The 1888-1889 Season

By Peggy Russo

In 1888, the Gatti brothers became trend-setters, and the Adelphi became the darling of the critics. During the summer, the theatre was dark for an extended period (from 9 June through 18 July), but when it re-opened, it dazzled its audience with electric light, winning accolades from the Times. In 1882, the Savoy Theatre had introduced electric light, but in 1888, the major theatres were still gas-lit. Despite the wellknown danger of fire due to "the fierce furnace of gas constantly blazing in the 'wings' and in the 'flies' ... drying its surroundings to tinder," most theatre managers resisted the change to electric light, citing its "insufficiency ... for stage purposes, especially in the production of spectacular drama." Electricity, they believed, worked well only for comedy and comic opera such as those written by Gilbert and Sullivan for the Savoy. According to the Times, however, on opening night of the 1888 season (19 July), the Adelphi proved those managers wrong: "The enhanced safety and comfort of the Adelphi have ... been secured without any drawback whatever, and the example thus set is one that the managers of the other larger places of amusement may unhesitatingly be expected to follow" (21 July 1888, p. 15a).

The Times also approved of certain structural changes, "including an imposing frontage in the Strand," and praised a significant plot-change in the new melodrama presented on opening night--a "new motive."

The new melodrama was The Union Jack by Henry Pettitt in his second Adelphi collaboration with Sydney Grundy (the first was Bells of Haslemere). The new motive involved the hero, played by William Terriss, in defense of his sister's honour, a plot-device guaranteed to excite audience emotion. The Times asserted with approval that this new motive was "more in accordance with that free treatment of the passions obtaining in French drama than with the namby-pambyism of typical English fiction."

Of course, Union Jack was not entirely new. Pettit had successfully used the army as a background for In the Ranks and the navy for The Harbour Lights; now he combined both in a plot that pitted two military villains against a naval hero. Despite what might be viewed as a subtle insult to the military, the Times claimed that the public was not displeased: "it has long been an accepted conventionality that a blue jacket should always champion defenceless woman, and that a redcoat should persistently endeavour to compass her betrayal."

Ever the nautical hero, Terriss shone in his major sensation scene during which he leaped from a ship's porthole and swam to shore. Ever the suffering heroine, Jessie Millward shone also, even though the Athenaeum described her sensation scene with wry humour: "The night when the heroine, who has been drugged and imprisoned, escapes and wanders bareheaded along miles of lonely road, is the very snowiest we can recall upon the stage. When at length she falls blind and fainting in the snow, her escape is secured [in] a real gig with a real horse" (28 July 1888, p. 139).

Olga Nethersole's was the new face in the cast. Previously seen in comedy, she gained praise for her emotional portrayal of the dishonoured sister. Indeed, she played the role so well that midway through the run, she was lured away from the Adelphi in order to star in The Dean's Daughter, a play written by Sydney Grundy and F. C. Philips for the re-opening of the St. James's Theatre. Dorothy Dene replaced Nethersole on 13 October (see Times, 4, 12, and 13 October 1888).

From 19 July through 7 September, The Union Jack was preceded on the bill by The Refugees a new comedietta written by J. M. Campbell. On 8 September, however, The Lottery Ticket, a farce by Samuel Beazley, Jr., was added to the bill, replacing Refugees. Union Jack and Lottery Ticket continued through 8 December 1888, after which the theatre was dark for two weeks in preparation for the next production.

On 22 December 1888, The Silver Falls was given its premiere. George R. Sims and Henry Pettitt had previously collaborated for the Adelphi on In the Ranks (1883) and The Harbour Lights (1885), and The Silver Falls represents another of their Adelphi successes. But Silver Falls also represents a step toward believable villains, making for a more dramatically realistic melodrama. Welcoming this change, the Theatre claimed that the villains (played by Olga Nethersole and Charles Cartwright) were more interesting than the hero and heroine (played by Terriss and Millward) and took great pains to explain why:

the adventuress Lola is so bold and yet so fascinating in her wickedness, and ... the suspected murderer Marcos Valles has more than one redeeming point--he loves with a blind passion the woman who betrays him, and he has a nobility of soul that makes him repair as far as lies in his power the wrong he has done to one whom he imagined was his enemy (1 February 1889, p. 97).

This change in the character of the villains reveals a new sophistication much applauded by the critics. The Times, for example, praised the two playwrights for "breaking with the cut-and-dried methods of melodrama" (24 December 1888, 5d). Moreover, both the Theatre and the Times were so impressed by the depth of Olga Nethersole's character portrayal they hailed her emergence as an established star. So this actress, who had left the Adelphi to play the lead in Sidney Grundy's The Dean's Daughter at the St. James's and returned to play a secondary role, ended up stealing the show.

Fully expecting that the new play would be a major success, the Gattis opted to present only the main piece on the first night, and they were not disappointed. The audience awarded numerous special curtain calls, including those to the authors and Nethersole and Cartwright. On the night following the opening (23 December), the Gattis added a farce to the bill--A Dead Shot by J. B. Buckstone, and the run lasted through 13 April 1889.

The part of Diego, a silver miner, was played by Richard A. Prince. This was a new stage name, adopted by Richard Archer--the man who would assassinate William Terriss in 1897. Prince also appeared briefly in Union Jack, replacing Edward Lennox as Tim O'Grady from 21 November through 8 December 1888.

From 14 April through 19 April, the Adelphi was dark. It re-opened for the Easter holiday season with a revival of The Harbor Lights, the Adelphi's big hit of the 1885 and 1886 seasons. A Dead Shot was held over as the opening piece. Despite the recent eighteen-month run of Harbour Lights, during which the entire city of London must have seen the play at least twice, the Times, the Theatre and the Athenaeum seemed pleased at its re-appearance (Times, 22 April, 1889, p. 6c; Theatre, 1 May 1889, pp. 285-6; Athenaeum, 27 April 1889, p. 546). Obviously, the Gattis could no longer do wrong in the eyes of the critics. William Terriss and Jessie Millward repeated their roles as the sailor and his lass and were praised by the Times as being "the ideal exponents of their parts." A new addition to the cast was Gertrude Kingston, who played Lina Nelson, the role originally held by Mary Rorke. The Theatre reported a favorable audience reception and predicted another long run.

During the Harbour Lights run, there was one special matinee performance. On the afternoon of 1 June, the Gattis donated the theatre to an amateur group who presented a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer. The benefit was to aid Charing Cross Convalescent Hospital.

Harbour Lights ran for a full two months (through 20 June), and after one dark day for preparation (21 June), the theatre re-opened with another revival--Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun. The farcical Dead Shot was once more retained on the bill. The entire company gained praise for The Shaughraun production, and the Times predicted that the play would be "a profitable stop-gap pending the production of a new play by Messrs. Sims and Pettitt" (Times, 27 June 1889, p. 3c).

In The Shaughraun, William Terriss and Jessie Millward took what the Times called "subordinate" parts, playing "a pair of refined lovers." J. L. Shine, who played Conn, was compared favorably to Boucicault: "if a little more robust, [Shine] displays an equally fine sense of Irish humour and a brogue which would pass muster with an Irish car-driver."

Despite a comment regarding the scarcity of Irish actors in the company, the Athenaeum also praised the acting, but could not resist comparing Boucicault's artistry to present-day, poorer playwrights: "in strength of motive, in construction, and in characterization 'The Shaughraun' is immeasurably in advance of most melodrama of a subsequent date. Its love scenes are delicious, its personages are warm-blooded human beings, and its action is conceivable and progressive" (29 June 1889, p. 834). As far as the Athenaeum was concerned, current melodrama, including the Adelphi's, contained few of the qualities of Boucicault's plays.

The run of The Shaughraun lasted two and a half months, testifying to its lasting popularity and to the quality of the Adelphi's production. On 7 September 1889, at the end of almost fourteen months with electric light, after two new melodramas and two revivals--all well received by critics and audiences--the Adelphi ended this successful season.

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

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