Sir Henry Irving

Sir Henry Irving, 1838-1905

Henry Irving's birthplace
Henry Irving’s birthplace

Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted, rose from humble beginnings unconnected with the theatre. He was born John Brodribb on 6th February 1838 in the small Somerset village of Keinton Mandeville. His father Samuel Brodribb was a travelling salesman in the area, who moved to Bristol in 1842 with his Methodist wife Mary (née Behenna) who came from a large Cornish family. However their only child was sent to live with his maternal aunt, Mrs Sarah Penberthy in Halsetown near St Ives, where, with his cousins, he received his early education. Aged about seven, he visited his parents in Bristol by sea.

In 1849 his parents moved to the City of London where their son joined them, and attended   the City Commercial School run by William Pinches. In 1851, aged thirteen, he became a clerk, first for Paterson & Longman, and one year later for Thacker, Spink & Co. However, whilst at school he had given recitations. He was irresistibly drawn to the theatre, and attended evening elocution classes.

He went to Sadler’s Wells repeatedly to see Samuel Phelps act, and had an interview with that major actor in 1855. Phelps discouraged the teenager, but he persisted, giving an amateur performance as Romeo in 1856 at the Soho Theatre.  Soon after, he received a legacy of £100 from an uncle, equipped himself with costumes and props, and, taking the stage name of Henry Irving, embarked on his professional career. He made his debut at the New Royal Lyceum Theatre, Sunderland as the Duke of Orleans in Richelieu with the words ‘Here’s to our enterprise’.

Fifteen hard years followed, often in relative poverty, in Edinburgh and Glasgow followed by Manchester, with short term engagements in the provinces and Ireland. He is said to have acted over six hundred and fifty parts, and played supporting roles to major actors of the time like Ira Aldridge, G.V. Brooke, Walter Montgomery, and Barry Sullivan. Eventually he began to play leading parts himself. Early in his career he met the comic actor J.L. Toole, who was a close and supportive friend to the end of Irving’s life.

Irving made attempts to succeed in London, mostly in comic parts, the best remembered  perhaps Bob Gassitt and Digby Grant, with mixed success. In 1859 he played minor parts at the Princess’s Theatre and gave dramatic readings in Crosby Hall.  By 1867 he was at the St James’s; and later, at the Queen’s Theatre, he played opposite Ellen Terry for the first time in Katherine and Petruchio.

Irving met Florence O’Callaghan in 1866 and married her in 1869, but the marriage was troubled from the first, as she had little understanding of an actor’s life. They had two sons, Harry, 1870-1919 and Laurence, 1871-1914 who followed their father into the theatre.

In 1870 at the Vaudeville Theatre Irving finally attracted the attention of the influential manager Hezekiah Bateman, and was offered a contract at the Lyceum Theatre to play leading roles opposite the Bateman daughters. The company was not an instant success, but in 1871 Irving was allowed to stage a version of a French melodrama, The Bells, making an immediate hit as the villainous and troubled Mathias. The audiences grew as he continued in parts such as Charles I, Eugene Aram, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Richard III.  At this time his troubled marriage finally ended after a rupture and reconciliation which had led to the birth of his second son. It is said the deciding factor was his wife’s demand after the triumphant first night of The Bells: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all the rest of your life?’. Irving now centred his social life on his clubs; principally, after 1874,  on the Garrick, and later in his own Beefsteak Room at the Lyceum.

His success now introduced Irving to admirers at many influential levels of society including the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, William Gladstone, the Lawsons who owned ‘The Daily Telegraph’, and even gave him an entrée into the Prince of Wales’ circle. In 1875 Hezekiah Bateman died, and his widow, soon finding running the theatre too onerous, offered it to Irving. In December 1878 he opened his first season as manager with a revival of Hamlet. He was joined in his company by a number of people crucial to his success in the following years including Henry Loveday his Stage Manager, Bram Stoker his ‘Acting’ or Business Manager and Ellen Terry who was to be his leading lady for over two decades.

Irving’s aim was to improve the standard of productions, gain the approval of the clergy, and to make the theatre respectable and of equal standing with the other arts. Major artists designed his productions, which were executed by the best scenic painters. He commissioned music from leading composers of the Victorian era. His publicity was innovative and his productions were detailed and precise, with intensive rehearsals. Major successes were The Merchant of Venice, Othello, sharing the roles of Othello and Iago with Edwin Booth, Much Ado About Nothing, Faust, Henry VIII and Alfred Tennyson’s Becket. More controversial were  Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and King Lear.

Irving was sometimes criticized for his idiosyncratic pronunciation, and occasional throat problems affected his audibility. A few surviving recordings possibly suggest that his critics exaggerated these defects.  He was tall and thin with a somewhat awkward gait. However his  undoubted hold on his audiences is testified by many witnesses, who appreciated his intelligent and often original interpretation of major roles, both classic and modern. The stage tricks and ‘points’ of the previous generation of actors were not for Irving. His great stage partner, Ellen Terry charmed everyone, including Irving, and probably from about 1882 they embarked on an intimate relationship hidden from the general public. This gradually lost its intensity and in 1903 Terry left the Lyceum Company, finding there were no longer suitable roles in Irving’s current productions.

After each London season Irving took his company round the British Isles and, from 1883, to America. There were eight successful cross-Atlantic tours. His preparation was, as usual, precise and he took his whole company and productions with him. They travelled all over the North American continent, including Canada, often in special trains carrying scenery and props as well as the full company. Their style, charm and skill conquered audiences and Irving’s tours became his greatest financial resource as the expense of his lavish productions became increasingly difficult to recoup in Great Britain.

By 1895 Irving was past his peak, but he had transformed the British theatre, and was rewarded with a knighthood – the first ever given to an actor.  Queen Victoria, when performing the ceremony, departed from usual practice and expressed her pleasure. The company performed for the royal family at Sandringham in 1889 and 1902 and in a command performance at Windsor in 1893.

The years 1896-98 brought major problems. Irving injured his knee after the first performance of a new production of Richard III, leading to a brief closure of the Lyceum. Two new productions were unsuccessful and in February 1898 his off-site store caught fire, with the loss of valuable scenery and costumes for many plays in the repertoire.  In October 1898 Irving contracted pneumonia and pleurisy in Glasgow and nearly died.  He was in decline from that time. Financial problems, due to the fire and falling box office revenue, led Irving, after poor advice, to hand the management of the Lyceum to a limited company which itself was to fail by 1902.

Irving now survived on touring, interspersed with seasons at Drury Lane. The last major production at the Lyceum, Robespierre in 1899, was reasonably successful; but Dante at Drury Lane in 1903, without Ellen Terry, was an aesthetic failure. He had the willpower to continue to tour, but with failing health and finances he made his final performance on 13th October 1905 at Bradford, playing the lead in Becket. His last words on stage were ‘Into thy hand, O Lord, into thy hands!’ He was driven to his hotel after the performance and collapsed and died as he entered the building.

Irving was a great and charismatic actor, who succeeded in comic, tragic and melodramatic roles. As he aged his productions became less fashionable, and his judgment less certain, but, above all other actors of his time, he raised the standards and the reputation of the theatre. A clubbable man with a wide acquaintance, Irving did much charitable work for theatrical and other institutions, and also was among those establishing associations among actors and managers to regulate the profession and give it respectability. Irving argued for a National Theatre, with his own Lyceum Company its best advocate. It seems fitting that his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

By Helen R Smith