The 1862-1863 Season

By Alfrida Lee

There was no break between the seasons in 1862. The program continued steadily on with the assured popularity of Green Bushes supported by A Shilling Day. Without the Boucicaults, the season was not marked by the spectacular success of 1860-1861 nor by a setback such as was caused by their dramatic departure in the following year. This season had its own success and no letdowns.

There was considerable strength in the company, and Webster himself performed more frequently. The chief comedian was John Toole, "who combined humour with pathos" (Oxford Companion to the Theatre, 3rd ed.). The American actress, Avonia Jones, engaged earlier in 1862, was judged to have considerable talent, though not without certain faults that irritated the critics. Others given critical acclaim were Mrs. Alfred Mellon (Miss Woolgar), Paul J. Bedford, and Mr. and Mrs. John Billington.

Unlike the previous season, when no new piece had been offered for the Christmas holidays, on 26 December, a new pantomime-cum-burlesque, George de Barnwell; or, Harlequin Folly in the Realms of Fancy, began its run of sixty-nine performances. The endeavor to encourage family audiences is shown in the innovation of matinees at 2 p.m. on four Saturdays in January, solely for the pantomime. From 31 January until the end of February, Saturday nights were juvenile nights. The pieces given were as other evenings, but the pantomime came first.

A special performance was given on 10 March 1863, to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. This was given gratuitously, admission by tickets only which would be issued on the day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The program included A Grey Mare, A Touch of Nature, and an epithalamium recited by Avonia Jones. The band was to play a Danish hymn and other appropriate music.

In addition to theatrical benefits, an unusual one was given in December 1862 to aid the band fund of the London and Westminster Rifles (46th Middlesex).

In all, eleven new pieces appeared, one of them, presumably a trifle, The Rosebud of Stinging-nettle Farm, being given only once. But others were more noteworthy. There can be no doubt of the success of the first of these, Ticket of Leave, a farce, which played for sixty-one nights. The enthusiasm of the critics was a little tempered by their judgment of the suitability of the subject matter. The Athenaeum (26 December) wrote, "The notion of making a farce on the subject of the present state of criminality in this country one might have thought was somewhat hazardous, particularly in face of the general fear inspired by the garrotters. The attempt, however, has been successfully made at this theatre." An account of the plot was given, then "this is a grave basis for one of the funniest farces ever acted." The Times (23 December) is explicit about the reasons for its success. "It is the acting of Mr. Toole that converts a source of terror into a source of mirth. Throwing himself completely into the situation of the timid householder, this excellent comedian gives one of the most striking caricatures of overpowering fear that can be imagined."

The new pantomime in the same month was spectacular. The "magical transformation scene" by James was praised in the Observer (28 December). It was the work of H. J. Byron, a prolific writer of burlesque. In the Era Almanack, 1868, one reads, "To give a list of Mr.Byron's burlesques would be impossible within reasonable limits but nearly every theatre has profited by their production." The Adelphi evidently did, for, in addition to the pantomime, H. J. Byron was responsible for The Ill-treated Trovatore, which began on 1 June and ran for eighty-nine performances.

A major production of the season was The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, also produced in June. A dramatic version of Dickens's Haunted Man, its success was rather in the skill of producing apparitional illusions than in the drama itself. It was, however, well-acted. The Athenaeum (27 June) wrote, "The story is not very well made out in the accompanying drama; but Mr. Toole and Miss Woolgar (Mrs. Mellon), as Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby, have an opportunity for domestic acting of which they avail themselves in a remarkable manner." The build-up to its production came in announcements of "The Ghost! The Ghost! The Ghost!" followed by a few delays after its opening date was announced. The Times (22 June) gave a full description of the apparition which appears to have been contrived by having the actor, appropriately costumed and made up, standing in a well so that by some arrangement a reflection was seen by the audience. Of the piece as a whole, the final comment was, "As a vehicle for the mere purpose of exhibiting the ghost, the piece is too long; as a work with pretensions to dramatic interest it is too slight and obscure.... To the defects of the drama must be attributed the few sounds of disapprobation that were mingled with the applause at the fall of the curtain. They could not apply to the ghost, for the ghost had no fault save that of being extremely awful, and awfulness is a failing that decidedly leans to virtue's side in the case of the spectre." The production included five tableaux in which four apparitions appeared. A similar comment was made by the Observer (22 June), which, though full of praise for the "vividness of the illusions" and "The suddenness of their coming and going," felt that it was "regrettable that it was not done for a better dramatic purpose," and added "The piece was well received and will doubtless constitute one of the sights which all London will go to see." "All London" was hyperbole, but the piece was an undoubted success, running for eighty-five nights.

Two more plays by Brough and Halliday, authors of A Shilling Day, were given. The first new piece was A Valentine, produced, it need hardly be mentioned, in February. In a review of this in the Times (14 February), an interesting comment is made on the poor quality of many short pieces, "broad farces without fancy, boisterous without humor, [which] excite a species of mirth strongly resembling that occasioned by an ordinary row in the streets," but obviously Brough and Halliday did not sink to this level. The critic continued, "But we seldom find a farce so genial, so firmly based upon English life, and so racy in its humor.... It would seem to be the mission of these two authors, when combining their talents, to select some object immediately belonging to the actual world of the day, and to exhibit it in a grotesque shape, which allows them to show the most exuberant fancy, while preserving a general tone of truthfulness."

The second play was The Wooden Spoon Maker, a less successful piece by these two authors, billed as a "petite drama." The Times (15 May) thought it lacked the authors' usual ingenuity in the construction of the plot. The revelation to be made at the end was obvious in the first two minutes. The Athenaeum (23 May) dismissed the plot as "too simple for detail." It is evident that farce was the authors' true metier and a venture into drama found them at a loss. The success of the piece, and it was not without success, was due to the performance of Webster, who was able to make full use of his talents. The Athenaeum (30 May) added that it was "likely to become a favorite, and the hero one of the best impersonations of Webster." Its run was only twenty-two nights.

In this year Benjamin Webster, Jr. wrote his first plays for the Adelphi, all of them adaptations. A Grey Mare, a short piece, and The Hen and Chickens, in two acts, were both adapted from, or perhaps more correctly, based on, French originals. They were not translations but freely used material. The critics had little to say about either of these, except to comment on the performers. In the first piece, produced in February, there was humor, established by Toole's delineation of "a peppery conceited landholder" (Times, 12 February). The Athenaeum had more to say about The Hen and Chickens (29 August). "The adaptation has been skillfully accomplished.... There is a certain humanity about the theme and the action which recommends it to the sympathies of the audience."

The third play, Aurora Floyd, was an adaptation of a novel, in a prologue and three acts. Again Webster made his own alterations. His play was considered to be an improvement on the version already being played at the Princess's Theatre. The Athenaeum described what he had done. "According to stage exigency, he has both followed and altered the story, and modified or combined the characters.... The result is a powerful drama covering an indefinite extent of time, and occupying nearly four hours in the performance" (28 March 1963). The Times (7 April) commented, "The sensation drama, Aurora Floyd, which has been for some time the stock piece at this theatre, furnished thrilling incidents for the holyday folk," but later, when it was withdrawn, "to make way for the good Adelphi melodrama, Janet Pride," it was described as "somewhat cumbrous." Four hours, and that not the whole bill, did seem to require a great deal of stamina in the audience. It ran for thirty-three performances.

Janet Pride, first given at the Adelphi in 1855, was according to the bill, put on "by desire." The Observer (3 May) reported, "The revival of Janet Pride re-introduces Mr. Webster in one of those characters which he delights to portray, and in his artist-like and forcible delineation of which, he may be said to have no living equal upon the stage.... The re-production of the drama was greeted with every mark of the highest approval, and at no period of its successful career was it ever played with greater talent or livelier spirit." The acting of Avonia Jones as both Janets (mother and daughter) was commended. The trial scene especially, was impressive. Toole was described as "capital" as Janet's lover. Paul Bedford appeared in his role as Black Jack and his convict's song produced "roars of laughter."

Another revival in which Webster appeared was The Willow Copse. This was an adaptation of a French piece and is described in The Times (11 June) as "one of the favorite dramas of the old Adelphi Theatre, and its revival at the new was so far more important than its original production that Mr. Benjamin Webster played the character of Luke Fielding and made it one of his finest parts. An added attraction was the return of Mrs. Alfred Mellon to the stage after an absence of three months."

Neither Janet Pride, nor The Willow Copse, despite being loved by Adelphi audiences, was played for long. Both were taken off for new major productions.

It is evident from the above that there was no lack of enterprise on the part of Webster in his management. "Safe" pieces began the season and some well-tried plays were revived for short periods. Of the eleven new pieces, the choice of The Haunted Man, in its sheer novelty, showed an adventurous spirit in the manager. Some new pieces, not outstanding in themselves, gave opportunities for the performers to show their talents.

Not least were Webster's own performances in roles he had established as his own and the considerable contribution he made to the success of new plays in which he appeared. His own benefit on 26 September closed a season of varied and interesting programs.

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

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