seventeen performances.

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

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