The 1867-1868 Season

By Alfrida Lee

In 1867 the Adelphi was closed for a longer period than usual, from 5 September until 4 October, for re-decoration. More than one newspaper commented on the improvement. "The house has been newly painted and gaily decorated, so that it now presents a very bright and attractive appearance" (Morning Post 7 October). The Athenaeum (12 October) added, "thus a reproach of many months' standing has been removed," evidently in agreement with "Your Dramatic Critic" of the Times on the need for renovation, but without his asperity. Presumably the seats had been cleaned, but as they had been "re-stuffed and re-covered" only two years before, as stated in a Times announcement of the 12 September 1865, they could not have needed anything more.

The program for the opening night showed caution, consisting of well-tried pieces. Webster himself, returning to the stage after two years' absence, seemed to be the star of the evening in the part of poor Triplet in which he "again secured the admiration of the best judges of acting" (Athenaeum 12 October). Masks and Faces was supported by The Irish Tutor (billed as a popular farce) and The School for Tigers (a revived farce). The playbill mentioned that it was Mrs. Alfred Mellon's first appearance since her bereavement. Her husband had died on 27 March. She had, however, appeared once since for a benefit performance on 29 July (playbill). In addition to appearing on the stage, she had now been appointed directress. The scene-painters were George Danson, who continued from the previous season, and T. Grieve and Sons, who replaced J. Gates.

New pieces had to wait until 14 October when Man is not Perfect, Nor Woman Neither by Benjamin Webster, Jr. replaced The Irish Tutor. The former was taken from L'Homme N'est Pas Parfait and the Athenaeum (19 October) dismissed Webster's play in the comment, "We have seen another version of it which we liked much better." The Evening Standard (15 October) in contrast was quite enthusiastic. "The drama is, generally speaking, full of motion and bustle, and is written with sufficient smartness. Here and there, indeed, it hangs fire from the lack of incident and the diffuseness of the dialogue, but it is very amusing, and a better acted piece has seldom been witnessed in any theatre." Mrs. Mellon, George Belmore, Stephenson, Taylor, and Emily Pitt were praised, "fitting their parts well." Evidently popular, it continued in performance until Christmas. The well-known piece One Touch of Nature replaced Masks and Faces. As expected, with Webster as Mr. Penholder, this was well received. Miss Simms also appeared in her original character, in which "if we mistake not, Miss Henrietta Simms first proved herself an accomplished actress in the serious line."

The new major production of the autumn was Maud's Peril by Watts Phillips, the author of The Dead Heart. The plot apparently left something to be desired. The Observer (27 October) commented,

Here it will be seen is an interesting story, but the subject is an unpleasant one, and the piece has the author's old fault--it drags in the dialogue. Mr. Phillips appears to lack power to convey his meaning by a few sharp speeches, selected from the mass of words that might naturally enough be spoken in the various situations, but which the skilled dramatist, who knows how to get well over his ground, never gives in detail. As a whole, however, Maud's Peril is perhaps the best of Mr. Phillips's dramas and is not one of the longest. The characters are well drawn, but can scarcely be said to be subjected to any process of development from the first scene to the last.

The Morning Post (24 October) mentioned "sentimental dialogue" and "sensational incident which is the climax of every scene.... We are sorry to add that it is from the pen of Mr. Watts Phillips who should have known better. Instead of contenting himself with life as it really is, he goes in for the dismal and appalling.... It haunts the memory like a nightmare." The production, however, could not be faulted. Webster "under whose direction the piece has been produced with much beauty and brilliancy of scenic illustration, has done all that was possible to make it externally attractive." The Observer found the scenery beautiful and a great credit to Grieve. The Evening Standard (25 October) described it as "striking and appropriate" and, quite eulogistic, claimed that "one or two scenes may fairly be pronounced masterpieces of stage painting." In this review the audience is described as "fashionable as well as numerous." A royal visitor, the Prince of Wales, was present. The Athenaeum (2 November) referred to improvements in the theatre. "Whatever reproach may have attached itself to this theatre or its management can now no longer be said to apply, whether touching the general appearance of the house, or the scenic adornments of the stage.... As to stage accessories and pictorial embellishment, Mr. Watts Phillips can have nothing to complain of in regard to the mounting of his new play." The performers were praised, especially Belmore in the major role. The play was performed fifty-four times until it was replaced on Boxing Day.

A "screaming new farce," Up for the Cattle Show, by Harry Lemon, is worth mentioning, if only for its long run, 101 performances. It replaced The School for Tigers. It was reviewed by the Observer (8 December). "It is a mere trifle, with certainly no more ingenuity and novelty of construction than will waft it for a brief period on the tide of public favour.... It will serve as an agreeable pendant to the graver attraction of Maud's Peril." The length of its run was a considerable success for a first play.

The Christmas fare at the Adelphi was "not the burlesque or any of the lighter entertainments to which managers resort at this season but the new Christmas story issued in connection with All the Year Round from the pen of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins entitled No Thoroughfare" (Evening Standard, 27 December). The production was well received.

Considering the play as a whole, both the Times and the Observer found its length excessive--"it was nearly 1:00 a.m. before the curtain fell" (Times, 27 December), but it "kept the audience intensely interested until the very last, notwithstanding that the climax of the plot had been reached at the end of the fourth act," and "the play is indeed encumbered at several points by long and needless explanations." The Observer (29 December) found the plot faulty. "The interest as the story progresses diverges from its original line, and it requires the aid of preliminary incidents to render it comprehensible to the spectator." It seems that two scenes were omitted on the second night. On the whole, however, the production received high praise. The scenery, by T. Grieve and Sons, especially of the mountain, "quite realized the author's descriptions.... There was a most agreeable completeness of general effect ... that is a powerful aid to stage illusion, helping both the story and the acting to the perception of the audience." The Athenaeum (4 January 1868) thought that the play presented "opportunities for what are called Adelphi effects," these including a snowstorm in which the two chief characters were seen crossing the Alps. A fall over the cliff by Neville was "likely to become as great a feature as the sensation header in The Colleen Bawn" (Evening Standard, 27 December). Several reviews mention the strong cast. Charles Fechter, in the chief role, had an international reputation, and Carlotta Leclercq made her first appearance at the Adelphi. From the regular company, those especially commended included Mr. and Mrs. Billington, Mrs. Alfred Mellon, and Benjamin Webster. It is evident that no expense was spared. The bill carried the note that the arrangements with Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Fechter would "not admit of any complimentary admissions, the public press excepted." From 18 May Fechter's role was taken by R. Phillips, who was also the stage manager. The play was performed until 20 June with a run of 151 nights.

There were three royal visits: by the Prince of Wales on 7 January; the Prince and Princess of Teck on 22 January and Prince Arthur on 29 February (Times).

The supporting piece was Up for the Cattle Show until 4 April. It was replaced by Go to Putney, also by Harry Lemon. The Observer (12 April) sums it up:

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat-Race has been seized upon for a farce. A piece de circonstance scarcely demands a criticism, and if an hour, or even half an hour's amusement is afforded to an audience upon a subject that at that moment occupies general attention, the purpose is answered, as is just the case with Mr. Lemon's little piece.

Belmore performed well as "an old and touchy sea-captain." It was performed seventy-seven times.

The only other new piece was Tom Thrasher by Augustus G. Harris, who had introduced Fechter to London in 1860. According to the Athenaeum it was "fabricated with some skill out of well-worn and commonplace materials." It is possible that Harris wrote the play to give good parts to his daughters, Maria and Nelly, whose benefit took place on 8 July. The Athenaeum (11 July) mentions that on this occasion a concert was given. The singers included several who had already made a name in opera or on the concert platform, but were to become more famous later: Mlle. Patti, Charles Santly, and Mme. Sainton-Dolby.

Some plays were evidently revived especially for Charles J. Mathews whose engagement began on 22 June when he appeared as Count d'Arental in A Day of Reckoning and as Young Wilding in his own play, The Liar. The Observer (28 June) considered it was only for Mathew's performance that the play was memorable and therefore revived. Carlotta Leclercq's acting showed "grateful pathos." On 8 July, Mathews appeared in "his original part of Jasper, in the almost forgotten comedy of A Bachelor of Arts" (Athenaeum, 11 July). The Evening Standard (9 July) was enthusiastic in praise of Mathews. "He is the only comedian over whom time seems to possess no power" and "his range is not limited to comedy, and his capability of intense and powerful acting have been abundantly evidenced in his impersonation of the cool, resolute, polished villain." The wisdom of Webster in engaging him was "proved by the plaudits of the frequenters of the house." His last performance was on 25 July.

There was only one performance of a Shakespeare play. For his benefit, Henry Neville appeared as Hamlet, with his father as Polonius; the choice of play no doubt indicating Henry Neville's aspirations.

The hit at the end of the season was The Flying Scud by Dion Boucicault. The Observer (2 August) commended J. Belmore and Charlotte Saunders in the two principal parts. The Evening Standard (29 July) made full comment on the visual effect of the production.

New, picturesque and well-painted scenery has been provided, and ... diverting and sensational effects prominent amongst which are "The Jockey Hornpipe," always encored, and "The Derby Day," a wonderful realization which everyone should see and which nightly excites enthusiastic marks of approval.

It was performed until the end of the season on 19 September.

It can be seen that no reviewer could now make derogatory comments on the scenery or quality of productions. Webster had set a high standard in Maud's Peril that seemed to be maintained throughout the season. The plays appeared to be well-matched to the performers with more harmonious effects than in the two previous years. With the season ending on a triumphant note, Webster might look forward to an improved future for the theatre and for himself as manager.

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

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