The 1856-1857 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

The 1856-57 season began where the previous one concluded, by featuring the American actors, Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams. These actors, who specialized in Irish and "Yankee" characters, virtually carried the Adelphi season with their farce presentations. Manager Benjamin Webster and director Celine Celeste appeared occasionally throughout the season, but provincial tours and illness kept them from playing regularly at the Adelphi. Their absence hindered the introduction of successful new pieces during the season.

By the start of the 1856-57 season, Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams had established themselves as favorites among the London public. The Times wrote in February, 1857, that "whatever may be thought of the musical and poetical merits of such compositions as 'Bobbing Around,' 'Polly, Won't You Try Me-Oh?' and 'My Own Mary Anne,' they are important 'facts' with the London populace of the present day, and he who is not au courant with the words and the airs ... can scarcely be deemed on a level with his age" (February 3, 1857). Among their most popular offerings were Ireland As It Is, Barney the Baron, and Our Gal. These productions frequently elicited contradictory responses from London critics. While the reviewers never failed to praise the performances of Mr. and Mrs. Williams, they often deplored the quality of their material. Their season opener, for example, an extravaganza by an unknown playwright called Lucifer Matches; or, The Yankee ------, was scorned by the London Times critic. "If it be possible to conceive a drama in which nothing could be discovered but the positive incompetency of the playwright to realize the task which he had proposed," he wrote, "--then may this play ... be quoted as a 'cardinal and prerogative' example" (October 4, 1856). While he admitted that Barney Williams performed with his "usual humor" and that Mrs. Williams appeared "mighty handsome," he found the plot "stupid" and its treatment "imbecilic," warning the performers not to take advantage of the good will they had gained from the public by presenting substandard material. He concluded, "It is time that these clever artistes should learn that their peculiar pieces are not accepted on their merits, but purely as vehicles; if they regard them as more than ephemeral novelties, they will certainly incur a serious mistake."

A similar contradiction may be observed in the Theatrical Journal's response to the Williams after their return from a provincial tour in February, 1857. On the 11th it wrote that "the quaint comicalities of the Down-East Girl, and the racy Hibernian humour of the Irish Boy, have lost nothing of their freshness and spirit by the absence of their admirable delineators" in response to their productions of Born to Good Luck and Customs of the Country. Yet Barney the Baron spawned outrage from the Theatrical Journal on Feb. 25. Its normally complimentary critic described the farce as "wretched, insufferable twaddle," decrying the audience's obvious enjoyment of the play. "We regret to add that there are roars of laughter when this Hibernian-American comedian throws potatoes about the stage," he scoffed and concluded, "It is likewise our painful duty to admit that a song about a shillelagh--and with about as fine a point ... is favourably received by an enlightened British public." The Times, on the other hand, found G. D. Johnson's In and Out of Place, a rewarding experience, writing on the morning after its opening that "the versatility which Mrs. Barney Williams has hitherto displayed by acting in a variety of American pieces was last night shown in more concentrated form." He concluded by saying, "We have now, at last, something really attractive in American acting" (February 24, 1857).

Celine Celeste returned to the Adelphi with a production of Buckstone's Green Bushes on November 3, 1856. Two weeks later she premiered Charles Selby's burlesque, The Elves, which received enthusiastic notices from the critics. The Athenaeum proclaimed, "The poetic idea which serves for the basis of this piece, lends an air of fantastic elegance to the superstructure; and, though burlesque in its general action, the taste pertaining to the theme has banished from the text the intrusion of pun and parody" (November 22, 1856). The beauty of the play's spectacle also attracted critical attention. The Times wrote that the play had been "very effectively put upon the stage" (November 18, 1856) and the Athenaeum said, "What particularly strikes the spectator is the beauty of the costumes, scenery, and ballet-action."

Among the few premieres of the season were the Christmas pantomime, Mother Shipton, Her Wager; or, Harlequin Knight of Love and the Magic Whistle, A Night at Notting-Hill, and Fearful Tragedy in the Seven Dials. Of these, A Night at Notting-Hill, written by N. H. Harrington and Edmund Yates (son of former Adelphi manager Frederick Yates), was by far the most popular with eighty-nine performances. A week after its opening on January 6, 1857, the Theatrical Journal declared, "The Adelphi, the Surrey, the Strand, and other theatres of minor importance have not lessened their status, so far as we have seen one iota. The first named has produced a succession of good sterling dramas" (January 14, 1857).

Celine Celeste's benefit attracted special attention from the critics with its premiere of Dion Boucicault's drama, George Darville. Noting that "it is some time since a piece has been produced so fully corresponding to the idea of an 'Adelphi drama'," the Times called the play "a skillfully contrived and effective work" (June 4, 1857). The Theatrical Journal agreed, writing, "in construction and dialogue it is very nearly perfect, while in the delineation of character it is not surpassed by many modern productions" (June 10, 1857). Benjamin Webster developed the title role "with the close observance of nature in the most minute details" (Theatrical Journal) and all the other performances were "acted with singular ability," according to the Times. The play did not achieve the overwhelming success predicted by the critics, however, and ran for only twenty-five nights.

The season concluded with a commemoration of the popular playwright Douglas Jerrold. His Rent Day, featuring T. P. Cooke and Celine Celeste, played for ten nights. It was followed by productions of Black-Eyed Susan and The Pilot which closed the season on October 3, 1857.

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

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