The 1869-1870 Season

By Alfrida Lee

The winter season was in some respects the least interesting and the least successful of the decade. It was short, beginning on 2 October 1869 and ending on 23 April 1870. There were new plays, but none of outstanding merit, nor any with unusually long runs; a well-tried afterpiece, Domestic Economy, having the longest, with eighty-eight performances. Nor was the season distinguished by the introduction of highly talented actors from elsewhere. However, though lacking brilliance in productions, the Adelphi still maintained its hold on regular supporters. The summer season, of fourteen weeks, held more of interest.

As in the previous year, a new play was put on for the opening night. This was Lost at Sea, a London Story, accompanied by two popular farces, Too Much of a Good Thing and Domestic Economy. The play attracted more comment for its faults than for its merits. The Athenaeum, (9 October) considered that "from the association of two writers of talent and experience like Messrs. Dion Boucicault and H. J. Byron, a higher result than has been obtained was to be expected." The Observer (5 October) commented that though the popularity of the Adelphi was not in doubt, and that Lost at Sea "would probably be performed ... for many nights to come, yet it has every fault that can be crowded into one piece, or into 3 hours' representation." The faults were enumerated:

The idea on which the story is founded is badly carried out, the writing is poor, there is little originality of character, and the various scenes are loosely constructed whilst under the pretence set up for dramas of its class of strictly following actual life, it contains violations of probability that can hardly be conceived to have entered into the minds of writers with eyes open to what is going on around them.

The scenery gave poor representations of well-known parts of London; that of the Thames at night was "remarkable for its unsimilitude." The scenes, though evidently liked by the audience, were introduced "less for the aid they afford in the development of the plot than as means of introducing those views of modern London of which the playgoer never wearies" (Athenaeum, 9 October). The Times (5 October) summed up the absence of dramatic interest: "the good are good, the bad are bad; the spade is a spade and in accordance with the nature of spades is not remarkably brilliant." Nevertheless, the scenery elicited applause, once with the rather odd result that it "gave an opportunity for the scene-shifter to intrude himself upon the stage and bow to the audience to the utter destruction of all dramatic illusion" (Observer). The Times noted that when the authors were called for at the end, the considerable applause was "mingled with hisses." As it ran for seventy-eight performances, it seemed to have more success than the critics anticipated. The first performance was attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Lost at Sea was taken off for a week at the end of November for the introduction of a revival of The Long Strike, by Boucicault, originally brought out at the Lyceum three years earlier. Webster appeared in this in "one of those strongly marked characters in the delineation of which he is almost without a rival" (Times, 2 December). For once, there was no need for a reminder for some curtailment of the play. The same review gives: "The play has been reduced from four acts to three and gains by the compression." However, this necessitated alterations, not all of them beneficial. According to the Athenaeum (4 December), "Haste and a little slovenliness are shown in most of the alterations, and the play as it stands, though not without interest, seems weaker in all respects than upon its first presentation." The Observer (5 December) was more generous, finding that the alterations had not destroyed the "characteristic features of the plot," but added, "the denouement is changed without any improvement in effect." After one week, Lost at Sea and The Long Strike together made up the program for five weeks.

Webster's interest seems to have been somewhat divided. On 1 November, he began as lessee of the Princess's Theatre.

The next major production was The Nightingale by T. W. Robertson, on 15 January 1870. The play was dismissed contemptuously by the Observer (16 January):

The commonplace story is not treated dramatically, while the dialogue is utterly unworthy of the author of School. No acting could have lent such a piece as The Nightingale interest with the audience. Performers did their best--the new drama cannot be pronounced a success--the hissing was so loud at the end that the audience was evidently astonished when the author presented himself before the curtain.

The Times (17 January) commented, "Obscurity, without complication, was also a defect of the piece, and the audience, in many places, not exactly comprehending what was set before them, laughed when they ought to have cried and hissed at every opportunity." The characters gave the performers little opportunity, and even the chief one, "in spite of the finished acting of Webster seemed to slip over the susceptibilities of the audience without moving them greatly." The acting of Miss Furtado received some commendation, but "the only character thoroughly appreciated was Keziah--a plain-spoken servant, who hated everything foreign, acted with spirit by Miss Eliza Johnstone." Only thirty-nine performances were given.

The engagement in February of H. J. Byron as an actor led to the production of four of his plays, in three of which he performed. Two were new to the Adelphi but had already been performed elsewhere. Not Such a Fool as He Looks, a comedy in 3 acts, was given on 17 February while The Nightingale was still being performed. The second, Blow for Blow, made up the program with Not Such a Fool as He Looks from 3 March after The Nightingale had been withdrawn. On 7 March the Times commented:

The engagement of Mr. H. J. Byron as a comedian at this house has led to the revival of Blow for Blow, one of the best of his dramas. Although known to the capital as a dramatist only till within the last few months, H. J. Byron is now firmly established among us as an humourous histrionic artist, whose entrance is hailed with a laugh significant of expected mirth, and who exercises irresistible control over the pleased attention of his audience.... He has a style of his own.

The play had been given previously at the Globe, but the Adelphi production had its originality. The Times praised the performers who were not "mere copies" of those in the parts at the Globe, but each "was the result of a distinct conception." All were good.

The Duchess of Cambridge with the Prince and Princess of Teck attended the performance on 14 March.

The third and last production in which Byron appeared was The Prompter's Box, which, performed with Whitebait at Greenwich, revived from the previous year, was the last new production of the winter season. It had a mixed reception from the critics. The Observer (27 March) declared that it was "completely successful, and to a great extent, deservedly so. It is original, it has a clearly told story, and it is amusing; moreover, in style and treatment, it hits the taste of the present day." Byron and Webster were praised for their performances. The critic admitted that the play "might be shortened to the increase of its effectiveness, and its style was not high in its own class of drama." The Times (25 March) had some favourable comments, but added, "Still we have not enough to fill out four long acts." The Athenaeum (2 April) had scarcely a good word to give. "[It] is a thoroughly characteristic specimen of the author's workmanship. It is slovenly, disorderly and disconnected, and has, artistically considered, every fault a piece can have." There was a concession--"It is interesting and amusing nevertheless, and may hope, when shorn of half its proportions to obtain a fair hold upon the public." The final comment was, "The performance, though tedious from its length, was well received. With many excisions, The Prompter's Box may be a successful piece; a good play it cannot be made." Webster's benefit on 23 April closed the season.

The summer season followed without a break or any change of program. On 4 May, a new production by Byron that was billed as an extravaganza, was produced. The Athenaeum (7 May) described it as "little more than a vehicle for scenery and ballet, both of which are introduced with a prodigality and splendour seldom witnessed at this theatre." The Observer (8 May) considered it to be "one of the best, the most effective, and the most lively of its class."

Byron performed in Green Bushes on 27 May for Miss Furtado's benefit, the only time he took part in a play other than his own during the season. It was announced as "the last night of the present company performing."

With a new company George Coleman became the acting manager. Several of the established performers, including Phillips, the stage-manager, remained. Some of the new company, including Henry Neville, his father, and Paulo, were already known at the Adelphi. The most outstanding of the new members was George Vining, late lessee of the Princess's Theatre.

There were new productions, two of them worthy of note. The first of them was Put Yourself in His Place; or, Free Labor, adapted from his novel by Charles Reade. It did not, in the main, attract favorable criticism. It was, like so many others, too long, not finishing till nearly midnight. The performance was "dragging and tedious" (Times, 31 May). The Athenaeum (23 June) was more severe. Though conceding "Mr. Reade's method and purpose are so thoroughly his own, and ... so good in their way, and Mr. Reade himself is so much in earnest, that the task of censure is unpleasant and in some respects useless," added, "It is not easy to find anything but fault with his new drama." One of the more tedious scenes consisted of nearly half an hour spent with Neville "at work beating, on a real anvil, a piece of iron drawn out of a real forge." The performers were not at fault. The production was warmly received, but by "an unusually thin house."

The other major production, The Robust Invalid, an adaptation by Reade of Moliere's La Malade Imaginaire, received more generous comments. The Times (20 June) considered the play to be a good adaptation and the performers, especially Vining, to be more than satisfactory. The Athenaeum also praised the performers giving special mention to Miss Florence Terry "The occasion was selected for the debut of Miss Florence Terry, who made her first bow to an audience as Louison ... a part which she sustained charmingly. The house received her with unbounded applause" (18 June). This was not her first appearance at the Adelphi. in 1866, when she was eleven years old, she had appeared with her sister, Kate, in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing. The Robust Invalid had to "be pronounced a success" and with only "slight curtailment ... may be expected to have a long run."

Whatever may have been said in disparagement, the manager had clearly been enterprising in putting on productions demanding so much effort at this time of the year. In a history of the Adelphi, in 1877, The Era Almanack mentioned both plays as having drawn "some good houses." The season, which ended on 19 July, was a not insignificant one for the summer.

Considering the year as a whole, it can be said that good standards of acting had been maintained, and the scenery, if it did not always please the critics, was striking. There were several unusual dramatic effects on the stage. It is unfortunate that the performers did not always have the material their talents deserved.

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

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