The 1880-1881 Season

By Peggy Russo

The Gatti Brothers did not become the official proprietors and managers until March, 1881, but at the beginning of the 1880-81 season, they were in control, and they set about renewing the fortunes of the Adelphi. Unlike the previous proprietor Ben Webster, the Gattis were not performers; rather, according to George Rowell:

the two Swiss-Italians were known as "restaurateurs" who saw their new acquisition as much as an extension of their catering interests as a base for theatrical ambition. Nevertheless, they soon formulated a complementary recipe to Drury Lane melodrama. Though spectacle was not lacking, stirring sentiment proved their stock in trade (Theatre in the Age of Irving, p. 143).

The initial ingredient of the complementary recipe--stirring sentiment--came from Dion Boucicault who had been "engaged to play at the Adelphi and write plays for that theatre for several years to come" (Theatre, 1 Oct. 1880, p. 250). The Gattis announced in their Evening Guide that Boucicault had "proposed to produce ... romantic and domestic drama with as much perfection as tragedy is done at the Lyceum." In addition, plans for the fall season included "alterations and additions in every department of the theatre," and "overtures to actors ... with the object of forming a powerful dramatic company." The Gattis also announced their intention to follow Boucicault's suggestions regarding choice of plays and philosophical attitude toward the audience. Boucicault believed that the Adelphi had lost popularity because:

romantic and domestic drama [had] given place to modern comedy and a less emotional and stirring entertainment. Gradually, the great middle class [had been] edged out of its place in the leading theatres and managers [had begun] to cultivate the 'upper crust' of their audiences; [thus] Mr. Boucicault urged Messrs. Gatti to ... abolish the orchestra stalls and restore the pit and gallery (Gatti's Evening Guide, October, 1880).

Nevertheless, renovations for the new season were primarily cosmetic; they included; "change and redecoration" to the front of the theatre, the entrance redone in white, blue and gold, and the box corridors re-decorated. Still, a few minor changes indicated that the Gattis were listening to their new advisor: "from the upper circle, one row of seats has been taken, and larger stalls replace them. The partitions in the private boxes have been removed."

The season opened October 21st with Boucicault's The O'Dowd and two farces--Wanted 1,000 Milliners by Joseph S. Coyne and Shocking Events by John B. Buckstone. Although advertised in the Times as Boucicault's "entirely new Irish play," The O'Dowd had been previously performed in New York (as Daddy O'Dowd, 1873) and in Dublin. Based on Les Crochets du Pere Martin by Monsieurs Cormon and Grange, the piece had been previously adapted in 1858 by John Oxenford as The Porter's Knot. Although little different from its source, biographer Townsend Walsh maintains that "Boucicault, in transferring the scene to Ireland, gave the play new atmosphere, and his own performance of the old Galway fisherman was the most moving and affecting thing he ever did on the stage" (The Career of Dion Boucicault, p. 122). Unfortunately, Boucicault had transferred the story, not simply to give the play new atmosphere, but rather to promote a pro-Irish political message. Although Boucicault's acting was universally praised in the Times (23 October 1880), the Athenaeum (30 October 1880), and Theatre (1 December 1880), critical opinion about the political content of the play was universally negative. The Athenaeum said, "Mr. Boucicault's political explanations fail to commend themselves to the public" (p. 580). The Times called his timing "unwise: Ireland and the Irish form scarcely now a fit subject for theatrical gasconading" (p. 8). In response to such "expressions of displeasure," Boucicault announced the withdrawal of the play in a Times advertisement on 11 November. On 13 November, the Adelphi management, in its turn, advertised the withdrawal of the play after it had played thirteen more nights and lamented that the end of the run would mark "the last appearance of Mr. Boucicault in London." Thus, the promising partnership between the Gattis and Boucicault ended abruptly. Faced with such a disaster, the Gattis did what proprietors of the Adelphi were wont to do--they revived The Green Bushes. The Athenaeum, in a brief review, called it "a dramatic curiosity" (4 December 1880, p. 754). The piece opened 29 November, accompanied on the bill by The Illustrious Stranger.

In the meantime, as managers of Covent Garden, the Gattis produced Valentine and Orson for the pantomime season, beginning on Boxing Day (27 December), and running through 19 February. The pantomime was well received, but the divided interest of the Gattis had a direct effect on the operation at the Adelphi. After pulling J. G. Taylor out of the cast of The Green Bushes so that he could appear at Covent Garden (Taylor left the Adelphi 22 December and returned 25 February), the Gattis replaced him in the part of Muster Grinnidge with Robert Pateman who had previously played Jack Gong. It seems significant that upon Taylor's return to the role in February, Bella Pateman left the cast (replaced in the lead role of Miami by Mrs. Bernard Beere) and Robert Pateman also disappears from the Times advertisements. Bella Pateman had been a leading actress with the company since 1877; Robert had been with the company since 1878. In addition, Henry Neville announced at the end of January that he would be joining the company at the Princess's Theatre (Athenaeum, 29 January 1881). He too had been with the Adelphi since 1877 (he returned in 1883).

During the month of February, three matinees were presented--Her World Against a Lie (12 February) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (9 and 26 February)--performed by Horace Wigan's company. Neither production was well received. Her World Against a Lie, adapted by Florence Marryat and George Neville from her novel of the same name, had "Played with Great Success in the Provinces for over Five Months," according to the Adelphi program. Miss Marryat appeared as Hephzibah Horton; it was her first performance on the stage. The Athenaeum called the piece "wearisomely long, much of its matter ... superfluous, and the whole ... indifferently acted," but Miss Marryat showed "genuine ability, uncultivated as yet, but capable of cultivation" (19 February 1881, p. 274). In an unidentified review, the writer maintained "what the lie was we may be able to tell; but what was represented by the other thing could not be made out." Originally scheduled for January 22, Wigan's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was first presented on 9 February. The Standard claimed that "such rash attempts as this vain one should not be encouraged." The major negative factor was the acting of Henry Murray: "Murray is just as little like Falstaff as one padded to his size and wearing a white beard, which came off and left him in the last act with a bare chin, well could be." The rest of the cast did not fare much better: "to say nothing of the majority of the cast would be the kindest way of dealing with them" (The Standard--attached to an LTM program, 9 February 1881).

The Gattis spared neither time nor expense with their next production. H. J. Byron was given four months to prepare an adaptation of Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff. Besides hiring a competent adaptor, the Gattis secured the services of scene painter William Beverley, who had aided in the success of their Christmas pantomime at Covent Garden. Beverley's innovative work not only contributed to the success of this production, it was also historically important: "In this play still-life accessories were, for the first time upon the British stage, adroitly arranged in harmony with the background, after the manner of the French cycloramas" (DNB, suppl. i. 192-3).

The cycloramas necessitated lengthy scene changes, however, causing audience complaints. The Standard criticized the battlefield cyclorama because "the dead horses [were] so palpably made of cloth and stuffing," but admitted that "this trifle was overlooked, and the audience was comfortably horrified." In addition to the spectacle provided by the cycloramas, the piece included a processional and a grand ballet. The Gattis also introduced Mlle. Zanfretta, who had starred in their Covent Garden pantomime, as the principal danseuse.

In addition, the Gattis assembled a strong cast of actors, including a number who were new to the company. Most important of these was Charles Warner, who directed and portrayed Michael Strogoff "in that robust fashion which makes him highly welcome to a sympathetic house" (Standard). Warner's performance was so robust, however, that he was wounded in the hand on opening night during a duel "fought with a scimitar dangerously and unnecessarily sharp" (Times, 16 March 1881, p. 86). Warner continued in the role despite the injury until 8 April, when "having been advised by his medical attendant to take a few days' rest ... J. H. Clynds [was] specially engaged to sustain the part" (Times, 8 April 1881). Clynds's performance as Strogoff was not reviewed; nor was that of J. A. Rosier, a member of the cast who replaced Clynds on 18 April, and continued in the role until Warner's return on 23 April.

Mrs. Hermann Vezin, playing Strogoff's mother, was praised for her "genuine power," and for aiding in crowd control on opening night:

the gallery, having been surfeited with music and kept waiting for a considerable time between the acts, thought it proper to take exception to some helmets of rather eccentric design, and a dangerous spirit of ridicule seemed likely to spread when the timely appearance of the actress restored interest in the drama (Standard).

Other cast members included Mrs. Bernard Beere as the Gypsy accomplice of the villain, and Miss Gerard as Nadia. The bills also show R. M. Archer in the role of lst traveller. The actor could well be the infamous Richard Archer, later Prince, but the initial is very clear, and should not be ignored. However, George Rowell in William Terriss and Richard Prince is convinced this is the first positive identification of Terriss's future murderer (p. 59). Programs of the season show an Archer in two previously performed pieces. There are no other Archers playing the Adelphi before this season.

The Standard predicted "a long and prosperous career" for Michael Strogoff, and indeed, it played for 100 performances; moreover, the demand for tickets necessitated postponement until the following season of Janet Pride, scheduled to open on 11 June (Times, 11 June 1881). Another measure of its popularity was a royal visit on the next-to-last night of the season by "the Princess of Wales and the Grand Duke of Hesse and his daughters" (Times, 8 July 1881). The Gattis terminated the season on Friday, 8 July, but presented a benefit for Mrs. Bernard Beere on 9 July, in which Dion Boucicault made an appearance--despite his announcement the previous November that he would never appear in London again.

The matinee performance of Boucicault's Kerry was favorably reviewed in the Athenaeum. Boucicault's rendering of Kerry was termed "admirably touching," and Mrs. Beere's portrayal of Mrs. Desmond "showed command of pathos" (Athenaeum, 16 July 1881). Kerry was followed by scenes from The School for Scandal, with Mrs. Beere as Lady Teazle and Hermann Vezin as Sir Peter. Considering its unpromising beginning, the season's ending revealed that the Gattis were perfecting their recipe for success.

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

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