The 1886-1887 Season

By Peggy Russo

The 1886 season continued where the 1885 season left off--with the long-running hit, The Harbour Lights, starring William Terriss and Jessie Millward. Harbour Lights, which had been given its 241st performance of the 1885 season on 4 September 1886, was given its first performance of the 1886 season on the following Monday, 6 September. The play continued to draw audiences until the end of the 1886 season.

The explanation for such a success is not written in the text of the play. The Harbour Lights, by George R. Sims and Henry Pettitt, represents little more than a competent piece of hack-work. But Adelphi audiences loved it--primarily because they loved William Terriss. Terriss's was not a new face on the London theatrical scene; he had first unveiled it at the Prince of Wales's in 1868, and he had continued to act successfully on London stages and American ones from 1868 on. In 1880, he had joined the Lyceum's company under Henry Irving, and by 1885, had established himself as a popular and competent second lead. It was not until he starred at the Adelphi in The Harbour Lights, however, that Terriss became what he remained until his death in 1897--the matinee idol of the melodrama.

In Theatre in the Age of Irving, George Rowell explains why the move to the Adelphi changed Terriss's image:

At the Adelphi he was ideally cast as a man of action, often in the services, whose honour was usually impugned but whose bravery was overwhelmingly displayed and credit ultimately restored (p. 143-4).

Women in the Adelphi audience, it seemed, loved him for his good looks and the brave and honourable roles in which he was cast. But the male audience also liked him: "Terriss had served briefly at sea, and sailing and swimming were his chief occupations, so 'Breezy Bill' was an apt and affectionate nickname for him" (Rowell, p. 144).

In a comparison between melodrama at the Lyceum, Drury Lane and Adelphi theatres, Rowell gives another clue to Terriss's sudden success: the Lyceum "elaborated on the sinister and sardonic vein in which Irving excelled;" at Drury Lane, "heroes were comparatively minor figures, and the villains numerous and variegated;" but at the Adelphi, "the play's impact derived from the athleticism and forthrightness of Terriss's acting, and from Jessie Millward's quiet appeal opposite him" (p. 146). In Forty Years on the Stage, J. H. Barnes calls some of Terriss's roles prior to his Adelphi years, merely "splendid" or "admirable." However, says Barnes:

as the hero of the dramas at the Adelphi, such as Henry [David] Kingsley (Harbour Lights), and indeed in the whole series of the plays done about then at that theatre, he was absolutely unapproachable, and up to now unapproached (p. 218).

Thus, the actor, the actress, the theatre, and the melodrama itself were already in existence--the proper ingredients--waiting to be combined to create a popular success. The Gattis' success with Harbour Lights may be explained by their willingness to experiment with different combinations of ingredients until they found the recipe that most satisfied the palates of their audience.

Saturday matinee performances of Harbour Lights were a weekly practice at the Adelphi from 11 September 1886 through 19 February 1887. Family Jars continued as the accompanying farce at evening performances (there was no farce for matinees) until 27 May 1887. On 28 May, A Kiss in the Dark by J. B. Buckstone replaced Family Jars, and remained on the bill with Harbour Lights until the end of the season.

Mary Rorke, who played the original Lena Nelson, left the cast on 10 January, replaced by Miss Achurch. Miss Achurch, in turn, left the cast on 26 March. Daisy England, who played Emily in Family Jars, played Lena for one night, and then the role was taken by Annie Irish, who remained Lena until the end of the run. The other major cast change occurred during the week of 16 May (Monday) through 21 May (Saturday) when Jessie Millward was replaced by Miss May Whitty (later Dame May Whitty, who was married to Ben Webster, grandson of old Ben Webster long associated with the Adelphi). This week-long engagement was the first appearance by Whitty at the Adelphi (she returned in 1897). Millward returned to the production the following Monday, 23 May.

On 14 June, the Gattis donated their theatre as the site of a complimentary matinee for the benefit of J. A. Cave. There were a variety of presentations: Cool as a Cucumber was presented by Charles Colletre and his company; Charles Warner and Alma Murray appeared in the second act of Held by the Enemy; The third act of The Red Lamp starred Beerbohm Tree and Lady Monckton; the fourth and fifth acts of Heartsease were performed by Grace Hawthorne, Maurice Gally and the Olympic Theatre Company; the cast of Mr. and Mrs. White included Miss M. A. Victor, and J. A. Cave himself. There were also several short "incidentals" (Times, 14 June 1887).

On 21 June 1887, the Adelphi held a special early performance (6:00 p.m.) to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. There was no accompanying farce. On 25 June, the Gattis announced the 512th and final performance of The Harbour Lights, and thus ended the 1886 season (Times, 25 June 1887).

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

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