SIR HENRY IRVING IS DEAD, Sudden Collapse At The Midland Hotel, Bradford

Bradford, Daily Telegraph, October 14, 1905



Sir Henry Irving, was the greatest actor of the Victorian age and thought of by Gladstone as his greatest contemporary.  He transformed the theatre in Britain and America from a disreputable and marginal “entertainment’ into a respected, civilising and uplifting art form.

Irving’s enthusiastic supporters, eager to see his every appearance ranged from Queen Victoria to working men and housewives.   At the Lyceum Theatre from 1878 to 1902 he set new standards in acting (often partnered by the great actress Ellen Terry) and in production.  In 1895 he became the first actor to ever be knighted.

His tours of America brought a revolution in acting practice to the New World.

Bradford, Daily Telegraph, October 14, 1905





“Into Thy Hands, O Lord.”


Sir Henry Irving is dead. How much poorer is the stage for his loss! How much poorer also is our humanity!

For He was a man take him all in all

We ne’er shall look upon his like again.

Bradford, through its Mayor and prominent citizens, honoured Irving only last Wednesday. He was entertained to luncheon at the Town Hall and presented with a glowing address, in which the virtues of the man and the actor were extolled. To the public he was known as the actor – to the poor, struggling player, he was better known as the man – the man of unfailing and lame-hearted generosity, the man who never could and never did close his ears to the cry of distress.

There is a certain pathos and yet fitness in the hour of his death. He died literally in harness. Barely had he uttered Becket’s triumphant martyr’s cry then he himself passed on to receive his reward.

Sir Henry’s death took place at the Midland Hotel, Bradford last night, at half past eleven. During the evening the great actor appeared in the character of Chancellor and Archbishop in Tennyson’s Becket. On returning to his hotel from the theatre Sir Henry had an attack of heart failure, and expired there. His last words on the stage in the character of Becket were:-

“Into Thy hands, O Lord!

Into Thy Hands.”

Sir Henry was never heard to make any complaint during the evening’s performance. The only thing unusual noticed by some of the members of his company was that he seemed to strike a higher note in his voice, which was not altogether natural with him. Otherwise England’s greatest actor appeared stronger and more certain in his work.

After the performance he drove from the Theatre Royal to the hotel in a cab. He arrived there at 11.15 and was assisted into the hall by his valet, and rested himself on a couch.


Soon after he entered the hotel it was observed that Sir Henry was suffering and the manager of the hotel and the staff took steps to obtain medical assistance. Dr. Carroll of Barkerend Road, drove down to the hotel where he was immediately joined by Dr. Althorn. They found the patient in a state of collapse and quite unconscious. The usual remedies for syncope were applied and under the stimulus of artificial respiration Sir Henry appeared to revive somewhat, but soon after the patient sank rapidly. Death was due to heart failure, doubtless caused by the strain of a week of hard work acting upon an enfeebled constitution.

Immediately after death Dr. Rabagliati and Dr Campbell who had also received urgent messages arrived at the hotel, but were then too late to render any help. Sir Henry died in the beautiful marble hall so well known to many visitors to the Midland Hotel. The body now lies in an upper room of the hotel. The announcement of his death caused a great shock to those assembled in the hotel, and was received with the greatest pain by the gentlemen of Sir Henry’s entourage and by Mr Hart and others who had been associated with Sir Henry during the week’s performances.



In the light of subsequent events there was a little incident occurred as Irving was leaving the theatre last night, which was of much significance. It was just about 11.30, and as he left the theatre P.C. McClintoch opened the door of his carriage, which was waiting for him. Irving stepped inside and as the officer was in the act of shutting the door, the actor turned to his valet and said “Aren’t you coming in (meaning the carriage) tonight?” It was not customary for Irving’s valet to ride with him, and it may be juts possible that Sir Henry was already feeling the effects of the attack to which he shortly afterwards succumbed. But he did not really complain of feeling unwell, and that fact may be explained by the general opinion of his staff, as voiced this morning, that he was one of the pluckiest men who ever lived.

That Sir Henry was under the spell of the incoming attack during last nights performance of “Becket” would seem certain. Owing to his loss of energy and vitality in recent years the custom has been for certain of his hands to assist him on all occasions in order that his exertions might be minimised as much as possible. For instance in the cathedral scene, where he falls, the custom has been the moment the curtain has gone down for an assistant to help him rise.

Last night, when his assistant went to his aid, the moment he touched his old master he was struck with the cold, clammy condition of his flesh. Still he got up as if there was nothing unusual. He certainly made no complaint.

A strange circumstance in connection with the same incident was the fact that Irving had fallen on the three steps of the transept. “ It struck me as being strange,” remarked his assistant, “ for he has always fallen on the stage before; in fact all the years I have been with “the Governor” I had never known him do that, and I thought it very peculiar at the time. Still he made no indication that he was ailing”.




The City Coroner (Mr. J.G. Hutchinson) attended at the Midland Hotel with a medical gentleman who was present at the great actor’s death. A private examination of the body was made, and the doctor had no hesitation in giving his emphatic opinion as to the cause of death. A certificate was subsequently given to the effect that the cause of death was “Syncope, due to overwork.” The Coroner being fully satisfied he announced to a “Telegraph” man that an inquest was unnecessary.


Sir Henry Irving had not spared himself in setting out the work for the week, every one of the characters which he put before himself to essay being parts of which made heavy demands upon his physical powers. That he had this confidence in himself is the more remarkable since it was subject of notice at Sheffield last week that after some of his performances he was more than usually exhausted. It was probably, however, in consideration of his weakness that the Saturday matinee, usual in the case of the visit of actors of the first rank, was foregone. On Thursday night last, when he played “The Bells” at the Theatre Royal, it was noticeable that at several points of that terribly exciting play he chose to remain seated when his usual method had been not merely to be standing but to put much physical energy into the work. Last night he went through the performance of “Becket” without incident, though to some few of those in the theatre it was noticeable that he was at times very short of breath, and as the performance drew to a close those before and more especially those behind the scenes were a good deal concerned to see how physically worn out he seemed.


Each appearance of this distinguished actor in Bradford this week, has it goes without saying, always been invested with the greatest possible interest, and on this occasion there was quite a touch of pathos in his presence in the city from the fact that we were looking for the last on his “Shylock” and other famous dramatic characters, with which Irving’s good name must ever be associated. It has been my good fortune during the week (writes our theatrical correspondent) not only to see Sir Henry on the stage, but also to come in close contact with him in other ways.  One thing I was particularly struck with was that he evidently feels the full weight of his sixty seven years. On Wednesday, for instance, when he visited the Town Hall to partake of the Mayor’s hospitality, it was clear that the exertion entailed in ascending the steps at the front entrance was far too much for him. Not only had he to rest some time when half way up, but on reaching the Mayor’s parlour he was completely exhausted, and it was several minutes before he recovered his breath. To me it is remarkable how a man who today has such limited physical powers, can sustain himself as he does in one of his exacting and exhausting pieces, similar to those he has appeared in this week. I venture to think it is his devotedness to his art which explains his energy and vitality on the stage.



A deeply touching and pathetic incident occurred at the Midland Hotel this morning on the arrival of Mr. H. B. Irving, the late actor’s elder son. After receiving the sad intelligence Mr Irving prepared to make the journey to Bradford at once, and he arrived here at half past nine, being met at the station by the late Sir Henry’s private secretary, Mr. Stoker. He was at once introduced to the manager, who escorted him to the room where the body of his father lay. He was almost prostrate with grief. After leaving the room he was comforted with the assurances of his friends that Sir Henry has passed peacefully away.

When seen by a ‘Telegraph‘ representative, a few minutes later Mr Irving remarked with kindness, “You must excuse me at present; I cannot say anything yet.”


One of the members of Sir Henry’s company, in the course of a brief conversation with our reporter at the Midland Station, said “None of us are yet able to realise what has happened scarcely.” He further remarked that in the year 1899 Sir Henry had a severe attack of pneumonia, and last year a reaction set in which rendered him very weak indeed. He had been failing for some time, and at times he had complained to his secretary of feeling exhausted during his performances. Only on Thursday night, when he arrived at the hotel, he had to rest in the hall before he could go upstairs.


Letters of condolence with the bereaved are pouring into the Midland Hotel from all parts of the country.

The Prince’s Theatre will remain open as usual tonight, but the footlights will be draped with crape as a tribute to the memory of Sir Henry Irving.


The remains will be taken by tram to London, but nothing can be said as to the day they will be removed until the relatives are consulted.


Mr. Bram Stoker, the private secretary to Sir Henry Irving, was seen by a reporter this morning, to whom he stated that Mr Lawrence Irving, another son of Sir Henry was on his way to Bradford from London. The company would break up today. They had intended to go to Birmingham next week, and their tour would have continued up to the end of the year.



Members of the company called at the Midland Hotel this morning. Distress was written deeply on every countenance, and more than one, players and staff alike – completely broke down the moment one began to talk of last night’s tragedy.

Asked by a representative of the ‘Telegraph‘ how the staff took the sad event, one of their number turned his face to the wall and wept like a child. Between his sobs the poor fellow observed, “ He was the best fellow on earth; in fact, he was not a guv’nor, but a father to us all.”

Then he went on tell how anxious Sir Henry had always been when any one of them were taken ill. There was no sparing of money or securing of medical advice. Sir Henry always saw to that personally and constantly inquired after the person, whoever it was.


It is just possible that Sir Henry has not been himself for some days, but has kept the fact to himself. Members of the staff are inclined to this view, although as one of them told a ‘Telegraph‘ reporter this morning that when they were at Sheffield last week, Irving acted with such apparent strength and vitality that they had all really thought – and were so delighted – that he was indeed his old self again. Even on Monday night last, when in his great role of “Shylock”, that opinion gained still further support by the display he gave. Every member of the company was delighted to see the veteran tragedian once more in great stage form. But alas their hopes have been short lived.

“It has been pluck” said one of the staff, “that has kept him going. He was the gamest man I ever knew.”

“And,” added another, “ I am sure he would not complain.”


In Sir Henry’s speech at the Town Hall Luncheon, on Wednesday last, there was this significant phrase:-

“I may say this, and I say it as one the sands of whose working life are running fast.”


A little incident in connection with the complimentary luncheon I would commend to the serious consideration of all who go in for public speaking, particularly our City Councillors. Quite twenty four hours before the great actor was due at the luncheon his speech had been carefully prepared and printed. Whilst Sir Henry was delivering his speech I was following it from a printed copy, and with one trifling exception he did not deviate one syllable from the original text, although he himself, of course, appeared to be speaking extempore. It was a short speech, and the elaborate mode of preparation gave an insight into one of Irving’s strongest characteristics, and that is the thoroughness and care which he bestowed on every effort, no matter how trifling. Accustomed as I am to hearing the rambling ruminations of some of our City Councillors, I could not help wishing that they had been present for such a splendid object lesson. Sir Henry spoke at not a word over 60 words a minute, and yet no finer effect could have been imagined. There was one side of Irving’s nature of which the public are little aware, and that was his kindness of heart. During his short stay in Bradford I have heard of several instances which go to prove the largeness of his heart.


Another little incident which occurred at the Town Hall is worthy of mention. Two workmen were standing near the City Treasurer’s Office evidently waiting for their wages and as the great actor and Ald. Priestley got up to them, one of them exclaimed : “Good Morning, Mr Mayor; we know you.” His Worship had barely acknowledged the men’s salutation than the other remarked, “ And we know you too, Sir Henry; we’ve been to see you.”  “Glad to see you my men, replied the great tragedian, “good luck to you,” with which remark he shook hands with both of them in the heartiest manner possible. Such was the delight of the navvies at this unexpected bit of honour, that for some minutes after they could scarcely contain themselves.


For the last two Sunday evenings the lecturer at the Bradford Ethical Society, Mr R. Roberts, had been discoursing upon the equality and value of the great actor’s art, and the interest in the subject was manifest in the large audiences that were drawn together. Our advertisement columns show that Mr Roberts had decided to give some expression to Bradford’s grief at the meeting of the Society to-morrow night. He will conduct a kind of  “In Memoriam” service, to which, we understand, a cordial invitation is given to all.



Those who saw Irving in that last culminating scene in ‘Becket’ last night will never forget it.  Little did the crowded audience at the Theatre Royal imagine at the time that when Irving as Becket bade good-bye to earth it was a real tragedy that they were witnessing. It was fitting, perhaps that the closing scenes of his life should take place upon the stage with which his rise to fame was associated, and that he should die like the warrior in harness. Truly the reception accorded by the tremendous audience last night, typical as it was of each of his farewell performances in Bradford, was a triumph that must have touched the heart of the great actor.

Some of those who saw Irving in his prime noticed a difference last night from the Irving of ten or fifteen years ago. ‘Becket’ is considered by many to be one of his best characters, second only to his splendid interpretation of ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Mathias’ in ‘The Bells. As of old he was the dominating figure upon the stage, his gestures throughout were inimitable, and he was the subtle Archbishop to perfection. But his voice was not so strong as upon previous nights or as upon the Wednesday when entertained by the Mayor. He reached, however, a much higher note, and more than once he appeared to rest for support.

In the scene at Northampton  Castle, where Becket refuses to subscribe to certain laws which Henry tries to impose upon the Church, there was the suggestion of the master mind, but the critical might have thought that there was not the same power as when Tennyson’s great work was given on Tuesday. In the scene in the third act, where Becket arrives at Rosamund’s bower in time to save her from the dagger of the pitiless Queen Eleanor, he showed some of his old vigour, as he denounced the Queen as a murderess.

The closing scenes in Canterbury Monastery and the Cathedral were simply awe inspiring, in view of what has followed. The thin face of the ascetic Archbishop seemed that of a dying man. It was so marvellous, so life- like and withal so intense, that the audience held their breath in tense silence. Nearly three thousand people strained their eyes to follow every movement of the fanatical Archbishop, to whom the prospect of a Martyr’s death was most acceptable. As he recalled the incidents of his early days and rambled upon scenes which occurred long years before, it seemed as though one was listening to a dying man. The murder of Becket in the north transept of Canterbury Cathedral, is at all times a moving scene, but last night there was an intensity about it which words can hardly describe.

Other members of the company had said that to the closing words he uttered in the play Sir Henry gave an extraordinary emphasis. As he prophesied his death as “Becket” the man was swallowed up in the actor. Then came the last great moment in which “Becket” awaits the hirelings who have consented to rid the King of  “this pestilent priest.” With his cross raised, he faced them with a far away look that must have been engendered by something more than genius of the great actor. A rush forward and “Becket” sinks to rise no more, uttering the words:-

“Into Thy hands, Oh Lord,

Into Thy Hands.”

The noiseless fall of the curtain shuts out the sad scene, and there is a sigh as though one has witnessed a great tragedy.

As the close last night the audience were most unwilling to part with the great actor and four times did the curtain rise, to discover Irving standing by one of the Cathedral pillars, motionless and exhausted. The audience determined that, if possible they would have a few words more from his lips, and after long sustained applause, the curtain rose upon an empty stage. Stepping out from a door on the side, Sir Henry waited until the rapturous welcome had subsided. In a voice that betrayed some signs of emotion he thanked them for the great reception of the noble and beautiful work of the great poet Tennyson, and expressed the deep sense of gratitude felt by his company and himself at the splendid reception accorded them. Once more the curtain fell, and Irving had bid farewell to the stage forever.



Henry Brodribb was born on February 6th 1838, near Glastonbury. Originally intended for a mercantile career, he soon left it for the stage, making his first appearance under the name of Henry Irving at Sunderland on September 29th 1856. Then for ten years he went through the mill in the provinces – in those days a very rough mill. Certain marked peculiarities of speech and bearing – what are known as mannerisms – were to his serious disadvantage, but happily he did his training in the great cities of the North and Midlands, when the audience always contained a percentage of good judges, and his talents were gradually recognised.

In October 1866 he appeared in London at the St. James’s Theatre, and very shortly after arrival astonished the most experienced critics with his Rawdon Scudamore in ‘Hunted Down’. The shameless, dissipated, slinking, out at elbows rascal of sardonic humour and sordid tragedy was a revelation. The moribund stock company system did not favour patient elaboration of character or careful attention to minutest detail of appearance and dress, and the theatre was not yet accustomed to the methods made possible by a new state of things, though two famous studies had already been made familiar by John Hare in ‘Society’ and ‘Ours’. At the end of 1867 he went to the Queens, in Longacre, and there scored another hit as Bob Gassitt in “Dearer than Life”.

After that he fell on gloomy days and idleness and how


is to the enthusiastic young actor we can realise.

The mannerisms doubtless had much to answer for. Recognised as extraordinarily clever in strongly marked characters, he was not accepted so readily in the ordinary type of the stage – in a word he was not for all markets. But his devoted friend, J. L Toole, came to the rescue – Toole then in the heyday of popularity and influence – and in December of that same year Mr Chevenix, in “Uncle Dick’s Darling” confirmed the growing reputation.

Then came a still greater triumph. Albery’s “Two Roses” at the Vaudeville contained a part which lent itself in a curious degree to the personality of the actor, and “Mr Digby Grant” was acknowledged by all to be a masterpiece of character comedy. It seems strange looking back, that one with such a record should have been brought back again in the role of young lover, but the run of “The Two Roses” was no sooner over than Colonel Bateman (who had taken the Lyceum for the purposes of bringing out his daughter) engaged Irving in that capacity.

The chosen piece failed, and continued to fail even when supplemented with “Pickwick” in which Irving was


The management was in despair; it looked like shutting the doors. Then came such an opportunity as comes to few men. There had been produced in Paris “Le Juif Polonais” a drama by M.M. Erckmann- Chatrian, and of this Leopold Lewis, solicitor and dramatist, had made an adaptation for Irving on the off chance that it might some day come in useful. Here was the off chance. Bateman clutched at the play as men clutch at a last straw, with no great trust in its power to save. Rehearsals were easy – it was a one part play. Scenery though effective, was simple – a few days and all was ready.


On November 25th 1871, the curtain drew up on “The Bells”. Thus was the adaptation named. The audience was neither large nor disposed to enthusiasm, for a first night in those days had little of the importance it now possesses, but the genius of the actor was independent of circumstances. Modifying the conception of the authors, he created a character of marvellous fascination. All London flocked to see him. Bateman took in the situation with customary shrewdness, pushed his good fortune and success followed hard on the heels of success – “Charles I,”, “Eugene Aram”, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth” (which raised a storm of critical discussion), “Richard III”,

etc., etc. The stage had once again a great actor.


In 1878 Colonel Bateman died, and in December of that year Irving became his own lord. He at once called in Miss Ellen Terry, who had lately established herself as an actress of rare gifts.

The long series of triumphs with which the management is associated lives in the memories of every lover of the drama. From “The Merchant of Venice” to “Olivia,” from “Becket” to “The Lyons Mail” every production was a marvel of care and completeness. The critics might sometimes disappear, but to doubt the earnest intention of the great actor manager was impossible. The sparkling comedy of “Much Ado about Nothing” (in which Miss Ellen Terry reached her highest level) was matched by the grim terrors of “Louis XI”, in which the actor reached his. As regards scenery perhaps nothing had more of imagination and beauty than “The Cup”.


In 1883 came the first visit to the States – rather a nervous undertaking for the American public swore by Edwin Booth. But, fortunately, Irving had engaged that great actor to play with him at the Lyceum in 1881, and the courtesy had disarmed opposition. It is said that some of the carpenters and other operatives behind the scenes grumbled at the Britisher’s fads – if a thing was good enough for Booth why wasn’t it good enough for him? But the magnetic personality soon made itself felt, and all went smoothly. The tour was a triumphal progress, but not a greater triumph than its successors.

Samuel Phelps for eighteen years and Chas. Kean for nine exhausted their energies in producing Shakespeare and the great drama. They then gave up management and went a-starring. After twenty years of management Henry Irving followed their example to the deep regret of all. From that time he travelled in the provinces and America, coming back to London for a few weeks each season. In the course of these brief re-appearances he gave “Coriolanus” (not a happy selection), two mediocre pieces “Robespierre” and “Dante” by Sardou (vehicles for spectacular display rather than serious drama) and some revivals of favourites.


As an actor Sir Henry Irving owned great and varied powers. As a manager he had brilliant ideas and untiring patience in carrying them into execution. As a man he was everywhere held in honour. Cambridge, Glasgow and Dublin conferred upon him their honorary degrees. The Sovereign knighted him. His charm of manner and unfailing courtesy and ever ready liberality endeared him to all.


As an orator Irving was also accepted by both nations as rivalling their best after dinner speakers. It has been said by more than one publicist and by more than one politician that if he had taken up any other career than that of the stage he could not have failed greatly to distinguish himself. Tactful, a man if imagination with a natural taste for the artistic and the beautiful, courageous in defence of the theatre, and patient under attack, he displayed qualities that might have made an influential Churchman.


Whether Sir Henry Irving was or was not a great actor was a question hotly discussed in his lifetime, and one which his lamented death will doubtless revive. There is only one possible answer. A great actor he was, but his greatness sprang from a different source than that of any other actor that can be mentioned. The success of his famous predecessors lay in their power to affect the emotions of their audience through the strength of their own emotions. They watched for opportunities of emotion, and tore the heart strings of their bearers, without much regard for the cohesion or the general humanity of the characters they represented. Sir Henry Irving was not an emotional actor, as one who touched the emotions. His greatness lay in his brain, not in his feelings: his appeal was to the brain, and not to the feelings.


By the unsparing use of his intellect he succeeded in recalling to the theatre the intelligent public which had deserted it for ten years, in making play going fashionable among all classes, and in accustoming the thousands of new and old playgoers, whom he attracted, to look to the theatre for more than empty amusement. To scholars he appealed by his reverent and often acute treatment of the text of Shakespeare, to people of taste, by the beauty of his productions, to people of fashion by having become  the fashion, and to all classes by the force of his personality. His career was a career of almost unbroken triumph, not only for himself, but for the English stage.



Draw down the Curtain, for the Act is o’er –

The last great tragic Act that comes to all;

And it is meet, though Nations wide deplore

That thus he answered to the prompters call!

The Play is finished – a more perfect Play

Was never staged on this terrestrial sphere;

The scene, unparalleled in realms of day

In its completeness was without compeer!

Great is the drama of all human Life –

Sorrow and laughter, sin and shame and tears;

Trials and troubles, suffering and strife,

Hope, doubt and longing, certainty and feere,

We felt all these, when by his potent mien

He showed them to us as they should be seen

14 Oct 1905                        CHAS F. FORSHAW



Henry Irving was a clerk in a merchant’s office when a youth. He became stage struck and attended a school of arms. In the summer he walked some miles every day to swim in the Thames or Lea, took lessons in dancing, lived frugally to save the necessary money for these preparations for the stage, and in 1855 gave up his situation and obtained an engagement with Mr E.D. Davis, manager of the Lyceum Theatre, Sunderland.


From this time until the year 1866 he fulfilled various engagements in the provinces, mostly in Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. His originality was for a time “caviare to the general”. To the thoughtful critic and the playgoer he was always interesting and often deeply impressive. Those were not the days of big salaries. Irving often played for little more than super’s wages. “When I was in Edinburgh” he once said to the writer, “the Wyndhams complained that I got into debt – and my salary was 25s a week.”


Possessed of striking natural gifts, Irving had yet to struggle with certain physical defects, often aggravated by strong mannerisms. When he failed it was for lack of physical power. Irving’s voice was sometimes unequal to outbursts of passion, and in such moments the words were lost in a torrent of sound. But on the other hand, the direct passions  of the human soul, as well as the most delicate shades of situation, are frequently indicated by a subtle expression – a tone, a look which is proof of a far higher capacity than that of an actor who obtains his effects by sheer physical power. In the subtlety of a fine suggestion and imagination to enter into the atmosphere, so to speak which an actor of genius diffuses around him. Irving exercised an indescribable fascination.


The money test – poor in every department of human affairs, and less than insignificant in any artistic estimate – will have no insistence in this notice, but it is a fact of interest, vouched for by Mr. Bram Stoker, through whose hands every penny of the money passed  from the time that Irving began management on his own account in 1878 to 1904, the public of England and America paid no less than two and one eighth million pounds sterling to see him play.


In April last Sir Henry reappeared at Drury Lane after an illness which followed a dramatic breakdown suggesting the even more dramatic circumstances of his death. The great theatre was filled with a vast and enthusiastic audience, who had primarily assembled to do honour to the actor. It was a great demonstration of affectionate regard for a man who in his lifetime had become, as it were, an historical personage, who had ennobled his calling, and whose public calling furnished one of the most fascinating, romantic and stimulating elements in our modern English life.

The part he played that night was the same part he played an hour before his sudden death at Bradford last night. It was the part of the great Churchman Becket. Externally the character, as Tennyson drew it, is imposing, dignified, ascetic, quelling resistance by sheer majesty of bearing. This was just the part to suit the personality of Sir Henry Irving, who always dominated the scene, always towered intellectually and spiritually above the crowd and did all that he had to do “in the grand style”


There was another quality of Irving which went far to account for his career and his wonderful position; and that was his tremendous force of will. He was the kindest, most considerate, the most lavishly charitable of men; but all the same, those round him all a stood a little in awe of him, inside his theatre his word was law, the more easily so that he always knew exactly what he wanted, what he thought, what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it.  Behind everything, there was the great personality – strong; when needs be, hard perhaps even a little scornful and lonely.


As “Richelieu” for the first time Irving definitely pitted himself again Macready, and the school which still looked upon Macready as the last word in great acting. The new methods challenged the old and the new were championed, not only by the young and ardent Clement Scott, who was then the mouthpiece of the dramatic revival, but by sound and sober critics like John Oxenford, who described Mr Irving’s Richlieu as “tragic acting in the grandest style”. On October 31st 1874, Irving made a bid for the highest honours by appearing as Hamlet. In spite of the good work he had done, one is tempted to say and perhaps without much exaggeration, that that evening was as important in the history of the drama as the first night of “Hernani”. Had Mr Irving failed, the revival of the stage as a serious factor in the intellectual and social life of the nation might have been put back, though bound to come in time, for many years. There were still people of intelligence – so low had all serious interest in the drama fallen – who were found to ask. “And who is Henry Irving?” For ten years at least people had been content to let Hamlet sleep under the shadow of great names, Charles Kean Macready, or Fechter. The moment was critical. For the first two acts the audience received the new Hamlet in complete silence. They could not understand what he was at. He made no “points”, he never ranted, he was not lugubrious or idiotic or extravagantly dressed; he was nothing that Hamlets traditionally should be, but only a prince and a gentleman, with an ongoing tinge of melancholy and a quiet, almost familiar demeanour. When he came to his parting with Ophelia the house “rose at him” for now they understood. Mr Irving’s Hamlet was not a thing of lightning flashes but a consistent and reasoned whole; a prince and a gentleman who failed to do the great things demanded of him, not so much from weakness of will as from excess of tenderness. His reading of the character was hotly contested. A war of pamphlets was waged between the supporters of this or that among the Hamlets of the past and the new Hamlet and generally between the champions of tradition and the young actor who had dispensed so completely with the conventions and thought out an entirely independent reading of his own. That war was renewed over all the Shakespearian productions that followed, more hotly than ever, perhaps, over his Macbeth.


Of the better examples of Sir Henry’s intellectual wealth we should be inclined to take his “Shylock” and “Becket” and in some degree his “Mephistopheler” as instances. His “Shylock” had but little passion, there was nothing in it of the “reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening” attributed to Kean; the light shed over the whole performance was so calm and equable, the illumination was of a person so dignified, sympathetic and interesting, that one forgave the comparative failure to impersonate a character in the gratification afforded by so remarkable an intellectual display. It was not Shakespeare read by a flash of lightning, but by the steady beams of a scholars lamp. And of his “Becket” one felt the same, that here at any rate was an intellect at work scarcely inferior in degree to that of the great statesman and churchman the actor was endeavouring to impersonate.


Kernton Mandeville, where Irving was born, is near Glastonbury – close by the famous Abbey built on the spot where the staff of Joseph of Arimathea took root and became the famous thorn tree which blossomed at Christmas. His father was a man of somewhat restless and undecided character, with whom the world did not prosper, but in the days of his direst poverty the young actor never forgot his old father, and supported him out of his scanty earnings until the day of his death. It was from his mother that the child derived much of that strength of character which afterward distinguished him. This lady was a Miss Behenna, one of six sisters of an old Cornish family. With one of these ladies much of the youth of Henry Irving – all the time not spent with his mother – was passed. Sarah Behenna had married Captain Isaac Penberthy, a famous Cornish miner. Captain Penberthy had three children – two boys and a girl – and in this family the major part of Henry Irving’s first youth was passed. His mother, anxious that her boy should breathe the fresh air of her native Cornwall, rather than the confined atmosphere of London, took him, when he was little more than a baby, to her sister in Helston, a wild and romantic district. Helston is a town locally supposed to have been “dropped by the devil” and its inhabitants are called “dragons” to this day. Thus, in the midst of this wild country, full of natural beauty and quick with fancies and legends in a circle where the duties of life were set out straight from the Bible – with the memory of a mother far away and vivid recollections of parting and loneliness, the poetical instincts of young Henry Irving became awakened.


It would be impossible to speak of Sir Henry Irving in private life without employing terms which to those who did not know him well would seem extravagant. He was of a most lovable disposition, the best of friends and the worst of enemies, in the sense that he could not retain enmity against any one who sought reconciliation; a soft answer turned away his wrath, which was moreover, rarely aroused even by aggravated provocation. As a host he was seen at his best, thoughtful kindness was innate in him, and his ready humour made him the most delightful of companions. His salary list was measured in a great many instances not by the value of the services of his company, but by their necessities. After a first night, when the lusty roars of enthusiasm which made these functions memorable had subsided, it was his custom to receive the congratulations of his friends on the stage, and to spread out a modest little supper for their delectation; but in time a multitude of visitors, on one pretext or another, sought and obtained admission behind the scenes, the supper became elaborate, the crowd dense and a great many old friends who had formerly looked forward to this little festivity took other opportunities of a chat. But it was little dinners at the Garrick Club or better still perhaps at suppers in the “Beefsteak Clubroom” at the Lyceum, that Sir Henry was most fascinating, for here as a rule, he was surrounded by congenial spirits, by the men for whom he entertained a genuine affection; and if distinguished foreigners, or those who were not on intimate terms with him, were entertained, entering room as acquaintances they left it as staunch friends. As the leader of the stage, and as its friend alike, it does not seem possible that the blank caused by Henry Irving’s death can ever be filled.

An interesting local connection with Sir Henry is that Mr Percival Craig, the manager of the Bradford Empire, was one of the prime movers in a dinner given last year to him on the occasion of a visit to the Avenue Theatre, Sunderland. It was at Sunderland where Irving’s name first appeared on a playbill nearly 50 years ago. On the occasion of the dinner Mr Craig replied to the toast of “The Drama.”