The 15th April 2001 was a significant centennial. Not as significant as 22nd January 2001, the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death, but for readers of this journal it is noteworthy nevertheless: the opening of Henry Irving’s last Shakespeare production, his last new production with Ellen Terry, and his last at the Lyceum. It was also a long-awaited event, a production that is postponed for twenty-two years can surely be said to be ‘awaited’ to the limit of the audience’s endurance. A little beyond, in fact, because it was anticlimactic, opening not with a bang but with a whimper. It ran for thirty-six performances that, in Lyceum terms, counted as a flop.
The centennial may be a fitting time to explore three linked questions. Why did Irving decide to present Coriolanus in the first place? Having done so, why did he think better of it and, having postponed it so long, why did he revive the project near the end of his career?
First, the chronology. Irving began his Lyceum career in September 1871 as a hired actor under H. L. Bateman’s management. In November The Bells made him a star. It was not until November 1874 that he was able to persuade Bateman to let him play Shakespeare, and his Hamlet was a huge success, running for two hundred performances. Bateman’s death during the run left his widow in management, but with Irving increasingly in control of artistic policy. He followed up his Shakespearean success with Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. In December 1878 he assumed the management, which he initiated by reviving Hamlet, this time with Ellen Terry as Ophelia in place of Bateman’s daughter Isabel. The Lady of Lyons was the only new production in that first season.
Already it was clear that Irving would be an actor-manager on the pattern of Charles Kean. He would do romantic Victorian drama, often revivals of plays made popular by Kean, like Louis XI or The Corsican Brothers, and he would alternate these productions with Shakespeare. He would not attempt, like Samuel Phelps, to ‘complete the set’. His mainstream audience would accept only a limited, familiar repertory, established as such by Irving’s predecessors as reigning stars – John Philip Kemble, Edmund and Charles Kean, and Macready. Irving’s motive was simple. In most of his productions, he challenged comparison with illustrious predecessors. His Hamlet challenged Edmund Kean’s memory. When the time came, Coriolanus would challenge the legend of Kemble.
On the night before the end of his first season as actor-manager (25th July 1879) Irving came before the curtain and addressed the audience. Austin Brereton, his biographer and press agent, quotes verbatim. After announcing that he would begin his second season with The Iron Chest, he went on: ‘With this play I shall occasionally revive some of your old favourites, and so give time for the preparation of one of our master’s master-plays – Coriolanus – in the production of which I shall have the invaluable benefit of the research of that gifted painter, Mr. Alma-Tadema’. [The Life of Henry Irving (1908), I, 287]Already it was clear that Irving would be an actor-manager on the pattern of Charles Kean. He would do romantic Victorian drama, often revivals of plays made popular by Kean, like Louis XI or The Corsican Brothers, and he would alternate these productions with Shakespeare. He would not attempt, like Samuel Phelps, to ‘complete the set’. His mainstream audience would accept only a limited, familiar repertory, established as such by Irving’s predecessors as reigning stars – John Philip Kemble, Edmund and Charles Kean, and Macready. Irving’s motive was simple. In most of his productions, he challenged comparison with illustrious predecessors. His Hamlet challenged Edmund Kean’s memory. When the time came, Coriolanus would challenge the legend of Kemble.
Alma Tadema (1836-1912) painted reconstructions of life in antiquity, based on meticulous research. Bram Stoker says that it was during ‘the following winter’ that Irving turned up at the painter’s house to ask him to take on the commission. [Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1905), II, 68-69]. The actor was accompanied by their mutual friend W.L. Ashmead-Bartlett. Thus, the history of this production began sometime in the winter of 1878-79.
After the closing of his first season, Irving did something unusual: he took a summer holiday. He cruised the Mediterranean with the Baroness Burdett-Coutts aboard the chartered steam yacht Walrus. Ashmead-Bartlett, who subsequently married the Baroness was of the party. A letter to Stoker written in early September shows that Irving was still thinking about Coriolanus, but Laurence Irving describes how his grandfather’s observations of Jews in Mediterranean ports, combined with the impact of Venice, made him think of The Merchant of Venice. He saw a new way to play Shylock, as ‘the symbol of a persecuted race.’ [Henry Irving, the Actor and His World (1951), p. 333]
There was another factor. Ellen Terry was probably hired, that first season, on a trial basis. Irving had decided to bring her back for a further season, but he would have had no notion that she would become his permanent acting partner. He would put her to the test, by offering her a chance to shine. Portia is a much bigger part than Ophelia, and Terry had played it before under the management of Marie Wilton (Mrs Bancroft) at the Prince of Wales’ in 1875. The production had not been a success, but Terry had impressed the discerning.
Returning to London, Irving opened his new season with The Iron Chest, as promised. But the run was hardly underway when he told Stoker and Loveday, his stage manager he wanted to do Merchant, and he wanted it in a hurry. It opened three weeks later, on 1st November 1879. It was such a hit that it ran an unprecedented seven months. There were two immediate results, which affected the plan to produce Coriolanus. In the first place, Merchant simply ran out the season. There was no time to mount another production. And in the second, Ellen Terry’s success probably decided Irving to keep her on indefinitely. It showed him that she could excel as the heroine of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
There was no such part for her in Coriolanus. Nevertheless, Irving had invested a good deal of thought in the play. In his closing speech on 31st July 1880 he told the audience that designs were complete, and announced it for next season, along with The Corsican Brothers and a new play by Tennyson, which was The Cup.In the event, neither ran long enough to prevent Coriolanus from appearing at last; instead, Fate intervened in the shape of the American tragedian, Edwin Booth.
With a parsimonious manager and poor support, Booth’s London season at the Princess’s Theatre was dying. Irving stepped in and invited the American to act with him at the Lyceum in Othello. Booth accepted the invitation, alternating as Iago and the Moor with Irving. Once again, the season ended with no time forCoriolanus. In his final curtain speech of this third season, Irving announced it again, for his 1881/82 season together with Romeo and Juliet.
That was a wise decision. Romeo and Juliet was another great success, and again, ran out the season. This time, Irving’s curtain speech made no mention of Coriolanus. He could hardly have had the temerity to announce it a fourth time. In fact it was not mentioned again until the end of the seventeenth season, fourteen years later in 1895, by which time much had changed at the Lyceum. Just how much more Shakespeare was available? In the early seasons the question was which play would best be done first, but now it was, what was left? What else was there? Irving considered The Tempest, attracted by Caliban rather than Prospero, but abandoned it. As early as 1884 he considered Julius Caesar, but rejected it because Brutus is an actor’s part, while the actor-manager must play Antony: ‘Antony scores all along the line. Now when the actor and the actor-manager fight in a play, and when there is no part for you,’ he told Terry, ‘I think it wiser to leave it alone.’ [The Story of My Life (1908), p. 302] There seemed to be nothing left but Richard II and Coriolanus. So Irving announced that Coriolanus would follow his fifth North American tour. But by the fifth week on the road he had decided to postpone it again, this time in favour of Cymbeline. Terry’s Imogen was enthusiastically received, and Irving made Iachimo into a figure of genuine stature. In December 1896 he rewarded himself and procrastinated again by reviving Richard III while Ellen took a holiday.
Now a series of disasters struck. Irving injured himself on opening night and was out of the bill for two months. Receipts plunged. In February 1898 most of the Lyceum’s sets were destroyed by fire, while in January and May Peter the Great and The Medicine Man failed to please the public. That autumn Irving started on a UK tour with his tried repertoire intending to re-fill his alarmingly depleted coffers, but fate struck again. This time the actor went down with pleurisy and pneumonia and spent the next few months fighting for his life in a depressing Glasgow hotel bedroom. While recuperating at Bournemouth he decided to sell his lease of the Lyceum. [‘Robespierre at the Royal Lyceum’. p12 First Knight Vol. 3 No. 1 June 1999.] In 1899 a syndicate headed by Joseph Comyns Carr formed a Limited Liability Corporation to assume the management of the theatre.
Success at the box office had become elusive, partly because Irving was going out of fashion, but chiefly because the theatre business had changed. The economics of the long run had overtaken Irving and the London theatre in general. Audiences now expected high production values. The theatre of illusion required visual naturalism and historical accuracy, which theatres answered with big, three-dimensional sets and bigger, better-dressed casts. Irving commissioned Edward Burne-Jones to design armour for King Arthur, Arthur Sullivan and Edward German were hired to compose incidental music (Henry VIII, Macbeth). As Lady Macbeth, Ellen Terry had a cloak sewn with the wings of thousands of iridescent beetles. Production expenses grew rapidly. The Merchant of Venice (1879) cost £2,163; Henry VIII (1892) added up to £16,543. [Nineteenth Century Theatre Research 1, 2 (1973), 82]
When a production ran for a whole season, costs like these could be borne. In fact, Irving’s last Lyceum season to make a profit was 1890-91. Losses in London were only offset by touring in the Provinces and in North America, where Irving led eight highly profitable tours. These were the inevitable extension of the long run. Even London’s audience was too small to allow a play to run long enough to offset production costs. As Stoker remarked, ‘it’s worthwhile to have a theatre in London as an advertisement’.
In 1900 Irving had new designs for Richard II by Edwin Abbey and he had resurrected Alma-Tadema’s for Coriolanus. Indeed, it seems likely that the artist had resumed working on them, evidently without resentment for their long neglect. At length the actor decided he was too old to play Richard, and dropped the play. Now there was nothing for it but Coriolanus and on 15th April, 1901, it opened at last, almost twenty two years after its first announcement.
It looked splendid. Alma-Tadema’s research was meticulous and the buildings were archaeologically correct – Etruscan in style, 5th Century B.C. At centre stood the bronze Chimaera (the original is in Florence), and over all hung a great olive tree – a symbol of the tragic decision Coriolanus was to make in defecting to Rome’s enemies, a ‘Fate-tree.’ There was plenty of spectacle, notable the entry of Caius Marcius into Rome after his victory at Corioli (act II, scene i) staged as an ‘Ovation’, akin to a Triumph. It is difficult to imagine that the public remained unmoved.
No doubt they did not mind that Irving used a text much resembling Kemble’s, with plenty of cuts. They seemed happy enough, too, that Ellen Terry was miscast as Volumnia. She tried to be the imperious Roman matron but nobody believed her. She wrote, ‘Oh, how bad it makes one feel to find that they all think my Volumnia “sweet” and I thought I was fierce, contemptuous, overbearing.’ (Story, p. 371) Irving seems to have interpreted his part in a sensible way, given his limitations – he was no bluff soldier but he could certainly play the haughty aristocrat. As he had done so often before (e.g. King Lear) he left the big themes alone and stressed the personal relationships in the play, in this case between Marcius and his mother.
The trouble seems to have been that the public simply did not want to see the play. Alma-Tadema reported that the stalls were poorly occupied on the tenth night. After thirty-six performances, the play was withdrawn in favour of the Lyceum’s repertory plays, like The Bells and The Merchant of Venice. Irving played it once more in London, on the last night of the season. Then he took it on his provincial tour but it must have left that portion of his public cold as well. At that point he gave up on it, perhaps with a secret sigh of relief. When he began his seventh North American tour that autumn, Irving left Coriolanus behind him.