The 1881-1882 Season

By Peggy Russo

During the autumn of 1881, the Savoy Theatre opened with electric lighting, the current generated by steam engines situated on land adjoining the theatre. Soon every major theatre in London would follow suit in an attempt to win audiences by decreasing the heat and fumes resulting from gaslight. But the Gattis as yet were struggling to win audiences by pleasing their taste. They chose to continue presenting what had worked in the past. Thus, following the final two weeks of July, during which the theatre was dark, the Adelphi season commenced with the oft-postponed revival of Boucicault's Janet Pride with Charles Warner as Richard Pride and Miss Gerard playing Janet. A farce--The Middy Ashore--preceded Janet Pride on the bill. The Athenaeum gave the production of Janet Pride faint praise, claiming that even though it was "one of the best instances of adaptation extant, and was in its day one of the most popular," it had begun "to appear a little old fashioned." Even so, Miss Gerard received plaudits: she "reveals an amount of pathos nothing in her past performances led us to expect" (6 August 1881, p. 7).

The Gattis' next move revealed their continuing effort to stay within the tradition of the "celebrated Adelphi drama." After announcing on 6 September that notwithstanding its "success," they were "compelled to withdraw Janet Pride" because they had made arrangements with playwright Charles Reade to produce his drama It's Never Too Late to Mend under his direction and that of Charles Warner, the Gattis also made clear their future intentions:

Largely increased audiences testify nightly to the admirable acting of the star melodramatic company engaged to perform the best and most legitimate dramas of the day. No trouble or expense will be spared to keep untarnished the reputation of the Adelphi prominent as the home of melodrama (Times, 6 September 1881).

It's Never too Late To Mend opened on 8 September, preceded on the bill by a one-act farce, A Lad from the Country. Charles Warner, who had previously played the role of Tom Robinson in It's Never Too Late to Mend was lauded by the Daily Telegraph for "advantageously" resuming that role, and Clara Jecks was praised by both the Morning Post and the Chronicle for the pathos with which she acted Little Josepha (quoted in the Times, 13 September 1881). Once more, the theatre received a royal visit. The Prince and Princess of Wales, with their suite, attended the production on 12 October (Times, 13 October 1881).

Even though they continued to use traditional pieces, the Gattis also strove to mount new plays. On 31 December, they presented Taken from Life, advertised as "a new and original drama" by Henry Pettitt. Once again, Charles Warner directed and starred. As the Gattis had promised, expense was not spared: new scenery was designed by F. Lloyds, and Karl Meydar provided new music. Reviews were mixed. The Theatre called it "an Adelphi drama of the old pattern carefully adapted to modern taste," and praised the "simple story of love and persecution." But the greatest plaudits were reserved for Charles Warner, of whom it was said: "There is no better actor at present on the stage to carry a play of this kind through" (C. S., Theatre, 1 February 1882, p. 110). The Athenaeum awarded the production a single paragraph, and called it "a respectable specimen of a melo-drama [which] makes no pretence to novelty of treatment or to literary excellence." Warner played "with force as the hero," and Miss Gerard was judged "monotonously tender" (7 January 1882, p. 27). The Times and Standard reviews were negative. The Times noted that despite the "extraordinary fervour" exhibited by the audience, the piece,

with its highly-coloured and conventional pictures of country life, town life, prison life, racing life ... is quite in keeping with the traditions of the theatre, and will, no doubt, be found grateful to the taste of its habitual patrons [but] if gauged by the not extravagant standard of modern melodrama, Mr. Pettitt's contribution cannot take a very high place (4 January, 1881, p. 12).

Warner's work was judged by the Times to be "robust rather than refined," and his method of expressing emotion was compared to that "employed by the players in the lamentable comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe." According to the Standard, the "audience's enthusiasm ... was almost rapturous [but] originality of subject or treatment may be said to have been entirely lacking." Spectacle was not lacking, however; the Standard cited the "vivid reproduction" of the Fenian explosion at Clerkenwell in which "substantial-looking walls are shattered, and brick-built houses topple down with alarming realism." Another spectacular scene was that of the hero's escape on a Derby horse following a "game of hide and seek ... in and out of the hay-lofts" (clipping, LVT). This Adelphi production also received a royal visit--this time by Prince Christian--on 17 April (Times, 18 April 1882).

During the run of Taken from Life, seven additional productions were presented in matinee performances: The Merchant of Venice (18 March); Kevin's Choice, a benefit for Wallworth (25 March); Hamlet (30 March); The Kingmaker (15 April); Love's Anguish (3 May); and a special performance benefit for E. H. Brooke, including Good for Nothing, Who Speaks First, and scenes from Money, Macbeth, and The Kingmaker (17 June). Of these, J. W. Boulding's The Kingmaker and its sequel, The Double Rose, received scathing reviews in the Times and polite notices in the Athenaeum and Theatre (although Sophie Eyre was praised for her acting in The Double Rose). The Times said of The Kingmaker:

the author's ambition has been confined to bringing down the drop scene on a series of grotesque tableaux ... There were titters when there ought to have been enthusiastic applause [but] now that it has had the imprimatur of a representation at the Adelphi [it] will probably lead a chequered existence for some time among provincial audiences, who must have misgivings as to the literary value of a 'great Adelphi success' (17 April 1882).

Also reviewed was Oscar Schou's Love's Anguish, based on Georges Ohnet's novel Serge Panine. It was panned by the Athenaeum: "a careful supervision of the dialogue, backed up by an almost complete change of cast, might give it a chance of popularity" (Athenaeum, 13 May 1882, p. 614). The Referee said of it, "it was balderdash, and no mistake" and added:

Miss Annie Baldwin, who played Jeanne [sic] and Mr. Beveridge, who represented Micheline's original lover, alone escaped ridicule.... The great artist who played the footman, and who began by saying in tragic tones, 'My lord, the carriage is ready' had the greatest part of the cheering. Whenever he put in an appearance, there was a round of applause....Oh, yes, it was a cruel audience, but it must be said the cruelty was provoked (LTM clipping, 7 May, 1882).

Following the run of Taken From Life, the Adelphi embarked upon what the Times called "a season of theatrical experiments, when the regular companies resign their places for a time to adventurous strangers" (29 June 1882). The adventurous stranger was Edwin Booth, who opened in Lytton's Richelieu on 26 June. His company included Eben Plympton in his first London appearance. Booth was also supported by a few Adelphi regulars, most notably E. M. Brooke. In addition, the Patemans returned for the Booth season with Bella playing opposite Booth and Robert both performing and acting as stage manager. Although London audiences had seen Booth as Richelieu before, the performance was praised by the Times and Athenaeum, and warranted a royal visit by the Prince of Wales on 20 July (Times, 21 July 1882). On 24 July, Tom Taylor's The Fool's Revenge opened, starring Booth and Bella Pateman. Neither the Times nor the Athenaeum were impressed. The Times noted that even though "the performance had all the usual features of a 'benefit' ... a recent controversy as to the propriety of the 'benefit' system in the case of managers seems to have deterred Mr. Booth from using the objectionable term in the playbill" (5 August 1882).

Booth appeared in Don Caesar de Bazan by Gilbert Abbot a'Beckett and Mark Lemon on 3 August. The piece was of interest because it was "a part in which Mr. Booth has never hitherto appeared in England and which, unlike his familiar impersonations, appertains to the domain of light comedy" (Times, 5 August 1881). The end of Booth's special season on 5 August signaled the end of the Adelphi's '81-'82 season and the return of the regular company to the theatre for the bank holiday opening of Drink on 7 August.

This season was marked by the deaths of Mme. Celeste (in February) and Ben Webster (8 July) who were long associated with the Adelphi as manageress and lessee, and whose names were synonymous with Adelphi drama throughout most of their careers (M. Webster, The Same Only Different, p. 91).

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

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