Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: Bardolatry and Blockbusters


Today is the birthday of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (born Herbert Draper Beerbohm, 1852-1917). He was to add the Tree to his name when he became a professional actor because it was easier to say than his given name (Tree being the English for the German “bohm”, a variation of “baum”.)

Tree is my beau ideal of an actor — the old school kind, the genius of character, with nose putty and wigs, and costumes and make-up and spirit gum, what the art form was about before the vulgar dogma of “reality” displaced the affected dogma of artifice. Though there is some film and audio record of him, he passed from the scene too early for us to have seen much of him directly, but he cast a very long shadow, and I think of countless later film performances by people like John Barrymore, Lon Chaney and Laurence Olivier as echoes (if not sometimes outright borrowings) of Tree.

After a decade as a successful actor, he took over the management of the Haymarket Theatre in 1887. Here he created the role of Svengali in an adaption of Trilby, premiered Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and introduced the English speaking world to Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. This, on top on several notable Shakespearean productions, including a critically acclaimed Hamlet.

From here, Tree went on to run Her/His Majesty’s Theatre (first under Victoria, then under Edward) from 1897 through his death. Here, he continued the successful Shakespeare work, with sixteen blockbuster productions in all, full of lavish scenery and spectacle, true theatrical precursors to modern Hollywood movies. Shaw hated his “Bardolatry” and lays into him repeatedly in his famous correspondence with Ellen Terry (conducted mostly in the 1890s, it makes for entertaining reading if you’re a theatre buff).  Undoubtedly there were some sour grapes there. Tree wasn’t producing Shaw. This was to change in 1914 when he premiered Pygmalion with himself as Henry Higgins and Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle. This, while still continuing popular adaptations of novels…his Fagin in Oliver Twist, for example, was to be particularly influential.

As we said, he committed some Shakespearean performances to film. These were mostly in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the films were essentially records of stage performances. In 1915-1916 he spent some time in Hollywood, filming a version of MacBeth with D.W. Griffith, among other things. It was during this sojourn that he dined with a very intimidated Charlie Chaplin who recounts the memory in great detail in his autobiography. Sadly, Tree died a few months after his return to London, due to blood clots resulting from a broken leg.

Tree had many distinguished relatives: his half brother Max Beerbohm was a caricaturist, writer and critic; his full brother Julius Beerborhm was an explorer and author, and his sister Constance Beerbohm, also a writer. Tree’s illegitimate son was the famous director Carol Reed; and his grandson was equally famous film actor (wait for it!) Oliver Reed. 

And now, we actually have some media! Here is a recording of him doing Hamlet’s soliloquy in 1906:

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