The 1884-1885 Season

By Peggy Russo

The 1884 season promised to be as commercially successful as that of 1883. On 6 October 1884, the Adelphi planned an anniversary performance of In the Ranks, which had played continuously since its opening on 6 October 1863. In their Times advertisement, the Gattis proudly announced the 310th night of their "immensely successful drama" (6 October 1884). And indeed, the melodrama continued to draw or re-draw audiences. On the following Thursday, for example, the Duchess of Edinburgh, who had seen In the Ranks the previous February, paid her second visit to the production, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and also the Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia (Times, 10 October 1884, p. 7f). Such was the popularity of In the Ranks, that it remained on the Adelphi stage without interruption (except for dark nights on Christmas and Ash Wednesday) until 28 March 1885, when the Gattis announced that the play would be performed that evening for the "457th and last time" (Times, 28 March 1885).

Following the final performance of this Adelphi hit, the theatre was dark for five nights (29 March through 3 April) in order to prepare for the opening of The Last Chance, a new five-act melodrama written for the Gattis by George R. Sims whose collaboration with Henry Pettit had produced In the Ranks. With Sims as playwright, the Gattis obviously assumed that they would have another hit on their hands, and judging by reports of enthusiastic opening-night response, they were correct. Critics were quick to point out, however, that The Last Chance amounted to little more than hack work--there were too many plot and character parallels between the new piece and In the Ranks. Once again, Charles Warner played a hero outdone by villainy who spends time in the middle of the play suffering as a dock laborer (rather than a soldier) while his wife, at her lowest point, lies down in the snow to die. And once again, the hero and his wife are restored to good fortune. The Athenaeum noted, tongue-in-cheek, that Sims's "inventive and literary gifts have been put to no very great strain," but added that the piece "is wholly to the taste of his patrons" (11 April 1885, p. 481). The Times agreed but lamented the taste of Adelphi patrons:

They like the cant of philanthropy with which his dialogue is loaded and applaud his lofty sentiments with the fervour with which an audience of East-end wife beaters may be trusted to receive a moral aphorism (6 April 1885, p. 10c).

The Theatre also criticized the typical Adelphi audience, calling it a "baby, ready to laugh if you only tickle its toes, and equally ready to cry if you only pretend to cry yourself." Moreover, Adelphi drama was labeled "not so much a play as a huge and perfectly legitimate commercial venture" (p. 252). Nonetheless, the harshest criticism was aimed at Sims:

If I were asked--could Mr. Sims write a really high-class melodrama for the Adelphi, supposing he were to try, I should say, no--because the Adelphi does not want a really high-class melodrama, and Mr. Sims is mentally incapable of producing what is not wanted (Theatre, 1 May 1885, p. 255).

Besides re-hiring Sims as playwright and director for the re-hash of the In the Ranks plot and characters, the Gattis aspired to a repetition of some of the scenic effects. But the scenery, designed by Bruce Smith, Walter Hann, and William Telbin, did not stimulate the universally positive response awarded In the Ranks. The Athenaeum praised the scenes of "the West India Docks with the crowd of hungry applicants looking for work," but the Times suggested that if the audience wanted realism, they should "save the price of a seat ... and travel eastwards to see the reality in preference to the sham." The Theatre was also unimpressed and pointed to the plight of the actors who were outweighed by the scenery:

Mr. Warner seemed to be everlastingly clutching, convulsively ... at effects which were not in his part. He appeared to be yearning ... to "let himself go," but there was nowhere for him to go ... the actors supported the scene-painters (p. 254).

The Gattis gave The Last Chance every chance at success. Following the opening on 4 April and publication of the Times critique on 6 April, the Gattis began running an advertisement on 8 April designed to counter the critique's negative effects. It read: "Adelphi.--The Last Chance.--Immense Success," and appeared daily through 28 April, after which the Adelphi advertisements started to shrink in size and number (for the final performances, there was a single advertisement with no cast list). Despite negative critical consensus, the Gattis continued presenting The Last Chance through 19 June, but their attempt at a successful sequel to In the Ranks did not succeed and may have cost them their heroic leading man. Charles Warner severed his ties to the Adelphi, after a five-season commitment (1880-1884), perhaps in search of a less commercial environment (the Olympic Theatre). After the close of The Last Chance, the Adelphi shut down for a full month (22 June through 24 July). The Last Chance had been accompanied on the bill by Borrowed Plumes, a farce by Alfred Maltby. Early in the run, the loyal Duchess of Edinburgh paid a royal visit, accompanied by Princess Louise (Times, 8 April 1885, p. 9f).

In addition to its demoralizing end, the season that had begun so well was marked by the death of actor Edward H. Brooke on 30 November 1884 (ERA Almanac, p. 41). Brooke, who had been a regular player at the Adelphi during the seasons 1878 through 1882, was popular with audiences and among his fellow actors, many of whom had taken part in the benefit for him at the Adelphi on 7 June 1882.

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

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