Sir Henry Irving – Biography

‘The knight from nowhere’: Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905)

Henry Irving as Mathias in 'The Bells'
Henry Irving as Mathias in ‘The Bells’

Henry Irving’s knighthood in 1895, the first bestowed upon an actor, was the climax of a lifetime’s tireless proselytising for recognition of his ‘beloved calling’. Hissuzerainty of the Lyceum Theatre in London (1878-1902) is one of the glories of our theatrical history, and the whole notion of a National Theatre and acceptance of public subsidies for the theatre is due to Irving’s messianic zeal for the drama as an improving, civilising and uplifting aspect of our cultural life.

Such was the distinction of his bearing and appearance that it was said he would have become eminent in any walk of life. I don’t agree: it had to be the theatre.

The honour and awe in which Irving was held, his dignity and integrity, his electrifying personality both on and off the stage, his generosity and the respect in which he was held by all classes, from Queen Victoria to the galleryites, bespeak a very exceptional character. After Gladstone, he was the most celebrated Englishman of his time. So how did a boy from the humblest of backgrounds, with no theatrical hinterland, rise to become The Elevator of the Stage, revered and feted by the literati and cognoscenti of the civilised world? No wonder, when he died a century ago, Max Beerbohm called him The Knight from Nowhere.

Every February a wreath is laid at the feet of Irving’s statue in Charing Cross Road—the only statue of an actor in London—by members of The Irving Society. That the society exists at all is a tribute to the enduring fascination of H.I., and the brief ceremony is a reminder of his uniqueness and of his legacy. A few words are spoken in the open air against passing traffic; a ladder is placed against the huge plinth, the wreath is laid and three cheers are given to celebrate the immortal memory of the mighty Irving.

Henry Irving was a tall, slender figure—about 6′ 2″—with hair worn longer than was customary, a clean-shaven chin—again unusual for the times—a long, strikingly sensitive face and a dominant, rather sardonic, presence which both fascinated and intimidated. The actor had first impressed the London theatre-going public in the 1860s in comic parts; by the 1890s he was the most Eminent Tragedian of his age.

An only child, John Brodribb was born in1838 in Keinton Mandeville, a nondescript Somerset village; his father was a travelling salesman for the local general store. The family moved to Bristol but, fearful for his health, his parents sent him to cousins in Cornwall. When his father obtained a job in the City the ten year old Johnnie at last rejoined them in the Metropolis. The emergence of the boy’s vocation for the theatre remains mysterious, but it would not be gainsaid, despite his provincial vowels and his ungainliness. A few teenage years as a clerk were spent testing his ambition in amateur productions, in swimming in the Thames to build up his physique, on fencing lessons and on acting lessons. A legacy of £100 from an uncle enabled him to buy the wherewithal essential for an actor in those pre-union days—tights, swords, wigs, boots, period coats and hats.

His acting teacher helped find him his first engagement, at Sunderland in 1856 when he was 18. Having changed his name to Henry Irving in deference to his mother’s fervent Methodism, his first line as a professional actor was prophetic: ‘Here’s to our enterprise’. And what an enterprise it was to be. Years of grinding toil, disappointment, despair and abject poverty at last led to his growing acceptance as an actor of unusual technical ability, personal appeal and the essential gentlemanliness. But always he held on to that dream, that goal, that the drama should be regarded as a force for good. For this callow young man’s goal was breath-taking: it was, no less, to raise the status of the stage to that of her sister arts.

His triumph in 1871 as the haunted burgomaster in The Bells was followed by further blazingly memorable characterisations such as King Charles I, Eugene Aram and Richelieu. His 1874 Hamlet astonished the town with its psychological acuity and confirmed him as the leader of his profession . Subsequent roles underlined his uncanny ability to carry audiences with him and to defy convention by not making the customary ‘points’. The intellectuality of his work was revelatory, and numerous contemporary reviews show the overwhelming effect of Irving’s vision. As a régisseur he was also innovative, being hugely admired for his handling of crowd scenes, his use of incidental music, and above all his use of lighting, always gas—he always disliked electric stage lighting.

In 1878 Irving took over the lease of the Lyceum, inaugurating his legendary reign with a revival of Hamlet, this time with a new leading lady. This was the numinous Ellen Terry, one of the few actresses whose Pre-Raphaelite beauty, no less than her strength of personality, could match up to Irving’s dominance of a stage. Whether there was a love affair is still debated; her autobiography shows her affection and admiration for him, also her awareness that she was only an adjunct to his ‘work’.

Irving’s love life seems confined to a romance with a girl who died young, and an unhappy marriage to Florence O’Callaghan, a sour-tempered young woman who came to despise the theatre. They separated on the opening night of The Bells (‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’) and never spoke again. Their two sons, H.B. and Laurence, were brought up by Florence with a jaundiced view of their father, though as adults they came to enjoy a close and affectionate relationship with the Antique, as they called him. Both became charismatic actors, Laurence even writing two plays for Irving.

As well as his Lyceum seasons and his provincial tours, H.I. undertook eight tours of North America, transporting his entire London productions, including key technicians and musicians, something never before attempted. America was flattered, and from the very first night of The Bells in New York Irving’s magnetic appeal never lost its grip. In the US he was admired no less than in Britain, becoming a welcome and regular guest at the Universities, Academies and the White House itself.

Despite demands on his stamina and time he never missed an opportunity to preach the word everywhere and anywhere. At civic receptions, banquets, institutions, universities, dedications, he was indefatigable. Gradually his message became accepted, and both church and state came to his way of thinking that the theatre should be admitted into the pantheon of the arts.

On his farewell tour at the Theatre Royal Bradford in 1905, Irving’s health was giving cause for alarm. His long-serving manager Bram Stoker, fearful of the strain on the actor’s increasing fragility, had packed up the Bells scenery and sent it back to London without the Guv’nor’s permission. But it was too late. On Friday, 13 October, less than two hours after appearing as Becket, Irving collapsed in the foyer of the Midland Hotel and died. He was 67.

As we’ve seen, his first line on the stage, spoken nearly half a century before, was ‘Here’s to our enterprise’. Henry Irving’s last line to his public was similarly apt: ‘Into thy hands, O Lord. Into thy hands.’

By Michael Kilgarriff