The Irving Society Newsletter No 59


Saturday, 28 April, 2012
Report by Eileen & David Cottis

Having arrived at Rye station coach park at 11.15am on an unseasonably grey and drizzly day, we climbed the narrow cobbled streets of the historic Cinque Port to our first destination: Lamb House, Henry James’ house for many years, full of photos and documents that gave one the impression he knew everybody. We admired his large and beautiful garden, much too big for the house and now crowded by modern Rye buildings. (Another literary occupant of the house was E F Benson – see p4 for a story of his brother, Arthur C Benson.) We then walked down to John Fletcher’s birth place – now an excellent restaurant – and admired Rye’s medieval and Tudor houses, with names like ‘The House Opposite’ and ‘The House With Two Front Doors’.

Major Freeman
Major Freeman

As we rejoined the coach to Winchelsea it started to rain seriously, and continued to do for the rest of the da y. Undaunted, we put up our umbrellas and were conducted round the Museum by local resident Major  Freeman who also gave us a talk on Old Winchelsea (which fell into the sea in the thirteenth century) and the ‘new’ town, an early example of rectangular planning. We were shown souvenirs of Ellen Terry’s time in the town, and member Ann Rachlin, who lives in nearby Icklesham, brought along a seaside photograph of Henry Irving with Fussie, his watch that had previously belonged to Edwin Forrest, and a prop rubber dagger from The Corsican Brothers.

Major Freeman then took us to St Thomas’s church, which has well-preserved medieval tombs and some striking modern stained-glass windows. In the graveyard lie the remains of Spike Milligan whose tombstone reads, in Irish Gaelic, ‘I told you I was ill’. As we left the church en route to Ellen Terry’s Tower Cottage a man passed us pushing a trolley-load of chairs. ‘Millais’ grands on!’ muttered the Major .

On the coach Frances Hughes had read out some of ET’s letters saying how much she loved the cottage and what a splendid view over the sea there was. Tower Cottage garden is indeed lovely, but we shall not soon forget the sight of our party, its multi-coloured umbrellas blowing in the wind and rain, looking hopefully out at the sea view, which wasn’t there. We couldn’t go into the cottage (currently the private home of a  local GP), and so retired to the New Inn – where HI and ET gave readings for local causes – for tea, cake and a real fire, in front of which we dried off before heading back to London. Prof Richard Foulkes, on being told about the day, said ‘it sounded like a quintessentially English occasion’, but the Irving Society’s customary bonhomie remained buoyant despite, or perhaps because of, the weather.


STAGEFRIGHT by Michael Punter

Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, 9-25 February, 2012
Play reviewed by Geoff Hales

Thunderclaps, lightning flashes, mysterious voices, headless torsos, ghosts emerging from property baskets… A wet night in 189 4. Win ter. HI, having just performed as Mephistopheles, is trapped with Bram Stoker in the manager’s office at the Lyceum. The evening paper runs the story of a suicide, a mother and baby in the river. The speaking-tube whistles; a voice recites speeches from Richard III, Lear, Hamlet, The Corsican Brothers. A practical joke? Then books fly from shelves, papers scatter, lights flicker and ghostly forms are seen through the uncurtained window.

HI’s Mephistopheles has, it seems, conjured up a real spirit, that of an actor, Richard Nightingale, who once trod the boards of the Lyceum himself, and that of his daughter, once a child actress in HI’s company, and drowned this very day in the Thames. Through a long and terrifying night HI and Stoker, haunted and helpless, rant and cower, plead and strike attitudes. Wonderful Gothic stuff, all the more dramatic for being played out in t he intimate splendour of the Theatre Royal.

Within all this, much shop talk of the theatre of the day and of HI himself: his background, his marriage, his friendship-or-more with Ellen Terry, his hatred of modernism and realism and Bernard Shaw: his dislike of Stoker’s Dracula, being written at the time. Familiar stuff to the Irvingite, but, as the author points out in his extensive and helpful program me notes, there are so few Irvingites about these days.

Jonathan Keeble (Irving) and Simon Ward (Sto ker)
Jonathan Keeble (Irving) and Simon Ward (Stoker)

There is much to praise in this splendid production, directed by Colin Blumenau and designed by Kerry Bradley. Jonathan Keeble makes an imposing and virile and autocratic Irving, resplendent first in Mephistopheles costume and switching briefly into Gloucester and even Dracula, more than hinting that HI was a model for the Transylvanian Count. As Stoker, Barry Ward is more than a foil; he is a foil with an agenda of his own, a great man deferring to a greater. The relationship is by turns tender and tense.

Special mention should be made of the wonderful stage illusions of Ben Hart; one is left wondering ‘How on earth …?’, which is as it should be. HI would have been impressed.

Sad to relate, there are, at the time of writing, no plans for Stagefright to be put on elsewhere. It deserves a long run somewhere, though Keeble and Ward are unlikely to find a better setting for this wonderfully spooky piece than the Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds.



by Henry Vivian-Neal
Friday, 30 March 2012. 6.00-8.00pm
Senate House, Malet St, London WC1
Report by Michael Read

Henry Vivian-Neal Photo by Alex Bisset
Henry Vivian-Neal. Photo by Alex Bisset

About sixty people went to the Bloomsbury headquarters of the University of London for the launch of Henry Vivian-Neal’s book about the theatrical graves at Kensal Green Cemetery, Their Exits (which will be fully reviewed in the next edition of First Knight).

There they were greeted by the author him self, signing copies, seventy of which were sold on the night, and by our Chair Frances Hughes and Vice-Chair Alex Bisset, dispensing wine and soft drinks in the most hospitable style. The Irving Society played a big part in encouraging Henry to produce a full-length book and in helping him to bring it to publication, and there was a strong representation from the Society.

Others attending included members of the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery – whose chair, Dr Jenny Freeman, gave the speech of welcome – and of the Society for Theatre Research, together with other friends and family and many who had assisted the book’s preparation.

There followed a fifteen-minute play written and ably performed by Matt Salisbury and Becca Frith of the Pretending People Theatre Company, inspired by the book’s contents.

Dr Michael Read & Sir Donald Sinden Photo by Alex Bisset
Dr Michael Read & Sir Donald Sinden
Photo by Alex Bisset

Then one of our Patrons, Sir Donald Sinden, who wrote the Foreword to Their Exits, commended the play and praised the book in an entertaining speech, thanking the author from his heart. Sir Donald, in recollecting his many visits to the Cemetery without such a guide, exemplified magnificently the players of every age who, when asked why they search for the graves of actors they never knew, reply: ‘It’s history to some; but to us, it’s family.’



University of Hull, 12-14 April, 2012

Described as ‘the world’s first Bram Stoker Conference’, this centenary event stressed, as its title suggests, the late-Victorian obsession with all things creepy.

Of sixty-seven papers listed in the conference programme no fewer than thirty nine included ‘Dracula’ in the title, with one, ‘Sexual Surgery and Deadly Orgasm s in Dracula’, surely a parody of Stokerian gothnicity (the style is catching ).

Not a single contribution mentioned ‘Irving’ or ‘Lyceum’, a shortcoming as deplorable as a Dr Who convention without a Dalek or a Trekkie s reunion without a Klingon.



With the entire country about to be engulfed in Olympian fever it should not be forgotten that HI was only ever known to participate in one sport: fishing.

‘He had, in acting, a keen sense of humour – of sardonic, grotesque, fantastic humour. He had an incomp arable power for eeriness, for stirring a dim sense of mystery ; and not less masterly was he in invoking a dim sense of horror. His dignity was magnificent in purely philosophic or priestly gentleness, or in the gaunt aloofness of philosopher or king. He could be benign with a tinge of malevolence, and arrogant with an undercurrent o f sweetness.’ – Max Beerbohm in the Saturday Review 21 October, 1905

‘September 10 sees the anniversary of Britain’s first reported incident of motorised drunk driving. On that day in 1897, George Smith of Portnall Road, London W9, drove his electric cab onto the pavement and crashed into the Bond Street home of actor Sir Henry Irving. Smith, aged 25, was found to be drunk and fined one pound at  Marlborough Street Police Court.’ – HAM & HIGH 8 September, 2011 Submitted by Peter Berkeley

This year’s Annual Dinner will be held at the G arrick C lub on Friday, 2 November. Details t.b.a.



The largest of the three commemorative bronze medallions donated by Elizabeth Sutter remains unsold (see Irvingite No.58 for details and illustration). Guide price £60 . Contact the Editor if you are interested in purchasing.



Rodney Bolt’s 2011 biography of Mary Benson,* whose husband was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1882 to 1896, relates that he was a man of fierce tempers, once threatening ‘a parting of the ways’ with their son Arthur if he was so louche as to accept an invitation to dine with Henry Irving. Such an event, His Grace warned, might be full of ‘superficial charm and interest’ but it masked ‘dubious standards.’ Whether Arthur C Benson made it to the dinner isn’t known, but we do know that his place in immortality was assured when he wrote the lyrics of Land of Hope and Glory. *As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson


All Communications to:

Michael Kilgarriff
Editor & Hon Secretary
The Irving Society
10 Kings Avenue, London W5 2SH
Tel & fax: 020 8566 8301

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