The 1857-1858 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

The 1857-58 season was the shortest because the theatre was closed for remodeling after the June 2, 1858 benefit for Benjamin Webster. Nevertheless, thirty-three plays were presented in 201 performances by the favorite actors of the company. In addition to co-managers Celine Celeste and Benjamin Webster, Paul J. Bedford, Robert Keeley, Edward Wright, the Williamses, Mary Ann Keeley, Sarah Woolgar (newly married to Alfred Mellon), Mary Keeley, and Marie Wilton appeared. The season opened with the return of a star from the past, T. P. Cooke, who appeared in a revival of J. T. Haines' My Poll and My Partner Joe. The London Times credited Cooke with renewing audiences' interest in the nautical melodrama with his performances as Harry Hillyard in Haines' play and as William in Douglas Jerrold's classic Black-Eyed Susan. Its critic wrote that the revival was "perfectly successful" (October 6, 1857).

Celine Celeste reappeared at the Adelphi on November 2, 1857, in a revival of her traditional favorite, The Green Bushes. The Times reported the following morning that "the speedy reappearance of Mr. Benjamin Webster is promised," and noted that "the announcement of a romantic drama and a drama of 'powerful interest' shows that the old Adelphi energies are alive in their wonted direction." Two weeks later, on November 16, Webster opened the season's first new play, his own adaptation of La Legende de l'Homme sans Tete called The Legend of the Headless Man. This highly anticipated production disappointed audiences with its "strange, wild story" (Times, November 17, 1857). The Times critic described the scene at the fall of the curtain when Webster spoke to the audience: "Webster ... solicited the kindly feeling of the audience in consideration of the difficulties that attended the production of such a piece in so small a theatre, and expressed a hope that in future it would be so performed as to merit general approbation."

Three days later, the Times noted that Webster had gone to great lengths to improve his production of The Legend of the Headless Man. "Procrustes in lopping off the limbs of a tall traveller to suit the shortness of his couch, never displayed greater zeal than has been exhibited by the manager of the Adelphi in trimming down the drama ... to accommodate the taste of the public," it wrote (Times, November 20,1857). The article explained the play's "defects ... [were] remedied by one grand operation.... The marvel is that such extremely bold surgery did not demolish the piece altogether, but ... the work has gained in vitality by the vigorous amputation." Despite all the energies invested in the production by Webster, the show closed after only eighteen performances.

A more successful new play by Watts Phillips premiered after the first of the year. Poor Strollers, a drama featuring Webster and Celeste in leading roles, represented the Adelphi's second attempt to produce a Phillips script. The first effort, Joseph de Chavigny, had failed to achieve popularity, but this one succeeded. The Times explained this change in audience receptivity by saying, "The author has evidently discovered that reflection, nowadays, will not compensate for a lack of action ... [The] interest of the tale, the variety of incidents, and the abandonment of a certain cynical view of the world and its principles of action, evince a knowledge of the wants of the public of which the earlier drama gave no sign" (January 13, 1858). The Adelphi's stars were also well served by the play. The Times noted that Webster made "one of his most characteristic pictures" and that "finer melodramatic acting need not be desired than that of Mme. Celeste." The production ran for forty-six nights.

The month of February occasioned the return of the American actors, Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams, to the Adelphi. Their appearance in Yankee Courtship provided an opportunity for the Times to comment again upon the artistic merits of the peculiar genre of their material. "[T]here is a sort of fixed routine of carelessness in the true Yankee farces that makes them look like constant repetitions of the same work.... Without Mrs. Barney Williams the piece would be mere purposeless trash. With [her] it becomes a vehicle of one of the most genial and animated pictures of national character that can be conceived" (February 16, 1858). Likewise Samuel Lover's Rory O'More, which showcased Barney Williams' talents, was described by the Times critic as "one of the most disjointed works ever put on theatrical boards" when it opened on March 1 (March 2, 1858). Nevertheless the critic admitted that that play contained "one of the best low Irish parts to be found in the modern repertory" and that Williams had successfully interpreted the role. The Athenaeum commentator concurred, writing that he had never seen the piece better acted (March 6, 1858).

The Williamses' third contribution to the season, Hour in Seville by Charles Selby, was described by the Times as "a complete success" after it opened on March 10, 1858 (March 11, 1858). As a "personation piece," it offered Mrs. Williams eight different characters to play, including her signature character, the "Yankee gal." The Times declared, "In constructing the piece Mr. Selby has evinced far more dramatic skill than is usually bestowed where the sole object is the assemblage of a number of heterogeneous characters." Along with Happy Man, Irish Tutor, and Ireland As It Is, Hour in Seville closed out the Williams' engagement at the Adelphi.

With the closing of the theatre for reconstruction on June 2, the Adelphi company moved to the Surrey Theatre for the summer. After his benefit performance, Webster

addressed the audience in a speech recalling old memories of the theatre, and afterwards received a testimonial from the company in the form of a valuable gold watch, bearing this inscription: "This remembrance of the old Adelphi and its fortunes for fourteen years was presented to Benjamin Webster after the last performance, on Wednesday night, 2nd of June, 1858. The funds for its purchase were raised by a general subscription in every department of the theatre, one and all rejoicing in the opportunity 'of recording their respect for the man, admiration of the actor, and confidence in the manager'" (Blanchard, Era Almanack, 1877, 8).

On June 16, the Times announced that Webster had laid the stone for the new theatre's foundation on the previous day.

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

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