A 'devilish serious' celebrity who took to a secular pulpit

Sir Henry Irving

August 25, 2006

Edward Gordon Craig once described Henry Irving as "a devilish serious fellow" who, having done all his best work as an actor by 1890, gave his time, money and his all to the betterment of the English stage.

This view is shared by Jeffrey Richards in this rich, absorbing book. His thesis is that Irving understood, reflected and then promoted Victorian ideas and fashion in his plays at the Lyceum. He became the first celebrity actor and an arbiter of theatrical taste, and he used his spectacular productions to further his idea that theatre was a living power to be used for good.

Richards's Irving is the smiling public man who delivered lectures, chaired meetings, chatted with amenable critics or entertained the great and the good backstage at the Lyceum. By personal example and choice of play, he helped to bring about a rapprochement between church and stage.

Irving, an Evangelical by upbringing, chose to play a number of guilty characters racked by remorse, such as Mathias in The Bells and the murderer Eugene Aram, who repent before they die. By promoting moral issues in this way, Irving saw the theatre fulfilling its role as a secular pulpit.

Blessed with distinctive looks and physique, Irving was the first actor to understand and use the media. He recognised the excellent publicity value of the controversy aroused by his acting or his productions. By 1900, his face and career were known to people throughout Britain, most of whom had never seen him on stage.

Richards analyses the methods Irving employed to achieve star status, such as his celebratory dinners, his use of the press and the creation of a mystique about the Lyceum. Surprisingly, he omits advertising. Irving gave his endorsement to a wide range of popular products, from cigars to patent medicines.

The book quotes extracts from contemporary reviews to convey the impact Irving made on stage. Sometimes this works well, as in the case of Irving's Shylock, which Richards demonstrates grew coarser and less sympathetic during the 30 years Irving played the part. Elsewhere this method distances the reader, and one longs to be shown Irving directing a rehearsal or to be given an explanation of how he made such a success of a threadbare comic melodrama such as Robert Macaire .

Irving, in spite of a nasal voice and clumsy movements, possessed an extraordinary stage presence. He did not so much become Hamlet, Becket or Dubosc; rather, they all became him. The originality of this book lies in the way in which Richards relates Irving's work to contemporary artistic, historical or political ideas.

When Irving invited W. G. Wills to write a play about Charles I, he suggested using Frederick Goodall's well-known painting of Charles and his family on the royal barge by Hampton Court as a starting point. The resulting play was a huge popular success, even though its simplistic depiction of Cromwell as corrupt schemer and Charles as royal martyr displeased scholarly critics.

Wills's domestic interpretation of monarchy was more in tune with middle-class sensibilities, and the play was frequently revived. Richards suggests that Charles I helped to support the monarchy at a time when there were stirrings of republicanism and contributed to a changing national mood in favour of Queen Victoria.

The book is poorly illustrated. The photographs are conventional and dull; the captions sometimes misleading or inaccurate. This is a pity, because much of the book is well observed. It is an ideal Irving vade mecum, packed with information about the half-forgotten critics, playwrights, composers and artists who formed part of the Lyceum world for 30 years. Some of Richards's biographical speculations may be wide of the mark, but he convincingly places Irving within the 19th-century acting tradition and breaks fresh ground with his view of Irving as moral crusader and Victorian superman.

Michael Meredith is college librarian, Eton College. He is the general editor of Oxford University Press's Poetical Works of Robert Browning .

Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World

Author - Jeffrey Richards
Publisher - Hambledon and London
Pages - 508
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 85285 345 X.

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