The 1878-1879 Season

By Frank McHugh

Benjamin Webster was still proprietor this season, but Agostino and Stefano Gatti, London restaurateurs, succeeded Frederick B. Chatterton as "sole lessees and managers."

The Gattis assembled an excellent acting company, a fact frequently mentioned in the reviews, and showed a willingness to experiment long absent from the Adelphi. Writing of the dull theatrical times preceding Easter, the Theatre said, "At the Adelphi, however, a bold and liberal bid for popularity was made by the Messrs. Gatti; new brooms determined to sweep very clean, no matter what may be the cost of such an operation" (1 April, p. 187). The reference was to The Crimson Cross, which opened on 27 February.

In the first part of the season, until the theatre closed for repairs on 1 February, Proof, which had begun in the spring of 1878, still headed the bill: "Mr. Burnand's well-constructed version of Une Cause Celebre, an ingenious and striking, if somewhat lengthy, melodrama, still holds its own at the Adelphi, a house which has not of late years been too largely blessed with the breath of public applause" (Times, 27 December, p. 36). The Daily Telegraph was impressed: "All the parts of the story are made to act and react on each other with the certainty and precision of watchwork, and those movements are so accurate in their adjustment that the plot always strikes, so to speak, at the exact time." During its long run, four actors took the principal role of Pierre Lorence: Bandmann, Charles Kelly, Henry G. Neville and Hermann Vezin. This "ancient Adelphi drama" was revived ten years later at the Princess's with Carlotta Leclercq in the cast (Sherson, London's Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century, p. 181).

The Gatti brothers showed their good intentions by engaging the theatre's architect, Spencer Chadwick, to make extensive renovations and redecorations during the three week interregnum. The Times felt the work had been carried out in "a superior manner."

The house reopened on 27 February, with an elaborate new piece, The Crimson Cross, written by "Saville Rowe" (C. W. Scott). The play failed, as everyone, including the author himself after the fact, conceded. But the cast and staging exceeded recent Adelphi standards. The Theatre expressed the general view: "Miss Adelaide Neilson, Mr. Hermann Vezin, and Mr. Henry G. Neville are each of them artists who have made for themselves a prominent position and can command high remuneration for their services. The mounting of the play was elaborate, and many of the dresses were the best of their kind that have been seen on the stage for many a long day" (1 April, p. 187). Queen Isabella was Miss Neilson's last original role.

In the excitement of this first Gatti undertaking, perhaps, "Saville Rowe" overstated the originality of his contribution and provoked critical invective more entertaining than The Crimson Cross itself. He defended his claims to originality of authorship with such arguments as the following:

I am asked by a manager to do a "new" version of Nos Intimes, by Sardou.... The manager does not want the "old" versions, but a new one. I change the scenes, the characters ... rightly or wrongly I venture to reconstruct, and I offer the result to the public. Am I a dishonest man and an impostor if I call this a new play and tell the public from whence I derive my material? (Theatre, 1 May, p. 228).

But Dutton Cook, one of several of Rowe's critics, would not have this sophistry. He pointed out that in the Adelphi playbill, which "had the air of conveying much information," Rowe had provided obfuscation and not information about the specific source of his work, an old play, Perrinet Leclerc, which he had followed closely but not even named in the playbill. And as for Rowe's "reconstruction" of the original:

It is quite true that Mr. Rowe made certain alterations in the elder drama: otherwise The Crimson Cross would have been not an adaptation but a translation. He professes to have reconstructed Perrinet Leclerc; but this I cannot admit.... The leading characters and incidents of the French play are substantially reproduced in the English version. With one omission, the scenes in Perrinet Leclerc are identical with the scenes in The Crimson Cross and follow each other in the same order (Theatre, 1 June, p. 310).

In his final sally Cook reflected on the vanity of adapters: "According to my experience, adapters are naturally apt to plume themselves upon their originality, and are never more confident that the inventive faculty is strongly animating them than when they are translating from a foreign language" (p. 311).

Sheridan Knowle's Hunchback, a stop-gap when The Crimson Cross failed, ran for more than fifty performances instead of the twelve originally contemplated. This was largely due to the strong cast. "A cast," the Times said, "including Mr. Hermann Vezin, Mr. Henry Neville, Mr. Flockton, Mr. Harcourt, Miss Neilson, and Miss Lydia Foote is not to be found every day" (24 March, p. 10).

Sheridan's School for Scandal played only three weeks, but its very appearance on the Adelphi bill shows how the Gattis' management differed from Chatterton's. The Theatre said that Miss Neilson and Flockton were excellent actors in their lines, but they were not suitable for "Sheridan's merry wit" (1 June, p. 327).

The costume drama, Richelieu survived only five performances. It was an opportunity for Hermann Vezin to shine, and the Examiner approved.

It is a piece of acting worthy of our stage in its best days, and fit to take rank with the best work now to be seen during the French tenure of the Gaiety. It leaves us at a loss to understand why a performer as gifted is not oftener seen in parts of this kind.... All who have seen his Richelieu, and all who regard him as we do, as occupying the very first rank of English speaking artists, must look with earnest solicitude for his next appearance in a part alike worthy of his great powers (quoted in the Times, 15 July 1879).

Miss Neilson closed her engagement with Amy Robsart, Halliday's adaptation of Kenilworth, supported by Bella Pateman, Neville and Vezin. The Daily Telegraph commented that Miss Neilson "resumes possession of a part, not only originally played by her, but peculiarly adapted to display to the best those endowments conferred by nature, and those acquirements of her art since attained by assiduous study in the higher paths of her profession" (quoted in the Times, 20 June 1879). At the end of this season, Miss Neilson went to America for a short time and then traveled to France, where she died on 15 August.

Tom Taylor's Ticket-of-Leave Man was the final major production of the season. Neville played his original role of Bob Brierley, which he performed more than two thousand times in his career. Lydia Foote was May Edwards, a role she played in part of the first run of this play. The Sunday Times said she "was once more supremely tender and touching in her original part of May Edwards" (Times, 16 August 1879).

The season ended 27 September 1879.

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

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