Henry Irving & Bram Stoker: A Working Relationship by Michael Kilgarriff
Henry Irving and Bram Stoker enjoyed a relationship which patently worked. Irving provided the star power and the driving force, Bram a bottomless well of loyalty and the administrative capability to keep the show on the road. Their comradeship was without friction or rancour and they remained on good terms for twenty-seven years until that final chilly night in Bradford. So let’s take a look at the two men, and see where and how they merged and converged.
HI was remote, sardonic, presenting a carapace of thespian gravitas. Bram was gregarious, genial, the ideal Front-of-House meeter and greeter. Some said that HI did not treat Bram well, that he could be offensive and even derisive towards his lieutenant. I find this unlikely. Bram was a sensitive, emotional soul who would not have lasted the course if he’d felt undervalued or disrespected. True, theirs was not an equal partnership for HI was unquestionably the Guv’nor, but together they made a matchless team.
Henry Irving was born John Brodribb on 6 February, 1838, in Keinton Mandeville, a Somerset village as unexceptional then as it is now. His father’s occupation is unknown – shopkeeper? traveller in menswear? – but we do know he lived frugally with his wife and son in two small rooms. While still a toddler Johnnie’s parents moved to Bristol, but he was sent for his health’s sake to live with his Aunt Sarah and family in Halsetown, Cornwall. Just imagine the despair of separation. ‘At first I was miserable enough; I parted from my mother as though my heart was breaking, but did not show half I felt, nor she either.’(1)
Yet another trauma lay in wait for the boy six years later: re-joining his parents in the City of London where his father had obtained employment, the nature of which also remains undetected. Again young Johnnie suffered bewildering disruption, this time exchanging the fresh open Cornish landscape for the smoky, alarming streets of the Metropolis. No wonder the gawky only child developed a speech defect.
Bram Stoker’s origins were altogether more genteel and settled. He was born in Clontarf, Dublin, on 8 November 1847, the third of seven children in a solidly respectable, middle-class Protestant family. His father was Senior Clerk in the Dublin Court of Petty Sessions and three of his brothers became doctors, one achieving eminence as President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a baronet to boot. But from his earliest years Bram suffered a mysterious ailment which prevented him from walking properly until he was seven, though by his teens he evinced no physical disabilities whatsoever. Quite the reverse, as we shall see.
Irving also seems to have suffered a childhood accident which left him with a dragging leg. To conquer the handicaps of gait and diction well enough to become recognised as the greatest actor of the age shows a transcendental strength of purpose, but the future Elevator of the Stage had to overcome a further impediment to his ambitions: Methodism. To assuage the family shame at his
choice of career John Brodribb chose the stage name of Henry Irving, Henry having been added to John at his christening and Irving perhaps after Washington Irving, an author he admired, or perhaps Edward Irving, a preacher who had himself briefly trodden the boards.
His very first professional engagement, at Sunderland in 1856, nearly ended in ignominious dismissal, when failure to study his lines on a Sunday resulted in a catastrophically ill-prepared Monday performance. The Sabbath, divinely ordained day of rest or not, was never again allowed to interfere with what he was to call ‘the work’; the ‘God Blesses’ with which his letters and farewells were sprinkled we can take as casual expressions of friendship, not full-blown benedictions. His occasional church-going was also, in my judgment, prompted by convention rather than conviction, for as we learn from Isabel Bateman, his first Lyceum leading lady who was eventually to abandon the stage for the cloister, ‘The man she loved was not a believer’.(2)
One notable similarity between HI and Bram was their height, for both were well above the 1870 average of 5ft 7ins. On the one occasion I met Laurence Irving, son of H B Irving, he told me that his grandfather’s court dress fitted him perfectly, and that he, Laurence, was 6′ 2″. In a letter to Walt Whitman written in 1872 Bram also states himself to be ‘six foot two inches high and twelve stone weight naked’.(3)
In this same letter Bram declared, ‘I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self-control and am naturally secretive to the world.’ Such a temperament was to serve him well in his years of dealing with theatrical wheeler-dealers and rip-off suppliers on both sides of the Atlantic, though for ‘secretive’ I would read ‘tactful and discreet’. In contrast, according to Max Beerbohm, ‘Irving’s presence dominated even those who could not be enchanted by it. His magnetism was intense, and unceasing.’ (4)
Bram was full-bearded, HI clean-shaven, as were most actors of the period, leaving their faces a blank canvas on which to limn their characterisations. Bram’s hair was red and neatly trimmed, HI’s raven locks famously flowed. Bram never lost his light Dublin lilt; HI’s stage assumption of gentlemanly manners and speech were often remarked upon in reviews, so we can presume that he
successfully camouflaged his humble upbringing.
In 1864, at the age of sixteen, Bram entered Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1866 began his career in the Irish Civil Service. HI left school aged only thirteen, to work for a firm of solicitors and then for an East India merchant.
Despite Bram’s crippling illness in his early childhood, as mentioned above, he grew into an exceptionally versatile sportsman, winning prizes for, amongst other disciplines, walking, hurdles, vaulting, high jump, and long jump. He was a keen oarsman and rugby player, and even became a notable performer on rings and trapeze. But he also fully exercised his intellect, reading for a science degree while involving himself in the running of the University Historical and Philosophical Societies. HI, on the other hand, confined his leisure activities to nothing more strenuous than the occasional day’s fishing.
Nor was politics of much interest to the actor. Bram wrote that in 1880:
‘Those were early days in the Home Rule movement, and as I was a believer in it Irving was always chaffing me about it. It was not that he had any politics himself – certainly in a party sense; the nearest point to politics he ever got, so far as I know, was when he accepted his election to the Reform Club.’
So while HI’s political beliefs remain shadowy we can posit a vague Liberalism – Gladstone, for instance, had his own personal seat in the Lyceum wings. How Irving voted, if he voted at all, we don’t know. Both he and Bram were Freemasons, though HI’s involvement in the Craft was largely confined to supporting its charities. Membership was expected of a successful man in late-Victorian England and it would have given offence in high places had he declined. But it took him six years to achieve the basic degree of Master Mason, for learning arcane rituals and dressing-up in his spare time can not have appealed. He did that for a living.
* * *
Bram’s first sighting of Henry Irving was as Captain Absolute in The Rivals at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, in 1867. Bram would have been only nineteen; a fourpage paean of praise in his Reminiscences written nearly forty years after the event smacks more of novelistic indulgence than a reliable memoir. He next saw HI in 1871, as Digby Grant in Two Roses. Again in his Reminiscences Bram treats us to three and a half pages of hagiographical flatulence, contradicting his original review in the Dublin Evening Mail which had been sharply critical.
They finally met in 1876, when HI, now firmly established as Britain’s leading actor – though still an employee of Mrs Bateman – brought his much-lauded Hamlet to Dublin. Bram wrote a penetrating review in the Dublin Evening Mail and HI, never one to miss an opportunity to court the press, invited him to supper at the Shelbourne Hotel. Sensing easy prey, Irving invited Bram to dine again the following Sunday.
Here the host obliged with his party piece: Thomas Hood’s Dream of Eugene Aram. It was to prove a life-changing experience for the Irishman. There are many contemporary accounts of HI’s electrifying delivery of the poem, and at the conclusion as Aram was led away ‘With gyves upon his wrist’ Bram suddenly exploded into violent hysterics, an unexpected but gratifying reaction for the performer. ‘Then began the close friendship between us,’ recalled Bram, ‘which only terminated with his life – if indeed friendship, like any other form of love, can ever terminate…From that hour began a friendship as profound, as close, as lasting as can be between two men.’
At this time HI was laying plans to become his own master. Would Bram consider becoming his business manager? Bram, anxious to establish himself as a writer, agreed to respond when the call came, for London offered far richer literary opportunities than Dublin.
Two years later, in 1878, Mrs Bateman bowed to the inevitable and made over the lease of the Lyceum to her cuckoo-in-the-nest star actor. Having at last assumed the purple HI engaged as his leading lady Ellen Terry, replacing the worthy but uncharismatic Isabel Bateman who had perforce to trudge up Rosebery Avenue where her mother had leased Sadler’s Wells. Spurned as a
woman and as an actress, she learned the hard way that when it came to ‘the work’ Henry Irving was not just dedicated but ruthless.
* * *
December 1878, therefore, was a highly significant month for both men. On the 4th, a full year earlier than planned, Bram married Florence Balcombe, and ten days later he formally joined HI’s team at the Lyceum. What did the bride make of it all? I suspect she was as thrilled by the whirlwind of events as her new husband. She was an exceptionally pretty woman – Oscar Wilde was a
disappointed suitor – and the opportunity of making a mark in London salons was seductive. Certainly Bram had no doubts. Throwing in his lot with HI was like a second marriage; it was scarcely less profound a commitment.
Irving’s wife was also named Florence, but their life together was wretchedly unhappy. They had finally separated in 1871, though they never divorced – the risk of social obloquy was too great. Their sons, Harry Brodribb Irving and Laurence Irving (the latter named slightly inaccurately for HI’s bosom friend John Lawrence Toole) lived with their mother, a mean-minded woman totally unsuited to be an actor’s helpmeet.
The Stokers had one child, a boy christened Irving after his godfather, though he was always known by his second name Noel. Their union survived intact until Bram’s death over thirty years later.
Still in the momentous month of December, 1878, HI opened his eagerly anticipated first Lyceum season on the 30th with a revival of Hamlet. The acclaim was tumultuous, unprecedented in its fervour by press and public alike. The following day Bram also had cause to celebrate: the publication of The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions, a book whose text, I fancy, was not as lurid as
his later fiction.
Two months before Bram actually started working for HI he had received a letter which ended ‘With love, in great haste, Henry.’ The following week, writing from Sheffield, HI again signs off with ‘love’. But by August, 1879, less than a year later, HI was signing himself ‘Yours sincerely’. The reason for this apparent cooling must be ascribed to the change in Bram’s status, from personal friend to employee. HI was, after all, the Guv’nor.
In the Lyceum programmes ‘Mr Henry Irving’ was always on the front page as Sole Lessee and Manager. Bram would be listed, on page three or four, well down the pecking order as Acting Manager, after the likes of H J Loveday (Stage Manager) and Meredith Ball (Musical Director). With no standing in the creative hierarchy Bram was perhaps lucky to be mentioned at all. Nevertheless he threw himself into his new duties, writing some fifty to sixty letters a day.
The entire two volumes of his Reminiscences mention HI only in terms of reverential praise, the single instance of criticism is that he ‘could be secretive’, a word Bram had used to describe his own nature thirty-four years earlier. Bram may have possessed the less complex character, but his fictional oeuvre, which was to ripen in the 1890s, showed a darker and more ambivalent nature than his bluff, hail-fellow-well-met public persona would lead us to believe. His heroworship extended to florid panegyrics on the Guv’nor’s fitness and physique, noting that up to his sixtieth year HI was…
‘…compact of steel and whipcord. His energy and nervous power were such as only came from a great brain; and the muscular force of that lean, lithe body must have been extraordinary.’
This does seem a touch over-wrought, but let me here and now stamp firmly on the notion that Bram was a closet gay. Nor should any unwarranted inference be drawn from the intimacy which HI famously enjoyed with J L Toole, a hugely popular comic actor who had been something of a mentor to Irving in his early career. Mrs Aria, HI’s companion of his later years, wrote:
‘To the last day of Irving’s life the friendship of the two men each for the other never flagged or faltered…Each had, in his own way and of its own kind, a great sense of humour. Toole’s genial, ebullient, pronounced; Irving’s saturnine, keen, and suggestive.’ (5)
So did Bram ever really know HI? Or did he know only as much as HI wished to reveal? The artist and writer W Graham Robertson said ‘as an actor [HI] gave expression to everything; as himself he was careful to tell nothing’. Sir John Martin Harvey’s melancholy view was that HI was ‘the loneliest man he ever knew’. W L Courtney, critic, observed ‘In some undefined way, he conveyed the
impression that he stood apart – that his personality moved in a sphere of its own’. Novelist Horace Annersley Vachell said much the same: ‘Irving…appeared to soar above himself into an empyrean remote from ordinary criticism.’ Part of Bram’s value may be seen therefore as a conduit between HI’s supra-worldliness and the mundanities of management. But his contribution to the Guv’nor’s success did not go unnoticed. Here’s the Chicago Daily News in 1888:
‘Mr Irving’s great success in this country has been due to a very considerable extent to the shrewd management of Bram Stoker. We know of no manager more vigilant, more indefatigable, more audacious than he. He knows how to make friends, how to keep them, and how to utilize them. At all times he has an eye to business, yet he is always to all apparences a careless, cordial man of the world. In the manipulation of Mr Irving’s intricate and enormous business he exhibits a coolness, a shrewdness, and an enthusiasm that are simply masterful…Irving is fortunate in having so able and so loyal an associate.’
Fourteen years later Bram was still beavering away with undiminished vigour, leaving the Northern Echo to opine ‘One is led to wonder what Sir Henry would do without this Trojan whose ubiquity is astounding.’
Despite meticulous stewardship of HI’s finances Bram was not so shrewd with his own. In the early 1890s he lost heavily in a continental publishing venture and in an investment scheme promoted by Mark Twain. So disastrous were these speculations that by 1896, despite an income of £22 per week, he was obliged to borrow £600 from the writer Hall Caine. (6)
1896 was also catastrophic for Henry Irving. On 19 December, exhausted after a Lyceum opening night as Richard III, he slipped on the stairs at his Grafton Street apartments, badly injuring a knee. He was incapacitated for ten weeks, and the financial repercussions were dire. For several years the Lyceum had run at a loss, insolvency kept at bay only by regular and increasingly demanding tours of the UK and North America. The accident marked the beginning of a decline in the actor’s health and fortunes; the glory days were over.
* * *
For Irvingites the publication of Dracula is but a glancing incident. For Stokerites, however, this 1897 turgid tale of the Undead is the apex of their hero’s life’s work, with Henry Irving little more than a walk-on. To what extent the Count was based on HI is debatable. Both the actor and his alleged avatar were tall and compelling, and Bram’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National
Biography makes a further interesting comparison:
‘Complex and highly symbolic, the plot illustrated his fears about a world approaching a new century, about male insecurity and the dangers of subservience to another person. Dracula was also a shape-shifter. Is an actor not also a shape-shifter?’
Good point, but Paul Murray goes into overdrive with a racy run-down of the novel’s themes and subplots:
‘The powerful sexual charge which runs through Dracula has caught the attention of modern commentators, who see in it deviant and taboo forms of sexuality, including rape, incest, adultery, oral sex, group sex, sex during menstruation, bestiality, paedophilia, venereal disease and voyerism, among other things.’(7)
What ‘other things’, I wonder? This thesaurus of carnality surely tells us more about Mr Murray than it does about Bram Stoker.
Irving himself tapped into the rage for the supernatural with his colossally successful 1885 production of Faust, complete with devils, witches and red fire, but his opinion of Dracula after seeing a copyright reading was expressed in one word: ‘Dreadful!’ He would of course have been ideal casting for the sinister Count. The tall gaunt actor would also have been perfect as Sherlock Holmes,
though alas he turned down Conan Doyle’s offer of a play.
Perhaps Irving was wary of frock-coat parts, for the last of the Romantics had little sympathy for moderns like Ibsen, Chekhov, Gogol or Shaw. One must sympathise with the veteran actor/producer for his reluctance to move out of his comfort zone. We don’t castigate Elgar for not composing like Stravinsky or Sickert for not painting like Picasso, so let us admire Irving’s achievements for what they were and not berate him for what we think they should have been. His one essay at contemporary drama, The Medicine Man, produced in 1898, was a rank failure, to be withdrawn after twenty-four performances.
For HI 1898 was an annus horrendus. In February fire destroyed £30,000 worth of scenery stored in a railway arch. In the ferocity of the flames HI lost almost his entire stock-in-trade – the only sets left were those in the Lyceum at the time. That he had recently reduced his insurance from £10,000 to £6,000, against Bram’s advice, did little to soften the blow. Worse was to come. In October while on tour HI was struck down with pleurisy and pneumonia; without the actor-knight topping the bill takings plunged. The onset of emphysema further depleted his energies.
A significant newcomer to the Lyceum was Laurence Irving, HI’s actor dramatist younger son. His 1898 Peter the Great, despite providing his father with a suitably dominant role, failed to attract. Sardou’s Robespierre and Dante were also dated and hugely expensive to mount, but Laurence, who translated and adapted both pieces, had his father’s ear. Bram realised he was being sidelined.
‘In those last seven years of his life I was not able to see so much of him as I had been on the habit of doing throughout the previous twenty…my work became to save him all I could…But the opportunities were different. Seldom now were there the long meetings when occasion was full of chances for self-development, for self-illumination; when idea leads on
idea till presently the secret chambers of the soul are made manifest….The man, wearied by long toil and more or less deprived by age and health of the spurs of ambition, shrank somewhat into himself.’
The prose is flowery – what are ‘secret chambers of the soul’? – but Bram was obviously hurt by the withdrawal of the man to whom he had been so close for so long. Worse was to come in 1899 when, against Bram’s strongly expressed advice, HI relinquished his Lyceum lease to a limited company, though he did heed Bram’s warning not to join the board. Within three years the company was broke and Irving’s Lyceum fell dark, never to re-open.
In 1905 HI began his farewell tour, after which he intended to retire to Cornwall and write his memoirs. Ellen Terry had once asked him how he would like to go. ‘Like that!’ he said, snapping his fingers.(8) And so it turned out, for he died on 13 October in the foyer of the Midland Hotel, Bradford, having just played Tennyson’s Becket. The last thing he’d said to Bram was, ‘Take care of
yourself, old chap. Good-night. God bless you.’
In his will HI left Bram nothing. Apart from a small annuity to his valetdresser, Walter Collinson, HI’s sons and Mrs Aria got the lot. When Bram died on 12 April, 1912, Hall Caine, his friend and the dedicatee of Dracula, wrote: :
‘Much has been said of his relation to Henry Irving, but I wonder how many were really aware of the whole depth and significance of that association. Stoker seemed to give up his life to it. It was not only his time and his services that he gave to Irving – it was his heart, which never failed for one moment in loyalty, in enthusiasm, in affection, in the strongest love that man may feel for man…and I say without any hesitation that never have I seen such absorption of one man’s life in the life of another.’
From which we may conclude that however you view the relationship, it worked for them.
* * *
Irving, Laurence Henry Irving: The Actor and his World (Faber & Faber 1951)
Saintsbury, H A & Palmer, Cecil eds. We Saw Him Act (Hurst & Blackett 1939)
Stoker, Bram Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving 2 vols. (William Heinemann 1906)
- Brereton, Austin The Life of Henry Irving vol. 1 (Longmans 1908) p5
- Bateman, Isabel & others From Theatre to Convent: Memories of Mother Isabel Mary CSMV (1936) p6
- Miller, Elizabeth & Stoker, Dacre The Dublin Years: The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker (The Robson Press 2012) p125
- Beerbohm, Max Around Theatres (Rupert Hart-Davis 1953) p399
- Aria, Mrs My Sentimental Self (Chapman & Hall 1922)
- Equivalent sums in 2012 are £2,000 and £56,000 respectively.
- Murray, Paul From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker (Jonathan Cape 2004)
- Terry, Ellen The Story of My Life (Hutchinson & Co) p337