The 1863-1864 Season

By Alfrida Lee

The opening play, Leah, was the oustanding success of the season. Both the play and the actress, Miss Kate Bateman, in the title role had already had tremendous success in America. The play was an adaptation of a German piece, Deborah, by Joseph Mosenthal, of which an Italian version had been brought out at Her Majesty's Theatre with Madame Ristori as the principal character. The American adaptation added some "melodramatic incident" by including a murder. Kate Bateman was the elder of two sisters who had appeared as children "some ten or twelve years earlier" (Athenaeum, 10 October). The Times was enthusiastic. "Miss Bateman made a most triumphant debut last night.... [There was] an unusually large audience. For some time to come she will probably remain the centre of theatrical interest in the capital" (2 October). The reviewer described the piece as a "drama with a purpose" which seemed to intend "to vindicate the Hebrew race." Nevertheless, the part was not an easy one since the character was not attractive; unfortunate, yes, therefore exciting pity, but vindictive and "the sport of violent passions," cursing the man she had once loved. Later in the play, the actress had to portray a change of heart, not merely by being forgiving, but by trying to compensate for her earlier conduct. The Athenaeum noted that commonly, early precocity on the stage did not continue into adult life. In this respect, of course, Miss Bateman was an exception: "She has suffered, however, from too early practice. Her voice, strained in infancy beyond its natural pitch, has acquired and settled into a stage-monotone, which, although it may sufficiently mark the sense of the dialogue, deprives it of music, flexibility and feeling." Some similar thought was present in the Times review (22 October), which after again complimenting her performance, made some comment about her "American tonics," but added: "It should be the privilege of genius to demand that inharmonious minutiae shall be practically ignored when a great comprehensive design is grandly executed." The Observer (4 October) gives some idea of the visual impression of her performance. "Miss Bateman is neither tall of stature nor particularly good-looking, but her countenance is capable of great expression, while her attitudes are singularly free, elegant and artistic."

The scenic effects in Leah were considerable. Eleven separate scenes are mentioned on the bill, though two (a room in a house) may have been identical. The play was performed nightly until 11 June with one break during Holy Week. The Observer (3 April) stated that "the opportunity has been seized during the break to re-paint and in some respects to re-arrange the scenery, so that the drama is now seen under some advantages in the appliances of stage effect.... It is, we believe, an almost unprecedented fact in theatrical history that one part be played in a piece the success of which depends entirely upon a single female character to crowded houses for 150 nights." In all it was played for 211 nights. Her last night was a triumph for Miss Bateman. The Athenaeum (18 June) reported, "during and after the performance of Leah, she was greeted with plaudits and more bouquets than she could bear, by a numerous audience. She was assisted in carrying them from the stage by Mr. Webster, who addressed the house in favor of the lady." Her return was announced for the following January. The play had been seen by the King of the Greeks and the Prince and Princess of Wales when they visited the theatre on 7 September.

For the Christmas season a light-hearted afterpiece, The Lady Belle Belle; or, Fortunio and His Seven Magic Men, by H. J. Byron, was introduced. It was founded on a popular story by the Countess d'Aulnoy (playbill 26 December). The Times thought Byron had "treated the subject with considerable dramatic skill, the story being condensed into a single act without detriment to its clearness of plot" (28 December). The Athenaeum (2 January) reviewed the piece favorably, "Here the author is at home." Both critics praised the scenery and both made the inevitable comment on Byron's abundant use of puns. The Times quoted one. One character, a count, has no son: "His life has been one long winter without a sun." If the critics sometimes felt the puns were too much of a good thing, one can only suppose that the audiences must have loved to squirm. Byron's pieces were popular.

In March 1864, the second long-distance runner was introduced. This was an afterpiece, The Area Belle, by W. Brough and A. Halliday, performed for 128 nights. The plot was full of the crises that are the very stuff of farce. The sensation of the piece was a scene in which a man, one of two rival lovers, seemed about to be boiled alive in a copper only to be rescued in the nick of time. After giving an account of the plot, the Athenaeum (12 March) concluded, "The latter part of the farce created great excitement, and brought the curtain down with tumultuous applause." Success was assured.

A special production commemorating Shakespeare's tercentenary was given on 23 April. Performances had been promised by six theatres including the Adelphi in aid of the National Shakespeare Fund. Whereas others offered one of Shakespeare's plays, the Adelphi gave a sketch called Shakespeare's House by Joseph Coyne. It included "a diorama showing characters and scenes from Shakespeare's plays," and showed the interior and exterior of his house in Stratford. It was not the main production of the evening, as it was on the same program as Leah and an afterpiece, and after 11 June it was performed with other pieces. The Adelphi may well have made a better choice of production than some of the other theatres which did little honor to Shakespeare by offering Garrick's version of Romeo and Juliet, and other plays with important scenes omitted. Apparently these versions were submitted to the National Shakespeare Committee which "did nothing more than nod its head when these several programs were submitted to it" (Richard Foulkes, The Shakespeare Tercentenary, and the Morning Star, 2 May 1864). The Adelphi piece seems to have been popular as it was performed for 123 nights.

There was a special performance for the benefit of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wigan on 9 July. Two pieces put on for this evening only were A Scrap of Paper, in which they appeared together, and First Night, written by Wigan himself, in which he performed. Shakespeare's House and The Area Belle made up the program. This was the only occasion on which the Wigans appeared during the season and no particular reason was given for their having a benefit. It was the occasion of a royal visit. The Times, 11 July, made no comment on the piece, but stated, "Mr. and Mrs. Wigan's benefit, which took place on Saturday night under the patronage of a numerous and brilliant audience, was honoured by the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales."

Webster continued to bring out new pieces during the summer. Two of these were slight farces, not much in themselves but providing opportunities for the performers to shine. One was My Wife's Maid by T. J. Williams, appearing on 8 August. "Some smart dialogue and good acting carry through the little piece, and provoke the laughter of the audience; but it makes no pretensions to any special merits. It was, however, sufficently successful to serve the purpose of its production-that of eking out the bill at a dull season of the year" (Athenaeum, 13 August).

Brough and Halliday were the authors of another new farce, The Actors' Retreat, brought out on 11 August. According to the Athenaeum, 20 August, it was in honor of the Dramatic College. It was "a slight occasional affair;" its effect depending "on the acting of Mr. J. L. Toole" who, "we need not add ... made the most of his material." There were 29 performances, three more than for My Wife's Maid.

Another new piece was a comedietta, A Woman of Business, by Benjamin Webster, Jr., put on at the end of August and performed until the end of the season. This, too, had no great claims to originality. "The drama is probably of French origin, and has few claims to novelty; it serves ... the purpose of exhibiting to the best advantage the talents of Mrs. Stirling and Mr. J. L. Toole" (Athenaeum, 3 September). The final comment was, "The curtain fell to much applause; the new piece, indeed, was decidedly successful." The Times (31 August) found "a refreshing change" in the plot, as the villain of the piece, played by Toole, was a country bumpkin. The criticism is an interesting comment on popular ideas of heroes and villains. "The stage is in the habit of teaching us that vice is the prerogative of large towns, and that unmitigated virtue is to be found in the provinces. For the last eighty years at least our theatrical boards have been inundated by countrymen who have hearts of the finest quality under exceedingly ugly waistcoats, but Mr. Toole presents us with a swain who, with the ugliest costume, has, morally speaking, no heart at all." The acting of Mr. and Mrs. Billington was complimented.

In the last fortnight of the season, J. L. Toole appears to have given a marathon performance for his benefit. He appeared in a new play, Stephen Digges, by John Oxenford, in the title role. "The part was written expressly for this actor, who is evidently ambitious of taking the place left vacant by the late Mr. Robson" (Athenaeum, 1 October). The Times said it was "a considerable undertaking," and "the success of the piece can be attributed in great measure to the acting of Toole." He also appeared in two other pieces, one of them, The Babes in the Wood, put on for the first time in this season.

As in 1863, the season closed with Webster's benefit. It had doubtless been a very satisfying one. The production of Leah had ensured success for more than half the season. Interest was maintained till the close on 24 September by programs which included a variety of plays giving opportunities for performers to display their talents.

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

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