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Giving the theatre a good name

03 April 2007

Michael Caines on the Christian gentleman who was Victoria’s favourite actor


Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian actor and his world
Jeffrey Richards

“ARISE, Sir John Henry Brodribb.” Rampant moral snobbery — of the kind we like to deride as Victorian — denied Queen Victoria the chance of saying these words to the first English actor to receive a knighthood. By that moment in 1895, the great man had long since changed his name to Henry Irving, and was many years distant from his former name, his harshly Methodist upbringing, and the mother whom he so appalled by pursuing the wrong calling. John Henry Brodribb had been intended for the Church; but then he saw Hamlet.

As Jeffrey Richards makes clear in this detailed and involving account, Irving lived a distinguished life in extraordinary times. He made his début at the Theatre Royal in Sunderland, in 1856, under a name that — Richards tells us — refers both to a favourite author, Washington Irving, and to Edward Irving, “the popular preacher who had briefly flirted with the stage before deploying his histrionic talents in the pulpit”.

Henry Irving was no flirt; by 1878, the year when he assumed the management of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London, he had played hundreds of roles in scores of provincial theatres. The part that made him famous overnight was Matthias in The Bells, a stern play about the horrors of a guilty conscience, highly suited to his peculiar talents. Matthias alone he played some 800 times.

Hard work is one way in which Irving, in his own lifetime, came to personify Evangelicalism at its most virtuous, despite his mother’s permanent disapproval of his choice of career. Richards provides a fascinating chapter on religion, a changing society, and the theatre changing with it.

Generosity, civility, Christian zeal were all aspects of Irving’s eminently respectable character, gentle weapons in a largely success-ful campaign to convince the public that some of the most disreputable corners of the British Empire — its theatres — were now as decently civilised as he was. When the Church of England Temperance Society met in Shoreditch in 1876, he was there to offer reassuring words about the modern theatre, which was now “completely free from immoral, or even indecorous associations”.

More than that, he could later declare, the stage was to be seen having as “an elevating instead of a lowering influence on national morality”. “If you uphold the theatre honestly, liberally, frankly and with wise discrimination, the stage will uphold in the future, as it has in the past, the literature, the manners, the morals, the fame, and the genius of our country.”

This rousing stuff explains much of Irving’s success. He excelled in roles that called for tragic dignity; and he brought a fresh, sympathetic view to such key Shakespearean characters as Othello and Shylock, overturning the convention that these outsider figures should also be monsters. It was this repertoire that made him a favourite of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and many of their subjects.

He played a Synod’s worth of clergymen, from Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII to Becket in Tennyson’s poetic drama of that name (that role was, in fact, his last: he collapsed in the foyer of his hotel in Bradford after performing it, against doctor’s orders, in October 1905). He balanced this with some less admired comic turns and some portrayals of down-at-heel types whose come-uppance, the pious could be sure, was no more than a few scene-changes away.

But Irving owed his popularity to qualities other than his own considerable charisma on stage, and his reputation as a loyal Christian gentleman. He was also those essential clichés, a consummate showman and a shrewd businessman. His expensive, lavish productions at the Lyceum had an extravagance that has been much derided, but persists, one might argue, in certain West End musicals and opera houses.

Perhaps the decisive factor in his favour during his golden years was his double act with Ellen Terry, the perfect, sensuous foil to his stiffer presence.

Irving looks ridiculous now for showing such absolute resistance to Ibsen and the new drama that was coming with him, but perhaps this could also be seen as a (doomed) attempt to protect his investment in pat melodramas, and an audience to whom these were useful consola-tions. Richards has relatively little to say on this subject, though he is not afraid of quoting Irving’s (often quite reasonable) detractors at length.

In general, however, this is an entertaining and thoughtful biography, published originally to coincide with the centenary of Irving’s death. Despite the odd repetition, its division into chapters such as “Chivalry”, “Ellen Terry”, “Ruskin and Ruskinism”, and the like, is helpful. This book shows the man to be much more than his roles on stage.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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