The 1877-1878 Season

By Frank McHugh

Boucicault's melodrama After Dark opened in late August, 1877. According to Sherson, who saw it earlier at the Princess's, "It was a very good specimen of a melodrama of London Life."

The sensation scene was on the Underground Railway (then somewhat of a novelty) where a man is laid on the rails, drugged, for the train to run over him. Another of the dramatis personae is shut up in a neighboring cellar and just manages to tear down the brickwork of the intervening wall before the train comes dashing by. The act was worked up to perfection, and few sensation scenes of a later date have produced the same amount of excitement (London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, p. 161).

In October another Boucicault revival, Formosa; or The Railroad to Ruin, shared the new bill with Burnand's Deal Boatman. The Times found Boucicault's piece ridiculous and wondered why it had ever been popular. It derided Boucicault's upper-class characters as unreal and impossible; "The young gentlemen of his ideal Universities run about London in their boating costume, which it is the custom of these gay young fellows to wear at all times and all places and company." It judged the actors inferior to those in the original production, with the exception of Clara Jecks, who played little Lord Eden. It did admire, however, the staging of the boat race on the Thames and the "picturesque 'set-piece'" of Formosa's villa at Fulham (2 November, p. 8). Margaret Leighton was Formosa, the heroine of the piece. The Adelphi public was less critical than the Times, keeping the play on the boards for some 15 weeks.

At Christmas another pantomime, Robin Hood and his Merry Little Men, was performed entirely by children, as in the preceding season, but this year in matinee performances only. The Theatre warmly praised "Chatterton's company of mannikin artists ... Thanks to these and to the clever arrangement of Messrs. Stafford Hall, Bradwell, Ellis, and John Cormack, a delightful scene is made out of the Market Place of Nottingham and its May Fair of 1188; and indeed the whole pantomime is refined and pretty and spirited from beginning to end" (26 December, p. 338). More mature and skilled pantomimists appeared in the evenings:

The most genuinely amusing pantomime fooling takes place at the Adelphi, where, after a display of dancing and contortion quite unequalled in its way by three acrobats known as the Girards, who have won a high and deserved reputation at music halls, a number of pantomimists, styling themselves the Martinetti troupe, give an admirable performance. Anyone desirous of knowing of what pantomime is capable should see this representation, the whole of which occupies little more than half an hour (Athenaeum, 5 January, p. 29).

From 11 February until 6 April, the Carl Rosa Opera Company took the Adelphi. This company, famous for training young singers and giving opera in English, was founded in 1875, but by 1878 it had already a distinct character the critics respected. The Theatre said, "Completeness of ensemble and fidelity to the text of composers have been the chief objects aimed at for some time by Mr. Carl Rosa.... He has now bid farewell to the 'star' system, and he has claimed support for his company, as a combination of competent and satisfactory artistes, whose united efforts ensure a faithful rendering of the works in which they take part" (20 February, p. 49).

This season the company offered Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Standard was particularly impressed: The

wives perched among the branches of Herne's Oak, the demons in the background, Sir John with the horns on his head, the glittering fairies engrouped around the tree--and the knight may well have been excused for accepting Mrs. Ford as a veritable woodland fairy, if she appeared and sang as her representative at this theatre does--with moonbeams allowing a silvery light over the whole scene, constitute a picture which no wise person will miss, and which few will fail long to remember, beautiful as it is by the charm of Nicolai's music (quoted in the Times, 14 February 1878).

Other pieces included Sir Julius Benedict's Lily of Killarney (derived from Boucicault's Colleen Bawn); Ignaz Brull's The Golden Cross, (a popular piece that attracted a large audience because "the production of a new opera is so rare an event in London" Theatre, 6 March); Michael Balfe's Bohemian Girl; Gounod's Faust (with Marie Fechter, daughter of the famous actor, singing Marguerite in her first English appearance); Wagner's Flying Dutchman ("The audiences here are spellbound," The Athenaeum said); Mozart's Marriage of Figaro; and Vincent Wallace's Maritana ("which was performed with a poor cast," according to the Theatre).

It appears from the reviews these operas drew large and enthusiastic audiences. The reviews were with very few exceptions laudatory. They consistently emphasized the ensemble work rather than the excellence of individual singers, although many well-regarded English singers performed, including Charles Lyall, W. Ludwig, J. W. Turner and T. Aynsley Cook. Of these, Ludwig was noticed most often by the critics.

After a recess of two weeks, during which the theatre was redecorated by James Macintosh, the Adelphi acting company returned with a Burnand melodrama. The Athenaeum called Proof "a typical Adelphi melo-drama but for one omission. It is wholly without comic interest," and attributed this omission to a dearth of low comedians on the English stage at this time. It thought Proof "a very powerful drama," but badly staged and poorly acted (27 April, p. 550). A program from the Westminster Public Library offers a corroborative manuscript commentary. The aggrieved writer states, among other things. "Emery made his part a duet with the prompter, and allowed his character to drop down to the level of a comic servant." Several reviews were generally favorable, and the play became a great popular success, running for several months.

This was Chatterton's last year as manager. His various theatrical ventures had not, on the whole, succeeded. He had become acting manager of the Lyceum in 1857, was lessee of the St. James's in 1859, and was associated with Drury Lane beginning in 1863, becoming lessee in 1866. Five years later, he entered into co-management of the Adelphi with Ben Webster. After leaving the Adelphi, he struggled to keep Drury Lane solvent, but in February 1879, he closed that theatre when his debts reached 36,000 pounds. He is credited with the famous aphorism "Shakespeare spells ruin, and Byron bankruptcy" (Adams, Dictionary of the Drama, I, 277).

The editors have designated 31 August as the end of this season.

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

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