The 1870-1871 Season

By Frank McHugh

On 24 October 1870 the Times said, "The appearance of Madame Celeste at the Adelphi on Saturday night, when it opened for the season under the joint management of Messrs. B. Webster and F. B. Chatterton, seemed to give a new aspect to a house once the most favoured in London" (p. 8). But this new aspect was an illusion. As Margaret Webster wrote a century later, the partnership of Webster ("the Nestor of the stage") and Chatterton was disastrous for the theatre and for Webster himself:

Chatterton "energetically endeavoured to revive the glories of the Adelphi and ended by swamping it and Webster." Ben emerged in print from time to time to protest furiously against the unauthorized debts contracted in his name. There is a touching description of him in his room at the Adelphi, surrounded by heaps and piles of manuscripts, all plays that he had bought at one time or another. Some bore only the cover, the title page and some blank sheets of paper. They had been bought on trust and the trust betrayed (The Same Only Different, pp. 87-88).

The Green Bushes, "for the twelve farewell performances of Mme. Celeste," headed the bill on opening night, with Mme. Celeste in her celebrated role of Miami. This piece ran in fact for forty-two nights, and Mme. Celeste appeared in two other revivals, seven times in The Flowers of the Forest and once in The Abbe Vaudreuil. Green Bushes succeeded with its audience but not with the critics:

To playgoers whose recollections extend over a quarter of a century, a performance like that of The Green Bushes on Saturday last, is not very pleasant or edifying to witness.... That the representation on Saturday was favorably received may be attributed to two causes--that the majority of the house did not recall the earliest performances of the drama, and that the minority swallowed its discontent, in order to take a friendly leave of Mme. Celeste (Athenaeum, 29 October 1870, p. 569).

The Times and Athenaeum found this Green Bushes inferior to the original production primarily in its comedy: the 1870 company had no comic actors as gifted as Edward Wright and Paul J. Bedford. But both gallantly praised Mme. Celeste. The Times elaborated on what the Athenaeum called her "strong and picturesque" acting style:

But what will most strike a modern public is the lady's thorough mastery of the pantomimic part of her profession. Her gestures are bold and decisive; she firmly takes her picturesque positions, and whenever she is on the stage hers is the figure on which the general attention is fixed (p. 8).

For Mme. Celeste's farewell benefit, J. B. Buckstone came from the Haymarket to play in Box and Cox. (This was his last performance at the Adelphi, where his Green Bushes would become the most popular play ever performed at that theatre.) Joining Buckstone was Mrs. Robert Keeley who came out of retirement to "a general burst of enthusiasm" (Times, 19 December 1870, p. 10), to play her original role in Betsy Baker. Mme. Celeste bid a moving farewell at the end of the benefit performance, but, happily, she would appear in three subsequent seasons at the Adelphi. After her departure, the company returned to its current specialties: elaborate stage pictures and sensation drama. The Christmas burlesque, The Mistletoe Bough, which ran for forty-two nights, shows some of this emphasis:

The plot is a piece of ballad mosaic, which abounds in startling anachronisms, while it enables the scene painter and the costumier to revel in picturesque mediaeval dresses and decorations and in brilliant Christmas dances in old English castles and halls (Times, 27 December 1870, p. 4).

F. C. Burnand's Deadman's Point, which opened February 4 and ran six weeks, was written as a sensation drama, a loose sequence of stage pictures calculated to thrill the audience. As the Times observed, however, when a scene in such an empty play was badly staged it failed totally, as did a second-act storm scene. "The drowning man, who literally wears the waters as if they formed a gauze cloak, provokes not commiseration but mirth (6 February 1871, p. 8). The Athaeneum found Burnand's play clumsy and shapeless and observed, "at the end of the play the audience seemed divided between laughter, hissing, and applause. Perhaps on the whole the 'contents' formed the most numerous party" (11 February 1871, p. 184).

The most popular play of the season, Andrew Halliday's Notre-Dame; or, The Gipsy Girl of Paris, an adaptation of Hugo's novel, ran with few interruptions from 10 April until March of the next season, for 254 performances. The critics found this work superior to most of what the Adelphi was offering, though an Atheneaum reviewer made it clear Notre-Dame was at most an "effective melo-drama" written for an unsophisticated audience, most of whose members had no knowledge of Victor Hugo's novel. The same reviewer complained of the actors' ranting. Of T. C. King, who played Quasimodo, he says, "Some of his shouts were absolutely deafening. The general note of the performance was too high. Miss Furtado screamed much and Mrs. Mellon screamed more; Mr. King shouted and Mr. Brittain Wright whined" (15 April 1871, p. 473). The Times explained what held the audience's eye in this play:

Although ... Notre Dame is not a mere spectacle, it contains much of the spectacular element, and those who seek "sensation" will find the fall of Claude Frollo from the tower as thrilling as anything of the kind hitherto attempted. The public gardens in Paris and the bird's-eye view of the French capital by night are excellent specimens of Mr. Lloyd's talent, and the eastern extremity of the Cathedral, built so as to cover a large portion of the stage, is one of those feats of scenic art by which modern audiences are so frequently surprised" (11 April 1871, p. 9).

While melodrama was featured throughout this season, the Adelphi also offered two ballets composed by Frederick Evans, "an able dancer and contortionist" (Atheneaum, 15 April 1871, p. 473), and twelve comedies of various kinds and lengths, including John Oxenford's farce Down in a Balloon, which ran for 150 nights.

Since the Adelphi's season continued through the summer of 1871 and into the fall, the editors have arbitrarily chosen Saturday, 30 September 1871 as the end of the 1870-1871 season.

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

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