The 1873-1874 Season

By Frank McHugh

Frederick Chatterton became lessee as well as manager this season. He and Webster opened the season on 8 November, with The Green Bushes. The Times cited the anecdote of the traveler who, "however often he was abroad, and at whatever intervals he returned home ... was sure to find Green Bushes in the Adelphi program." "Independently of its merits as perhaps one of the best constructed and most interesting melodramas ever brought out upon any stage," the Times said, "it is a great historical fact in the theatrical annals of this century" (13 November 1873, p. 5). Mme. Celeste appeared, as the bills promised, for twelve nights only.

Immediately after this, another stock melodrama, Edmund Falconer's Peep o'Day was offered. Falconer, an accomplished stage Irishman, played his original role of Barney O'Toole. What the bills called this "great Irish sensational drama" played for a full 14 weeks. The Times said that though "it was never played at the Adelphi before Saturday, it is to all intents and purposes an Adelphi piece, reflecting the taste for subjects connected with Irish peasant life which, 12 years ago, had been newly awakened by the Colleen Bawn of Mr. Dion Boucicault" (24 November 1873, p. 5). The Christmas novelty, offered with Peep O'Day, was Killarney, written by Falconer. Balfe was the composer, Cormack the choreographer and Telbin the scene designer. The Times admired Telbin's "moving picture of the Lakes of Killarney" (27 December 1873, p. 5).

On 31 January, Mr. and Mrs. John Billington returned to the Adelphi to star in the third melodrama of the season, Rough and Ready, a new play by Paul Merritt. The plot, which pitted a gamekeeper against a gentleman, made both the Times and Athenaeum reviewers uneasy. The Times commented, "The plot is at once slight and complicated, and there is overmuch of vapid dialogue, here and there spiced with democratic clap-trap." But it praised John Billington: "He is a thorough master of the required dialect, and his delineation of a frank, generous nature, usually amiable, but capable of being stung into the most violent rage, is perfect" (6 February 1874, p. 3). "Rough and Ready," the Athenaeum said, "bears marks of its East End origins. Proletarian virtue throughout its three acts is at war with aristocratic vice, which it in the end overpowers." It praised Mr. Billington, "unequaled in presenting unpleasant parts" (7 February 1874, p. 203).

The Billingtons were, by now, familiar figures on the London stage; John had left the Theatre Royal, York to make his London debut as Harry Mobray in Langford's Like and Unlike. Adeline had joined him the following year when she played Venus in Harlequin and the Loves of Cupid and Psyche. Among the many roles Mrs. Billington had created was Mrs. Valentine in Rough and Ready. Her husband had been in the original London casts of The Colleen Bawn, The Octoroon, Rip Van Winkle, and The Hunchback. He was the first performer in many roles such as Sir Percival Glyde in The Woman in White (1871), Martin Gurder in Dead Man's Point (1871), Mark Musgrave in Rough and Ready (Adams, Dictionary of the Drama, p. 159).

The ambitious Elizabeth; or, The Exiles of Siberia, staged to honor the Duke of Edinburgh and his new bride, failed and was withdrawn after 16 performances. This adaptation of Frederick Reynold's 1808 work offered little the audience could respond to except for a last-act "fete on the frozen Neva," an extravagant spectacle. However, Oxenford's modest comedy Waltz by Arditi, which opened on the same night, triumphed and ran for 143 nights. It impressed its audiences, the Times said, "simply through the goodness of the acting" (9 March 1874, p. 8).

Another resounding success, Benjamin Webster's Prayer in the Storm, a version of a French play popular in many forms in Britain and America, opened on 28 March and ran 143 nights until 11 September. The American actress Genevieve Ward, new to London, was much praised in this piece, as was the staging of the "Sea of Ice" tableau, with its skillfully contrived sensational effects. Errol Sherson calls Genevieve Ward "undoubtedly one of the greatest actresses that ever trod the London stage." She had a prior career as an opera singer under the name Guerrabella. He said of Prayer in the Storm, "The great sensation scene was a floating block of ice on a raging sea with a maiden kneeling on it and praying earnestly for help. This never failed to bring down the house" (London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, p. 111).

Comedies and some ballets helped carry the great melodramas throughout this long Adelphi season. In late spring, the ballet farce Magic Toys, an adaptation of a French vaudeville by John Oxenford, opened and held the boards for 66 nights, "thanks to the agility and spirit of Miss Kate Vaughan who, in her representation of the supposed 'Toy' unites to a remarkable degree the qualities of the danseuse and the actress, and the arch simplicity of Miss Hudspeth, who plays the ingenue" (Times, 11 May 1874, p. 14).

Performances continued throughout the summer and into the fall of 1874, so the editors have arbitrarily chosen 1 October 1874 as the end of the 1873-1874 season.

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

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