The 1855-1856 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

After a season of unsuccessful attempts to find a new play that would please the Adelphi audience, Benjamin Webster chose to "play it safe" during the 1855-56 season. The offerings included a large number of revivals of plays which had run successfully at other theatres in London and in Paris. Despite this distinct lack of originality in the repertory, royal patronage came to the Adelphi for the first time during Queen Victoria's reign. In addition, press reports revealed that Webster sought to rebuild and expand the theatre, no doubt in response to the favorable attention paid by the press and the public to the Strand house.

The season opened on October 8, 1855 with Webster and director Celine Celeste touring the provinces. The bills featured the Irish delineations of Hudson in Samuel Lover's Rory O'More and The White Horse of the Peppers. Robert and Mary Ann Keeley also appeared early in the season in revivals of two of their earlier successes, Richard Peake's The One Hundred Pound Note and Valentine and Orson by Tom Taylor and Charles Kenney. The Athenaeum remarked upon the Adelphi's current policy of revivals writing that it had been

productive among the journalists of much discriminative criticism between the model master-pieces of this class some quarter of a century ago and the French importations of the present day.... Nevertheless, though the theme and characters be somewhat obsolete, there is a rough and racy nationality in the present production which, we confess, we can yet enjoy. (November 10, 1855)

On November 12, Celine Celeste returned to the theatre in William Bernard's Marie Ducange and on December 3, Benjamin Webster appeared for the first time during the season in Boucicault's Janet Pride. The Theatrical Journal proclaimed on December 5 that "the acting of Webster and Celeste is beyond all praise."

Among the most popular plays of the season were Mark Lemon's extravaganza, Domestic Economy, which ran for seventy-six nights, and Joseph S. Coyne's Urgent Private Affairs, which ran for eighty-four nights. Neither play received much notice from press, despite the fact that the latter was a premiere. Two adaptations from French plays did receive attention from the critics. The first was Like and Unlike by John A. Langford and W. J. Sorrell which ran for fifty nights. The Times reported that "Mme. Celeste, alternating between the devoted innocent Lisette and the reckless Countess ... produces the most striking and effective contrasts" and that "the scenes ... were excellent illustrations of a luxurious kind of life" (April 10, 1856). The reviewer concluded by saying, "It is some time since we have had a new drama of serious interest at this favourite theatre, and we may congratulate the manager on resuming his old kind of business with such happy results." The second piece was Moliere's Tartuffe, a rare venture into the classics for the company. The Times praised Webster's Tartuffe, Celeste's Elmire, Mary Ann Keeley's Dorine and Charles Selby's Orgon and reported that the play had been revived "with great eclat" (December 19, 1855).

The season's most popular production was its Christmas pantomime, Jack and the Bean Stalk; or, Harlequin and Mother Goose at Home Again. Its ninety-five-performance run attracted little attention from the press, but did catch the fancy of Queen Victoria. On Feb. 23, 1856, Her Majesty and the royal party attended a private performance of the pantomime in a specially redecorated theatre (see Times, February 25, 1856). The Queen is said to have expressed her gratitude to Benjamin Webster after the performance, and by April 1st she had let a Royal Box at the theatre (Times, April 4, 1856). Following this she is known to have attended the Adelphi three times. On April 11, a royal party attended to see Like and Unlike and Jack and the Beanstalk. On April 17, Her Majesty's party arrived in time to see Urgent Private Affairs. Again on May 5, the party attended the theatre for Like and Unlike, Urgent Private Affairs and How's Your Uncle? Royal patronage most certainly added to the theatre's prestige among the critics, other professionals, and the public.

The Adelphi's success seems to have encouraged Webster to expand his operation. The Times of January 3, 1856 announced the planned rebuilding and enlarging of the Adelphi. In an advertisement, Webster proclaimed he had secured the entire freehold of the theatre and adjoining property. He offered a limited number of debentures at five percent per annum and free admission to every performance to each debenture holder. In late April, the Sunday Times announced that the current season would close in June and that the theatre would be demolished and a new building completed in December. On June 22, 1856, the Sunday Times stated the plans for the new theatre were shortly to be submitted to the Commissioners of the Board of Works for approval. That approval, for a building to be constructed entirely of iron and fire-proof timber, was expected to be obtained without difficulty. A month later, on July 25, Webster issued another extended sale of debentures, at the price of five hundred pounds each, again with interest of five percent and free lifetime admission to the theatre. The original schedule was delayed, and Webster issued a statement that the rebuilding would proceed later than had been originally planned.

Instead of closing for the season, Webster then engaged Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams. Having established themselves in the United States as delineators of the Irish and "Yankee Girl" types respectively, the Williams undertook a successful engagement at the Adelphi. Their productions included Customs of the Country, Irish Lion, Born To Good Luck, Our Gal, and Irish Assurance and Yankee Modesty. The Times wrote of Barney Williams that he had "a great deal of comic force" (July 2, 1856), and of Mrs. Williams that she "contents herself with a moderate degree of eccentricity, perfectly consistent with a natural expectation" (July 5, 1856). The Athenaeum critic recognized the Williams' obvious popularity with the public but expressed doubts over the merit of their material: "The American pieces with which they are connected meet with a certain sort of approbation,--one more related to their novelty and adaptability of these unique artistes than their dramatic merits" (August 16, 1856). Despite these critical reservations, the Williamses closed out the 304-performance season on September 27, 1856.

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

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