The 1893-1894 Season

By Meredith Klaus

The Adelphi opened the 1893-1894 season with a tried and true formula--Henry Pettitt's play A Woman's Revenge (rather a misleading title, since the woman neither sought nor found vengeance), which gave the audience the sensational murder of a villain whose victim is then wrongfully accused. The Theatre recalled a former Adelphi success, The Cotton King, and quoted "the pious and bow-legged Mr. Binks" who, though only a parish clerk, had his head screwed on the right way. "Give me a good murder," declared Binks, "one as puzzles judge and jury and well-nigh gets the wrong man hanged" (1 August 1893, p. 102). The wrong man in this case was a woman, Mary Lonsdale, played by Elizabeth Robins.

At the beginning of the play, Mary is married to Frank Drummond (played by Charles Warner). It is a marriage of true love, interrupted by the machinations of a trio of villains--Mabel Wentworth (Gertrude Kingston), Jephtha Grimshaw (Charles Cartwright) and Robert Overstone (Herbert Flemming). Before his marriage, Frank had been carrying on a torrid love affair with Mabel. He had faithfully but foolishly recorded his love in a series of letters to the lady, letters which she saved, as women are wont to do. Jephtha and Robert conspire with the lady to use the undated letters, forging on them false dates subsequent to that of the wedding of the hitherto happy pair. Confronted with these letters, Mary flees from her husband's house, leaving Frank neither an explanation of her flight, nor of her whereabouts. He is then led to believe that she has eloped with Robert Overstone, who had long nourished an unrequited passion for both the lady and her property.

Seven years later, the villains fall out. Having no one left to cheer but each other, Overstone leaves Grimshaw to starve, a gratuitous piece of folly that will soon lead to his doom. Grimshaw tracks Overstone to his hiding place, and in the words of the Theatre:

The fleeced wolf follows the fleecer to Miss Robins' lonely retreat, and there, after a thrilling struggle, rendered more thrilling by deafening claps of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning, shoots him. That is sensation the first. On its heels comes sensation the second. The wife, on circumstantial evidence is accused of ... murder, and her husband, now convinced that he has misjudged her from the first, and being a leading light of the criminal bar, conducts her defence (p. 103).

The trio of villains consisted of Herbert Flemming, a new recruit to the Adelphi, who had been "temporarily associated elsewhere with the 'advanced' drama;" Charles Cartwright, "whose villainous propensities likewise possess an agreeably intellectual cast;" and Gertrude Kingston, who played the adventuress "of whom she is making a speciality."

Both the Theatre and the Times commended the trial scene in which the barrister husband bravely and skillfully defends his wrongly accused wife, though the Times was more wholehearted in its praise, the Theatre remaining rather tongue-in-cheek. The Times noted:

Mr. Charles Warner was warmly welcomed on Saturday night to the scene of his former triumphs, and indeed, the part of Frank Drummond, barrister, is one in which this actor's exuberant method and sympathetic personality are seen to the best advantage ... his fiery and passionate but well-restrained performance ... won him the ungrudging good will and admiration of the house (3 July 1893, p. 4).

The Times said of Elizabeth Robins, "It is strange to find Miss Robins, the accredited exponent of Ibsenism, engaged in the delination of Mr. Pettitt's somewhat artless heroines" (3 July 1893).

Scenic effects included not only the smashing thunder and blaze of lightning in the murder scene, but even more remarkably, a representation of the famous Old Bailey "depicted in all its grimness and vulgarity," as the Theatre put it. "The body of the court is thronged with witnesses and the junior bar. The public strains over the gallery balustrade. Everything is there that ought to be" (Theatre, 1 August 1893, p. 103).

The long run of A Woman's Revenge was followed by three plays in quick succession--The Cotton King, The Two Orphans and Shall We Forgive Her? The first two ran only one month each, and the third for two.

With the opening of The Cotton King by Sutton Vane, the Theatre lamented the death of Henry Pettitt, being of the opinion that Vane could not replace him because Pettitt cast "the overshadowing reputation of the one and only master of melodrama" (1 April 1894, p. 228). The Times was less laudatory of Pettitt, claiming that Sutton Vane had gained his theatrical experience in "the transpontine and provincial stage, where the Pettitt tradition strongly prevails" (12 March 1894).

The Cotton King follows the fortunes of Jack Osborn, played by Charles Warner. In the final thrilling rescue scene, he saves the heroine, Hetty Drayson, played by Marion Terry, from being smashed to death by a descending lift, set in motion by the villain. The Times commented, "The lift sensation is probably the most thrilling of its kind ever devised since Boucicault bethought him of tying a man to the metals of the Underground Railway to be crushed by a passing train."

Both the Theatre and the Times agreed that the production was saved by the quality of the acting, particularly commending Warner, Terry, and Cartwright, playing the part of a "pasty-faced drunkard" and Mrs. Dion Boucicault, playing a minor role.

The Two Orphans, a revival from 1878, was praised by the Theatre as one of the best melodramas ever written (1 June 1894, p. 334). Though the Times was enthusiastic about the acting of all the players, the Theatre regretted a certain lack of polish found in the earlier production and missed a "certain distinction, a breath of the grand air which can exalt and dignify even melodrama" (1 June 1894). However the Theatre found solace in the present production because of the performance of Marion Terry as the blind beggar girl, Louise. Despite thunderous applause which greeted the first performance, and optimistic predictions of a long run, alas, the play survived for only one short month.

The Two Orphans was quickly succeeded on 20 June by Shall We Forgive Her?, a new play by Frank Harvey with an Ibsenesque quality. Indeed, the plot sounds like an attempt at a sequel to A Doll's House--the husband, after learning about a secret in his wife's past, banishes her from his home and their children. The husband, played by Fred Terry, was labeled a "pharisee" by the Theatre, a man who, "at the corners of the streets, so to speak ... gives thanks that he is not as other men are" (1 August 1894, p. 69). Obviously, this is not a typical hero of melodrama, and the Theatre asserted that the title should be changed to Shall We Forgive Him?" Julia Neilson played the wife, "the queenliest heroine conceivable." And Ada Neilson earned high praise for playing a difficult part: "Any task more thankless than to gather up virtuous skirts lest they brush the tainted heroine whom the house adores could scarcely be devised" (p. 70). Shall We Forgive Her? played until 18 August when the season ended.

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

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