Sir Henry Irving

Definition

Theater

  • (John Henry Brodribb; 1838 - 1905) British actor who managedthe Lyceum Theatre for 30 years and whose magnetic personality andmesmeric style of acting made him the greatest classical actor ofthe later 19th century. Irving excelled in sinister and tormented roles:Max Beerbohm wrote of his "sardonic, grotesque, fantastic characters"and "incomparable power for eeriness, for stirring a dim sense ofmystery". He was knighted in 1895, the first actor to be so honoured.

    The young Irving's desire to act was so strong that he curedhis stammer with elocution lessons and swam in the Thames each morningto build up his lung-power. He made his professional debut in 1856at the Lyceum Theatre, Sunderland, and spent the next seven yearstouring before making a successful London debut with the comedy TheBelle's Stratagem in 1866. After astonishing London as Mathiasin The Bells (1871) he entered theatrical history in 1874by creating a Hamlet of unprecedented tenderness; the play ran fora record 200 performances.

    Four years later he acquired the lease of the Lyceum and engagedEllen Terry (see Terry family) as his leading ladyfor such productions as The Merchant of Venice (1879) and Romeoand Juliet (1882). Of the latter, one of his most notable failures, Ellenlater wrote "As Romeo Irving reminded me of a pig who has been taughtto play the fiddle. He did it cleverly, but would be better employed insquealing". In 1883 Irving took the Lyceum Company to Americaand during the next 18 years toured America six more times. Despitemultiple successes at the Lyceum, Irving tended to overspend on scenery,costumes, and special effects and in 1899 he had to give up sole ownership ofthe theater. In 1902 Ellen Terry rejoined him for the Lyceum's final production,The Merchant of Venice, after which it became a music hall.

    In 1905 Irving collapsed and died in the foyer of a Bradford hotel aftergiving a performance of Tennyson's Becket. When his ashes were buriedin Westminster Abbey, the ceremony was boycotted by George Bernard Shaw,who had never been able to persuade Irving to stage his plays. "Irvingwould turn in his coffin if I came," said Shaw, "just as Shakespearewill turn in his coffin when Irving comes."

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