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Sir Henry Irving

Page Updated 1 April 2013


This is an excerpt from Max Montesole 's chapter on Henry Irving,

in Little Memories of Big People, which was published in

"The West Australian", Perth.

17 Nov 1934


Sir Henry Irving


Sir Henry had no interests out side the theatre — no 'hobbies — no inversions . .. and was far too intolerant to try and realise that any actor dare think of anything outside the devastatingly narrow world of theatredom. He was born in the theatre (spiritually, if not literally) he lived for and in the theatre, and he died within a few minutes of leaving the theatre. Whether this steel for work is altogether due to the passionate fury of the artist for perfection is always rather a moot point with me — I am rather inclined to think that perhaps vanity sometimes struts the stage hand in trend with endeavour.  After all, the King must hold his court, or what is to become of his kingship ... or the adulation of his courtiers? In any 'case, I committed the unforgivable sin of asking him if I could be excused for one day from being one of the units in the crowd who shrieked execrations at Shylock, in order to go and utter profane imprecations on the heads of the Light Blues at Lord's. Never, so long as I retain my memory, shall I forget the awful loathing which spread like some slow crawling, venomous reptile across his face when I mentioned the word 'cricket'! He looked at me as I have seen some women look at a man who has ignored them. 'Yer want ter be excused from rehearsal fer a cricket match?' he hissed, his contempt stabbing and twisting inside me like a bayonet thrust. It was all he could do to say the word 'cricket,' and when he did manage to spit it out of his mouth, he infested it with all the indescribable horror with which, as Hamlet, he spoke of adultery and incest. 'Very well, me boy,' he continued, 'go . . and stay with yer shuttle cock slayers ... I don't want cricketers as actors— that's Mr. Benson's hobby! Go — and be damh'd to yer fer a self confessed fool!' Well, like a fool I went, and like a fool I took him at his word and stayed though everyone told me afterwards that if I'd gone back on the morrow all would have been forgotten and forgiven. Irving was like that. And what made me feel more of a fool than ever was the fact that there was a miniature cloud-burst over Lord's which coincided with my arrival, and not a ball was bowled until after lunch on the following day!

As an actor, I find it increasingly difficult to see Sir Henry in correct perspective. He was undoubtedly head and shoulders above the other actors of his day, but the fashion of acting in his day was many years away from the fashion of acting today. Fashions in the Arts, of course, change as radically as do fashions in clothes. The fashion of Irving's day was essentially the rather false grand manner, and indeed it had to be, since practically every play produced was a costume play. How many dramatists of note, contemporary with Irving, wrote of their own times? Off hand, I can only think of two! Perhaps this may sound irreverent to the older playgoers, but whereas I can always see him as a colossus amongst actors, I can never quite see him as the colossus amongst artists his biographers would have us believe he was. I see him as a gigantic figure, it is true, but as a gigantic figure dominating the stage of a peculiarly artificial-theatrical era. On the other hand, although I have seen and worked with most of the great actors and actresses of the past twenty-five years, I have never known one of them who possessed one tithe of his tremendous, magnetic personality. A personality which was, however, too frequently marred by his mannerisms of voice, deportment and gesture. Who of those who saw him, for instance, can forget that most irritating stamp of the foot he would reiterate throughout a performance? He told us one day at rehearsal how he had acquired that habit. It originated in the old, old days, when candles were used as footlights, and there was no overhead lighting at all . . . the stage was so dark that he used to stamp in order to attract the attention of the audience to himself , and the trick became a habit of which he could never afterwards rid himself !


Irving the man was the aloof, Grand Seigneur of the theatre. He hardly ever spoke to the members of his company except on matters which concerned them professionally, and if  he did converse, socially, his conversation more often than not consisted of a monosyllabic ejaculation. Nor was he given to encomium and

I don't think he was ever particularly impressed with the performances of any of his fellow-players. The superlative expression of praise with him was 'M . . .capital, me boy, capital.' He was always cynical, and very frequently bitter in his remarks, but I have always thought that this was a pose, because no actor in the world was ever so generous and charitable to the poor and destitute ... particularly to the 'down-and-outs' of his profession. Money, except as something to be got rid of, made no appeal to him at all. As an example of this, he was never known to give a cabby less than ten shillings, even though it might be a shilling fare, and Ellen Terry told me he thought nothing of spending '£100 on the material alone for one of her stage costumes, and that on one occasion he paid over £200 for a piece of brocade for one of her Portia dresses.


Is it, therefore, a matter for wonder that, in the winter of his life he said to Bram Stoker, his business manager (the author of 'Dracula,' and the man whose dignified showmanship was very nearly as responsible for Irving's success as were Sir Henry's own histrionic gifts) — 'All my life I've kept an army of retainers — I've been their General— but I shall die poorer than any of my corporals!' On his death, Laurence and H. B. Irving, his sons and heirs, inherited a few hundred pounds and a great many trunks full of printed plays and manuscripts. But Henry Brodribb (which was his name until he came to years of discretion— who could be a tragedian with such an inspired name for a comedian?) left a far greater legacy than those trunks of plays. He took away the state of vagabond age into which actors had fallen, and left dignity in its place. His fiery ardour for his Art burnt the travelling-booth of the strolling player, and built temples in its place. He made citizens of actors, did this sad and solitary man ... for solitary he always was, despite the crowds who worshipped him. He had few friends—he did not invite friendship— and I don't think he had any real affection during the last thirty years of his life for anyone but Ellen Terry, whom he adored. The alienation from his sons, Harry and Laurence, who until they had grown to manhood and could think for themselves, had been taught to dislike then- famous father, was indubitably largely responsible for his solitariness and cynicism. But I can't see that he should be pitied or excused for this bitterness ... he chose his own road, with Ellen Terry as companion — surely this sweetness should have been sufficient compensation for all the bitterness?,- But some men want everything — they ask too much of life, and, too late, they find that life isn't as lavish of her favours as they have thought.


Ellen Terry once described Irving to me as 'half-devil, half -saint' — but Ellen was still smarting from the wound of separation when she said it ... a wound which was only healed by death. Anyhow, in the final analysis, aren't we all 'half-devil, half -saint'? The- average human being is even more complex than that ... he or she, it always seems to me, is a veritable Christmas pudding of ingredients!


It is nice to think that Irving died in harness, one hour after he had played his last part . . and for those of us who are still at one with the ancient Romans in our belief in portents, it is pleasant to know that the last words he spoke on the stage were —

'Into Thy hands. O Lord . . .

The actor Max Montesole worked for a short time at the Lyceum with Irving, and remained friends with Ellen Terry. Although Montesole gives Irving credit where credit is due, his impressions of the Guv'nor offer a counter to the usual hero-worship perspective and a good look into the long shadows cast by Irving.

Henry Irving, by Mortimer Menpes

Sir Henry Irving by Mortimer Menpes

Lyceum Theatre program, King Lear-Yale Collection
Lyceum Theatre program, Henry the Eighth-Yale Collection

Both images from the Yale Collection

Henry Irving-Vanderdecken-Lyceum Theatre 1878-Stanley Lathbury

Taking over London's Lyceum Theatre in 1878, Bram Stoker's first production was 'Vanderdecken', David Belasco's take on the tale of the Flying Dutchman. "I spent hours with Irving, working with "him to cut and alter the play"

About Irving's Vanderdecken, "In his face is the ghastly pallor of the phantom Captain and in his eyes shines the wild glamour of the lost—in his every tone and action there is the stamp of death. Herein lies the terror — we can call it by no other name—of the play. The chief actor is not quick but dead. Twice only does he sound the keynote to the full. In the third act, when before fighting with Olaf he curses him for 'trifling with my eternal happiness,' and again in the last act when he answers to Thekla's question:

'Where are we ?': "' Between the living and the dead!' " 

-- Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving

( 1906) Bram Stoker