The 1861-1862 Season

By Alfrida Lee

The season, opening on 23 September, seemed to promise as much brilliant success for Boucicault and the theatre as the previous one. During what was described as "the brief recess," less than three weeks, the theatre had undergone some "renovation," presumably redecoration, and some of the scenery had been re-painted. The opening play (no surprise) was The Colleen Bawn, which had lost nothing in popularity by its absence of more than two months. "The scene last night was a repetition of the old enthusiasm. Every part of the house was crammed." As before, the performance of Boucicault was a significant factor in the success of the piece. His "famous 'header' was honoured with all the appearance of admiring wonder" (Times 24 September). It is, perhaps, worth comment that the idea was not Boucicault's own. The dive and the gauze waters were suggested to him by the stage carpenter at Laura Keene's Theatre in New York when it was first produced. "Why not try a dive for something new? A dive would go better than an ordinary jump, sir" (The Career of Dion Boucicault, 81).

The Colleen Bawn had an uninterrupted run until 16 November 1862, and was revived at intervals for the next eight months. During its very long run, beginning in September 1860, Queen Victoria visited the Adelphi three times, the third being her last visit to any theatre (Career, 79).

The run was expected to end on 8 November, for the theatre to be closed for one night for a rehearsal of The Octoroon, which was to be shown on the following Monday, but its opening night was delayed for a week. Meanwhile, the Athenaeum (9 November) pointed out defects in the production of The Colleen Bawn. "The drollest feature ... was the variety of brogues and dialects, or attempts at them, employed by the actors, and indeed, actresses, some of whom, at the least, seemed heartily weary of their parts, of which we may say there is not a good one in the piece, save that acted by Mr. Boucicault himself." Its popularity, and that of other "poor pieces," was mainly the result of audiences being composed of visitors to London glad to see anything.

Audiences certainly showed their preferences when The Octoroon, also by Boucicault and already played in New York with considerable success, was shown. "The Octoroon narrowly escaped entire failure from a singular cause--namely, the death, instead of the triumph, of the heroine. This shows a sympathy in the audience, at which Mr. Boucicault, in a published letter, affects surprise. But the English do not like to see their heroines sacrificed" (Athenaeum, 23 November). The Times (19 November) commented on the audience's sympathy for the death of the heroine: "To this feeling alone can we ascribe the few sounds of disapprobation which followed the descent of the curtain last night, and contrasted so strangely with the enthusiastic applause that had accompanied the first four acts." Nothing comparable to "the header" was apparently forthcoming--hardly suitable to save a girl from the effects of poison, but a dramatic effect missed by the audience. The sensational factor, this time, was a steamer on fire. The Observer (24 November), while praising the production and the acting, gave adverse criticism less for the unhappy ending than the "manner and the means by which it is brought about. The play, until the final scene ... never assumes anything of the tragic form, but is conducted throughout upon the basis of ordinary melodrama.... Under these circumstances, the shock of Zoe's death is more than the audience is disposed to bear." In less than a month, Boucicault changed the ending. Even so, The Octoroon never attained sufficient popularity to be the main attraction.

It had begun with a promising cast, with the Boucicaults in the major roles and George Jamieson as Old Pete, a character in which "he was never surpassed" in New York (Career, p. 69). However, after the first week, Boucicault was replaced in the role of Salem Scudder by Delman Grace for a fortnight, during which he wrote "a new last act of the drama composed by the public and edited by the author" (playbill, 9 December). There were no further complaints, but, to secure a good audience, The Colleen Bawn was put on with The Octoroon. Except during the week following the death of the Prince Consort, this arrangement continued until 8 February. This was clearly a great strain on the Boucicaults. Mrs. Boucicault, having succumbed to illness, was replaced from 24 December until 29 January when she returned but only to The Colleen Bawn. Dion Boucicault, who continued to perform in The Colleen Bawn, was again replaced by Delman Grace in The Octoroon from 24 December to 8 February.

A prolific writer, Boucicault was never at a loss to produce fresh pieces. In February he brought out The Dublin Boy, an adaptation in two acts of Le Gamin de Paris, with the scene transferred to Dublin. The Times and the Athenaeum accredit Mrs. Boucicault with a praiseworthy performance as the "gamin," Andy. The play replaced The Colleen Bawn, but it was not adequate to support The Octoroon. It lasted less than three weeks and was played only once more and that for St. Patrick's Day. The Octoroon was taken off at the same time, though a fresh attempt was made to show it, this time reduced to four acts, on 26 May.

Boucicault's new piece, A Life of an Actress, in which he and Mrs. Boucicault appeared, was more successful. His portrayal of the main character placed Boucicault "in the front rank as an artist of versatile abilities and a comprehensive mind" (Athenaeum 8 March). But if his performance was faultless, it seemed the play was not. "The new play was exceedingly successful up to the end of the third act," and in the Times (3 March), "All that followed might be considered an anti-climax." The Athenaeum continued, "We are not quite sure that the drama itself (which is partly compilation and partly adaptation) will add much to his reputation as a dramatist; but his reputation as an actor must be augmented by the skill and tact with which he has embodied and supported the part of its hero." Other performers were praised. The play lasted for six weeks, being supported for five nights by The Colleen Bawn.

For the first time, dramatic pieces were not replaced by some other form of entertainment during Holy Week, but as was customary, the house was dark on Good Friday. Boucicault put on a production of Dot, new to English audiences. The Athenaeum (19 April) paid tribute to his dramatic perception in the writing. "On Monday, Mr. Boucicault introduced to the public his version of Mr. Charles Dickens's charming story of The Cricket on the Hearth, and achieved a deserved success. His version differs from preceding adaptations by the adapter's dealing freely and dramatically with the story, and thus avoiding that obscurity and mystery, which, in its original state, were calculated to puzzle rather than please an audience.... The efforts of the management were fully appreciated by the audience; and the little Dot is, we think, likely to prove a great success."

For Easter, the indefatigable Boucicault brought out another piece in two acts, The Phantom, to run with Dot. This play was not entirely new. It was "substantially the same drama that was produced at the Princess's under Mr. Kean's management.... The drama has certainly been improved by compression, omission and alteration and the denoument is altogether different" (Athenaeum, 26 April). Boucicault's acting, and that of other performers, John Toole in particular, were praised. But it was not a successful play, possibly owing to the distasteful subject-matter. It was performed with Dot for less than five weeks, with twenty-four performances in all. Dot fared rather better, running for forty-seven performances. The Octoroon, reduced to four acts, was re-introduced during the last fortnight of this run. It had no more success than before, and there is no means of knowing whether it was its failure that finally brought about the disagreement which terminated the partnership of Webster and Boucicault. The Octoroon was performed at the Adelphi for the last time on 21 June. The partnership between Webster and Boucicault was at an end.

On the bill for the following week, Webster's explanation strongly shows his resentment:

Mr. Dion Boucicault, while claiming to be a partner of Mr. Webster, having transferred his services to a rival establishment in the immediate neighborhood, and having up to this morning (23 June) nothing to propose for the week's entertainment but The Octoroon or Dot, Mr. Webster ... compelled to assume the sole management ... is obliged, in self-defence, rather than close the theatre, to bring out the only piece likely to prove attractive to his numerous patrons, namely, The Colleen Bawn.

Webster's resentment seems justified because there was no satisfactory substitute for Boucicault or The Octoroon, especially as Dot had "occasioned losses when played previously." Boucicault had his own plans already laid. He opened immediately at Drury Lane, for a summer season, with his production of The Colleen Bawn and presumably took his "famous header" with him. It is hardly necessary to say that his production was a success, but in the comments of the critics one detects a certain sympathy for Webster. The Observer (30 June) said that he had been driven "into a corner by Mr. Boucicault's sudden secession from the stage management." This newspaper and the Athenaeum (28 June) gave favorable criticism of the production, apart from admitting the inadequacy of the performance of Agnes Burdett, who took the part of Eily O'Connor (Mrs. Boucicault's role). The Athenaeum saw no reason why both houses should not continue with the play. "It appears to us that each theatre addresses its peculiar class, and interferes but little with the other." The Colleen Bawn was, however, performed for only a fortnight, during which time Webster made arrangements for some fresh productions using none of Boucicault's plays. A revival of The Dead Heart followed, with Webster appearing as Robert Landry, the role "which was one of the most remarkable in his repertory" (Times, 12 July).

Two new pieces were brought out, probably to introduce Avonia Jones from Drury Lane. Neither had favorable reviews. The first was Medea and neither the play nor the actress had much appeal. After a fortnight it was replaced by Adrienne Lecouvreur, but like Medea this did not prove to be a success. Another revival, Flowers of the Forest followed. Then, after a week, Webster himself gave a much-needed fillip to the end of the season by appearing as Mr. Penholder in One Touch of Nature. The Athenaeum (20 September) commented: "It is a drama which has now established itself on these boards, as the vehicle for the actor's speciality in the exact representation of character, combining humor and pathos with the commonplaces of everyday life."

For his benefit, Webster revived The Green Bushes, a piece by Buckstone that had been very popular in the 1840s. This play seemed to be more suited to the talents of Avonia Jones than the other productions in which she had appeared. For that night only Webster revived The Woman-Hater, in which he gave an outstanding performance.

During the season two new short pieces were produced and both proved popular. Like The Census, A Shilling Day at the Great Exhibition was topical, the scene being the interior of the International Exhibition. A farce by the same authors, it merited favorable reviews in the Times and the Athenaeum. Played ninety-nine times as an afterpiece, it no doubt enlivened some dull programs. It came out on 9 June and had a run of ninety-nine performances. The other new piece was A Private Inquiry by an unknown author. It was played as a curtain-raiser thirty-eight times from 24 March. This, too, had favorable reviews, the Athenaeum (29 March) concluding, "as the first work of a young author, it contains much dramatic promise." Unfortunately, the author remains unknown.

The scenery took the eye of the critics in more than one play and the painters, T. Grieve and W. Telbin, were complimented.

As a whole the season was very uneven and could not be described as highly successful except during the opening weeks. However, after the trauma of the sudden departure of Boucicault, Webster, by his benefit night, had got the measure of what would appeal to his audiences. The evening was a great success and "when the curtain fell, Mr. Webster, in obedience to a hearty and irresistible call, came forward and by a few grateful and graceful words addressed to his audience, completed the sense of admiration which the performance of the evening produced" (Observer, 28 September). With The Green Bushes and A Shilling Day continuing to be popular, the Adelphi seemed set on course for a new successful season.

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

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