The 1858-1859 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

As the autumn theatrical season began in 1858, the London Times reported on the progress of the Adelphi's rebuilding. Noting that "the roof ... will be put on within the next six weeks," the Times cited significant changes in the building's structure: "The new building will cover a somewhat larger area than was comprised within the old house.... The ground also will be excavated to a depth of ten or eleven feet below the original level, to get space required beneath the pit and stage" (September 8, 1858). Architect T. H. Wyatt designed the building and J. Wilson supervised construction. According to the Era Almanack 1877, the total length of the new theatre comprised 114 feet, 6 inches (8). Its height from pit to ceiling was 57 feet. The stage measured 56 feet deep and 63 feet, 6 inches wide, with a proscenium opening of 35 feet in height and 38 feet in width. The house measured 48 feet from the back of the boxes to the proscenium. With these changes, the Adelphi became "almost the largest minor theatre in London" (Times, December 22, 1858).

The approaching Christmas season brought the long-anticipated opening of the New Adelphi. The December 22, 1859, edition of the London Times carried an extensive description of the theatre's new interior design. Calling the Adelphi "the newest, and now the prettiest theatre in the metropolis," the Times reporter wrote that it was "constructed with a view to the comfort of its audience, the richness of its decorations, and general splendour of its effect." Noting the theatre's expanded size, he continued, "this space is so carefully and judiciously broken that the idea of space is entirely removed, and the audience see only a series of most graceful curves marking the line of the boxes, and the fronts of which are so decorated as to make them the richest and most effective portions of its internal architecture." The interior designer used wrought iron and white and gold decoration in achieving this effect. On the front of the first balcony was "a light and exquisitely wrought iron railing decorated with white and gold," and "beautiful spiral cast-iron columns, with elaborate capitals in white and gold" supported the upper tier whose front had "white and gold decorations, with panels in bas-relief representing the figures of the Muses." Above this the gallery stalls also boasted sumptuous decoration "adorned in panels with medallion portraits of the chief dramatic authors." The ceiling was decorated in "Genoese style," with "excellent paintings of the four seasons" adding to the illusion of a high dome. Finally, "the proscenium, and the ceiling immediately over it, [were] covered with bold yet delicate traceries in white and gold." The decorations were illuminated by "one of Stroud's patent sunlights" hidden "by an exquisitely formed chandelier ... furnished by Defries and Sons."

The new theatre provided seating for members of all social and economic classes. The Queen's box was situated on the west side of the proscenium, the Prince of Wales' box on the east. There were two rows of seats in the first balcony, flanked by a row of boxes. The gallery tier had gallery stalls and "the usual side galleries." The theatre's "pit" level included a "part nearest the orchestra ... railed off for three rows of orchestra stalls.... Behind these are four rows of pit stalls." The theatre seated fifteen hundred people.

With the opening of the new building, Adelphi manager Benjamin Webster instituted some new management practices which evoked praise from the Times. First he lowered the theatre's ticket prices. Previously, prices had ranged from 5/- for seats in the stalls to 1/- for gallery seats. Now, while private boxes and family stalls cost two guineas and one pound respectively, seats in the orchestra stalls cost 5/-, the balcony and dress circle 4/-, the first circle stalls 3/-, the pit stalls 2/-, pit 1/6d, amphitheatre stalls 1/-, and the gallery, 6d. In addition, the Times reported that "when a visitor books his seat at the box office he becomes its proprietor ... and up to the very close of the performance it is retained for him without any further charge."

At the Adelphi's opening, the Times predicted "the fresh course on which it is entering will be as prosperous to its manager and popular with the public as during its best days of old." The season commenced with the traditional Christmas pantomime, a farce called Mr. Webster's Company is Requested at a Photographic Soiree, and a revival of John Buckstone's Good for Nothing. Other revivals included James R. Planche's The Invisible Prince, Taylor and Reade's Masks and Faces, and Buckstone's Flowers of the Forest. Among the season's new offerings, Thomas Williams' Ici On Parle Francais scored the greatest success with sixty-two performances. It featured the Adelphi's newest comedian, John Toole, who had joined the company with the opening of the remodeled theatre. Tom Taylor's The House? or The Home? also proved to be a popular new script. The Times, evidently weary of Webster's heavy reliance on revivals, wrote, "A new piece, that is likely to achieve a permanent success, and to gain something like a solid reputation, has at last been produced at the magnificent theatre" (May 17, 1859). It ran for fifty nights.

The season closed with benefits for William Smith, Paul J. Bedford, and Carter, relying on revivals of Victorine, The Wreck Ashore, and The Lottery Ticket to attract audiences. The Athenaeum noted that the Adelphi did not yet have a new artistic philosophy to match its new decorations: "The performances at this house continue experimental; and we are yet left in doubt as to the course intended to be taken by Mr. Webster" (August, 27, 1859).

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

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