Sir Henry Irving
  • May 10, 2014
  • Posted In: Actor

Actor/manager Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation and was the first member of the profession to be honoured with a knighthood. Irving was born in Somerset to a strict Methodist family and was christened John Brodribb hence wag Sir Max Beerbohm cruelly dubbing him ‘the knight from nowhere’. Irving’s mother disapproved of his ambitions to be an actor so at the age of thirteen he began working at a local law firm.

In 1856 the disillusioned Brodribb saw Samuel Phelps play the title role in Hamlet and this inspired him to turn his back on the law, change his name to Henry Irving and begin acting; touring the United Kingdom in stock companies. In his first ten years in the profession, Irving played over six hundred minor roles and honed his craft. He arrived in London in 1866 but it was another five years before his breakthrough role in The Bells.

The Bells, a three-act tragedy by Leopold David Lewis, opened at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and ran for an unprecedented hundred and sixty performances. The opening night audience were, apparently, stunned by the intensity of Irving’s performance but rose to give him a standing ovation. Critic Edward Gordon Craig wrote ‘the thing Irving set out to do was to show us the sorrow which slowly and remorselessly beat him down. The sorrow which he suffers must appeal to our hearts. Irving set out to wring our hearts, not to give a clever exhibition of antics such as a murderer would be likely to go through’.  Irving, who had struggled for fifteen-years, became an ‘overnight sensation’ and he reprised the role of Mathias many times including the night before his death in 1905.

Irving first appeared with the celebrated classical actress Ellen Terry at the Queen’s Theatre in 1867 in Catharine & Petruchio; a reworking of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew written by David Garrick. The partnership would endure for the rest of Irving’s lifetime. In 1871 Irving and Terry first performed together at the Lyceum Theatre, London. They would continue to star at the Lyceum in romantic tragedies and Shakespearean roles until 1902 with Irving becoming sole manager of the theatre in 1878.

Sir Henry Irving’s reputation as an actor/manager was built on the foundations of working only with the best. He employed Pinero, Tennyson, Sardou and Arthur Conan Doyle to write new works for his company and commissioned celebrated artists Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Burne-Jones to design productions. The Lyceum was one of the first London theatres to use gaslight to great effect. Like Garrick in the 18th century, Irving was lauded as the greatest Shakespearean actor of his age. He performed the title roles in Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Henry VIII, Macbeth and King Lear (invariably with Ellen Terry as his leading lady) and was applauded for giving Shakespeare’s villains such as Shylock, Iago, Malvolio and Richard III light and shade.

After Irving’s death, Ellen Terry admitted ‘we were terribly in love for a while’ despite the fact that the actor had married Florence O’Callaghan in 1869 who had born him two sons. The marriage had broken down on the first night of The Bells in 1871. Mr and Mrs Irving were returning home in a carriage when she turned to him and said ‘are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ Without saying a word, Irving got out of the carriage at Hyde Park Corner and never saw or spoke to his wife again. The Irvings did not divorce and when Sir Henry was knighted, Florence rather presumptuously styled herself Lady Irving.

Irving and Terry were a celebrated couple in all but name and became the toast of the US when they undertook eight major tours between 1883 and 1904. Before Irving, actors were not considered eligible to be entertained in royal and aristocratic circles in London. The royal patronage of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra made Irving a pillar of Victorian society. He was knighted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1895. Sir Henry Irving gave his last performance at the Lyceum in 1902 as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In 1905 he was on a final tour of Sheffield and Bradford when he died in the lobby of the Midland Hotel, Bradford. The chair in which he breathed his last is now at the Garrick Club in London.

Irving’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner next to David Garrick’s tomb and in front of Shakespeare’s memorial statue. The congregation at the service included Ellen Terry, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Irving’s friend Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) who wrote a two-volume memoir Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra sent wreaths and representatives. When great Shakespearean actor Sir Laurence Olivier’s ashes were buried in Poets’ Corner in 1989 he was placed next to Irving and Garrick.

Irving’s son Henry became a successful actor/manager and Laurence became a dramatist. His grandson Laurence Irving was a noted Hollywood set designer and art director. Sir Henry Irving is remembered in London with a statue placed on Irving Street next to the National Portrait Gallery. The sculptor Sir Thomas Brock RA (who sculpted the Prince Consort’s likeness for the Albert Memorial) decided against dressing Irving in the costume of one of his famous roles; deciding instead to depict Sir Henry in a neatly tailored frock coat that we know from the company ledgers was tailored by Henry Poole & Co.

(c) James Sherwood

Photo © (c) James Sherwood Collection