The 1866-1867 Season

By Alfrida Lee

The season was somewhat shorter than the previous one, having only 287 performances compared with 316. No new play was offered for the opening night. There was, however, a very talented actress engaged for the season, Kate Terry. Perhaps in these days better known as the sister of Ellen Terry and the grandmother of Sir John Gielgud, she herself had already established a high reputation in London and Bristol when she went to the Adelphi. Unfortunately for the stage, she retired in 1867 when she married Arthur Lewis, but "at the height of her career she had been considered a better actress than her more famous sister, Ellen" (Oxford Companion to the Theatre).

On the opening night she made her first appearance in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, in "an old, and not very important part." The piece did not call for comment, but the heroine was

one of Miss Terry's best personalities and in spite of the unimportance of the piece she has always produced a most favourable impression by her acting in it, which is marked by extreme grace and tenderness (Observer, 7 October).

Her sister, Florence, only eleven at the time, appeared as the daughter of the heroine. The main piece of the evening was Helen; or, Taken from the Greek. The next piece in which Kate Terry appeared was Ethel; or, Only a Life, an adaptation by Benjamin Webster, Jr., of Une Pauvre Fille. The play had little merit. It was sufficiently applauded

to warrant the rise of the curtain after the performance of the last act and the appearance of the author before the footlights, but as these results could not be obtained save by the defeat of a body of dissentients, who not only hissed but shouted out such unsavoury substantives as 'trash' and 'rubbish,' the triumph was not worth much.

The play was "not agreeable." The Times (5 October) added "a more technical objection lies in the extreme length of the work." There was no fault in Kate Terry's performance. The role was scarcely worthy of her, but "what would be utterly ineffective and wearisome in the keeping of an ordinary actress, she renders effective and interesting by the natural interpretation of the character." No blame could be attached to the other performers; the play itself was at fault.

With all due praise to her gifted comrades, it must be confessed that Ethel saved the piece from failing. With a part more worthy of the intellect she can expend on it, there will come a greater and abiding triumph (Athenaeum, 20 October).

There were only twenty-five performances.

At the end of November, a new piece, A Sister's Penance by Tom Taylor and Augustus Dubourg was presented, no doubt on account of a strong role for Kate Terry. The reviewers treated the play itself with scorn. One example sums up defects: "There is little skill in working up the incidents, the dialogue is poor, and the piece, except at intervals, drags a slow length along" (Observer, 2 December). Again there was no doubt of Kate Terry's talent, on which the success of the play depended, though the part was deemed unworthy of her, and both the Observer and the Times commented on her misfortune in having to waste herself on such pieces. However, the play was greatly applauded and "on the fall of the curtain," she and three other performers "were summoned to receive the congratulations of a well-filled house" (Athenaeum, 1 December). An all too familiar comment on its length was made by the Observer. "The new drama ... might be greatly improved by compression, and with judicious alterations will probably keep its place upon the boards for some time." With eighty-three performances, it had more success than Ethel.

On Boxing Day, with the return of Toole from a provincial tour, a new burlesque The Mountain Dhu by Andrew Halliday, was presented. The theme, taken from The Lady of the Lake, was used as a basis for uproarious fun. An example of the absurd is given by the Observer (30 December):

Roderick Dhu ... though slain by the Knight of Snowden is resuscitated in the last scene in good time to take part in the finale, when everybody within the limits of poetic justice is made more comfortable.

The scenery, described as picturesque by the Athenaeum, would have contributed to the appeal of the production, which ran for eighty-seven performances. During January and February it was the sole supporting piece of A Sister's Penance and no doubt provided light relief from the gloomy and melodramatic nature of that play. The Prince of Wales visited the theatre on 5 March.

A new piece, Lost in London by Watt Phillips, was brought out on 16 March. The bill stated that Miss Neilson had been "engaged expressly for this play." The disappointment was that Webster was prevented by illness from taking the role intended for him. Henry Neville, new to the Adelphi, took his place. As the working miner, he was "conspicuous for his northern dialect and rude pathos, which went to the heart of the audience." Miss Neilson was not, however, thought to give such a finished performance. She was "as yet crude in her art; but showed signs of improvement in the executive portion of it by the display of natural feeling without running into extravagance" (Athenaeum, 23 March). Success for the production was expected. It ran for forty-eight nights.

During this time a new one-act musical drama, Garibaldi in Sicily, was produced. The Times (27 April) neatly summed up the elements of its success--ninety-nine performances:

The action and plot are to a great extent subordinate to the main business--namely, the introduction of effective scenery and grouping, blended with a considerable amount of very fair singing. There was good scene painting by Mr. J. Gates.... The music by Mr. Hatton and Mr. Calcott also deserves favourable mention.

Dora, by Charles Reade, produced in June, was a "poetic drama" based on Tennyson's poem. In three acts, it was--no surprise--judged by the Athenaeum (8 June) to be far too long "for a simple tale....The first act was enchanting, the second commonplace and the third interrupted with laughter." The Observer (2 June) was more generous: "Charles Reade has constructed a clever drama." The play was applauded and the only adverse criticism was that "In one scene physical suffering was made too prominent." At the end of the season (7 September) the Athenaeum described it as "a stage-portrait of distinctive elegance." Kate Terry took the principal role. It was given thirty-six times.

A short farce, A Slice of Luck by John Morton, "rather slight both in subject and structure" (Athenaeum, 29 June), was a successful afterpiece, appearing on the program until the end of the season.

Some benefit performances were notable, one especially for the talent brought together for the occasion. In May, a Saturday matinee performance was given on behalf of the widow and children of C. H. Bennett. It was sufficiently interesting to be reviewed. It was billed as "amateur," but seems to have been very professional for the most part. The program began with a version of Cox and Box by F. C. Burnand, set to music by Arthur Sullivan, now renowned as the composer of light operas, but who had not then started in this field. The Times (13 May) commented:

Mr. Burnand has executed his task so well and Mr. Arthur Sullivan, our most rising composer has written music for it so full of sparkling tunes and real comic humour that we cannot but believe that this musical version of a popular farce would have a genuine success if produced on the recognised stage by professional singers.... Mr. Sullivan should compose an overture and so complete his admirable operetta.

This was done in July when it was again performed for charity and set Sullivan on his way as a composer of opera (Grove's Dictionary of Music).

This piece was followed by A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, on this occasion with three Terry sisters performing, Ellen taking the role of the servant. The matinee concluded with Les Deux Aveugles, billed as a musical entertainment, with only two performers. One was George du Maurier, better known now as the author of Trilby, but who, earlier in his career, was an artist and also a fine singer. He also sang in Cox and Box.

For Henry Neville's benefit on 24 July, Kate Terry performed in The Lady of Lyons. His father, John Neville, and brother, George, appeared with him in His First Champagne (playbill).

For her own benefit on 3 July, Kate Terry performed as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, a role much more worthy of her talents than her previous ones at the Adelphi. The Times (26 July) gave unqualified praise. "We can remember no such Beatrice, and we find it difficult to conceive a better." The Adelphi company was not considered to be really fitted for the acting of Shakespeare's comedies, but Henry Neville did well as Benedick for a first time performance. Ellen Terry appeared for her in Little Treasure. Much Ado was then performed twenty times.

The last production was Romeo and Juliet for three nights with Kate Terry as Juliet--her farewell to the stage. The critics agreed on the fine quality of her performance. After prolonged applause on the last night (31 August), she received "one of the greatest compliments ever paid to an actress. The whole audience rose to leave the house and scarcely anyone remained to see the farce" (Observer 1 September).

On 4 September, for the treasurer J. W. Anson's benefit, As You Like It was presented, most of the performers appearing for that night only.

So the season ended in the theatre, but Webster, as manager, was not given the peace he would have wished. The Times (13 September), after giving lavish praise to Kate Terry on 2 September, attacked the last production, Romeo and Juliet, in very contemptuous terms, comparing it unfavorably with the current production at the Haymarket. At the Haymarket, "appropriateness, good taste and intelligence" were shown in the "dresses, scenery and stage-management," while at the Adelphi "beggarliness and brainlessness ... seemed to reign unchecked." He could not, of course, disparage Kate Terry but thought a comparison between the two Juliets would have been "unfair, and would serve no useful purpose." He avoided this by taking the superiority of Kate Terry for granted. "It would be unfair to pit an actress (Mrs. Scott-Siddons of the Haymarket) of so little experience against one of so much, or to measure a star just showing on the horizon with one ... at the zenith."

It is not surprising that the expression "brainlessness and beggarliness" stung Webster into making a reply in which he said he would do full justice to the Haymarket production, "but would not shrink from any comparison that could be fairly made between the two" (17 September).

The critic did not let the matter rest, but the following day made references to "mutilation and transposition of scenes," and the disregard of "indications in the text" in the ball scene. He added scathing references to the "shabbiness" of the "mise en scene, and the shortcomings of the stage-management."

A letter was printed below supporting these opinions and so much in the same vein as to appear to have been prompted by the reviewer, if not written by him. No name was given, only the initials G. A. D.

On 23 September Webster replied. The critic had been aware that toward the close of Miss Kate Terry's engagement it "was resolved by [her] that she should appear ... for three nights in Romeo and Juliet." Would it not have been "brainless" to provide new scenery and dresses for three nights? In conclusion Webster pointed out that as the Adelphi had the longest theatrical season in London, the criticism that the "benches had become soiled" was answered by the early closing of the theatre for renovation.

Still the critic persisted. It was not he who had identified the manager with the defects, yet a manager must be held responsible for what he permitted in his own theatre. He acknowledged that Webster was renovating the "front of his theatre," adding that when he had done as much for the stage, not only would the public be pleased but--egregious remark--Webster would "be fain to acknowledge his great and real obligation to--your Dramatic Critic."

No further comment was made.

One must assume that the production of Romeo and Juliet left something to be desired, but that much of this vituperation was unjustified. For the season as a whole, the scenery could scarcely have been so contemptible when the Athenaeum had described that of the Mountain Dhu as picturesque, and the Times (perhaps not the same critic) commended the good scene painting of J. Gates for Garibaldi in Sicily. One's sympathies must be with Webster. As in the previous season, his absence from the stage due to illness was regretted, and some plays of little merit were offered. But it had its successes, and the talents of some of its performers, especially Kate Terry, were undisputed.

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

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