The 1875-1876 Season

By Frank McHugh

In this season proprietor Benjamin Webster and his manager Frederick B. Chatterton filled their bills prudently. They consistently scheduled a proven melodrama as the featured piece and supplied plenty of comedy before and after it. They took few chances.

Andrew Halliday's Nicholas Nickleby, which had begun on 20 March 1875, ended its long run on 29 October of this season. It was replaced by Little Em'ly, another Halliday adaptation of a Dickens novel, David Copperfield.

On Saturday night, Little Em'ly, one of the most successful of Mr. Andrew Halliday's adaptations, took the place of Nicholas Nickleby in the Adelphi programme; Peggoty, on whom much of the interest of the piece depends, being represented, as at the Olympic, by Mr. S. Emery, who made that part one of his best. Miss Lydia Foote is Em'ly; Mr. Fernandez, Micawber; Miss Edith Stuart, Rosa Dartle; Mr. John Clarke, Uriah Heep; and Mr. M'Intyre, Ham. Little Em'ly has already been played in London more than 200 times, but, to judge from the applause it met with on Saturday night, it will probably be repeated until the Shaughraun is transferred from Drury Lane (Times, 1 November 1875, p. 8).

The Shaughraun began on 27 December and ran for 24 nights. Dion Boucicault and his wife, Agnes Robertson, absent from the Adelphi stage since 1861, began a virtual festival of Boucicault drama at the Adelphi. They were popular figures, and thirty-eight of Boucicault's plays were performed at the Adelphi between 1844 and 1890. After this season, Boucicault retired to America, repudiating his wife and making what the Dictionary of National Biography delicately calls "other so-called nuptial arrangements." He appeared briefly in two more Adelphi seasons and died in 1890 four years after his last performance.

Three more Boucicault plays were given this season. Grimaldi was played only twice, at benefit performances. Immediately after Shaughraun came another Irish drama, Peep O'Day, with the author Edmund Falconer in his original role of Barney O'Toole. This tried and true piece played for more than ten weeks.

The most novel offering of the season was the American play Struck Oil. It introduced the Americans Maggie Moore and James C. Williamson. The piece had the longest run of the season, playing more than 100 times. The Times and Athenaeum agreed that it had little merit but that Williamson was a very funny comedian, though not the equal of his predecessors Jefferson and Emmett. Williamson's Pennsylvania Dutch dialect and mannerisms won over the Adelphi audiences. "Mr. Williamson," the Athenaeum wrote, "possesses ... distinct originality, and the performance has both pathos and drollery" (22 April 1876, p. 575).

Boucicault's Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue were the final major offerings of the season. The Boucicaults did not act in these plays, but Williamson and many other skilled actors did, including Mrs. Alfred Mellon, who had been in the original cast of Colleen Bawn, McIntyre, a veteran melodrama villain, and Shiel Barry, acclaimed for his spy and informer roles in Irish plays. Erroll Sherson writes that Colleen Bawn, first produced in 1860, "was seen again and again by playgoers on account of the cave scene where the Colleen Bawn is rescued from drowning. This was something quite new in sensational effects and was the forerunner of many sensational scenes in subsequent dramas" (London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, p. 157).

H. Barton Baker identifies the precise mechanical effect which drew the spectators to this play: "the shaking waters and rolling billows and watery effects." He notes that "transparent stage water had never before been seen, and a few yards of blue gauze did more than all the finest acting in the world could accomplish" (History of the London Stage and its Famous Players, p. 97).

Sherson singles out the Adelphi's revival of Arrah-na-Pogue this season for special praise:

Boucicault's part was taken by an American actor, Williamson, and the hero, Beamish McCoul, was that ideal dramatic lover--Will Terriss. Shiel Barry ... was the Michael Feeny in the Adelphi revival, a part that had been previously taken by Dominick Murray. There was one great scene in "Arrah-na-Pogue" which never failed to 'bring down the house.' This was the climbing of the outer prison wall by Shaun the Post by means of the ivy, and his hiding in the ivy when the soldiers looked out of the window with their lighted torches (London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, p. 159).

The Athenaeum praised the "idyllic grace" with which Boucicault presented Irish rebellion in Arrah-na-Pogue: it was praise that suggested both the playwright's cleverness and his limitations:

So evenly does Mr. Boucicault hold the balance between contending factions that neither the nationalist party nor the party of order finds its feelings shocked. He treats of Irish rebellion, and solicits the sympathy of the audience for those who are in open revolt against English authority. He goes so far as to give upon the stage a ballad, one verse of which, thirty years ago, delivered in an Irish theatre would have produced riot and bloodshed; yet the authorities are subject to no alarm. Changed conditions have doubtless something to do with this. The author, however, has manipulated his story with extreme skill (19 August 1876, p. 252).

The editors have designated September 22 1876 as the end of the 1875-76 season.

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

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