The Drury Lane Theater that premiered Ben-Hur had been built in 1812 on the site of several earlier important theaters. It is still considered one of the most significant theaters in the world. Over the years the Drury Theater has seen its share of historic performances and personnel ranging from Edmund Kean and Lord Byron to Noel Coward to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Monty Python to Shrek the Musical.
|Drury Lane Theater|
|Constance Collier as Cleopatra|
With Taber in the lead, the play opened on schedule in early April of 1902. Friends of General Wallace who saw him about town in Crawfordsville at the time of the premiere were amused by published reports that he attended the London opening, sitting in the audience with famed actress Mary Anderson. Even the great General Wallace could not be two places at the same time!
The play had received acceptable reviews in America, and many in the English press liked the performances and were overwhelmed by the ingenuity of the production. The Illustrated London News's critic, stated that Robert Taber played the Jewish prince with "rare personal charm" and the whole was "capitally acted," while Collier was coyly described by the Sketch's critic as "very alluring.”
In spite of positive reviews some London critics were not amused and their reviews were scathing. If Wallace, Klaw & Erlanger, and Collins were distressed by these reviews, the thousands and thousands of dollars that came streaming in probably softened the blow. Ben-Hur opened to the largest receipts of any dramatic production for the Drury Lane Theater making over $50,000 in just 20 presentations. As word of mouth spread, attendance increased and the Saturday performances always exceeded $6,000 and its average take in a week was $23,000 making it the greatest financial success the London stage had ever seen. In May 1902, newspapers reported that attendance at the Drury had so hurt other theaters, that certain managers had lost heart and were closing until the excitement surrounding Ben-Hur subsided.
Although some critics continued to take issue with the play, their voices were drowned out by public acclaim. Even King Edward and Queen Alexandra enjoyed the show. They had a specially constructed box in the pit, which was considered a radical departure for royal viewing. According to published reports, their majesties highly commended the drama and its production and spoke of the very reverent manner in which its religious theme was treated.
|Robert Taber with|
At the same time the London production was being readied for its opening in 1902, another staging of the play was preparing for its opening at Her Majesty’s Theater in Sydney, Australia and plans were being discussed for productions in France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. While Wallace’s literary efforts had reached an international audience in the nineteenth century, just after the turn-of-the twentieth century, the stage play was proving equally successful at spreading the message of Ben-Hur and the name of Lew Wallace. The impressive production of the play contributed to this success, but beyond its theatrical presentation, as the critic for Sketches wrote of the London production, this play had the unique ability to move audiences, especially by its "beautiful finale, breathing peace to those who have suffered."
Samantha Ellis, The Guardian, 2003
The Crawfordsville Journal, March 12, 1901
The Crawfordsville Journal, April 15, 1901
The Crawfordsville Journal, January 24, 1902
The Crawfordsville Journal, May 14, 1902
The Crawfordsville Journal, May 21, 1902
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