Irving’s Audience – Annual Lecture by John Pick

Students of Henry Irving’s majestic reign at the Lyceum Theatre are, I think, prone to repeat three fallacies about him and his audience. First, that he was almost single-handedly responsible for, and indeed led, the theatrical boom of the late nineteenth century. Second, that he was a simple country boy with little interest in politics who was driven by a burning desire to make the theatre ‘respectable’ particularly in the eyes of the Royal family. And third that the relative decline in his fortunes later in life – the thirteenth season in 1891 was the last Lyceum season to make a profit – was simply down to the fickleness of the public, deserting the man whom they had once blindly adored, but who had now become ‘old fashioned’.

I disagree with all three assumptions. I think Irving was, in one important sense, a supremely political animal, very much aware of the murky power struggles of the mid-nineteenth century and that he pursued his own moral and political ends with dogged skill. I don’t think that the varying attention he attracted can be satisfactorily explained by fluctuating ‘fashions’, or by something so random as fickleness. Far from being at the forefront of the great theatrical boom tide of the eighteen-nineties I think he was cut off and isolated by the power of its surge, though appalled by its shallowness.

We talk of our own time as a time of great change, but I do not believe it can be a time of such change as Irving witnessed. From a boyhood spent walking the Somerset and Cornish lanes, he lived to see motor cars in the London streets. The first box of matches was just coming on the market at the time of Irving’s birth; by his last years virtually every leading theatre company except his was lit by electric light.

When he first arrived in the City as a boy of ten, Greater London had a population of just over two million; when he played his twelfth (interim) Lyceum season in 1889 it had grown to six and a half million. His potential audience was by then very much greater than that. The audience travelling into Central London each evening, by car, by tram, by omnibus and particularly by train was estimated at the turn of the century to be in excess of twenty-five thousand. The railways in particular had grown prodigiously, and the establishment of the day excursion greatly extended each London theatre manager’s potential catchment.

So we have immediately to confront one unavoidable fact. Irving’s ‘market share’ of the reachable London audience steadily declined throughout his Lyceum reign, and fell catastrophically in the 1890s when, as we shall see, he was faced with increasing difficulty in filling some parts of the Lyceum. Of course that was, in part, because of the unprecedented strength of the competition. For there has never been, before nor since, so large a provision in London for public entertainment as there was in the last decade of the nineteenth century. When the young Irving first arrived in the capital in 1848, there were in total just nineteen London houses. By 1900 there were sixty-one fully-fledged theatres, in addition to a further forty officially licensed music halls.

The theatres were by no means the whole of the London leisure scene at the end of the nineteenth century. The great art displays – including the recently opened Tate Gallery – took their place alongside the museums, the public lectures and the concert halls. The Crystal Palace, at Sydenham, was still going strong, as a choral venue, as were the panoramas and the dioramas alongside the new moving picture shows – such as the one at the Empire in 1896 – the skating rinks, the menageries, waxworks, circuses, magic shows, balloon ascents and ‘thrilling acrobatic displays’. It is estimated there were still more than five thousand street entertainers of various kinds on the London streets. There were also two hundred thousand prostitutes. Great crowds still gathered at holiday times in the public parks, the commercial pleasure gardens and on the river – and in London there was now an additional attraction, professional sport – which attracted huge new, largely male, crowds. Scarcely any account of London’s leisure life in the 1890s is complete without an account of a visit to a boxing match. Crowds of thirty thousand watched the cricket at Lords in summer, and in winter more than seventy thousand sometimes watched such well-known soccer teams as Woolwich Arsenal.

In the eighteen-nineties catering for leisure was already a full-scale business, or, as we might nowadays say, an ‘industry’. It was already linked with the business of tourism and in 1895 when the great new exhibition centre at Earls Court attracted more than four million visitors to its Festival of India and Ceylon it was held to be a triumph because a third of its attendees were visitors to the capital. Passing trade, on which the theatre managers had once largely relied dwindled to practically nothing. Now, visitors to London bought packages (train, hotel and theatre tickets combined) from the rapidly proliferating tourism agencies which, as Charles Dickens Jr. wrote in his London Guide of 1879, had already ‘assumed a rather important place in the economy of London’.

The combined results of the introduction of advance booking and the associated development of party booking meant that investment in London theatre was much less of a gamble than ever before. Popular theatre productions could settle into long runs. In the eighteen-forties only five plays had runs of more than a hundred performances. In the eighteen-nineties one hundred and sixty-nine played more than a hundred performances and twenty-four of these had a run of over three hundred. It was the bigger theatres that tended to house the blockbuster shows. Drury Lane, whose capacity during the eighteen-nineties never dropped below three thousand, had no fewer than fifteen runs of a hundred performances each in that period.

For some, investment in leisure provision was becoming hugely profitable. The bigger promoters were beginning to sell their branded products to an ever-expanding market. Everyone has seen photographs of several Fred Karno’s troupes setting out from London. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company also subdivided into two, and sometimes three distinct companies. Even Wombwell’s Menagerie had a number one, number two and number three touring outfit! But a distinctive product such as the Lyceum Company could not subdivide itself into profitable touring parts, for it depended supremely upon one man. The occasional forays of the Lyceum Summer Company were always ‘By permission of Henry Irving’. That man, for reasons I shall suggest later, was resistant to being ‘rebranded’ as a consumable product and had little interest in the opportunistic capitalism of the new breed of turn-of-the-century theatre managers.

Irving’s comparative failure in the eighteen-nineties was, I think, less a matter of his acting being old-fashioned than of his managerial philosophy and methods being out of their time. The business climate rather than popular taste had swung against him. It was the age of such as Sir Augustus Harris an actor turned impresario, manager of the Palace Theatre, air-conditioned and with two thousand-odd electric lights was ‘the best-equipped theatre in the world’. The music-haIl, once owned by the working class, was now largely a capitalist enterprise. In the early eighteen-nineties London had its first music hall (or variety theatre) syndicate, a new organisation called Moss’s Empire Palaces, capitalised at £1,500,000, built its first provincial theatres and, by the end of the decade, Moss Empires had spread into the heart of London. Businessmen who had made a packet in other fields were being urged – for virtually the only time in British history – to put their money into the successful parts of theatre business where it would be safe! As early as 1887 the Financial News was recommending (15th February) that investors put their money into the music hall, remarking, prophetically enough:

‘… whenever it had been decently and prudently managed it had yielded large fortunes …if it continues to refine itself and heap novelty on novelty as it does, it will go on growing.’

It was plain where investors’ money would go. In 1902 Moss Empires were paying a 12½% dividend to their shareholders. In the same year Lyceum Ltd. finally went into liquidation, its £1 shares being valued at 7d

Let me give one further example of the way in which the rampant new theatrical commercialism undercut Irving’s company. We know that the Lyceum was, in commercial terms, over-reliant upon the drawing power of one man and that when in the late eighteen-nineties, Irving was out of the cast – as he was, following his fall after the opening night of Richard Ill – the box office fell alarmingly. We know that in a doomed attempt to cut costs Irving reduced insurance premiums and was almost put out of business following the mysterious fire, which destroyed the contents of his scenery store. But Irving had been losing money on his London seasons since 1892. And one reason – in addition to much else – was that, in an attempt to compete with the new commercialism and hold his market share, Irving had been forced to raise his advertising costs well beyond his means.

In the second half of the nineteenth century London was a billposter’s paradise. So extensive were all the building and rebuilding projects in Central London that there were then vast acres of fencing and exposed walls on which the official billposters and the more chancy flyposters could practise their art. The old charge of the billposters of Id. per double crown rose in the eighteen-nineties to 2d. or 3d. for prime sites, and the billposting costs per season rose from the £40 or £50 pounds annually of Irving’s early years to an annual expenditure of several hundred pounds. But that was nothing in comparison with the hugely increased costs of newspaper advertising. The removal first of Stamp Duty and then of Advertisement Taxes, the invention of the steam printing press, the growth in literacy and increased prosperity (and, it has to be said, the arrival of another group of profit-hungry entrepreneurs,) all combined to create an explosion of national and provincial newspapers without equal in our history. Irving’s expenditure on newspaper advertising rose annually from a few hundred pounds in the eighteen seventies to several thousands in the eighteen-nineties.

Irving could not afford to advertise in more than a tenth of the possible outlets and, compared with the music hall syndicates and the growing theatre circuits, the Lyceum’s expenditure on advertising was inadequate to the task. To stand any chance at all, the Lyceum then needed to advertise itself as a part of a package but it was on its own. Irving lacked the means to refresh his audience with young people and, although the audiences for the music halls and the new West End theatres in general grew younger, Irving’s Lyceum audience aged with him.

I believe Irving had much more political awareness than is normally granted to him. By the more usual account, Irving was a simple country boy, impatient at his lessons, fascinated by the magic of theatre and blind to everything else – a noble savage who after many hardships succeeded in conquering the sophisticated world of London and London high society.

It is noticeable that most people who write about Irving’s early life will write a brightly-lit, almost idyllic account of his West Country childhood, but will say little or nothing about his surroundings as a boy in London. Then the background is darkened. We are told a little about his schooling, his extra curricular drama lessons, his visits to see Phelps at Sadler’s Wells, his first amateur stage performances, but nothing about life on London’s streets. The implication is that the young Irving drifted through the city unaware of the political turmoil of the times.

One perennial problem is that Irving’s professional life more or less spans what we blandly call the Victorian Age. The term conjures up sanguine decades of prosperous formality. The Victorians are pictured as being, in general highly industrious, family-minded people who, like Gilbert’s pirates, all loved their Queen. Give or take a few technical changes, we generally assume that Victorian life in the eighteen-nineties was much the same as Victorian life had been in the eighteen-forties. As the historian G. M. Young rightly says:

‘If it had been the Queen and not Prince Albert who had died in 1861, the process of English history would have been far easier to apprehend. The long life of the sovereign, the long careers of her most famous subjects, created an illusion, which the word ‘Victorian’ enshrines.’

For the truth is that when the ten-year-old Irving arrived in 1848 London was, in Herman Melville’s words, a damned city, a ‘city of Dante’. Clouds of smoke darkened the skies all day, and neither homes nor streets were adequately lit. In 1849 the Illustrated London Newsremarked that the city around St. Paul’s was ‘blackened and encrusted with a hard mixture of cement of smoke, cobwebs and rain’. Children of the young Irving’s age were working in the brickfields north of the city, in the mines to the east of it and in the sweatshops of London for between eleven and sixteen hours a day. Many children were already hardened criminals. Of the sixty-two thousand persons taken into custody that year in London, some sixteen thousand were under the age of twenty.

The grim battle between law and lawlessness was played out in public. The young Irving will have seen the bodies left swinging from the gibbets outside London’s twelve prisons – public executions were not abolished until 1868 – and will have heard the prisoners begging from the open prison windows by the roadside. There was one notable window not far from his home, in the Fleet Prison on the Farringdon Road. He will have seen the soup kitchens in the East End, in Clerkenwell, and the beggars huddled under the stair-wells, even perhaps seen them down in the docks loading the hulks which were still transporting several thousand people a year to Australia.

The city was still grotesquely unsanitary. Irving’s arrival in London coincided with a dreadful outbreak of cholera, which continued to spread its ravages until the autumn of 1849. In the words of the rapidly commissioned Board of Health the cholera raged ‘wherever neglect, depression, vice or poverty’ pressed down upon the population’, which was almost everywhere, while in central London:

‘foul drains, overflowing cesspools, foetid waters, overcrowded lodging houses, damp cellars, and ill-ventilated rooms attracted the pestilence, which then spread to the houses of the better classes and to the mansions of the rich’.

In such a diseased and dangerous city, the theatre was more than a leisure indulgence for a bright young lad. However primitive, it was a place of light and warmth, and a more sanitary place than most domestic dwellings.

But the early Victorian theatre was much more than that. It was a popular forum for the most intense debates of the day – debates that seemed at the time of lrving’s arrival in the capital, to be leading inevitably to the overthrow of the Queen and the establishment of a British Republic. For perhaps the most startling fact about Henry Irving’s arrival in London was that it was the year of the second French Revolution and the establishment of the French Republic.

chartist demo
Chartist demo

There was turmoil in every European capital, and London was no exception. In April 1848 the Chartists announced that they would rally in great numbers on Kennington Common and march from thence to the House of Commons, to present a monster petition, containing several million signatures, demanding a general male franchise. The idea got abroad that 10th April would be the day of revolution. The Queen, who had already survived three assassination attempts, was spirited from the capital. The Duke of Wellington took charge of the official defences. London was put under curfew. One hundred and seventy thousand special constables were sworn in to keep the peace. Regular troops were secretly stationed in houses on all main roads. All river shipping was in the hands of the police. Private vehicles were banned from the streets. The Tower guns were mounted. The Bank of England was sandbagged. Two thousand stands of arms were issued to the Custom House, Exchange and – strangely, to our eyes – to the officials of the General Post Office. On Kennington Common itself six hundred Household troops took up their positions.

There was no revolution – then. But tension remained high in the capital. Riots remained common, and the authorities’ fear of the mob is illustrated, as much as anything, by the fact that Trafalgar Square was actually built with pill boxes at each corner to fire upon the expected revolutionaries. London’s artists and intellectuals were right at the heart of the dangerous currents, which swirled around the capital, to the extent that for a decade or so the phrase ‘literary men’ was almost synonymous with ‘revolutionary’. London’s theatres had a pivotal political importance. It was in the capital’s theatres – particularly during Lent – that the Chartists, the Anti-Corn Law League and the Reform League habitually held their meetings. Even more importantly, in some theatres a play which read innocuously on the printed page could be given a revolutionary significance by the way the audience chose to read it. So some theatres – whose programme seemed above political reproach – nevertheless became known as radical theatres.

Such was Sadler’s Wells. The conventional reading of Samuel Phelps’ tenure at that theatre is that the actor tamed an uneducated North London audience disposed in their ignorance to be unruly. Reading contemporary accounts of the lively and highly partisan Sadler’s Wells audience suggests something rather different. Not that Phelps tamed them, but that he became their voice. For lslington, far from being a centre of Victorian yob culture, was a radical hotbed, and Phelps’ audience included, from the first, many of the leading artist/revolutionaries of London. In 1847 the Times described Phelps’ audience as ‘comprising a singular number of literary men – and ladies – of the present day.’ Dickens, for example, was a very frequent visitor. So the Shakespeare heroes that were most consistently successful in Phelps’ repertoire -Macbeth, Richard III, King John, Pericles – in addition to their other merits, took on a highly charged political significance.

It was that theatre, with its eager, highly politicised audience, which caught the young Irving’s imagination. In later life, it was to Phelps’ influence that he most often referred. So why then, in 1856, did he not accept Phelps’ offer and join his company at Sadler’s Wells?

Irving, aged 17
Irving, aged 17

The answer, I believe, lies in the young Irving’s political acumen, as well as in his cautious character. Irving was far from being a political hothead.

He was, I believe, torn between an innate sympathy with many of the radical causes of the time, and a terror of the carnage that would be unleashed if such causes were too blindly followed. At that time, it was far from clear whether the establishment or the radicals would prevail, and whether London would not witness a Terror as great as that of France. I think therefore that he turned down Phelps’ offer, not out of artistic prudence, but political caution.

I would call as evidence the fact that, in February 1856, after he had turned down Phelps’ offer but had nevertheless determined to go on to the stage, he wrote to his cousin Mrs. Wilkins:

‘Evangelical and political events of no common order are brewing. The great Evangelical question is with reference to the opening of public exhibitions such as the British Museum, National Gallery and Crystal Palace on Sundays. Dickens’ new work (the first number of which had a circulation of 35,000) is written in favour of the opening, and he puts forward in a very ingenious manner (though under a cloak) the advantages arising from such a step. Dickens is a moralist but nothing else’.

There speaks the young politician! ‘A moralist and nothing else…’ Irving pities the politically naïve… He goes on:

‘The great political question is the establishment of peace: much will depend on the issue of that. It is very interesting to watch the movements of the different bodies…’

He was then just eighteen. I think the political education he gained in those adolescent years, in a turbulent London, determined his political and managerial character, and determined which audience he wanted to speak to, and in what voice.

The similarities in the references, during the early years of Irving’s reign at the Lyceum, to the literary and artistic composition of his audience are quite striking. When we have reminded ourselves that, even in the eighteen-eighties, ‘leading artistic and literary figures’ is still code for ‘radical’, we can perhaps guess at a part, at least, of Irving’s intention. He wanted the Lyceum to have the same educational and intellectual force that Phelps’ theatre had enjoyed in lslington. We do him, I think, a disservice if we assume that his carefully composed first night receptions, his long suppers and conversations in the Beefsteak Room, his gruelling schedule of public lectures and debates, the carefully-contrived symposia in The Theatre, were simply a public relations exercise, or a convoluted attempt to achieve respectability for his profession. Cautious by nature, Irving wanted the Lyceum to generate and be in the forefront of political and intellectual debate.

That intellectuality does not accord with the picture sometimes presented of Irving as a theatrical hack, wasting his great talent on crude melodrama, whose only merit was to get a few ageing bums on seats and unable at the end to come to terms with the new theatre of ideas that George Bernard Shaw, in particular, was promoting. But I don’t believe in that picture. I think Irving’s choice of plays was always motivated by much more than financial expediency, was infused with a keen moral sense, and was often of high political importance.

Most people would agree with that view, if they consider it against his then revolutionary interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, and also when considering in its political context, The Bells. It is much more than a commercial war-horse. Much of the rest of his repertoire could benefit from being reconsidered in the light of the contemporary political situation. We might like for instance to reconsider his lifelong fascination with French history and the French Revolution. Perhaps we can now understand Ellen Terry’s incomprehension when, towards the end of his professional life, having refused her very practical suggestion that he should go on the road and cash in on his fame as a speaker of Shakespeare, saw him playing – ‘Just Henry and 200 extras – in Robespierre’. And we almost certainly underestimate just howdangerous were some of his choices, Faust for example, at a time of high religious passions. Almost every item in his programme becomes more interesting when it is considered in its immediate political context.

Let me focus just on one event in Irving’s stewardship when, in the early autumn of 1888. he surprisingly announced that he intended to discontinue the run of Faust, which was still doing good box office. At that time Irving will have looked like what he undoubtedly was – a well-established and successful London theatre manager, making plenty of money from a well-established and long-running production, and mixing easily with Britain’s literary and artistic élite. There was little outward sign remaining of the cagey young political animal who had turned down Phelps offer of work twenty-two years before.

An invitation to supper in the Beefsteak Room was still eagerly sought by London’s great and good. There they would meet leading artists, politicians and thinkers, probably Freemasons like Irving himself. A year previously, Irving had helped found the Savage Club Lodge, composed virtually exclusively of literary and theatrical leaders. They might even meet the Prince of Wales, who was not only a patron of the Lyceum but who had, for fifteen years, been Chief Mason, the Most Worshipful Grand Master of England.

With a commercial and critically acclaimed success on his hands, it seems the more surprising that Irving should have announced that he was replacing Faust with the Scottish play. Macbeth was to open on 29th December with Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and Irving repeating a role in which he had hitherto been only partially successful. Had he been concerned simply with commercial success, it would have seemed strange at the least. Had he been concerned only with artistic quality – if such a thing were possible – it would have been an unnecessary risk. Considered as a piece of political theatre, it was a masterstroke.

As always, look at the context. Revolution was still bubbling beneath London’s surface – the previous autumn a hundred thousand unemployed had clashed with the army in Trafalgar Square in what was being called Bloody Sunday. London’s Masonic Lodges, far from being secure dining clubs for the privileged, had been buzzing again with rumours of the imminent collapse of the established order, and they had sent to their own Worshipful Grand Master a series of letters imploring him to behave as might become a future monarch worthy of the title.That summer there were new and terrifying rumours. A series of killings in the East End of London, seemingly at random, of poor, down-and-out young women in the Whitechapel district were being linked with one apparently deranged killer called Jack the Ripper. Worse, the killer was being linked by rumour to the Freemasons – another popular name for him was Old Leather Apron. Worse still, rumours about the murders also implicated the Royal Family, specifically the Prince of Wales. It was even said that the Worshipful Grand Master had ordered the killing because the girls had all at some time been engaged as staff to the prince’s son, Prince Eddy, after he had, illegally, married a Catholic girl and had a child by her. The girls, it was rumoured, had made a clumsy attempt at blackmail and now had to be silenced.

Whatever the truth, if any, of such stories, there is no doubt that the mood in London late that summer was one of near hysteria. And there can be no doubt that the significance of ‘the Ripper’ was debated in every salon in London, in every Masonic Lodge and of course in the Beefsteak Room at the Lyceum. There is no doubt that Irving heard much speculation about it and, perhaps, something of the truth behind the murders. Rumours about ‘the Ripper’ began to circulate early in summer, following the murder of Emma Elizabeth Smith on 3rd April. On the last night of his twelfth season, which was 7th July, Irving announced to a surprised audience that he would be discontinuing the run of Faust. Between 31st August and the 9th November the five undisputed victims of ‘the Ripper’ went to their deaths. Irving, on holiday in Paris, surprised his friends by the morbid pleasure he took in visiting the Paris morgue. He returned to rehearsals and on Saturday 29th December 1888, with the rumours of treachery in high places, Royal duplicity and bloody murder still bubbling in every pub in London, Irving opened Macbeth.

Very many people, including Ellen Terry, thought that to be the high point of the Lyceum story. After Macbeth, according to some accounts, Irving lost some of his mighty powers. Perhaps so, but that winter of 1888 was something of a watershed in British political life. In the eighteen-nineties the forces for liberal reform, economic growth and technical progress increasingly came together. The Reform Acts 1884/5 had given the vote to a great majority of adult males. Forster’s 1870 Act had introduced state education for all. The real value of the average wage had almost doubled since 1850.

The political agenda had moved on and Irving’s core London audience moved on with it. The average occupancy for the Lyceum performances fell steadily throughout the I890s, but it was in those areas of the house associated with the old literary intelligentsia – the pit and the boxes – that he suffered the greatest fall.

He continued to hold his audience in the provinces – particularly in such radical cities as Manchester – and of course there was still a substantial following in the circle and stalls. In addition to its increasing age, the Lyceum audience had one other unfortunate characteristic, which it shared with its parent. It was, like the Lyceum company, overwhelmingly male. As I have many times been reminded by my students, whom I have asked to read Bram Stoker’s memoirs of Irving’s Lyceum years, that most dutiful of chroniclers’ rate of droppage of male to female names is at a ratio of about thirty-five to one. And although artists loyally include a fair proportion of women in their drawings of the Lyceum audience, the number of reminiscences of Irving’s London performances written by women is suspiciously low. One has sometimes to remind oneself that the Theatre was not everywhere a male preserve, and that there were some great London managers – Sara Lane (Britannia Theatre) and Emma Cons (The Old Vic) for example – contemporary with Irving’s Lyceum management.

Irving never yielded to the new managerial commercialism, never doubted that the theatre had a higher purpose than making money – but his political focus remained rooted in the great concerns of the middle of the century. In later life he found new political issues shallow – it helps to explain his irritation with Shaw – and as a result one section at least of his contemporaries found him utterly insensitive to their concerns. One of the least-reported facts about his funeral was that the service took place against a highly audible background of jeering by the new Suffragettes, who picketed the Abbey. Ironic perhaps that his send-off should have been a hostile political demonstration.

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