The Hall of Hams # 17: Sir Henry Irving
Today is the birthday of Henry Irving (1838-1905), the first actor ever knighted by the British monarchy (nowadays they seem to give away knighthoods with green stamps).
From where we stand it’s hard to immediately see his special significance. Rather than seeming revolutionary to us (the last word in realism as he no doubt seemed in his day) from our vantage in time he is clearly just a mid-point in the evolution of naturalistic acting, a notch further along than Kean and Macready, and nowhere yet near post-Stanislawski realism. Irving’s was the realism of the age of melodrama, and, in his day melodramas were considered realistic – -certainly they were more realistic than the pseudo-classical Romanticism than had come just before. Though they too would soon be rendered obsolete by Ibsen. Shaw, who wrote an entire treatise on Ibsen, called Irving’s brand of melodrama mere “Sardoudledom”, after the melodrama playwright Sardou, one of those Irving produced.
Yet, at the same , Irving was criticized for his shortcomings in interpreting Shakespeare and other classics. Said to possess a weak voice, and a peculiar way of walking, his expertise was in filling his performance with lots of true-life physical business, which he termed “by-play”. Such business could raise hack playwriting to the level of theatrical art, but could impede the delivery of spoken poetry.
After 15 years of struggle Irving made his first smash success in 1871 in a play called The Bells. He had just left his wife, whom had made the dire mistake of saying to him “Isn’t it about time you stopped this foolishness?” (meaning the theatre) on the occasion of her pregnancy with his second child. Irving properly showed her the door. (He would later become the lover of Ellen Terry, his leading lady). In 1878, he became the manager of the Lyceum Theatre, where he was praised above all for his staging of plays, adopting all sorts of revolutionary new methods of set design and grouping and moving actors, all enabled by modern stage lights.
A stroke overcame him during a performance as Becket in 1905. He died immediately thereafter.