The 1871-1872 Season

By Frank McHugh

C. L. Kenney's farce, Autumn Manoeuvres, with Ashley, Lilley, Wright and Mrs. Alfred Mellon in the cast, was one of the first new pieces in the Adelphi's 1871-72 season. The Athenaeum's commentary was brief indeed: "This trifle provoked some laughter" (28 October 1871, p. 569). But the piece proved popular and ran for 85 nights. Hidden Treasure, a more ambitious play billed as a "new and original sensational drama" and employing the full resources of the company, fared less well. It lasted only 19 performances. The Athenaeum denounced it:

Personages were introduced on the stage to serve no obvious purpose except that of showing how much noise they could make, and how generally extravagant they could be; and the piece came at last to an end, which seemed due rather to the exhaustion of the players than the termination of the story.... As the piece contains a house which takes fire by spontaneous combustion, and a fall from a considerable altitude, it is possible that a succession of audiences may receive it with favor, and may dispense with such frivolities as plot, dramatic sequence and development, intelligibility of story or propriety of acting (2 December 1871, p. 729).

For the Times, the failure of Hidden Treasure was occasion to ponder the decline of the Adelphi acting company. For most of Hidden Treasure had been written twenty years earlier by Tom Parry and resembled plays of his that had triumphed as "real Adelphi drama."

The melodramatic force of the old days, which gave vitality to many improbabilities, seems to have taken another direction, nor do we find that comic vis which Mr. Wright would have displayed in the principal action of the underplot. The more striking tableaux, which are very elaborate, were, however, received with loud applause (30 November 1871, p. 12).

Benjamin Webster was baffled by his failure to attract a large audience to his splendid new theatre:

"The secret of what will and what will not be a theatrical success," he observed, "is as far from being discovered as ever. When my theatre was dirty and old and uncomfortable it was always crowded. The public made me rich and I tore down the old hovel and built them an elegant theatre to show my gratitude. Confound them! They won't come into it." (The Same Only Different, p. 86).

The Times did find much to praise in the new Christmas piece, Charles Millward's Snowwhite, "which was not this time a burlesque but an original fairy tale, reminding one of the pieces produced by Planche at the Lyceum under Mme. Vestris" (27 December 1871, p. 12). The reviewer praised Mrs. John Wood's Snowwhite, the acting of Mrs. Alfred Mellon, J. Cormack's ballet and groupings and some very novel scenic effects. "In the waterfall scenes, the waters were perfumed by Mr. Rimmel" (p. 3).

An expectant audience greeted Charles Fechter, just returned from America, on the evening of 5 March, when he began a four-week engagement as Ruy Blas in a play of that name. The Times praised the "earnestness of purpose and clearness of outline" of Fechter's Ruy, but of the rest of the company it could only say, "The chief actor is efficiently supported" (5 March 1872, p. 8). The Athenaeum, as usual, was more candid:

It is to be desired ... that, in future dramatic representations of the dramatic masterpiece of M. Hugo, the general casting may be more adequate.... A comparison between the general representation of the play in Paris and that in London would explain why in one city the drama is prized and studied as an art, while in the other it can scarcely obtain the support of men of intellect as an amusement (9 March 1871, pp. 314).

Fechter, a great actor and innovator in the techniques of acting and play production, must indeed have stood out in the Adelphi company of this season. Ruy Blas was one of his favourite pieces. Erroll Sherson says of it:

It showed off all his good points: his love-making, which gained for him the suffrages of crowds of women playgoers, for nothing at all like it had been seen on the English stage; his scenes of passion in the more melodramatic parts; his wonderful fencing; the elan of the whole. Here was at last something quite different from the mouthing periods and stilted action of his predecessors, something that was like life, and glowing, ardent life at that. No wonder the women sobbed audibly and the whole audience thrilled at his art (London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 146-47).

On 1 April, Hilda the Miser's Daughter opened and unlike that other "Adelphi drama" of this season, Hidden Treasure, succeeded, running for 89 nights. This adaptation of Ainsworth's novel by Andrew Halliday was the second performed at the Adelphi, Edward Stirling's version having been staged in 1842. The Athenaeum conceded that "the story, though commonplace in outline, is dramatic." It also thought the miser's character was cleverly drawn.

In the other personages little attempt at psychology is witnessed. Old-fashioned characters, belonging to melo-dramatic intrigue, are presented in their familiar costumes, and the whole forms a masquerade of a kind such as the public never wearies of contemplating. The acting is no less melo-dramatic than the piece.

However, the critic also noted, "The reception of the piece was in the highest degree enthusiastic" (6 April 1872, p. 440). The Times shared that enthusiasm: "This is true Adelphi drama, honoured with a true Adelphi success" (2 April 1872, p. 3). The reviews of Hilda provoked a letter from the great illustrator George Cruikshank in which he claimed some credit for the principal themes and settings of Ainsworth's novel: "Wishing to let the public of the present day have a peep at the places of public amusement of that period [1745], I took considerable pains to give correct views and descriptions of the places which are now copied and produced upon the stage" (Times, 8 April, 1872, p. 14). On 15 April, Just Like Roger, a farce by Benjamin Webster, Junior, was introduced as a prelude to Hilda, making pointed references to current events and having, the Times said, "more substance and genial fun than in most dramatic trifles of this kind" (18 April, p. 6). Stephenson, Ashley, Wright, Cooper, Lilly, Miss Phillips and Miss Stoker were the principals in this play which ran 67 nights. The Adelphi's season ended on Saturday, 13 July, after 238 performances under the management of Benjamin M. Webster and Frederick B. Chatterton.

© 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.