Irving, Henry (DNB12)
IRVING, Sir HENRY (1838–1905), actor, whose original name was John Henry Brodribb, was born at Keinton Mandeville, Somerset, on 6 Feb. 1838. His father, Samuel Brodribb, came of yeoman stock, and was a small and not prosperous shop-keeper; his mother, Mary Behenna, was a Comishwoman. When their only child was four years old, the parents moved to Bristol; later, on their leaving Bristol for London, the boy was sent to Hve at Halsetown, near St. Ives in Cornwall, with his mother's sister, Sarah, who had married Isaac Penberthy, a Cornish miner, and had three children. The household was methodist and religious, and Mrs. Penberthy a woman of stern but affectionate nature. The life was wholesome and open-air. In 1849, at the age of eleven, the boy joined his parents, who were living at 65 Old Broad Street (on the site of the present Dresdner Bank), and attended school at Dr. Pinches' City Commercial School in George Yard, Lombard Street. Here he acted with success in the school entertainments. In 1851 he left school, and entered the office of Paterson and Longman, solicitors. Milk Street, Cheapside, whence, at the age of fourteen, he went to be clerk in the firm of W. Thacker & Co., East India merchants, Newgate Street. A year later he joined the City Elocution Class, conducted by Henry Thomas. Here he won a reputation among his fellows as a reciter, and was always 'word-perfect' in the parts he acted. His first visit to a theatre had been to Sadler's Wells, to see Samuel Phelps play Hamlet; and he took every opportunity of seeing Phelps act, studying each play for himself before going to the theatre. At sixteen he made the acquaintance of a member of Phelps's company, William Hoskins, who gave him tuition in acting, and later introduced him to Phelps, who offered him an engagement. Brodribb had, however, determined to begin his career in the provinces: he continued to read, to study plays, to learn fencing and dancing, and to carry on his office work until, in 1856, Hoskins introduced him to E. D. Davis, who engaged him for the stock company at the Lyceum Theatre, Sunderland.
At this theatre, under the name of Henry Irving, Brodribb made his first public appearance on the stage on 18 Sept. 1856, he being between eighteen and nineteen years old. His part was Gaston, Duke of Orleans, in Lytton's ‘Richelieu.’ On one occasion he broke down in the part of Cleomenes in ‘The Winter's Tale,’ because the religious notions imbibed at Halsetown prevented him from learning the part on a Sunday. This was said to be the only time in his career in which he failed for lack of previous study. He received no salary for the first month, and 25s. a week during the remainder of his engagement, and out of this he contributed to the support of his parents. In Feb. 1857, when just nineteen, he left Sunderland for Edinburgh, where he remained two and a half years under the management of R. H. Wyndham. Among the parts he played there were Horatio, Banquo, Macduff, Catesby, Pisanio (to the Imogen of Helen Faucit) and Claudius in ‘Hamlet’; while he appeared with success also in pantomime and burlesque. His reception by the Edinburgh public and press was by no means altogether favourable. From the outset he was praised for his ‘gentlemanly’ air, his earnestness, and the care he took over his costume and ‘make-up’; but he was often taken to task for the mannerisms of which much was to be heard later.
From Edinburgh Irving passed to his first engagement in London. On 24 Sept. 1859 he appeared in a small part in Oxenford's ‘Ivy Hall,’ produced by Augustus Harris, the elder, at the Princess's Theatre, Oxford Street. The parts allotted him being beneath his ambition, he obtained a release from his contract. Readings of ‘The Lady of Lyons’ and ‘Virginius’ at Crosby Hall in the following winter and spring led to a four weeks' engagement at the Queen's Theatre, Dublin, which began in March 1860. Replacing a popular actor who had just been dismissed, Irving was received by a section of the audience with three weeks of active hostility. When the nightly disturbances had at last been stopped, his Laertes, Florizel, and other performances won him general favour. From Dublin he went to Glasgow and Greenock, and in Sept. 1860 obtained an engagement at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, under Charles Calvert.
In Manchester Irving spent nearly five years. His progress was slow and disheartening. Calvert, however, was a staunch friend and adviser, and in time the good qualities of Irving's acting—his earnestness, his intelligence, and the effort to be natural—made themselves felt. It was at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, that he first appeared as Hamlet. In April 1864 he had impersonated Hamlet (or rather J. P. Kemble as Hamlet) in one of a series of tableaux illustrating a reading by Calvert. On 20 June following he chose the part for his benefit. For his ‘make-up’ on this occasion he copied that of Fechter and wore a fair wig. Lack of physical and vocal power were the chief faults urged by the critics. The periods during which the theatre was closed Irving spent in giving readings in various places, and the vacation of 1864 was spent at Oxford, where he acted Hamlet and other parts. In October 1864 Calvert moved from the Theatre Royal to the new Prince's Theatre. Irving remained at the Theatre Royal, playing unimportant parts, till the early part of 1865. In February of that year he and two others gave in public halls in Manchester an entertainment burlesquing the spiritualistic séances of the Davenport Brothers; and his refusal to demean (as he considered) the leading theatre by repeating this entertainment on its stage was the ostensible reason for the termination of his engagement. For a few weeks he played under Calvert at the Prince's, and then returned to Edinburgh. Between April and Dec. 1865 he acted at Edinburgh, Bury, Oxford, and Birmingham. Having received and refused an offer to join Fechter's company at the Lyceum Theatre, London, he began in Dec. 1865 an engagement at Liverpool. In the summer of 1866 he went touring with his lifelong friend, John Lawrence Toole [q. v. Suppl. II], whom he had first met at Edinburgh in 1857, and in July 1866 he created at Prince's Theatre, Manchester, the part of Rawdon Scudamore, the villain in Boucicault's drama ‘The Two Lives of Mary Leigh,’ afterwards called ‘Hunted Down.’ His arrangement with Boucicault was that, should he succeed in the part, he should be engaged to play it in London; and the arrangement was duly carried out.
When he joined Miss Herbert's company at the St. James's Theatre in Oct. 1866 Irving was twenty-eight and a half years old, had been on the stage ten years, and had played nearly 600 parts (Brereton,, ii. 345). His first part at the St. James's was not Rawdon Scudamore, but Doricourt in ‘The Belle's Stratagem.’ Boucicault's play ‘Hunted Down’ was produced in November, and Irving's performance made a favourable impression. In Feb. 1867 there followed Holcroft's ‘The Road to Ruin,’ in which he played Young Dornton. A brief engagement with Sothern to play Abel Murcott in ‘Our American Cousin’ at the Théâtre des Italiens, Paris, was followed by a tour with Miss Herbert in England, and in Oct. 1867 Irving returned to the St. James's, now under the management of J. S. Clarke, only to leave it very soon for the new Queen's Theatre in Long Acre. Here, under Alfred Wigan, he appeared in Dec. 1867 as Petruchio in ‘Katherine and Petruchio,’ the Katherine being Miss Ellen Terry, whom he then met for the first time. His Petruchio was not liked, but during his engagement at the Queen's, which lasted till March 1869, he played with success three villains, two in plays by H. J. Byron, the third being Bill Sikes in Oxenford's ‘Oliver Twist.’ Like Macready, he was almost confined for a time to villains, for after a brief and unsuccessful engagement at the Haymarket in July, in August 1869 he was playing yet another villain at Drury Lane. In April 1870 he joined the company at the Vaudeville, and here, on 4 June, he made his first notable success in London, in the part of Digby Grant in Albery's ‘Two Roses.’ The run was a long one, and on his benefit night in March 1871 Irving added to his fame by reciting ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram.’
In this year, 1871, the Lyceum Theatre was taken by an American, H. L. Bateman, whose daughters, Kate and Isabel, were actresses. Irving, rather against his will, left the Vaudeville to join the newly formed company, of which Miss Isabel Bateman was the leading lady. On the opening night, 11 Sept. 1871, he played Landry Barbeau in ‘Fanchette,’ an adaptation from the German by Mrs. Bateman, the manager's wife. On 23 Oct. this play gave place to Albery's ‘Pickwick,’ in which Irving took what proved to be the leading character, Alfred Jingle. Bateman's resources were now almost exhausted; and as a measure of despair he accepted Irving's urgent entreaty to put on ‘The Bells,’ a version by Leopold Lewis [q. v.] of Erckmann-Chatrian's ‘Le Juif Polonais.’ ‘The Bells,’ produced at the Lyceum on 25 Nov. 1871, was a complete success. Irving, now between thirty-three and thirty-four, ‘woke to find himself famous.’ In place of the easy-going, comfortable Burgomaster represented in the original and other versions of the play he created a conscience-haunted wretch, and made horror the chief emotion of the play. ‘The Bells’ ran till the middle of May 1872 and during its run Irving acted nightly, in addition to Mathias, first Jingle and later Jeremy Diddler. On 28 Sept. 1872 Bateman put up ‘Charles I.’ by W. G. Wills [q. v.]. Despite much protest against the dramatist's treatment of Cromwell, the play was successful, and the pathos and dignity of Irving's performance of the King increased his fame. On 19 April 1873 Bateman put on Wills's ‘Eugene Aram,’ in which Irving took the title-part; and on 27 Sept. he appeared as the Cardinal in Lytton's ‘Richelieu.’ Here, for the first time, he came into comparison with Macready and Phelps. In spite of his nervousness, the originality of his conception, and the inadequacy of his support, his success was almost complete, only one critic of importance accusing him of monotony and feebleness of voice. On 7 Feb. 1874 ‘Richelieu’ gave place to Hamilton Aïdé's ‘Philip,’ where Irving snatched a personal success from a poor play.
Meanwhile, somewhat against Bateman's wishes, Irving was preparing a bolder stroke; and on 31 Oct. 1874 he appeared as Hamlet. The excitement among playgoers was great; and though the play was cheaply mounted and the audience failed during the first two acts to see the drift of a very quiet and original performance, in the end the rendering was a triumph. The play ran for 200 nights. Tennyson and others liked the new Hamlet better than Macready's, and Irving had now attained the supreme position among living actors. Criticism and even scurrilous attack were not wanting, and they broke into greater activity when in September 1875 he appeared as Macbeth. His Macbeth was not the robust butcher to whom the public were accustomed, and in bringing out the imagination in Macbeth, Irving doubtless, in this his first rendering, brought out too strongly his disordered nerves. The play ran for eighty nights. In February 1876 ‘Othello’ was produced. Salvini had as Othello in London only the year before, and Irving's very different reading of the character was even more hotly attacked than his Macbeth, while with this play his mannerisms of voice and movement probably reached their worst. In Tennyson's ‘Queen Mary,’ which followed in April 1876, they were less obvious; but the part of Philip of Spain was, by comparison, a small one, and the play, as staged, uninteresting, and in June ‘The Bells’ was revived, together with ‘The Belle's Stratagem,’ in which Irving played Doricourt. The autumn was spent in a tour, during which the graduates and undergraduates of Trinity College, Dublin, presented him in the dining-hall of the university with an address. On 29 January 1877 Irving appeared at the Lyceum as Richard III in Shakespeare's play, which then for the first time ousted Colley Cibber's version from the stage. In the following May came ‘The Lyons Mail,’ Irving taking the two parts of Lesurques and Dubosc; and this play, which ran till the end of July, remained in his repertory till the end of his career. His next appearance in a new part was in May 1878, when he played the King in Boucicault's ‘Louis XI,’ and enthralled his audiences in the death scene. In June came the unsuccessful production of ‘Vanderdecken,’ by Wills and Percy Fitzgerald, to be followed in July by ‘The Bells’ and ‘Jingle,’ the latter being a new version by Albery of his ‘Pickwick.’ Bateman had died in June 1875; and the theatre had since been managed, not illiberally, by his widow, who naturally desired that her daughters should have good opportunities, and retained Miss Isabel Bateman as leading lady. The time had now come when Irving felt the necessity of choosing his own company and conducting his own management. On his proposing to leave the Lyceum, Mrs. Bateman resigned in August 1878, and the theatre passed into Irving's hands. He was then a few months over forty years old.
During his autumn tour in 1878 the theatre was altered and improved. For his leading lady he engaged Miss Ellen Terry, who began a famous association of twenty-four years when she appeared as Ophelia to his Hamlet on the opening night of his management, 30 Dec. 1878. Joseph Knight summed up in the ‘Athenæum’ (4 Jan. 1879) the aims of the new manager: ‘Scenic accessories are explanatory without being cumbersome, the costumes are picturesque and striking and show no needless affectation of archæological accuracy, and the interpretation has an ensemble rarely found in any performance, and never during recent years in a representation of tragedy.’ Irving's second production was ‘The Lady of Lyons’ (27 April 1879), of which only forty performances were given, and which he never afterwards played. His summer holiday he spent cruising with the Baroness Burdett-Coutts in the Mediterranean, where he gathered some ideas for a production of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ In the season of 1879–80 a short run of ‘The Iron Chest,’ by George Colman the younger, was followed by a hurried (Stoker, chap. 9) but brilliant production of that play, in which Irving showed a new Shylock, the grandest and most sympathetic figure in the play. The season of 1880–1 was opened with ‘The Corsican Brothers’; and on 3 Jan. 1881 came Tennyson's ‘The Cup,’ one of the most beautiful stage productions that Irving achieved. In May began a series of twenty-two performances of ‘Othello,’ in which Irving and the American actor, Edwin Booth (who had just before been playing with ill-success at the Princess's Theatre, and who came to the Lyceum on Irving's invitation), alternated weekly the parts of Othello and Iago. During Irving's autumn tour the theatre was once more altered and improved; and in March 1882 came the production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ to which Irving restored the love of Romeo for Rosaline. This play was even more finely mounted than ‘The Merchant of Venice’; it was Irving's first really elaborate production, and here for the first time he showed his ability in handling a stage crowd, having possibly taken some hints from the visit to London in the previous year of the Meiningen company. Though Romeo was not a part in which Irving excelled, the play ran till the end of the season and opened the season of 1882–3. In Oct. 1882 he produced ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ playing Benedick to the Beatrice of Miss Terry, and the comedy was at the height of its success when it was withdrawn in June 1883.
In Oct. 1883 Irving and his company set sail for the first of his eight tours in America. The tour lasted till March 1884, and included New York and fifteen other towns, the repertory containing eight plays. Everywhere he was received with enthusiasm by press and public. At the end of May 1884 he was back at the Lyceum, where in July he produced ‘Twelfth Night.’ His Malvolio was not generally liked, and the run of the play was brief. In September he sailed for his second American tour (which at the time he intended should be his last), during which he played in the chief towns of Canada, as well as in those of America. His return to the Lyceum in May 1885 was marked by a mild disturbance owing to his attempt to introduce the practice of ‘booking’ seats in the hitherto unreserved pit and gallery, an attempt which he surrendered in deference to the objections raised. After a few revivals he put on, towards the end of the month, a slightly altered version of Wills's ‘Olivia,’ in which Miss Terry had appeared with great success elsewhere. Irving took the part of Dr. Primrose, and the play ran till the end of the season. Once more the theatre was redecorated and altered. On 19 Dec. came one of the greatest financial successes of Irving's management, Wills's ‘Faust.’ In this production Irving for the first time indulged in scenic effects for their own sake, and used them rather as an amplification of the author's ideas than as a setting for the drama. His Mephistopheles was one of his weirdest and most striking impersonations, and the play ran continuously for sixteen months, that is, till April 1887, new scenes of the students' cellar and the witches' kitchen being introduced in the autumn of 1886. In June 1887 Irving gave two special performances: one of Byron's ‘Werner’ (as altered by F. A. Marshall), in which he played Werner, and one of A. C. Calmour's ‘The Amber Heart,’ in which he did not appear. From Nov. 1887 to March 1888 he and his company made their third tour in America, ‘Faust’ being the principal thing in the repertory. In the week before he sailed for home, Irving gave at the Military Academy, West Point, a performance of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ without scenery. ‘Faust,’ ‘The Amber Heart,’ and ‘Robert Macaire,’ in which Irving played the title part, filled the short summer season of 1888 at the Lyceum, and the winter season opened with a revival of ‘Macbeth.’ The production was sumptuous, and Irving was now capable of expressing his idea of Macbeth more fully and with less extravagance than in 1875. In April 1889 a command performance at Sandringham enabled Queen Victoria, who was a guest there, to see Irving and Miss Terry for the first time. The programme consisted of ‘The Bells’ and the trial scene from ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ For his first production in the autumn of 1889 Irving chose Watts Phillips's drama, ‘The Dead Heart,’ as re-modelled by Mr. W. H. Pollock. He played Landry, and induced Sir Squire (then Mr.) Bancroft, who had retired in 1881, to play the Abbé Latour. On 20 Sept. 1890 he opened his winter season with ‘Ravenswood,’ a new version by Herman Merivale of ‘The Bride of Lammermoor.’ The play was too gloomy to be popular. After this there was no new production at the Lyceum till 5 Jan. 1892, when ‘King Henry VIII’ with music by Edward German was mounted with more splendour than Irving had allowed even to ‘Faust.’ The cost of production, which exceeded 11,000l. was too great to be profitable, though the piece remained in the bill for six months. In November ‘King Lear’ was put on; and in Feb. 1893 came the performance of Tennyson's ‘Becket.’ This play had been sent to Irving by Tennyson in 1879 (The Theatre, Oct. 1879, p. 175); and Irving, though he refused it at first (Alfred, Lord Tennyson', ii. 196), had frequently thought it over. Not till 1892 (Stoker, i. 221–2; but see Alfred, Lord Tennyson, loc. cit.) did Irving decide to produce it; he then obtained Tennyson's approval of his large excisions, and persuaded him to write a new speech for Becket for the end of act i. sc. iii. Produced on 6 Feb. 1893, four months after the poet's death, ‘Becket’ proved to be one of Irving's greatest personal and financial triumphs; its first run lasted till 22 July, and it was frequently revived. Soon after its first production it was acted by command before Queen Victoria at Windsor.
Irving's fourth American tour lasted from Sept. 1893 till March 1894, ‘Becket’ being the piece most often played. This was Irving's most successful tour, the total receipts being over 123,000l. In the provincial tour which occupied the autumn of 1894 Irving appeared for the first time as Corporal Gregory Brewster in A. Conan Doyle's ‘A Story of Waterloo,’ or ‘Waterloo,’ as it was afterwards called. On 12 Jan. 1895 he produced at the Lyceum Comyns Carr's ‘King Arthur,’ which was followed in May by a bill consisting of Pinero's ‘Byegones,’ ‘Waterloo,’ and ‘A Chapter from the Life of Don Quixote,’ a condensed version of a play written to Irving's order by Wills in 1878. The fifth American tour occupied the months from Sept. 1895 to May 1896, and included towns in the south which Irving had not before visited, ‘King Arthur’ being the principal piece in the repertory. The following September saw him back at the Lyceum, where he produced ‘Cymbeline,’ himself playing Iachimo. On 19 Dec. 1896 he revived ‘King Richard III.’ On his return to his rooms after the play he fell and injured his knee, and it was not till the end of Feb. 1897 that he was able to return to work and resume the interrupted run of that play. In April 1897 he played Napoleon in Comyns Carr's adaptation of Sardou and Moreau's ‘Madame Sans-Gêne.’ The year 1897 had not been a successful one; the year 1898 was disastrous. ‘Peter the Great,’ a tragedy by Irving's son Laurence, and ‘The Medicine Man,’ by H. D. Traill and Robert Hichens, both failed outright; and in February Irving's immense stock of scenery, comprising the scenes of all his productions except ‘The Bells’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ was destroyed by fire. During his autumn tour he was taken with pleurisy and lay dangerously ill at Glasgow. The result of these heavy losses was the sale of his library by auction in Feb. 1899, and the transference, early in the same year, of his interest in the Lyceum Theatre to a company. Not till April was Irving well enough to reappear on the stage; he then produced Laurence Irving's translation of ‘Robespierre,’ a play written for him by Sardou. After a brief autumn tour he sailed for his sixth tour in America, which lasted from October 1899 to May 1900, the company visiting more than thirty towns, and playing five plays in addition to ‘Robespierre.’ In April 1901 he produced at the Lyceum ‘Coriolanus’—his last new Shakespearean production. In October began his seventh American tour, which lasted till March 1902. It was at the conclusion of this tour that Miss Ellen Terry left Irving's company, though she appeared once or twice at the Lyceum in the next London season, and took part in the autumn provincial tour of 1902. In April 1902 Irving revived ‘Faust’ at the Lyceum and closed the season on 19 July with a performance of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ This was his last performance in that theatre. The company which had taken over the Lyceum Theatre had lost so much money over their ventures during his tours that they were unable to carry out certain structural alterations demanded by the London County Council. The contract was annulled; the Lyceum Theatre remained empty till it was converted into a music-hall, and Irving had to find a house elsewhere.
It was at Drury Lane that he produced on 30 April 1903 ‘Dante,’ written for him by Sardou, and translated by Laurence Irving. The expenses of production and running were enormous, and the play failed to attract either in England or in America, where Irving made his eighth and last tour from Oct. 1903 to March 1904. In April he began a provincial tour which ended in June, and in September another, which he intended to be his last. ‘Becket’ was the play chiefly performed. Broken by a brief holiday at Christmas, the tour went on till Feb. 1905, when ill-health compelled Irving to rest. In April he revived ‘Becket’ at Drury Lane, and played it, with other pieces, with success till June. This was his last London season, and the last performances of it were, as if prophetically, scenes of enthusiasm as wild as any that had attended him in his early popularity. On 2 Oct. he resumed at Sheffield his provincial tour. In the following week he was at Bradford. On the evening of 13 Oct. 1905 he played ‘Becket,’ and on returning to his hotel collapsed and died almost immediately. His age was sixty-seven years and eight months. His body was taken to the London house of the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, where it was visited by crowds of mourners; and after cremation the ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey on 20 Oct. 1905.
Irving occasionally gave recitations and readings. His recitation of Lytton's poem, ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram,’ was his most famous tour-de-force. His earlier readings have been mentioned; of those given later and for public objects the most important were his reading of ‘Hamlet’ in the Birkbeck Institute in Feb. 1887, of scenes from ‘Becket’ in the chapterhouse at Canterbury in May 1897, and at Winchester during the celebration of the tercentenary of Alfred in Sept. 1901. Among the many addresses he delivered were the following: ‘Acting: an Art,’ before the Royal Institution in February 1895; ‘The Theatre in its Relation to the State,’ the Rede Lecture for 1898 to the University of Cambridge; and ‘English Actors,’ delivered before the University of Oxford in June 1886. The last was published in 1886, and, together with three other addresses, was reprinted, under the title of ‘Four Great Actors,’ in ‘The Drama, by Henry Irving’ (1893). ‘The Stage,’ an address delivered before the Perry Bar Institute in March 1878, was published in the same year. To the ‘Nineteenth Century’ he contributed short articles, under the collective heading of ‘An Actor's Notes,’ in April and May 1877, Feb. 1879, and June 1887, a note on ‘Actor Managers’ in June 1890, and ‘Some Misconceptions about the Stage’ in Oct. 1892.
Irving also published acting editions of many of his productions, including ‘Becket,’ and himself prepared with the assistance of Francis Albert Marshall [q.v.] and many other coadjutors the text, with suggestions for excisions in performance, of the ‘Henry Irving Shakespeare,’ to which he contributed an essay on ‘Shakespeare as a Playwright’ (1888).
Irving opened many memorials, among them the Shakespeare fountain presented to Stratford-upon-Avon by G. W. Childs in Oct. 1887, the memorial of Marlowe at Canterbury in Sept. 1891, and the statue of Mrs. Siddons on Paddington Green in June 1897.
His degrees and honours included the LL.D. of Dublin (1892), the Litt.D. of Cambridge (1898), the LL.D. of Glasgow (1899), and the Komthur Cross of the Ernestine Order of the second class, conferred upon him by the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Saxe-Meiningen. In 1883 he was approached on the subject of a knighthood, and declined the honour (The Times, 24 Oct. 1905, p. 12); in 1895 he accepted it, and thus, being the first actor to be knighted for his services to the stage, obtained for his profession the ‘official recognition’ which he had declared to be its due. He was the first actor to speak at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy, and the inclusion of the toast of ‘The Drama’ dates from that occasion.
Irving married on 15 July 1869 Florence, daughter of Daniel James O'Callaghan, surgeon-general in the East India Company, and niece of John Cornelius O'Callaghan [q. v.], author of ‘The Green Book, or Gleanings from the Desk of a Literary Agitator.’ There were two children of the marriage: Henry Brodribb, born on 5 Aug. 1870, and Laurence Sidney Brodribb, born on 21 Dec. 1871. Early in 1872 the husband and wife ceased to live together, and a deed of separation was executed in 1879. During the greater part of his London career Irving lived in rooms at 15a Grafton Street, Bond Street; in 1899 he moved to a flat at 17 Stratton Street, Piccadilly.
In figure Irving was tall and very thin, in constitution wiry and capable of great and prolonged exertion. The beauty and nobility of his face and head increased with years (on his appearance in youth see Ellen Terry, The Story of my Life, pp. 147–8, and The Bancrofts, p. 324); and he had expressive features and beautiful hands. In character he was ambitious, proud, lonely, and self-centred (‘an egotist of the great type’ is Miss Terry's phrase for him), but gentle, courteous, and lavishly generous. His personal magnetism was very strong; he inspired devotion in those who worked with him and adulation in his admirers. His resentment of parody and caricature may probably be ascribed to his jealousy for the dignity of his art as much as to sensitiveness in himself; of direct attack (and perhaps few actors have been so virulently attacked as Irving was in his earlier years at the Lyceum) he took little notice. Though open to suggestion, he relied almost entirely upon his own mind, and had sufficient power of genius and will to force acceptance of his always sincere and original views. As an actor, he had many disabilities, natural and contracted, a voice monotonous and not powerful, a peculiar pronunciation, a stamping gait, and a tendency to drag his leg behind him, angular and excessive gesture, and a slowness of speech which became more marked when powerful emotion choked his utterance. These mannerisms, which were at their height between 1873 and 1880, were less pronounced after his second American tour in 1884; and through most of his career he may be said to have either kept them in check or made good use of them. It has been said that in all his parts he was ‘always Irving’; this is true inasmuch as his physical characteristics and commanding personality could not be disguised, but his assumptions of character were nearly always complete ‘from the mind outwards.’ He has been called an intellectual actor. If the phrase is meant to state that he could not express great passion, it is unjust: unsurpassed in the portrayal of fear, horror, scorn or malignity, he could draw tears as freely as any ‘emotional’ actor. His intellectuality lay in the thought which he brought to bear on any part or play he undertook. The dregs of the old school in tragedy still lingered on the stage when he forced his audiences to think out Shakespeare's characters anew, and helped forward the revolution begun by Fechter, a revolution which aimed, no less than did that of Garrick, at restoring nature and truth. Irving's bent led him towards the bizarre and fantastic, and touches of these appeared in all his work. He kept it, however, in check, and his distinction of appearance and manner, with a power of donning a noble simplicity, enabled the impersonator of Mathias and of Mephistopheles to be admirable also as Charles I, Dr. Primrose, or Becket. Of his Shakespearean characters, his finest was probably his Hamlet in which his thought, his princely air, his fantasy, his tenderness, and his power of suggesting coming doom, all had play. His much debated Macbeth, his Iago, and his Shylock were also very fine; as Othello and Romeo he was less successful. A sardonic humour and a raffish air were the best things in such comic parts as Jingle and Robert Macaire.
For the modern drama of his own country Irving did little or nothing. It did not appeal to him, nor did it suit his large theatre or his love of beautiful production. His excursions into it were few and ill-judged; but he has the honour of having staged Tennyson's ‘The Cup,’ ‘Queen Mary,’ and ‘Becket.’ The other dramatists whom he employed gave him nothing of permanent value.
The sumptuousness and elaboration of his mountings have been exaggerated. In the early days of his management they were very modest. As time went on they grew more complete and splendid; but, if they left little to the imagination, and if his example has led to subsequent extravagance and vulgarity, Irving himself never mangled Shakespeare in order merely to make room for more scenery (though he altered him in order to secure the kind of dramatic effects demanded by the modern stage). Not himself a man of wide culture or trained taste, he took advantage of the contemporary revival in art, and knew where to go to find beauty; and among those who designed scenes or costumes for him were Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, and Seymour Lucas, while his music was supplied by the leading composers of the time. In rehearsing he was even more fixed than Macready (though more courteously so) in his own opinion on the smallest details; and the result was a perfection in the ensemble, a single artistic impression, which in tragedy had not been known before, even in the accurate archæology of the Shakespeare productions of Charles Kean. By these means and by his own acting, he drew back to the theatre the intelligent and distinguished people who had deserted it. He numbered among his personal friends the leading men in the country, was invited to meet royalty at country houses, and entertained magnificently (indeed, almost officially as head of the English stage) in his own theatre. The effect was to fulfil one of his dearest wishes, that the drama might be raised to an acknowledged place of honour among the arts and influences of civilisation. Its maintenance there he believed to be impossible without an endowed national theatre.
The portraits of Irving in oil, statuary, and other media are very many. The principal oil-portraits are (1) full-length as Philip II by Whistler (about 1875), now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York; an etching after this picture was made by the painter; (2, 3, and 4) as Richard Duke of Gloucester (1878), as Hamlet (1880), and as Vanderdecken (1880), all by Edwin Long, and in the collection of Mr. Burdett-Coutts; (5) three-quarter length, seated, in modern dress, by J. Bastien-Lepage (1880), in the National Portrait Gallery; (6) half-length, seated, in modern dress, by the Hon. John Collier (1886); (7) three-quarter length, standing, in modern dress, by Millais (1884), in the Garrick Club (engraved by T. O. Barlow, 1885); a copy of this picture, presented by the Garrick Club to the National Portrait Gallery, is on loan to the Shakespeare Memorial Gallery, Stratford-upon-Avon. Oil-portraits of Irving as Mathias and as Charles I, by James Archer, R.S.A., were exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1872 and 1873 respectively. An oil portrait by J. S. Sargent, R.A., which was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1889, was afterwards destroyed by Irving (The Bancrofts, p. 337). In statuary the following portraits are known: (1) a marble statue by R. Jackson, exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1874; (2) a marble bust, by W. Brodie (1878), in the possession of Mr. Burdett-Coutts; (3) a marble statue of Irving as Hamlet, by E. Onslow Ford, R.A. (1883–5), in the Guildhall Art Gallery; (4) a bronze bust by Courtenay Pollock, R.B.A. (1905), in the Garrick Club; (5) a small figure as Tamerlaine, by E. Onslow Ford, forming part of the Marlowe Memorial at Canterbury; (6) a colossal statue in academic robes, by Thomas Brock, R.A., erected by subscription of actors and actresses in front of the north side of the National Portrait Gallery and unveiled by Sir John Hare on 5 Dec. 1910. Many sketches and studies of Irving were made by Bernard Partridge; among these, one, a pen-and-ink sketch of Irving as Richard III, is in the possession of Mr. Burdett-Coutts, who also owns sketches and drawings of Irving by F. W. Lawson and James Pryde, and miniatures of Irving at twenty-five and at thirty-seven by an artist unknown. Drawings by Fred Barnard are frequent. A pastel of Irving as Dubosc, by Martin Harvey, is in the possession of Mr. Charles Hughes of Kersal, Manchester, and a drawing by Martin Harvey is in the possession of Sir George Alexander. Mr. Gordon Craig owns a pencil head of Irving by Paul Renouard; and drawings by Val Bromley and Gordon Craig, a lithograph by W. Rothenstein, and wood engravings by James Pryde and W. Nicholson are also known. A cartoon by ‘Ape’ appeared in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 1874.
[The authoritative biography of Irving is that by Mr. Austin Brereton, 2 vols. 1908 (with bibliography). In 1906 Mr. Bram Stoker, many years his manager, published 2 vols. of Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. The most vivid portrait of the man and the actor is to be found in Miss Ellen Terry's The Story of my Life, 1908. Mr. Percy Fitzgerald published a life of Irving in 1906, and presented to the Garrick Club a very large collection of press-cuttings and other papers concerning him. See also William Archer, Henry Irving, Actor and Manager: a critical study, 1883; F. A. Marshall (pseud. Irvingite), Henry Irving, Actor and Manager, 1883; John Hollingshead, My Life, 2 vols. 1895; Clement Scott, Some Notable Hamlets of the Present Time, 1905; Bernard Shaw, Dramatic Opinions and Essays, 1907; W. H. Pollock, Impressions of Henry Irving, 1908; The Bancrofts, by Sir Squire and Lady Bancroft, 1909. On his knighthood, see Neue Freie Presse, 20 Oct. 1905, and The Times, 24–27 Oct. 1905.]