Henry Irving, Methodism and the Irregular Stage by Michael Kilgarriff

The complex personality as much as the extraordinary life of Henry Irving are what give the Irving Society its raison d’être.  While ‘What Made Irving Tick’ might make a subject fathomless in its potential,  I shall eschew dilettante psychoanalysis, for there is no greater literary sin than the drawing of hard and fast conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence.  In this paper I would, however, like to draw attention to some aspects of H.I.’s life and known attitudes which informed his career and which more expert commentators than I may care to develop into a coherent psychological profile.

* * *

After the Restoration both Church and State kept a beady eye on plays, believing them to be a potential fount of  immorality and sedition, if not downright treason.  From 1737 a play could be published without legal sanction but if it were publicly performed the approval of the Lord Chamberlain had to be sought, a fee paid, and a licence obtained. I have one of the last ever issued.  It is dated 10th July 1968 and allows for ‘the performance of a new Stage Play, of which a copy has been submitted to me by you, being a revue in 1 Act entitled Beer and Skittles’.

My piece wasn’t a revue and it wasn’t in one act, it was in two.  But never mind, they got the title right and I have licence number 2429 signed by Lord Cobbold on my study wall, an interesting piece of theatrical history and an official declaration that, for that summer at least, I was legitimate.

It must be admitted that many theatre managers, including Henry Irving, supported play censorship,  for if a text were licensed by a high official of the Royal Household its enactment was safe from attack by Grundyish individuals or over-sensitive local authorities.1  No such legal constraints ever applied to the irregular stage. As long as an entertainment did not contain a narrative element it did not contravene any regulations; jugglers, rope-dancers, conjurers, fire-eaters, animal trainers, and even comic songs and comedians’ patter escaped official scrutiny.

The 1843 Theatres Act attempted to liberalise the confused 1752 restrictions on  drama houses. Henceforward, any suitable building might apply for a theatre licence.  Such a licence, however, forbade  smoking and alcoholic stimulants in the auditorium, whereas a ‘burletta’ licence permitted smoking and drinking but forbade the mounting of plays.  Burlettas,  never precisely defined, came to be accepted as stage presentations that weren’t plays, such as musical entertainments, tavern concerts, and the inchoate Music Halls.  But throughout the nineteenth century Music Hall managers gradually pushed the boundaries wider and wider, so that by 1900 it was accepted that licensed sketches would be permitted on the Halls provided there were not more than two per performance, the running times did not exceed thirty minutes, and not more than six principal actors were employed in each.

So the Music Halls enjoyed the best of both worlds.  They could present what were in effect one-act plays as well as profiting from the huge financial advantages of limitless self-indulgence in the auditoria.  The popularity of the Halls and the comparative simplicity and cheapness of the weekly programmes also allowed them to offer considerably better terms than most actors could expect, leading to a talent-drain from the country’s playhouses.  In her Recollections  the great male impersonator, Vesta Tilley, summed up for the opposition:

‘There was a big invasion of the Variety theatre by legitimate stars, much to the indignation of the Music Hall artistes, who complained that the long sketches they presented kept many Music Hall artistes out of work. Personally, I welcomed their advent. It helped to raise the tone of the Variety stage, and attracted many theatrical patrons.’2

While Henry Irving’s messianic zeal for the drama never wavered, we know that even in his august maturity he liked, while on holiday, to patronise seaside amusements, no matter how simple or artless.  ‘At Tenterden,’ wrote Laurence Irving:

‘Irving saw in a shop window a bill announcing a performance of Clowe’s Marionettes for that evening. He sought out the proprietor and, hearing that his takings on a good night were five pounds, asked if he could give special show in the afternoon for that sum.  The proprietor readily agreed.  “Henry and I”, wrote Ellen, “and Edie and Fussy sat in solemn state in the empty tent and watched the show which was most ingenious and clever.”’3

And once, at Whitby:

‘…he found a circus in distress, with every prospect of doing very poor business. Seeking out the manager, he ordered a bespeak performance and invited George du Maurier and other visitors to attend it….The circus, as a result of this réclame, left the town richer than when it arrived.’4

And as Eliza Aria claimed, ‘It is quite indisputable that Irving considered himself the father of his people, and his people included every artist in public amusement; and all alike on the road would get from him some special welcome, a caravan of gipsies being hailed with tremendous joy’.5 The imp of speculation must always be resisted but I think we may accept that throughout his childhood Johnnie Brodribb, like any other boy, would have enjoyed itinerant entertainers.  For instance, he never forgot the day…

‘…when, at his father’s side, he saw the lion-tamer, Van Amburgh, drive a team of twenty-four horses through the streets of Bristol, and, later, a splendid figure in a leopard skin and cool as ice, enter a den of roaring but intimidated lions.  From that moment the guise dancers and the mummers, the cheap-jacks and tumblers in the travelling fairs, and even the oratory of the Minister in the chapel took on a new significance and were observed with rapt attention.’6

Van Amburgh was a favourite of the young Queen Victoria who saw his display no fewer than seven times.  Mr Amburgh’s beasts, so it was said, ‘were impressed not so much by his muscularity as by his pronounced squint’.7

Laurence Irving also tells us that in company with Henry Palmer, a fellow office junior,  H.I. enjoyed ‘entrancing evenings in Cremorne Gardens, where they hobnobbed with Signor Buonocorre, the celebrated fire-eater—evenings of adventure and delight, memorable for the scent of garlic and the sour bite of rough wine’.8  Such earthy outings may have provided an hour or two’s diversion, but the teenaged clerk already knew his destiny lay not in a counting-house or fairground sideshow, but in the Higher Drama.

* * *

Methodism was founded by John Wesley in the 1730s to revitalize the Church of England.  The movement was especially strong in expanding industrial areas and in the West Country, where abandoned and converted chapels still dot  the landscape.  From its earliest days Methodism was riven by internal dissension, but to which particular sub-group Johnnie Brodribb’s family adhered I do not know, and, since the fissiparous sect began the process of reunion with the formation of the United Methodist Free Church in 1857, perhaps it doesn’t much matter.  What concerns us here is that for the teenager to defy his devout mother’s recriminations and forsake the stern observance of his childhood there must have been compelling reason. And there was. His breath-taking ambition was, no less, to gain admittance of the stage into the pantheon of arts.  Others had tried—Kemble, Charles Kean, Macready, Phelps—but still the theatre was regarded as at best racketty and at worst Satanic.

Brodribb intended to change all that, though in his first professional engagement at the Lyceum Sunderland the newly-launched Henry Irving nearly fell at the first hurdle when he was cast as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale, a substantial part for a novice.  But, said Austin Brereton, ‘Irving’s religious training had taught him to hold Sunday as a day of rest, and, relying upon his powers of study, he left the learning of the words until the day of the performance’.9 The result was a catastrophic memory lapse, and the tyro was fortunate not to be dismissed forthwith.  ‘This was an unpromising start,’ Brereton continued, ‘but it had its lesson, for it was the first and last time that such a fault was ever committed by Henry Irving’.  Do we infer from this that, forced to choose between his profession and his religion, Irving chose the former?  Apart from conventional pieties—`God bless you’ in letters and farewells and the like—it would seem that from this time on H.I.’s faith petered out, for as W. Graham Robertson observed,  ‘His art was his life—his soul.  He had vowed himself to it by a pact as awful as that between Faust and Mephistopheles…’10

The following February, aged just nineteen and now at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, H.I. was writing to his old City colleague, Charlie Ford:

‘By the same post I have sent you all the bits I possess defending the stage (which please preserve) and I can only add go and see—judge for yourself; if you then condemn it, I’ll listen to you, but not before—doing so without is passing sentence without proof, witness or  trial—anti-English jurisprudence.  My small experience tells me earnestly that it is an innocent, intellectual and moral recreation.’11

Here we see the H.I. laying down his marker; for the rest of his life the way was clear and the focus pin-sharp.  If a nation’s character is defined by its culture, why should the theatre be excluded?  From this uncompromising stance there was to be no deviation.  Nearly half a century later, in September 1904, Lena Ashwell, who had first appeared at the Lyceum in 1895, went to see H.I. in Middlesborough.

‘I went over to call and expected to be with him only a few minutes, but spent some hours.  He foresaw the decay of the theatre in the provinces and the slow commercialising of the profession as an industry.  Already the buildings were passing into the hands of those who were merely speculators.  He felt that there were very few who regarded the theatre as a spiritual influence, and asked me to fight to maintain the traditions and the position of the theatre as a means to educate the hearts of men.’12

Any slights upon the worthiness of the drama were countered with Reithian fervour.  Indeed, the BBC, as a construct of John Reith’s vision and personality, has much in common with Henry Irving and the Royal Lyceum Theatre.  Reith’s public service remit—to educate, inform, entertain—might well have been a mission statement by Irving.  The actor would go anywhere at any time to proselytise the cause of the theatre as a moral and intellectual imperative of a civilised society. Wholesome, rational, edifying, life-enhancing, stimulating, intelligent, sober-minded, beautiful—the list of the qualities H.I. claimed for his vocation is endless.  Countless addresses, lectures, and speeches were given to universities, literary societies, arts clubs, institutes, dinners, civic welcomes and public meetings on both sides of the Atlantic, all to propagate the Word: that the drama was uplifting and ennobling.

This ferocious single-mindedness for the theatre is difficult to understand. Jeffrey Richards has a good stab by opining that ’Society unquestionably became more disciplined and law-abiding in the 19th century, thanks to a combination of factors—the imposition of factory discipline, the creation of a police force, the spread of education, the exertion of social control through a moral transformation in the wake of the rise of evangelicalism and the revival of chivalry.’  If evangelicalism gave Brodribb his driving force, his goal was supplied by the revival of chivalry, `… which so influenced poetry, painting and novels.  Most particularly, it led to the elaboration of a code of behaviour for life—the reformation of the image of the gentleman as the idealized medieval knight, embodiment of the virtues of bravery, loyalty, courtesy, generosity, modesty, purity and compassion.’13 Evangelicalism and Gothic romanticism made for a potent brew, one which for the lanky, awkward boy from a tin-mining family in a remote Cornish village was to lead to lifelong intoxication.

So precisely when did the Paraclete descend?  Was it the toddler’s glimpse of Van Amburgh’s boss eyes?  Dr Pinches’ elocution lessons? William Creswick’s encouragement?  Samuel Phelps’ performances at Sadler’s Wells? We shall probably never know, nor, I suspect, did H.I. himself.  A rare note of introspection was sounded a few months before his death when he said, ‘…I think it is possible that a child on the height of Avalon may have taken into his blood subconsciously the old legends of Arthur.’14  But as the words were spoken at a meeting of Somersetmen we must assume they were meant to please rather than indicate any meaningful insight.  We do know that at  the age of ten ‘the lad, during a service, fell into an ecstasy and professed his conversion, the sincerity of which the minister never for a moment doubted’.15  But this  early religiosity—H.I. was still going to chapel regularly during his first professional engagement in Sunderland—was, as we have seen, obliterated by the demands made upon a stock actor of the times.

* * *

For the week commencing 6th April 1857 Frederick Robson of the Olympic Theatre appeared  in a round of his London successes at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh.    Robson’s forte was a startlingly agile plasticity whose transitions in Medea that week were described in The Daily Scotsman as ‘so sudden from one phase of character to another that he absolutely seems both tragic and comic, serious and shamming, furious and in fun, all at one and the same instant.’16 This was Irving’s first experience of working with a star of the irregular stage, and his comment made many years later to Seymour Hicks is significant:

‘Yes, Robson—er—Robson—a good actor, but not great—yes, yes, he was great.  He was great enough to know he could only be great for three minutes. The stuff they talk about his being able to have played tragedy, had he wanted to, is wrong. Three minutes of it—yes—but the whole evening—oh, dear no!’17

This short-windedness of the irregular theatre, especially the brevity of Music Hall turns, carried a concomitant lack of intellectual rigour, just as sketches debased the dramatic coinage.  While Irving acknowledged the skill of those who could grip an audience instantly with only their personalities to support them, the fare they offered was essentially trivial, with little to fire the imagination or enhance the finer feelings.  No, the Halls were all right in their place, but they must stay in their place and not encroach upon the theatre’s purlieus. In 1892 in his evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons reviewing the licensing arrangements Irving admitted that he personally…

‘…had no objections to music halls as such.  “A good many actors dislike the music halls; I enjoy it [sic] very much.”  He strongly opposed smoking and drinking in theatre auditoriums as “degrading to our art” but conceded that if plays were put on in music halls, where smoking and drinking were allowed, he would lose his audience.’18

Nearly thirty years earlier a remarkable instance of Irving’s perhaps obsessive concern for the reputation of the legitimate stage may be adduced from the affair of the Davenport Brothers. William and Ira Davenport came to Manchester in 1865 with their dubious display of spiritualism, a show witnessed by Irving and two colleagues from the Theatre Royal company and at which H.I.’s ‘lingering methodism was outraged by what he regarded as vulgar blasphemy’.19  Here we have another biographer, Laurence Irving, suggesting that Irving’s religious beliefs, however strong they may have been in his boyhood, were rapidly waning in his manhood.  Irving, with Philip Day and Frederic Maccabe, decided to expose the Brothers ‘occult powers’ in a spoof performance given on 5th February in the Library Hall of the Manchester Athenaeum.  The afternoon was such a howling success that the three actors repeated the show a week later to even greater laughter and applause, not to mention press enthusiasm.  Their manager, James Knowles,  sniffing profits, instructed the trio to put the show into the Theatre Royal.  Irving refused. The Davenport skit was a lark, a vaudeville, not fit to desecrate the stage of a leading playhouse.  For endeavouring to maintain the integrity of a theatre as a sacred Temple of the Arts Irving was dismissed, though it must be admitted Knowles had never valued the oddly-equipped actor very highly.

Seriousness in a young man can easily shade into priggishness, but the majesty of Irving’s vision went far beyond mere youthful pomposity.  As his stature grew a sardonic streak became more and more evident (`Some fifty years hence some old fool will be saying, there never was an actor like Irving!’20) though as a public speaker he never varied from or wearied of a lofty projection of the probity of the theatre. The fawning and gush which his pre-eminence excited in those who wouldn’t have given him the time of day during his early struggles lent him a cynicism which could edge into bitterness.  When William Terriss was stabbed to death at the Adelphi Theatre in 1897 by a deranged supernumerary Irving commented, ‘They will find some excuse to get him off—mad or something.  Terriss was an actor—his murderer will not be executed.’21   Nor was he.

Side-swipes at Irving’s dignity and personality, so easily and cheaply sung in a Music Hall ditty or limned by a cartoonist’s pencil, had to be endured, though in one instance at least Irving retaliated. In 1889 Fred Leslie went too far by caricaturing him in Ruy Blas at the Gaiety dressed as a woman. Not until H.I. protested to the Lord Chamberlain was George Edwardes, the manager, persuaded to withdraw—or at least to modify—the offending travesty.  Burlesque was one thing, sacrilege quite another.22

I use the word sacrilege deliberately, for we have seen how the evangelical fervour of Brodribb’s  youth was translated from sanctuary to stage.  Further proof of his apostasy may be found in 1873 when Isabel Bateman had the misfortune to fall in love with Irving, then her father’s star attraction and a married man with two sons.  When it became clear that there was no place for her in his life, either privately or professionally, ‘….she made a complete renunciation of what meant everything to her at the time.  And this renunciation was made purely for spiritual reasons.  The man she loved was not a believer.’23

But despite more than four decades of heroic endeavour Irving never fully persuaded the Church to accept the theatre as  worthy of the attentions of God-fearing folk.  The Dean of St Paul’s flatly refused to have him buried in Wren’s cathedral. The Dean of Westminster Abbey was also minded to decline, prompted by his sister who exclaimed ‘No actors—no actors!’  He was eventually persuaded to permit Irving’s ashes to be interred in the Abbey by the surgeon who saved his sight, Sir Anderson Critchett.

* * *

As financial worries multiplied and his health deteriorated, Irving might have been forgiven for abandoning the sumptuous style of production which was his hallmark  and saved his resources by giving simple solo recitals, as he had often done in his younger days.  Right up to the last he was always ready, if humanly possible, to support a charity event or benefit night by reciting—usually Eugene Aram.  At such functions he had learned to respect the impact of the Music Hall stars; when advised not to follow Dan Leno he yielded, though his mere presence backstage awed the little comic into tongue-tied confusion.   But Irving was never going to change his style, to move with anybody else’s times.  One might as well chide Pissarro for not being Picasso, or Brahms for not being Stravinsky.

‘George Grossmith had once boasted that in contrast with the enormous cavalcade which Irving took with him on tour, all he needed was a grand piano and a dress suit; to which Irving had replied: “Ah, George—we don’t all look so funny in a dress suit.”’24

I mentioned in last summer’s FK how upset Irving was when, against Bram Stoker’s advice, Walter de Frece asked him to consider an engagement at Oswald Stoll’s Coliseum.  But as we have seen H.I. was not entirely disdainful of Music Hall artistes—it was said that he ‘invariably styled’ Dan Leno as ‘the incomparable Mr Leno’25 —and eyebrows were raised in many a green room when, on Ellen Terry’s recommendation, he engaged the twenty-six-year-old Music Hall mimic Cissie Loftus for the revival of Faust in 1902.  As Margaret in what was to be Irving’s last Lyceum season Cissie became Cicely, and despite her irregular professional origins was acknowledged with full honours as the company’s leading lady.

In 1911 double licensing was finally permitted, enabling a building to be legally both  Music Hall and theatre simultaneously.  Many major names of the legitimate theatre took the Variety shilling as a result, including Frank Benson, Sarah Bernhardt (‘Please, not after zee elephants!’), Johnston Forbes-Robertson, George Alexander, Nigel Playfair, Charles Hawtrey, Seymour Hicks, John Hare, Irene and Violet Vanbrugh, Arthur Bourchier, Beerbohm Tree and even Ellen Terry herself.

Irving had intended to retire on his fiftieth anniversary on the stage.  With his calamitous financial position would the Eminent Actor have finally succumbed to the blandishments of the Halls?  I think not. Henry Irving would have stayed a true believer to the last.  Not to religion, but to his beloved calling.



The only Music Hall song remembered today which mentions Henry Irving is, as I briefly demonstrated at our last Annual Dinner, The Night I Appeared as Macbeth, written and composed by William (Burlington Bertie from Bow) Hargreaves in 1919 and performed by Billy Merson.  The first verse includes the lines:

‘They said I was better than Irving,

And gave me some biscuits and tea.

I know it’s not union wages,

But that was the usual fee.’

A year or so ago a song performed at the Players’ Theatre called  I’m Getting Such a Big Girl Now made me sit up and take note.  Dating from 1916, the lyrics were by Clifford (If You Were the Only Girl in the World) Grey and the music by Philip Braham.  Two of the chorus stanzas went as follows:

‘What Father says is always right,            What Father says is always right,

And I’ve got to be good somehow.            And I’ve got to be good somehow.

And I mustn’t gaze insanely                        And I mustn’t wreck my nerve in

Any more at Henry Ainley,                          Getting keen on H. B. Irving,

`Cos I’m getting such a big girl now.            `Cos I’m getting such a big girl now.’

Henry Ainley I can understand, but the notion of the forty-six year-old H. B. Irving as a matinée idol is one which prompts us to take a fresh look at the Antique’s elder son.

I know of only three Music Hall songs which directly mention H.I. in their titles: Irving on the Brain, which was sung by Edwin Barwick (d.1928); All Right Mr Irving, sung by Vesta Victoria (1873-1951); and John James `Enery Irving Wilson Barrett Baggs, sung by J. W. Hall (the writer and composer)  and Arthur Rigby (1865-1944).   Arthur Rigby’s repertoire also included Oh, Trilby, What Have You Done For Me?, and another number of Hall’s was She Thinks She’s Wilson Barrett, whose lyrics would be worth perusing if a copy could be found.  But only John James `Enery Irving Wilson Barrett Baggs survives, possibly because the others were never published—my copy comes from the U.S.A.  Here are the full lyrics:

Verse 1:         Give me the days, the good old days, when acting was an art;

Those were the days when nondescripts

Weren’t picked to play a part.

Legitimate and nothing else would satisfy their taste,

But since this younger school’s turned up,

The stage has run to waste.

Chorus:            I’m John James `Enery Irving Wilson Barrett Baggs,

I used to be, I’ll tell you plain,

The leading man at Drury Lane;

Now they say, as I walk about in rags,

It’s John James `Enery Irving Wilson Barrett Baggs.

Verse 2:         I’ve played the round of Shakespeare

And I’ve heard the audience cheer,

And when I’ve stepped upon the stage

I’ve heard them say “He’s here.”

But now when I play Hammerlet it makes me look so small,

A voice cries from the gall’ry, “Why, it’s not the ghost at all!”

Chorus:            I’m John James `Enery Irving etc.

Verse 3:         I’m knocked about from post to post,

But still I’m just as good.

As in the younger days I drew the family of wood.

But now it’s come to sandwiches I carry through the street,

I’m sorry they are sandwiches an actor cannot eat.

Chorus:             I’m John James `Enery Irving etc.

‘The family of wood’ in Verse 3—an expression still occasionally heard—implies empty benches, i.e. a thin house.  Between the verses there are two patter sequences which I have omitted for reasons of space and because there is only one humorous reference to H.I.: ‘Why, when I and Henry Hairpin played Mary Queen of Slops at the Theatre No Lights, we played to an audience of seven and two oranges….’


  1. Licences could however be revoked, as in 1907 when The Mikado had its licence withdrawn for six weeks during the state visit of a Japanese prince.
  2. Lady de Frece Recollections of Vesta Tilley (1934) pp97
  3. Laurence Irving Henry Irving: The Actor and his World (1951)  p 52 7
  4. ibid. p639
  5. Mrs Aria My Sentimental Self (1922) p123
  6. Irving op. cit. p35
  7. Michael Kilgarriff Grace, Beauty & Banjos (1999) p265
  8. Irving op. cit. p51
  9. Austin Brereton The Life of Henry Irving (1908) vol 1 p22-3
  10. W. Graham Robertson Time Was (1931) p162
  11. Irving op. cit. p78
  12. Lena Ashwell Myself a Player (1936) p88
  13. Jeffrey Richards (ed.) Sir Henry Irving – Theatre, Culture & Society (1994) p16
  14. H.A. Saintsbury & Cecil Palmer (eds.) We Saw Him Act (1939) p20
  15. Irving op. cit. p37
  16. Mollie Sands Robson of the Olympic (1979) p87
  17. Seymour Hicks Seymour Hicks: Twenty-Four Years of an Actor’s Life (1910) p123
  18. Richards op. cit. p143
  19. Irving op. cit. p119
  20. Aria op. cit. p116
  21. Irving op. cit. p614
  22. Saintsbury & Palmer op. cit. pp204-5
    On reading Irving’s letter of protest, Fred Leslie was horrified. He eventually went to see H.I. and charmed him into submission, confessing that after seeing Irving as Modus in The Hunchback he had always yearned to play the rôle himself.  Irving offered to direct him privately, with Kate Vaughan, another Gaiety favourite, as Helen.  The subsequent performance, a charity matinée at the Vaudeville, was given with Leslie billed as  A. C. Tor and would seem to have gone off very well, though he died not long after aged only thirty-six and so was denied the opportunity of furthering his ambition to play in serious drama.
  23. Virginia Compton and others From Theatre to Convent: Memories of Mother Isabel Mary CSMV (1936) p6
    Isabel Bateman continued working as an actress until 1898, when an annuity allowed her to forsake the theatre at last and take the veil. This book was kindly brought to my attention by Brien Chitty.
  24. Irving op. cit. p664
  25. J. B. Booth (ed.) Seventy Years of Song (1943) p48
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