The 1879-1880 Season

By Frank McHugh

Benjamin N. Webster relinquished proprietorship of the Adelphi Theatre to the Gatti brothers in October, 1879.

On two of every three evenings this season, a Dion Boucicault play headed the Adelphi bill (the Daily Telegraph called the dramatist "the Napoleon of dramatic art"). The first of the four offerings, Rescued, a "new and original sensational drama," was apparently the worst and had the shortest run. The critics condemned it except for the sensation scene, "but it is to the carpenter and not the author, that the praise is due.... A bridge is swung aside at the moment when a train bearing the hero and his fortunes is about to cross--the villain's work, of course, but equally, of course, foiled by the two heroines" (Times, 4 October p. 10). This scene, the Athenaeum said, produced much applause. "A scene of love-making, however, in which the heroine, Lady Sybil, makes advances to an engine-driver, provoked open derision" (4 October, p. 444). And the Athenaeum commented, as critics in the preceding season had, on the waste of good actors on such bad drama: "In this wretched piece actors like Messrs. Hermann Vezin, H. Neville, and G. Taylor, Misses Lydia Foote, Moodie, and Pateman, take part" (p. 444). Vezin, to take one of the people the Atheneum named, was an accomplished Jacques in As You Like It and had played Iago to Phelps's Othello.

Rescued was withdrawn in late October and Halliday's version of Nicholas Nickleby returned. It had prospered in previous Adelphi seasons and did so again. The Times commented, "Mr. Halliday's version of Nicholas Nickleby, like all previous versions of Dickens's novels, is but a poor play, but there is a strong cast to play it at the Adelphi." It named Lydia Foote (as Smike), Fernandez, Taylor, Neville and Vezin as those who give "a distinction to the performance beyond what the merits of the play itself would be able to impart" (6 November, p. 8).

When four weeks later East Lynne joined Nicholas Nickleby on the bill, the Adelphi had an attractive program which carried it into February. The Times was not favorably impressed by East Lynne: "Miss Pateman plays the part of the sinning and suffering heroine, and plays it in a style which has apparently its admirers at the Adelphi. But the piece, under no conditions an exhilarating one, cannot be said to have attained any fresh distinction in its present circumstances" (3 December, p. 10).

In February the house enjoyed the novelty of a play, W. G. Wills's Ninon, given for the "first time anywhere." The Saturday Review was much taken with Miss Wallis.

It gives an actress, who appears likely to take the highest rank, an opportunity of showing that tragic power which, always rare, is especially rare now. It is seldom that anything is seen on the English stage so fervid and so full of real feeling as the acting of Miss Wallis in the last scene of the play, where Ninon implores her lover's forgiveness. It may not impossibly remind some spectators of Madame Sarah Bernhardt's rendering of the final scene of [Victor Hugo's] Hernani, and, indeed, in one respect, is superior to it, for Miss Wallis does not overstep the modesty of nature (quoted in the Times, 9 March 1880).

The critics also praised Wills's strong situations, eloquent dialogue and his evocation of the French Reign of Terror. "Altogether appropriate is the background. Tumbrils loaded with those destined to the guillotine roll through the streets, the Megaeras of the Revolution fill the public places with threats and curses, and the chief actors in the drama of the 'Terror' are brought upon the stage" (Athenaeum, 14 February, p. 227). The first-night audience was stirred: "Fresh from the excitement of the closing scene, the audience on Saturday night, after calling the leading performers before the curtain, clamoured loudly for Mr. Wills" (Times, 9 February, p. 8). Ninon ran for almost three months.

Shaughraun returned yet again to the Adelphi in late April. The Weekly Times said, "Never before has there been so fine a cast, and never has it been presented in such a perfect and satisfactory manner" (quoted in the Times, 26 April 1880). However, the Times reviewer thought only Boucicault himself, in the role of Conn, was worth seeing and insincerity and burlesque had crept into the performance of the other actors, who could no longer take the play seriously (29 April, p. 10). But the public apparently took another view, for the play had a solid run.

In July, two prolific Adelphi dramatists were represented in one program when Buckstone's classic Wreck Ashore was offered along with a Boucicault piece playing for the first time in London, Forbidden Fruit.

Wreck Ashore lasted for seven weeks, when it gave way to Therese; or, the Maid of Croissey, a sentimental comedy which had been popular in England and America for half a century. It was the source of the libretto of Ignaz Brull's The Golden Cross, an opera given at the Adelphi in 1878. Dion Boucicault adapted the original French play for the present Adelphi production, and the Times applauded his work: "The play has been altered, and for the better, for production on the Adelphi boards" (20 August, p. 6). This work and Forbidden Fruit continued until the end of the season. The Times praised Boucicault who had "carried the theatre through a trying summer season with unparalleled success" (4 September 1880).

The beginning of this season saw the death of one of the Adelphi's greatest sons, John Baldwin Buckstone. He was born in 1802 and as a youth became a solicitor's clerk before running away to the more exciting world of the stage. His London debut was as Ramsay in The Fortunes of Nigel at the Surrey, 1823. His first performed piece was The Bear-Hunters (1825). After this start, he wrote more than 100 plays--many for the Adelphi and the Haymarket, of which he was manager from 1853 until his death.

Buckstone came to the Adelphi in the 1827-28 season where he played Bobby Trot in his own Luke the Labourer. His The Green Bushes; or, A Hundred Years Ago was the most popular piece ever performed at the Adelphi. During the period 1844-1880, it was produced eighteen times. Percy Fitzgerald said of Buckstone:

A more singular face could not be devised--the intensely droll eyes set in their places a little crookedly, a delightfully grotesque nose, cheeks something after the pattern of cutlets, and whose muscles went up and down, delicately relaxed; and the mouth! That, drawing it over to one side, into a corner as it were, until by the act a sort of money-box slit or aperture was made; with this difference, that the good things were projected out of it, instead of anything being dropped in;--that twist was special to himself (quoted in W. Davenport Adams, A Dictionary of the Drama I, 224).

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

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