The 1860-1861 Season

By Alfrida Lee

The season could be called Dion Boucicault's success story at the Adelphi Theatre. He had returned from America, and the season opened with considerable eclat with his latest play, The Colleen Bawn, already a success in New York. He and Agnes Robertson (his wife) performed major roles. The play is noteworthy for several reasons. First, that nearly all of the fifteen characters spoke in an Irish accent--no small demand on the performers--and on the audience. Opinions on this were mixed. The Times (11 September) seemed to think that this went too far. "In future representations it might be as well to limit the necessity of speaking with an Irish brogue to those personages who stand as types of Irish character." The Athenaeum (15 September) was, however, untroubled by this:

It is not possible that all the speakers could have been accentually correct, but the ensemble was well maintained, and though the effect was certainly felt to be odd for the first few scenes, the sensation gradually wore off, and the mind willingly surrendered itself to the normal condition of the dialogue.

This is no doubt fair comment as the play was well supported from the first night throughout its record long run--231 performances. There was a strong cast including C. H. Stephenson, new from Dublin, Edmund Falconer, Miss Woolgar, and Mr. and Mrs. Billington, all of whom received praise from the Theatrical Journal (19 September). The popularity of the play is attested by the same critic, who wrote on 19 December:

Of the Adelphi we would fain say more, but really the difficulty of finding a place beneath the roof of this most popular theatre has been, and is so great, that we must dismiss our review of it by saying that greater success never attended any theatre since the production of The Colleen Bawn or, what is still better, we hear that it well merits the patronage which has been bestowed upon it.

Thus the success of the season both for the management and for Dion Boucicault's play was assured. His talent as an actor was already well-known.

The production was also of considerable significance for writers for the theatre. Boucicault pioneered a royalty system by making a "novel proposal" to Webster, the manager, for The Colleen Bawn. "Instead of asking for a lump sum, he suggested sharing terms--and found himself eventually richer by 10,000 pounds.... The practice did not become universal until the 1880s" (History of English Drama, 5: 69).

The scenery was spectacular. The Observer (16 September) described "the well-painted set and the lake on the stage in which the body of a young girl was seen." Some of the action was no less spectacular. The second act was "brought to a triumphant close when Dion Boucicault took a header into the water" to rescue her. As Boucicault was an actor of exceptional vigor, he, no doubt, included this in the piece to show off his prowess. The Times referred to his "famous header."

On the same bill was a short farce, She Would be an Actress, probably by Boucicault and evidently written for Agnes Robertson, as she played several roles. At least two critics considered it worthy of comment, acknowledging her talents, though the performance, following The Colleen Bawn, was evidently very demanding. The Times made the point that the Irish jig concluding the piece "would have been encored, had she been less fatigued."

The post-Christmas play was Bluebeard from a New Point of Hue, which did not interrupt the run of The Colleen Bawn; both appeared on the bills until Holy Week. Bluebeard proved to be popular. "The principal characters are well-sustained," wrote the Morning Post (26 December) and the Times (27 December) made a special mention of J. L. Toole who, as Abomelique, alias Bluebeard, "was the life and soul of the representation." The Theatrical Journal lavished praise on the scenery; "peculiarly brilliant and appropriate;" on the music; and on "the processions, dances and groupings arranged by Mr. W. Smith." Some of the humor was topical. A punning rhyme beginning, "This is the very coinage of the brain," alluded to the new penny pieces of 1860.

Even more topical was a new farce, The Census, described as an "apropos sketch," given as an afterpiece from 15 April 1861, and running for sixty-five performances. The 1861 census was the first in Great Britain to list people by name. The Observer (21 April), describing the farce as "a diverting squib," wrote that although "based on the slightest possible material" it was "so ingenuously contrived, and so ludicrously demonstrative of the perplexities which, by an extravagant supposition, might arise out of the late Government measure for 'numbering the people' as to keep the audience in a perfect roar of laughter throughout the whole of the short twenty minutes it takes to enact."

The Colleen Bawn was withdrawn after Easter while Boucicault was on tour in Ireland. Its place was taken by Magloire, the Prestigiator, an adaptation of a French play. Webster gave a talented performance in the title role; the play, however, was inordinately long, with a preface which "however excellent as a dramatic sketch in itself, is wholly unnecessary" (Observer, 7 April).

The run of The Colleen Bawn recommenced at the end of April and continued until the end of the second week in July, when Boucicault left for Paris. It was replaced by a revival of The Dead Heart, described by the Morning Post (2 July) as "the impressive play ... with Mr. B. Webster in his great character of Robert Landry."

Two new short pieces, Mr. Gorilla and The Pretty Horsebreaker, were added to the repertoire.

Various plays were given for the three benefit nights, for William Smith, acting manager; J. L. Toole, the popular comedian; and John W. Anson, the treasurer. Toole's benefit was reviewed in the Morning Post (29 August). Despite the warm weather, "the house was full to overflowing." Webster may well have been an added attraction for the evening, appearing in the main character in his own "petite drama," One Touch of Nature. "The entertainment passed off with eclat and Mr. Toole experienced a very hearty reception." Anson took the last benefit of 4 September, which brought the season to a close--a very successful one for the manager, the Boucicaults, J. L. Toole and other performers.

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

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