The 1868-1869 Season

By Alfrida Lee

A review of the season might well rest upon a consideration of the opening night of 19 October 1868. The evening began with Tom Thrasher, a successful farce from the previous season. This was followed by Monte Cristo, a major production clearly intended for a long run. However, its first nights bordered on disaster and, without some alteration, the future was not promising. It had the disadvantage, so often mentioned of new pieces at the Adelphi, of inordinate length--nearly five hours, and it was almost 1:00 a. m. before the curtain fell.

The critics acknowledged the difficulty of adapting a "long and unwieldy story" to the stage. There had been other adaptations in both France and England; none had met with much success. The Athenaeum (24 October), mentioning the failure of a French version at Drury Lane, added that the production, "scarcely less disastrous, of the Adelphi play was the consequence of deplorable heedlessness and mismanagement"--a damning comment. Some of the plot had been changed to

furnish Mr. Webster with increased opportunities. Thanks to this alteration, Noirtier [Webster's role] is constantly upon the stage. His presence serves no purpose whatever. All that can be said concerning it, is that Mr. Webster looks very well in the disguises he assumes, and does nothing in the most picturesque and effective manner possible.

A doubtful compliment indeed! However, the acting was good. Fechter played Edmund Dantes "with elegance and grace to which Melingue, the original exponent of the part, could never attain. Mr. Webster was admirably made up to represent four different characters and acted quietly and well in each." Belmore and Mrs. Mellon were praised. The critics complimented the scenery and mentioned that the painter of the cliff scene was "summoned before the audience" though the Observer and the Athenaeum thought it would have been in better taste if he had not then appeared, breaking the interest in the play. The final comment of the Athenaeum was dismissive:

The reception of the piece was very unfavourable. The version, indeed, presents scarcely a redeeming feature. All the sparkle of the dialogue has been lost. Whatever was best in the original was slurred over or omitted; whatever was weakest and worst was brought to the front.

The Times (19 October) implied that it was irredeemable. The review ended, "nothing, however, can compensate for the unwieldiness of the play, and its rambling, unsatisfactory plot, puzzling alike to those who have read the romance and those who have not." The Morning Post (19 October), while not questioning the defects, had hopes for the play. "It would be a pity if a play so cleverly mounted should fail, but if anything is to be made of it, the dialogue must be cut down to one half its dimensions." It is clear that no effort and no expense had been spared and Webster had high expectations. With such reviews what would he do?

Within a fortnight he had evidently taken prompt action and transformed the near failure to a success. The Times (2 November) reported:

Monte Cristo showed by its varied fortune on the first night ... that it was not without material that might, perhaps, be turned to profitable account; while the very fact that its parts hung somewhat loosely together, though this peculiarity was a fault, favoured the opinion that abbreviations could be effected with a rough and ready hand.... Extreme length was, after all, one of the great demerits of Monte Cristo and as this has been reduced to the extent of about a third, the piece moves on as smoothly as could be wished.

At the end of November, Tom Thrasher was replaced by Did You Ever Send Your Wife to Camberwell? by Joseph S. Coyne, and this, too, proved to be very popular, with a run of 155 performances. The Crown Prince of Prussia, the son-in-law of Queen Victoria, visited the theatre on 13 November (Times, 14 November).

After ninety-six performances, Monte Cristo was replaced by The Dead Heart on 8 February until another change at Easter. This was not a revival of desperation but a new production put on with all suitable splendour of scenery, costume and decoration.

Mr. Hawes Craven has painted several admirable views of Paris as it appeared during the awful era of the Revolution.... Well acted, and mounted with equal elegance and accuracy, the play passes off with spirit and elicits hearty applause (Morning Post, 10 February).

The Observer (13 February) was not behind in its praise. "The rank of the piece itself has been so long established, that no criticism is necessary to assign to it a proper place among recent productions." There had been some cast changes, but

the most striking feature in the whole performance still remains unchanged--the assumption of the character of Robert Landry by Mr. Webster. This is undoubtedly one of the most effective and ... one of the most elaborate and finished bits of acting that our modern London stage presents, and it may be said of it with justice that time and repetition have not weakened, but on the contrary have strengthened and matured it.

On 25 February, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Princess of Teck attended the performance.

An exchange of correspondence between Charles Dickens and Mrs. Mellon preserved in the London Theatre Museum reveals that Dickens had intended to give three morning readings. Unfortunately they had to be cancelled because of the novelist's ill health.

At the end of March, The Dead Heart was replaced by Black and White, a new play by Wilkie Collins and Fechter. The production did not show the faithful representation of the period that had been observed in The Dead Heart. The Observer (5 April) noted that with

utter disregard of truth in costume, the characters are dressed in the fashion of the present day. The discrepancy may be pardoned, however, for the reason which, no doubt, prompted its being risked--namely--that it would be impossible to associate any sentimental interest with the dresses that were worn in 1830. At all events, after the first five minutes, none are likely to trouble themselves about the subject; they have something else to think of in a good dramatic story and a well-constructed plot.

The Times (2 April) described it as "one of the neatest dramas of interest that has been seen for some time." The scenery was again complimented--"all new and well-painted" (Morning Post, 30 March), and from the Observer, "The scenery by Mr. H. Craven is clever ... the general excellence of the stage arrangements contributed not a little to the effect of this ... drama." The acting of Fechter was especially praised; the performance of Carlotta Leclercq was outstanding; and others mentioned were Atkins, Belmore, Stirling, Stuart, and Phillips. The run finished on 8 May, which was presumably the end of Fechter's engagement, after forty-eight performances.

The next major production, Eve, an English version by B. Webster, Jr., of Gabrielle, a comedy in verse by M. Emile Angier, came at the end of May. Eve, in 3 acts, was very different from the original, in 5, but the substance and situations remained. The reviews were rather mixed, tending on the whole towards finding weaknesses in the adaptation. The Times considered that it lacked "the force and beauty of M. Angier's verse" (6 June). The Athenaeum (5 June), however, was quite scathing. The aims of the play were

the exaltation of prosaic and commonplace virtues. But the execution is inferior to the intention.... What was wanting to make Gabrielle a thoroughly poor and weak drama has been added by the adapter, who ... has cut out what might be distasteful to an English audience, and has left the remainder more unpleasant without being one whit more proper for the excisions.

The acting was commendable, especially that of Webster, except in the first act when he "acted timidly and feebly." The play was received during the other two acts "with great favour." New scenery was provided with an interesting effect made "by dividing the stage into two rooms" (Observer, 6 June). It was performed 35 times, to be replaced by The Willow Copse, in which Webster appeared in his original character of Luke Fielding. His performance was "very fine" but the "general cast was far from satisfactory" (Athenaeum, 17 July). The Morning Post (13 July) described the piece as "one of those rare plays upon which, as well as a friend in the days of adversity, a manager, when the attractions of other pieces begin to wane, may always rely with confidence to draw a good house." There was new and picturesque scenery.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to think that, in putting on The Willow Copse, Webster was near the end of his resources for the season. His attention may well have been engaged for the performance at the Crystal Palace on behalf of the Dramatic College, of which Webster was the master. On 24 July, the day of the performance, the program at the Adelphi was altered so that he could appear. Webster's standing in the world of the theatre is exemplified in the comment of the Morning Post (26 July).

Mr. Webster was singled out for especial applause, a tribute due equally to his great merits as an actor and his devoted and unwearying exertions in the cause of the Royal Dramatic College, of which he fills so worthily the office of master.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were to receive purses for the college.

Earlier, on 16 June, they had attended the benefit performance of the Misses Harris.

The season officially ended on 28 July with Webster's benefit. The following day the bill announced "Open for the summer season." From 6 August Webster and Mrs. Mellon were "starring" at the National Standard Theatre (Times, 6 August). The Adelphi, according to the Athenaeum (7 August) had "passed temporarily into the hands of an association of actors, composed principally of established members of Mr. Webster's company, but including individuals who have not hitherto appeared upon the Adelphi boards." Phillips, stage manager and actor, remained.

The chief piece from 1 August onwards was The Serpent on the Hearth by John P. Simpson. It was reviewed but without great enthusiasm for it, and the Athenaeum (7 August) reported, "Much hissing ... mixed with the applause liberally bestowed upon piece and performance." The theatre closed on 28 August. During this short summer season a downturn in the standard of productions was inevitable with outstanding performers elsewhere. It was just as well that it was short season.

The reviews of Monte Cristo contained observations that were typical of the season as a whole. It had its high spots. The merits of the scenery and stage-effects were unquestioned. In the winter season talented performers were not lacking. Fechter and Webster himself contributed greatly to the success of the pieces in which they appeared, and there was no small support from Mrs. Mellon, Miss Furtado and Miss Leclercq. None of these remained for the summer season and their lack was felt. However, some of the plays had little merit in themselves and more than one was of inordinate length. The high quality of the scenery and the talented acting may well have compensated for the choice of some indifferent plays and the tedium of over-long performances.

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

Thank you for visiting this site. If you wish to contact the various Editors, please visit the Editor's Home Pages.