The 1865-1866 Season

By Alfrida Lee

In the two weeeks before the season opened on 4 September, the theatre had been "entirely re-painted and re-embellished and the seats throughout re-stuffed and re-covered with costly material, in order to increase the comfort and accommodation of the numerous patrons of this establishment" (Times).

A new program and the first appearance in London of the popular American actor Joseph Jefferson marked the opening night. The play, which became the brilliant success of the season, was Rip Van Winkle by Boucicault. The evolution of this version from Washington Irving's original story is interesting. Boucicault's own account is that Jefferson was anxious to appear in London, but the managers would not accept him "unless he could offer them a new play. He had played [in America] a piece called Rip Van Winkle but when submitted to their perusal, they rejected it. Still he was so desirous of playing Rip that I took down Washington Irving's story and read it over. It was hopelessly undramatic." Boucicault suggested giving more interest by making Rip a "young scamp" instead of "an old beast." "Jefferson threw up his hands in despair. It was totally opposed to his artistic preconception. But I insisted, and he reluctantly conceded. Well, I wrote the play as he plays it now." Boucicault's biographer commented, "This anecdote ... is not intended to prove the play a great and glorious masterpiece. On the contrary, it is the veriest pot-boiler, and without Joseph Jefferson would not have long endured. But without Boucicault's clever turn of the wrist, the subtlest of actors could never have made the role of Rip attractive" (The Career of Dion Boucicault, 109-110).

The play was well reviewed on the whole. The Athenaeum (9 September) made a reference to American stars appearing at the Adelphi and considered the version of the drama had "the advantage of Mr. Boucicault's experience," adding that Jefferson had been "more prudent than his predecessor" in making "his debut in a play capable of standing the wear and tear of criticism." The Times, on September 6, made the point more emphatically. "Mr. Jefferson has this advantage over another distinguished American, Mr. J. E. Owens, that he appears in an interesting drama, and not amid surroundings of utter trash."

The Observer (10 September) gave slightly more qualified praise of the play, considering the version of the story successful, "retaining all the leading characteristics of the legend, with so much super-added as makes it an interesting, if not an altogether well-constructed drama." The carpenters' scenes would have been better omitted, and in making a good part for Jefferson, Boucicault had taken "great pains with those scenes in which the hero appeared and [had] taken little trouble with the others." There was some adverse criticism of the production itself. The Times thought that the "varied accents used by the performers had a false ring; common-sense tells us that all would talk alike." Jefferson's accent was described as more German than Dutch; the Observer described it as broken German. "The aging of Rip in twenty years seemed too great and that of the other characters too little."

The talent of Jefferson was unquestioned. The psychological quality of his performance was noted by the Times and the Observer, which added, "He is no mere surface actor; every look, tone and gesture perfectly in accord with the situation is an outward expression of character, and in this, with the utter absence of anything like exaggeration, combined with telling and picturesque action lie some of the rarer qualities of Mr. Jefferson as an artist." The production proved to be extremely popular, with an unbroken run of 172 performances.

During this time, two royal visits were made, one by Princess Louise on 3 December and the other by Princess Mary of Cambridge on 3 March 1866.

In December, John L. Toole returned to the Adelphi after a provincial tour to perform in Behind Time, a new farce in one act by Benjamin Webster, Jr. "It was not of a pretentious character either in plot or dialogue," but was "very amusing." Toole was "loudly and repeatedly applauded ... he announced that Behind Time would be repeated every evening until further notice." There were ninety-eight performances. He and "his old ally," Paul J. Bedford, appeared in The Steeplechase (Times, 27 December).

Another new farce was given in January, Pipkin's Rustic Retreat by T. J. Williams. The plot, with the basic idea of a Cockney in the country, had "been treated with some originality." Toole, as the Cockney, had to "represent intensive terror and rapid alterations of feeling.... He keeps the audience constantly amused by his rapid transitions and grotesque farce" (Observer, 21 January). It continued in performance until 24 March, which was also the last night of Rip Van Winkle.

In October, a play, Betty Martin, was taken off after only three nights. It seems that the illness of Mrs. Alfred Mellon (Miss Woolgar), who had the title role, accounted for its very brief run. She returned to the theatre on 26 March to appear in Through Fire and Water and The Wreck Ashore, while Behind Time continued in performance. The program was billed as "entire change of performance--extraordinary attraction for Passion Week." Toole appeared in all three plays. The Times (3 April) thought this program "made up no indifferent entertainment for the holydays."

The new production, in which Mrs. Mellon had the title roles, was Crying Jenny and Laughing Johnny, from Offenbach's opera, Jeanne qui pleure et Jean qui rit, adapted by Ben Webster, Jr., "who had performed the difficult task of fitting English words to French music." Johnny was Jenny in disguise, so that Mrs. Mellon was, in effect, playing two roles. "She acted with capital spirit and made a humorous crying song and a drinking song in praise of cider equally effective." Hers was not the only disguise. Toole sang a comic song wearing female apparel. The music included a song not belonging to the piece, "The Fairy and the Toad." "The music ... found a ready welcome from the audience" (Observer, 22 April). The Times reviewed the production favorably but later in the year had sharp criticism to make of adaptations of Offenbach in theatres without singers of the right calibre. However, this one was successful, being played fifty-four times.

Another adaptation from Offenbach appeared in June, a version by F. C. Burnard of Helen: or, Taken from the Greek. Of English productions generally, the Times (13 July) made the point that

we have no regular organized company of comic acting vocalists, with appropriate band and chorus ... theatrical managers intrust them [comic operas] to their burlesque companies and get a burlesque writer to furnish them with dialogue. They answer their purpose to a certain extent.... Helen may be ranked among the successful novelties of the summer season. But they do not acquire for their composer any of the musical reputation he must covet.

The Athenaeum (7 July) showed similar disapproval. "The rendering was free and easy, far too much so, we think, and certainly erred in vulgarising the pleasant wit of the original by broadly exaggerating it into burlesque. The music, of course, was beyond the general capabilities of the company, yet was better delivered than might have been expected." There was commendation for the chief performers. The Times, too, mentioned them individually. The production was considered a success.

Between these two productions, in May, one more new adaptation from the French was presented, The Fast Family by Benjamin Webster, Jr., from La Famille Benoiton by Victorien Sardou. The first act of the original, being introductory, was cut and the other four acts used. The Athenaeum (12 May) thought the whole "too long for an English audience." Following an account of the plot, the review continued, "The whole affair, it will be seen, is intensely Parisian; but the comedy shows so much talent, and is so well acted, that, as an illustration of modern French manners, it may prove welcome, as well as instructive." It ran for ninety-seven performances. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended the performance on 8 May.

On 11 June, a ballet, Le Flor de Sevilla, was given "for the first time ever." The Observer (17 June) noted that it had been brought out "for the purpose of introducing some Spanish dancers.... Without any extraordinary elegance or pantomimic power, they infuse so much life into their movements, and exhibit such plastic agility of limb and a determined desire to please that their efforts cannot fail to be received with applause." If nothing else, it added to the variety of the pieces given.

For his benefit on 29 August, Toole performed the character of Paul Pry, a part made famous by Liston "at the zenith of his popularity" forty years previously. There had been attempted revivals but only Edward Wright's was "yet answerable to the conception formed of it by the regular playgoer." What, then, did Toole bring to the role?

He takes a moral view of the character and then provides it with a fitting embodiment. The result is a wholly artistic portrait, a clever impersonation in which reflexion is made to resemble spontaneity.... It is wonderfully ingenious in its outline and plentifully filled up with striking details (Athenaeum, 8 September).

This was quite an impressive tribute for a performance got up for a benefit and shown only four nights.

A week later Mr. and Mrs. Billington took their benefit and after a break of one week the last benefit, that of J. W. Anson, the treasurer, brought the season to an end.

The striking success of Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle made it the most outstanding of the season, and some credit was due to Webster in bringing before London audiences this most talented actor in a role in which he "burst into world-wide fame and his name became a household word among English-speaking people" (Career of Dion Boucicault, p. 110). For the rest of the time, other new plays and adaptations of lesser note, together with revivals of old favorites, pleased the audience, whose only regret would have been Webster's absence from the stage owing to indisposition throughout the season.

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

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