The 1859-1860 Season

By Alicia Kae Koger

In the last season of the decade, Adelphi manager Benjamin Webster finally found the box office hits he had sought since the early 1850's. Watts Phillips' The Dead Heart, William Brough's Dinorah Under Difficulties, and Charles Gayler's Our Female American Cousin all succeeded in drawing the large audiences to the New Adelphi. Although the company's well-loved director, Celine Celeste, did not appear during the season, other popular stars filled the bills including John L. Toole, Paul Bedford, Alfred Wigan, Mrs. Wigan, Sarah Woolgar Mellon, Julia Daly, and Webster himself.

After opening the season on September 26, 1859, with several weeks of revivals, Webster premiered Brough's burlesque of a popular Meyerbeer opera, Le Pardon de Ploermel currently playing at Covent Garden. Dinorah Under Difficulties featured a prize role for John L. Toole who received credit for the production's success. The London Times wrote "The whole substance of the piece rests with Mr. Toole's impersonation of Dinorah" (November 8, 1859). The extravaganza ran for seventy nights to the hearty approval of the Adelphi's audiences.

November 10 saw the premiere of one of the most successful plays of the decade, Watts Phillip's The Dead Heart. This "distinguished success" (as the Times labeled it on November 11) showcased the acting of Benjamin Webster. In a follow-up article on November 28, the Times wrote "Webster, whose return to his own boards has given a new tone to his establishment, rarely finds a part more suitable to his powers" than the character of Robert Landry. The Athenaeum reviewer concurred writing, "As an artistic delineation [Webster's] Robert Landry stands, in the present day, alone. There is no London actor who can compete with it, in its rough strength and its intense feeling" (November 19, 1859). Phillip's script, too, received high praise from the Times, which wrote that it abounded "in strong incidents, and [was] wrought up with a rare degree of elaboration" (November 11, 1959) and contained "dialogue far above the usual level" (November 28, 1859). Webster's management of the piece was cited in the press as well: "Highly is the manager to be commended for the way in which he has disciplined his masses to accomplish effects on a grand scale" (Times, November 28, 1859). The Dead Heart's eighty-performance run broke the pattern of revivals and short-term successes which had prevailed in the latter half of the decade. In noting this accomplishment, the Times reviewer wrote,

While the last few weeks have been marked by a series of ephemeral productions, the perpetual variation of play-bills being caused less by a spirit of enterprise than by the want of some striking work that could prove a permanent attraction, it is no small credit to Mr. Watts Phillips that he is the author of a drama which has remained firm on the boards, and has brought the old Adelphi popularity to the new Adelphi edifice (November 28, 1859).

The Christmas season brought a dramatization of Dickens' A Christmas Carol by Edward Stirling and an extravaganza by Henry J. Bryon called The Nymph of the Lurleyberg; or, The Knight and the Naiads. Neither received much notice in the press. The season's next major premiere was Our Female American Cousin by Charles Gayler, which featured the talents of the American actress, Julia Daly. Miss Daly specialized in the "Yankee gal" roles made famous by her predecessor at the Adelphi, Mrs. Barney Williams. Her performance compared favorably to Mrs. Williams', however, and the Times wrote of her, "All those details of behaviour that so much amuse the modern audiences who study Yankee peculiarities on the English stage she executes in an arch, sly, unexaggerated fashion" (May 1, 1860). Julia Daly also appeared in The Fool of the Family, another American import, in July. As it had done frequently during the Williams' tenure, the Times complained of the lack of originality in the Yankee farce but conceded "the dialect and metaphors peculiar to our Transatlantic kinsmen, though they have lost their novelty, are always amusing and sayings already familiar acquire freshness from the peculiar archness and quiet humour of Miss Julia Daly" (July 14, 1860).

Another moderately successful piece, It's an Ill Wind that Blows Nobody Good by John Oxenford, starred Alfred Wigan, who with his wife had joined the Adelphi company during the previous season. This drama was "mainly intended to exhibit the talent of Mr. Wigan" but also received notice for the "great pains ...taken in the pictorial department" (Times, May 15, 1860). The production ran for a modest thirty performances.

The remainder of the season was occupied with revivals from the recent and distant past. Dion Boucicault's The Willow Copse played for thirty-six nights and garnered critical acclaim for several members of the acting company. In addition to Webster's portrayal of Luke Fielding, Sarah Woolgar Mellon's Meg and John L. Toole's Augustus de Rosherville were cited by the Times, which described the play as "one of the best acted pieces in London" (September 30, 1859). Other revivals included Williams' Ici On Parle Francais, Buckstone's Flowers of the Forest, and Boucicault's Janet Pride, featuring Webster as Richard Pride, his most celebrated role of the decade.

The season concluded on September 8, 1860, after benefits for Benjamin Webster, William Smith, and the rapidly-rising comedian, John L. Toole. It had included 292 performances of thirty-seven plays.

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

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