The 1899-1900 Season

By Thirza Cady

The 1899 season began on 19 August, with a production of With Flying Colours, by Seymour Hicks and Fred G. Latham. The play departed from the usual Adelphi formula of "a thrilling plot, sensational episodes and robust acting." In this case, the producers tried to emulate the elaborate "stage pictures" presented at Drury Lane Theatre. According to the Times, the plot was weak and the construction unskilled, but there were some excellent scenes that were very elaborate for the relatively restricted space of the theatre's stage (21 August, p. 11).

The play concerns the actions of an enlisted man who strikes an officer, an action punishable by imprisonment. The action provided some elaborate and spectacular settings, from a battleship, to Dartmoor prison, and a train station complete with departing train. The last act received most favorable mention, and Harry Nicolls was credited with the salvation of the first few acts by his comic interludes as a sham sailor. More praise went to Master Sefton in the part of Horatio Winter, a midshipman.

The piece was well received by the audience and continued through the first week of December. On December 11, an American production Children of the Ghetto opened. It was a four-act drama by Israel Zangwill based on his novel. It lasted only a week.

On Boxing Day, Charles Reade's Drink opened with a matinee performance. It was a seven-act "stirring moral drama" adapted from Zola's novel L'Assommoir. The play is a typical presentation of the author, with scenes true to life, characters that live, and a tone as different as possible from most melodramas of the day. The Times felt that the play would successfully fill the gap left by the "unfortunate collapse of Children of the Ghetto" (27 December 1899).

Early in the new year, the Adelphi presented several short-run plays. Drink began on 1 January, and ran for two weeks. It was followed by Two Little Vagabonds, written by George R. Sims and Arthur Shirley. The latter play closed on 3 February 1900.

The Better Life opened on Monday, 5 February; it was written by Arthur Shirley and Sutton Vane and based on In His Steps, a tract story written by the Reverend Charles Sheldon. The Times of 6 February 1900 assured "those who can revel in the 'luxury of woe' ought to find the play greatly to their taste." The story has a badly-treated hero whose only respite from starvation was when he was in prison. Fuller Mellish worked to make the hero plausible, and Elsa Wylde played his wife "with a real touch of pathos." The reviewer felt that Mrs. Cecil Raleigh struck a note of gilded infamy, and Miss Kate Tyndall played the good woman in black and white.

On 10 March, Bonnie Dundee, written by Lawrence Irving, opened at the Adelphi. It was an historical play in five acts. The central figure of Claverhouse, from Macaulay's history, was played by the American actor Robert Taber. His performance, even his appearance, was panned in the Times (March 12, 1900). He presented a clean shaven look when expected to have "small mustachios of light brown." However, the reviewer put most of the criticism upon the head and pen of the author who had stripped the character of any depth or display of contradictory traits described in the historical narrative.

It was a sentimental melodrama, with typical misadventures and misunderstandings. The lack of character development gave no opportunity for Lena Ashwell to give an emotional performance; all she could deliver was a "pathetic attitude." The scenery was admired, as was the staging of the fight at Killiecrankie.

The theatre was dark through the rest of April. On Tuesday, 1 May, Robert Taber again opened in a starring role in Quo Vadis, written by Stanislaus Stange. The play was adapted from the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Despite the Times' reviewer's feeling that the presentation was "deplorable, very silly, very vulgar," the play was received by the audience with unbounded enthusiasm. It combined crude sensationalism and quasi-religious sentiment. There was also low humor in G. W. Anson's presentation of Nero as a buffoon. Quo Vadis closed on Friday, 1 June 1900.

Extensive renovations took place during the break. The Builder reported on September 7, 1901:

The stage of the old "Adelphi" is left practically intact, but the auditorium, approaches, etc. have been rearranged .... A subway now leads from the main entrance and crushroom to both prompt and OP sides of this part of the house.... The private boxes are on the stalls and dress circle level only, eight in all. On the upper circle, in lieu of boxes, the seats have been continued around to the proscenium opening in the stalls. There are upwards of 200 seats. The pit is one of the largest in London; it has a refeshment saloon and emergency exits. The prevailing scheme of decoration is ivory white, yellow, old gold, and electric blue, developed in silk, velvet, and mural coverings and paintings (p. 217).

The second half of the century had been as successful as the first. Over two thousand performers had performed six hundred plays. The theatre's success in producing melodramas in the grand style had given birth to the term "Adelphi drama." But stage melodrama suffered a mortal blow with the murder of William Terriss in 1897. There was no substitute for Breezy Bill. However, romantic melodrama found a new home, for it was ideally suited to the new art of moving pictures.

Stefano Gatti began letting the house to outside managers, and when the theatre opened for the first season of the Twentieth Century, it was renamed The Century. The opening piece was The Whirl of the Town, a "musical absurdity" in two acts that lasted only thirty-five performances. The new name survived somewhat longer--until the end of the season, when the familiar name was restored. The future lay in musical comedy so the house John Scott had built returned to its musical roots. It prospered as the Edwardian musical play became all the rage. Not in their wildest dreams could Scott and his talented daughter, Jane, have imagined that their little theatre in the Strand would one day be nearing its bicentenary.

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

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