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Henry Irving

HENRY IRVING was born in Somerset in 1838, and much of his early childhood was spent in Cornwall. At first his name was John Henry Brodribb and not Henry Irving, since at that time he had not turn into Henry Irving. After becoming Henry Irving he was also known as H. I, Henry and the Governor. It was in 1898, to be precise, that he got the first really important stab in the back, and it was in 1902-1903 that he was finished off. In 1898 the Lyceum Theatre, over which he had ruled, and ruled perfectly (no complaints were ever made, as far as I know) — in 1898 the Lyceum capitulated.

He had held up the Shakespearean tradition there, the great English tradition — in fact the best tradition of the whole world, best not because it is England’s, but because it is and let us hope always will be, the eternal tradition — that of doing work in the best possible way and for the best possible ideals. In that year of disgrace, in 1898, the Lyceum Theatre made a fool of itself; and it was London’s business men who rendered it foolish.

They turned it into the Lyceum Limited Liability Company; and they could so easily have turned it into the National Theatre. So obvious and so easy, one would have thought, considering how many men of power and wealth had for twenty-seven years been Irving’s guests at this same Lyceum. A glance at Brereton Life of Irving shows the numbers of friends he had, and how much support he could — one supposes– have counted on. Roughly speaking, it was the whole of the influential part of Great Britain. But he and his friends were thinking at cross purposes.

He was artist, but he was also manager, and he had so incessantly insisted upon one thing — that theatre work is to be judged by the receipts. Naturally an artist does not want to talk about his art, or ever to go with another along that path, to tread which is to disturb the soul, going with any but his own secret thoughts: and thus it is that very often an artist will start strange phantom hares; and the hare that Irving started — this Mad March Hare, “annual receipts” — had grown to such gigantic proportions by the year 1898, that everyone followed after it.

And so (presumably) they thought that he preferred that the Lyceum should be turned into a Limited Liability Company, since he could not very rapidly find men prepared, on their own initiative, and in spite of this nighthare, to establish the place as the National Theatre, and invite Irving to resume his former position as head and front of the whole affair. (Brereton, Austin. Pg 4-10)

It really is a little more than astonishing that the people allowed him to fool around with a Limited Liability Company, because anybody in his senses must have known that it was destined to fail. Limited Liability Companies are all right for shops; but for an affair like Irving and the Lyceum Theatre, they simply will not work — and this one did not work. No artist of his magnitude could brook interference in any way.

He was of the same type as Napoleon in sensitiveness — I claim no other resemblance for him — and you will remember that the moment anybody questioned Napoleon he fell to pieces, stuttered and spluttered and lost his head, especially the day on which he appeared before the ridiculous Liability Company of France. Having soldiers, Bonaparte made a sign, and the Five Hundred were put out of action: but an artist has no soldiers — he may not assault those who oppose him — and I have never known why, if one man may do it, another man may not.

If force as the final argument is permissible in politics, why the deuce is it not permissible in theatres? I should very much like to bombard a couple of theatres in London and raze them to the ground, because I should be doing the nation a great service; but if I did so, I should be arrested — whereas if any statesman should wish to use force to carry out some doubtful political reform, and if his men could shoot straight, he would be hailed as the savior of the country. It is a little odd, is it not?

And it is queer that artists, who are pretty well all the time something like the saviors of their epoch, or the epoch after them, may not do more. Since Irving was doing no harm, was trying to pour out good all the time, and doubtless exerting a spiritual influence over the nation which was of considerable value — it is strange that when he wished to continue to do this, he should have been impeded: heckled by a pack of shareholders, who call out from the back of a room: “What about the three pence spent on the program? How about that six bob tip to the porter? ” (Gordon, Craig Edward, pg 15-18)

It is when such petty things can happen in Europe in connection with great endeavor that all the accumulated experience of our forefathers seems wasted, this being permitted. And not only permitted, but encouraged: for artists are even solemnly urged to enter into an alliance with such fatuous shareholders, and told that three penny notions are worth more than one golden one. Golden notions all along the line are said to belong to the past, to be fantastic: and no nation can possibly find a guinea -three-pence, oh yes. This might happen anywhere, in any epoch — but it happens over and over again in ours.

The gentlemen in England when Irving should have been placed at the head of a National Theatre — that was in 1898 — evidently had not even sufficient pride to wish to see any National Theatre. This must be the truth. But suppose it not true — allow that there is and always will be enough pride in England — allowing this, then it merely means that they were listening to Mr. William Archer, Mr. Shaw, Brutus, Cassius, and all of ’em, who were running Irving down day by day, behind his back. So the National Theatre never came into existence, and Irving went out of existence because of that.

At the death of Irving, everybody at once overestimated his importance and underestimated his value, and this is still underestimated. Those who did the first strove to keep alive a so-called “Irving tradition,” which in actuality had not had time to become a tradition. They propped up their theatres by doing as he had been doing, and used the same props. There were a few of them, who did this excellently well, and these found that it was profitable to do that — and profit is a mighty potent argument. Was not this same profit the very essence of the supposed Irving teaching?

Though here it is as well to realize that what these imitators took from Irving was, after all, only what he had taken from Charles Kean. The lavish style of staging — the historical accuracy — the handling of crowds — in short, the flashy part of Kean’s “scholarly” stage-management. What they did not and could not take from Irving, were the one thing that made this kind of production alive — his coming into it. (Stoker, Bram, pg 8-10) Since, then, there existed no Irving round whom this kind of production could be built, it really was but a small, catch-penny thing to do, to follow the method.

From a business point of view it was not the wrong thing to do, and sure enough, before long people began to speak of these able followers of Irving (followers in the sense of those who follow the pattern, since they are not keen to follow the spirit) in terms of the very highest respect. They are nearly all dead and gone, and so, after all, one can but congratulate them on the good luck they met with, but which at the time one hoped would be denied to them. Such was the power of Irving and the Kean Irving method of theatre running; it even carried the followers along to success after both men were dead.

Yes, they were exceedingly successful; succeeding while the Theatre itself suffered, and I am afraid there is no denying this. A new public was coming along which had rarely gone to see Irving, and it was now told that it could see the same sort of thing at five or six theatres — you know the catchword: “Jones’s Grates are just as good” (Brereton, Austin, pg 25) — and so the new public was deceived, and the usual thing happened: the old die-hard Irvingites retired to their homes, and avoided the theatres — the followers of Irving were disbanded — some took new masters, and others began to strike out for themselves.

New masters or no all remained loyal to their old leader — let no mistake be made on this point. But the affection for Irving and the admiration for his achievement, and the grief at his death were all so sincere, that some of the public, critics, and actors, were led to commit the error of believing that no good could possibly come along now that Irving was no more. This was hero-worship turned foolish, but it was affection and admiration which led them to it.

Even these extremists do not merely grieve that our beloved Chief is not here with us: were it that only, one could indeed sympathize: but they express a stolid despair, a pessimistic conviction that it is quite impossible for anything good to happen to the British stage, since Irving is not here to make it happen -which is, to put it quite plainly, rubbish. As a matter of fact, even as Irving was passing, a new movement was on foot.

The detractors of this movement, headed by Bernard Shaw again, began misrepresenting us at once. Mr. Shaw has always been a sincere enemy to the Theatre, and one who innocently bears false witness against most artists, so it is only fair to state here that we thoroughly misled him, and he fell into the trap. (The Columbia Encyclopedia)


• Brereton, Austin. The Life of Henry Irving. Volume: 1. Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 1988.• Gordon, Craig Edward. Henry Irving. Publisher: Longmans, Green and Co. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1990. • Stoker, Bram, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. Volume: 1. Macmillan. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1996. • Irving, Sir Henry. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2007. • Brereton, Austin. Henry Irving a Biographical Sketch Publisher: Scribner & Welford. Date Published: 1994.

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