The 1890-1891 Season

By Meredith Klaus

The season began on 2 August 1890, under the management of the Gatti brothers. The company had not been significantly strengthened during the break, though Bassett Roe, T. B. Thalberg and Mrs. Essex Dane became regulars. The stalwart Howard Russell was missing after thirteen years of service, but he would return the following season. William Terriss had gone to the Lyceum after a tour of North America, and Jessie Millward was trying to follow an independent career. It would be four seasons before their return to the regular cast. Alma Murray, a regular for eight seasons, left and never again performed at the Adelphi. But the heart of the company remained: Abingdon, East, the Northcotes, Rignold and Shine among the men. Clara Jecks appeared for her sixth consecutive season, and Madge Midren reappeared after a year's absence. Mary Rorke began her sixth season. The famous Mrs. Pat Campbell was back but only for another single night's performance.

The first piece of the season was The English Rose. Written by George R. Sims and Robert Buchanan, it was acclaimed by the critics from its first through the celebration of its one hundredth performance.

In spite of its English title, the play takes place entirely in Ireland, its major theme being the Irish land problem. While not a realistic drama, the play nevertheless presented a true-to-life picture of the serious problems in Ireland. Rather than depending on the traditional stage portrait of the Irish as quaint, contented and comic, the play followed the precedent set by Dion Boucicault in his Irish dramas, especially Arrah-na-Pogue, The Shaughraun, and The O'Dowd, and attempted to show Irish grievances in a sympathetic manner, at the same time avoiding a direct confrontation with conservative English opinion. It achieved this goal first through the personal appeal of its Irish hero, Harry O'Mailley, played to perfection by Leonard Boyne, and second by exculpating the Irish protesters, placing the guilt on the blackly villainous steward, MacDonnell, who was played by W. L. Abingdon.

What cannot be doubted is the continuation of Boucicault's attempt to break the stereotype of the stage Irishman (or woman), and of life in Ireland, "the romantic nonsense which hitherto passed as Irish drama." Particularly commended in the Times review as attempts to remove this stereotype are the portrayals of the ruined Irish gentry--the Knight of Ballyreeny and his "chivalrous" son Harry O'Mailley, the "thriftless tenants," who, "left to themselves, would be honest enough to let their landlord go scatheless," and a female counterpart of Harry, Bridget O'Mara, a victim of unrequited love, and the daughter of the misguided assassin, played by Mary Rorke (Times, 4 August 1890).

The Times reviewed The English Rose again at its one hundredth performance "before a crowded and enthusiastic house" and described it as "one of the most remarkable Adelphi successes of recent years" and "very skillful from a literary point of view" (28 November). Particularly commended were the performances of Leonard Boyne and of Lionel Rignold as "the English renegade" Nicodemus Dickinson.

On 1 September 1890, the Theatre echoed the praises of the Times, and referred to Boyne's performance as "gallant" and "bold," and described Rignold's characterization of a "particularly sharp but thoroughly dishonest horsey individual" as "very droll." W. L. Abingdon was commended as "a thorough-faced villain." The heroine, portrayed by Miss Olga Brandon "still weak and hoarse" presumably from a temporary indisposition, was nevertheless "a favorite at once by her truth to nature."

This review took the time to comment that the scenery was beautifully painted, and the stage management of the very best. The Times also noted, in referring to the murder of Sir Phillip, that "The dark deed is done at a spot called the Devil's Bridge, one of the most picturesque scenes ever presented on the Adelphi Stage." The Theatre review continued:

Besides the murder on the bridge, the play contained a steeplechase in which Harry defeats his rival MacDonald; Harry's furious but unsuccessful ride to save Sir Phillip; the rescue of Harry by the mob of Irish tenants after his conviction for murder; and the search for him by the British soldiers when he has taken refuge in his brother's chapel. These scenes not only built suspense but also provided an opportunity for skillful scenic design.

The final scene takes place at the chapel of Father Michael O'Mailley, brother of the accused Harry and the confessor of the murderer, O'Mara. Harry, escaping from custody, has sought refuge in the chapel, which is also the site of the romantic resolution of the melodrama. The Times (4 August), noted "Half a dozen picturesque interiors ... one of the prettiest of which is the little chapel by the sea, where the drama finds its denouement."

The Times praised the unusual realism of the piece. The authors had "swept away the comic opera personnel which had hitherto represented the Irish character." The review continued:

Theirs is not the Ireland of Mr. Boucicault or Charles Lever, but that of the daily newspapers or the Parnell Commission--the Ireland of judicial rents, threatening letters, police protection, moonlight outrage, and murder, side by side with a fund of law-abiding sentiment and a fair sprinkling of the heroic virtues. It may be thought that these are dangerous elements to juggle with in a popular entertainment. So they are; but the authors have taken care to hold the scale so evenly between all parties, to be so unbiased in views, so unpolitical, in a word, that The English Rose can be applauded by Unionists and Home Rulers alike, if indeed under the spell of a strongly dramatic theme all political partisanship is not forgotten.

In fact, as early as 1880, Boucicault had made a serious effort to portray a politically realistic Ireland in The O'Dowd, but public outcry forced him to withdraw the piece. And whether enthusiastic Irish patriots would in fact have agreed with the English reviewer either about the realistic qualities of The English Rose or the "scale so evenly balanced between all parties," is an open question. The plot hinges on the murder of an Englishman, Sir Phillip Kingston, by oppressed and starving Irish tenants. Rather than being justified by the oppression they suffer, they are acquitted of guilt because they are "misled" by the villainous steward. Other "realistic" elements in the play seem also somewhat ambiguous. "There are, of course, thriftless tenants, who think Sir Phillip's exactions hard and outrage is darkly hinted at" notes the Times (editor's emphasis).

The season continued with a revival of The Streets of London enthusiastically acclaimed in a Times review of May 8, 1891, an enthusiasm echoed in the Theatre's review of June 1. The play, first adapted from the French by Dion Boucicault, had not been seen at the Adelphi for many years, but it seemed to have survived its long hibernation.

Changes in popular taste made it difficult for the audience, or at least for the Times reviewer, to reconcile character and event in the play with the mundane realities of everyday life. But, as the Times pointed out, "He who would see melodrama aright must not scrutinize it in too carping a spirit, but must frankly surrender himself to the emotion of the scene." This difficulty in reconciliation focused on the character of Badger, a combination of Machiavelli, Horatio Alger and Tom Swift, who "suffers many vicissitudes of fortune between selling matches on the street and becoming an inspector of police."

The part of Badger, however remote from the mundane, was played with great skill by Leonard Boyne, who imparted "an amount of jovial devil-may-care-ism to Badger that makes one forget what a rascal he is." Confronting him is his opponent and archenemy Crawley; an unscrupulous money-lender, played by Mr. Frederick Glover. The Times and Theatre disagreed to a certain extent on the success of Glover as Crawley, the Times gave a rave review, while the Theatre noted that Glover was "not quite the Crawley one would expect." But perhaps Glover was simply having an off night after a month of performances.

The rest of the cast was also highly recommended, especially the romantic leads Olga Brandon and T. B. Thalberg. Concerning the low comedy of the Puffy family--Lionel Rignold and Mrs. H. Leigh as Mr. and Mrs. Puffy and Clara Jecks as Dan--the Times commented, "the traditional business of the actors has assumed proportions never contemplated by the French authors or even by their English adapter, the late Mr. Dion Boucicault."

The plot concerns Badger's attempts to outwit the villainy of Crawley. As Crawley's clerk, Badger has gotten hold of a receipt for an investment of 20,000 pounds--a sum which Crawley makes his own on the death of the depositor, thus defrauding the legitimate heirs. Their struggles in poverty lead Badger to attempt the restitution of their fortune, while Crawley stops at no skullduggery to regain the receipt.

Scenic effects were, as usual for the Adelphi, ingenious, efficient and highly effective. The special effects department must have worked overtime on two scenes--in the first, Crawley has set fire to the house where Badger has hidden the receipt, though Badger, at great risk to his life, saves the receipt at the last moment. Both the Times and Theatre were greatly impressed, the former commenting "the fire is contrived on a truly alarming scale. The doomed house faces the audience, and occupies the depth of the stage. Soon after the lurid glare from the windows has attracted a crowd the flames burst forth, and the whole interior of the building with its network of blazing rafters becomes a veritable furnace... volumes of acrid smoke... pervade the auditorium." The Theatre was also impressed with a real fire engine on the stage in this scene and enthused over another scene representing Charing Cross on a snowy night with "real cabs, hot potato sellers, beggars and young swells" all "faithfully reproduced."

Others of the company appearing in the play for this season were, for the men: Charles Dalton, Frank Gillmore, J. Northcote, H. Cooper, James West and W. Northcote. Among the women, Ada Ferrar was commended by the Theatre for "as good a performance as any" in her role as "the imperious but stony-hearted Alida."

During the season, there were two special matinees. On 19 February, the Samuel Hayes' Company presented The School for Scandal, and on 28 February, a special performance of The English Rose was presented to aid the Irish Distress Fund.

The season ended on 20 June 1891.

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

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