The 1896-1897 Season

By Thirza Cady

The Adelphi fall season started with Boys Together, an "original drama" by Haddon Chambers and Comyns Carr billed in the Times as an "innovation in melodrama" (27 August 1896). The innovation was that greed was not the reason for the villain's dastardly behavior, but unreasoning, undying hatred. The plot still had a persecuted hero, some ambitious settings, and the climactic confrontation between hero and villain at the climax.

While the play was described as a praiseworthy attempt to leave the beaten path of conventional melodrama, it failed to convince the critics. The author's work was compared unfavorably with Henry Pettitt in his former successes. They especially took Comyns Carr to task, accusing him of letting material considerations take precedence over those of art.

The story concerns the fortunes of two men who had been to school together as boys (hence the title).

The hero, Frank Villars, is about to sail with his regiment to Egypt when the villain, Hugo Forsyth, reappears in his life. Forsyth hates Villars because of a "well-deserved" boyhood thrashing. A further complication arises because Forsyth is the husband of Ethel Wood, Villars' betrothed. She believes him dead.

Off the two men go to Egypt, only to be captured and imprisoned, giving Forsyth a great opportunity to plot and carry out his revenge. He almost succeeds, and Villars pursues the villain to exact his own vengeance. The climax of the play takes place in the Tyrol, where Villars has tracked Forsyth. The two struggle and find themselves suspended precariously over an abyss. This scene was immortalized on theatre posters. In vain, Villars tries to save his enemy. Once more good triumphs over evil, and the hero returns to the arms of the long-suffering heroine. It was Adelphi melodrama at its best.

William Terriss was described by reviewers as showing tremendous energy while declaiming his lines with inflated chest and noble accent. Faint praise perhaps, but after the description of Jessie Millward's tearful fashion plate, and Harry Nicholls doing all that was "feasible" in the comic relief, moderate enthusiasm was as much as could be expected.

The elaborate staging also came in for praise, as it often did in Adelphi melodramas. Special mention was made of both the scenes in the Sudan and the backdrop of the Tyrolean mountain peaks in the finale. After opening on 26 August, it ran through 5 December 1896.

On 23 December 1896, the Adelphi winter season opened with a revival of Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold. The play had originally opened some 70 years before but remained a perennial favorite. For many years, T. P. Cooke had been identified with the part of William in this nautical drama. It was a credit to Terriss that his hornpipe, yarns and songs could captivate audiences in much the same way.

The story concerns the carefree sailor, William, who is court-martialed for striking his superior officer. The incident was precipitated by an insult to Susan, played by Jessie Millward. Her performance was praised "for her really beautiful and superbly womanly portrait of the devoted Susan" (Theatre, 1 February 1897). Charles Fulton, Harry Nicholls and Vane Featherston were also commended.

Another revival, All That Glitters Is Not Gold, was added to the bill because of the comparative brevity of Black-Eyed Susan (two hours). Some of the actors were in both pieces. Among them were Luigi Lablache, J. D. Beveridge, Oscar Adye, Charles Fulton, Harry Nicholls and Kate Kearney. They were joined by Jarvis Widdicomb, and the Misses Margaret Halston and Vane Featherston. Although All That Glitters Is Not Gold was of the same period as Black-Eyed Susan, it did not elicit the same response. The play was referred to as less dramatically effective, and even as better left in retirement. Retired it was in the first week of May to make way for an American import.

The American production of Secret Service opened 15 May 1897. The Theatre (1 June 1897) declared it "the best play of its kind which America has yet sent us." It follows the basic rules of melodrama and includes a war theme. The heroine of one side falls in love with the hero of the other. Love rises above politics. After bowing to these conditions, the author brought a small part of the American Civil War to the London Stage.

The action takes place at a home in Richmond, Virginia, while the city is under siege. A Northern spy in disguise in the home of a Confederate officer is trying to maneuver into a position for espionage, and inevitably falls in love with the general's daughter. There are many intricacies and twists within the plot, and plenty of opportunity for Northerners and Southerners to show their nobility.

The Times felt that Gillette went out of his way to provide a happy ending (17 May 1897, p. 15). In the natural course of events, the spy, once unmasked, would indeed be shot. However, both the heroine and the plot contrived to commute his death sentence to imprisonment.

The actors were all commended, from the forceful yet restrained performance of William Gillette, down to that of the merest supernumary. There were many small parts in addition to the listed cast which included Misses Ida Waterman, Blanche Walsh, Odette Tyler, Alice Leigh, and eighteen-year-old Ethel Barrymore.

The middle of June brought the return of Sarah Bernhardt making her annual visit. Her first presentation, Lorenzaccio, was an adaptation by M. Armand D'Artois from Alfred de Musset's four act drama. Mme. Bernhardt apparently did her best, but the rest of the cast was judged "fairly adequate," with Darmont as the Duke Alexandre de Medicis receiving slightly more favorable mention (Theatre, 1 July 1897). Lorenzaccio was likened to a boyish Hamlet, fighting the oppressive rule of Florence by his relative, the Duke. The reviewers, on the other hand, felt the role to be nowhere near the complexity of a Hamlet.

The next play, Spiritisme, by Victorien Sardou, opened at the Adelphi on 6 July 1897. According to several sources, the play had had little previous success, either in Paris or America. One reason for inclusion of the play may have been the second act where the actress's powers were taxed to the upmost. Alas, not even Sarah Bernhardt could "galvanize into life a piece so inherently feeble and tedious" (Theatre, 1 August 1897). Conveniently for all, the play had only three performances. The remainder of the plays in Mme. Bernhardt's season were familiar and favorites of her London audience.

La Dame Aux Camelias was performed six times. Written by the younger Dumas, the play was a favorite vehicle for Mme. Bernhardt. In the summer of '97 the play was presented in period costuming; bare shoulders for the women and plum-colored coats and nankeen trousers for the men.

Frou Frou was staged at the Adelphi at the same time as Mme. Rejane was playing in it at the Lyric. There was an obvious comparison, with the Times feeling that Mme. Bernhardt's identification with the part in the past was only one reason she seemed to be on the favorable side of the comparison (2 July 1897). The other French actress played the part with a different character, probably deliberately. The divine Sarah, the Times felt, would continue to interpret the character of Gilberte as the public had come to expect (2 July 1897, p. 10).

When the Bernhardt season concluded on July 14, the American company returned and continued performing Secret Service. When the Americans left on 4 August, the Adelphi Company, headed by William Terriss and Jessie Millward, took over. (For convenience, the editors have designated the productions as if they were different pieces). Despite the complete change in the cast, the English production was well received. The Adelphi troupe "closely imitated their predecessors in accent and make-up." Creagh Henry as the Southern secret service agent and Miss Georgie Esmond as Caroline Mitford received special mention. In its "somewhat louder key," the Times felt the month-long run an undeniable success (7 August 1897).

During the season, Agostino Gatti died. His funeral was held on 16 January 1897, and the theatre was dark.

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

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