The Voice of Henry Irving

Henry Irving and the Phonograph: Bennett Maxwell

With thirty years’ service in BBC radio drama as studio manager, script editor and producer Bennett Maxwell brought unrivalled experience to this year’s birthday address: ‘Henry Irving and the Phonograph’. At the Theatre Museum on February 6th we were treated to a lecture which, with exemplary clarity and astonishing detail, uncovered the background not only to HI’s association with Edison’s invention but to the whole early development of the new medium.

Laurence Irving claimed that the first eleven and a half lines of Richard III were ‘all that remains of the living Henry Irving’. Bennett’s sleuthing unearthed a further four, and possibly five recordings. His starting point was a mysterious box of white wax cylinders which had been acquired by the BBC in 1951 for £10, the vendor a shady second-hand furniture dealer from Hounslow whose widely differing accounts of their provenance were all found to be unreliable. Subsequent investigation indicated that the box had probably been looted from a bombed house in Hans Crescent (behind Harrods) during the Second World War, which makes its survival all the more remarkable.

Examination of the cylinders by Bennett and actor-archivist Richard Bebb quickly established that one, in a container marked Little Menlo and dated August 30th 1888, was a recording of HI. Another cylinder was a recording made by Edison himself. Thomas Edison’s phonograph was then only eleven years old, a mewling infant whose siblings of ingenuity – the telephone, the incandescent lamp, the internal combustion engine – were revolutionising everyday life at an unparalleled rate. His agent in Britain was Colonel Gouraud, an American Civil War veteran and holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A man of shrewdness as well as integrity, Gouraud established his home/showplace at Beulah Hill in South London; after refurbishments and additions the house was named Little Menlo, in homage to Menlo Park, New Jersey, the site of Edison’s original laboratory. Little Menlo became known as ‘the electric house’: Gouraud’s boots and windows were cleaned and his carpets brushed by electricity, the action of opening the door of a room switched on the lights, he kept an electric launch on the River Thames, and he rode a tricycle operated by an electric motor. He had a direct telephone connection to the Crystal Palace, and so was able to listen to live concerts in the comfort of his home.

The billiard room was, according to the New York Times, converted into ‘a combination of a ballroom, theatre, music room, studio, reading room, salle d’armes and hall of science’, and it was here that the haut ton were invited, to wonder at Mr Edison’s latest contrivances. When the phonograph, despite its inventor’s promises, failed to arrive, Gouraud made a flying trip across the Atlantic to gee-up his master’s creative juices. This unsubtle prompting seemed to do the trick, for after a stint of seventy-two hours without sleep Edison came up with a much improved machine. A photograph of Edison taken at 5. 3Oam on June 16th 1888 clearly shows the white wax cylinders which, with the ‘perfected phonograph’, were safely delivered to Beulah Hill ten days later.

Letters and other evidence prove indisputably that this was the same box sold to the BBC by the Hounslow wideboy and contained the same cylinders Edison had sent over to his impatient agent. Slides of the exhausted Edison and close-ups of the box, the cylinders and the inscriptions thereon, were remarkable to see; a further frisson was experienced when Bennett then played one of the cylinders – the very first recording made in this country. This was part of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and although the sound quality is poor it was hair-raising to hear a Crystal Palace concert that had been attended by Mr & Mrs W.E. Gladstone.

Gouraud invited distinguished personages from all walks to record their voices for posterity at Little Menlo. He and HI were not unacquainted; for Faust in 1885 Gouraud had devised the famously sensational effect of clashing swords emitting electric sparks. (Not for the first time during his talk Bennett then astonished us by producing the actual sword, complete with internal circuitry, used by HI in that most elaborate of all Lyceum productions.)

Thus it was that HI, accompanied by two friends, Joe Comyns Carr and Joseph Hatton, arrived to try out the new invention. Three months later, at the Society of Arts, Gouraud described the occasion: ‘It is curious to see how the most distinguished speakers… behave when they find themselves in front of the phonograph, and speak into it … I was never so amazed as to see Mr. Irving attack the subject. He walked up to it with that air of confidence which characterises Mr. Irving when he walks. When he stopped walking, he found himself in front of the phonograph and began to talk into it, but it was not Irving in the least. Some of his oldest friends there said, “Why, my dear Irving, it was not you who spoke,” and it was not Mr. Irving himself: absolutely he was frightened out of his own voice.’

After a protracted search Bennett established that the piece spoken by HI on this occasion was The Feast of Belshazzar by Sir Edwin Arnold. The text was shown on a slide, the recording was played, and again we had the eerie sense of eavesdropping on times past. A second band on the cylinder remains unidentified, and may not be HI at all but either Hatton or Comyns Carr. The third band is the first stanza of The Maniac by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis; in this recitation HI was ‘produced’ by Colonel Gouraud who declared: ‘I had to put him through his paces to train him for it, to make him walk backwards and forwards a bit, and when he had got into the swing he finally came up and said something which was truly delightful, both when it when into the phonograph and when it came out of it,’

On hearing himself for the first time HI’s reaction was not unsurprising in those pioneer days of sound reproduction: ‘My God! Is that my voice?’ Nevertheless he wrote an enthusiastic account of the day to Ellen Terry in Berlin: ‘You speak into it and everything is recorded, voice, tone, intonation, everything. You turn a little wheel, and forth it comes, and can be repeated ten thousand times. Only fancy what this suggests. Wouldn’t you like to have heard the voice of Shakespeare, or Jesus Christ?’

During that August 30th session at Little Menlo HI also recorded a few words of congratulations to Edison. This cylinder however, last known to be in the possession of the widow of Edison’s assistant Hal de Courcey Hamilton in 1936, has disappeared.

In 1890 the eminent explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley was presented by Colonel Gouraud with a phonograph as a wedding present; this was the machine on which, on May 9th 1898, Irving made his celebrated recording ofRichard III’s opening soliloquy. On borrowing the machine and cylinders from Stanley’s grandson in order to make dubs with the latest BBC equipment Bennett and Richard Bebb discovered that HI had in fact recorded a further twelve lines; again supported by the text these precious few extra seconds of Irving’s voice held us transfixed.

We also heard HI’s recording of a passage from Act IV Scene II of Becket, identified as such by the splendidly robust Irving devotee the late Dr Eric Jones-Evans. Finally Bennett played and discussed the recording of Wolsey’ s farewell speech from King Henry VIII. Objections have been raised as to its authenticity, but Bennett, having the full resources of the BBC’s audio wizardry at his disposal, has come to the conclusion that the recording is by Irving,. though where and when it was made remain unknown. Nor is anything known of an alleged 1903 recording of Shylock’s speech from the trial scene, said at one time to have been in a private collection in New York.

Henry Irving’s voice was deep, clear and with that ‘hollow’ resonance always detectable in actors of his era. ‘My’ was usually contracted to ‘me’ for reasons of rhythm and stress; the surprising aspect of Irving’s delivery is, I would say, the pace. The words skip along, much more swiftly than one might have expected, understated but deeply felt.

Bennett Maxwell’s meticulousness of presentation, which included copious use of tapes, slides and video (and even your reporter reading the occasional quotation), honoured both the subject and the Society; his reward, in lieu of any – how shall I put this? – pecuniary acknowledgement, can only be our deep appreciation, best expressed by an emotional John HB Irving whose words of thanks were, not surprisingly, blurred with tears.

Little Menlo
Little Menlo

by Michael Kilgarriff