The Knight from Nowhere

Sir Henry Irving has fast become my latest obsession. Which is strange, given that I can’t see any of his performances. Irving last performed in the theatre in 1905. All that remains of his art are a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings.

Master and Pupil

Last year, I developed a similar passion for Sir Donald Wolfit, after reading Ronald Harwood’s excellent biography. I’ve still seen only a clutch of Wolfit performances, film rather than theatre, and none of them hugely impressive: Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958) leaps to mind, as does the title menace in Svengali (1954). To a lesser extent, I’ve had it with Charles Laughton and Antony Sher. I sought out more Laughton films after reading Simon Callow’s biography. It was enervating to have such unpromising vehicles as They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and especially This Land Is Mine (1943) deliver far in excess of my hopes. As for Sher (who I know from his biographies), I’ve still never seen him in the theatre – though given he’s alive and working, there’s every chance that’ll change.

Having a primarily textual connection to an actor is nonetheless edifying. It’s that point at which drama intersects with faith. You start looking beyond the performance for the idea, the ethos, the belief system that underlies it. Much more drama should work like this: as with any faith, it gives its acolytes a reason to continue. Acting is a discouraging enough pursuit – when it doesn’t go right – that such figures are vital. I am anyway a prodigious hero worshipper, and probably for reasons of this nature. My heroes give me the courage to keep on trying.

Irving has been with me far longer than the actors mentioned above. I’m sure I’ve known about Irving nearly as long as I’ve known about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (and, as anyone who knows me will testify, that is a very long time). Stoker was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre, forever cast in the shadow of his domineering ‘Guv’nor’ and receiving little thanks for his administrative pains. It’s the supreme irony of Irving’s life that now Dracula is more famous than him. Irving even passed up the opportunity to be the first actor to play Dracula (repeatedly, by Stoker’s account). Hindsight has not been kind. Not only are Irving’s performances lost to the dust, but he jeopardised his one real shot at cultural immortality. If the great dead could only speak! The Knight and the Count are no doubt locked in bitter combat, a Salieri and Mozart of the nineteenth-century theatre. Stoker is their jealous (and unlikely) God.

I’ve been getting to know Irving through many great books. I’ve recently concluded Laurence Irving’s monumental Henry Irving: The Actor and His World, which might well be the longest book I’ve read since finishing Cambridge: an all-encompassing almanac of Irving. Simply living with a subject for as long as such a biography takes creates a special bond, regardless of what you think of the man. It’s certainly that way with Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens – you feel as though you’ve lived his life for him, suffered his exhaustion and earned his death (for Dickens and Irving both, a reverential interring in Poets’ Corner). I’m now all over the place in my Irving researches: steeped in Jeffrey Richards’ Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World and Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving; culling sections from The Tragic Actor (Bertram Joseph), That Despicable Race (Bryan Forbes) and Thunder in the Air (Brian Masters); looking forward to volumes by Ellen Terry and Michael Holroyd and (again!) Jeffrey Richards. Then there are the plays that Irving made famous: I’ve just worked through a heavily annotated script for The Bells, and have a ton of Shakespeare, Tennyson and melodrama to go. Simply put, I’m in love.

It’s probably worth adding that I read Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man who was Dracula (meaning Irving) last year – as part of my interminable researches for my one-man play of Dracula. A play which I’ve finished, by the way, but will be consigning to the back-burner for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to press on with Frankenstein first, and make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. I’m confident that Dracula will eventually be staged, but I don’t think its time has come. It must be more than perfect, and it’s not yet there.

Okay, I’ve so far addressed the hovering ‘hows’ of my Irving obsession. But what about the ‘whys’ behind it?

With all of my heroes, I like to feel assured that they were actually really bad at some things. Their humanity makes their achievements the more admirable (and palatable – it doesn’t pay to envy a hero). Irving truly overcame himself, transforming his weaknesses as an actor into that which made him individual, irreplaceable. His legs were bad, particularly in an age which prized elegance of gait; one foot would sometimes drag slightly. He was terribly short-sighted (thus the ever-present pince-nez spectacles). He suffered from catarrh all his life, which meant that he was constantly vocalising through a dry throat. Irving also stammered. Laurence Irving provides a painful account of this impediment’s resurgence, shortly after his grandfather’s professional debut:

… When he came upon the stage as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale to describe Leontes’ discovery of his daughter, no words came from his lips. His fellow-actors waited in awkward dismay. The prompter groaned his cue in tones that were heard all over the house. Irving was paralysed with horror. Then, with a tremendous effort of will, he managed to blurt out:

‘Come to the market-place, and I will tell you further!’ and, leaving the astonished actors, who knew of no such market-place, to pick up the threads of the play as best they could, he rushed to his dressing-room, angry and ashamed, with the hisses of the audience buzzing in his burning ears … It is doubtful if the disaster was an attack of stage fright; it was certainly not due to careless preparation; it was more likely that the half-conquered impediment had, in a moment of stress, broken from its secret prison.

I can empathise with all that, as a short-sighted, funny-voiced, wonky-backed man with one leg rippling with sciatica (I also suffer from catarrh, and don’t anticipate a future when I won’t). Irving was also largely self-educated. Despite his image as an intellectual actor, he would apparently make a fool of himself when engaging with men of art. I’m particularly fond of the account of Irving meeting Walt Whitman. Irving, eager to break the silence, blurted out: ‘You know you are like Tennyson in several ways. You quite remind me of him!’ A few seconds later, Irving worried that he’d offended Whitman. ‘You don’t mind that, do you?’ he said feebly, before retreating back into silence. (Whitman claimed to be pleased: ‘I like to be tickled!’)

Also endearing is Irving’s loneliness, even after he achieved greatness. He would return every night (or morning) to his darkened rooms, far from the glamour of the Beefsteak Room and the Lyceum gala nights, and lock himself away from the world. Irving sporadically kept dogs – and those dogs had a habit of dying – but he seemingly had no people for companionship. His pious mother cast him out when he declared his acting ambitions. He became estranged from his wife when she questioned his acting: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ He walked away and never spoke to her again. She was allowed to watch him from a box by the stage – Irving always reserved her first-night seats in his tenure at the Lyceum, and she often accepted. How unsettling an image: You may watch me, but only in silence, and a long way away. And only in the dark. By extension, Irving also became estranged from his sons. Did he have the brief satisfaction of affairs? We can’t be sure. They were secretive affairs, for he never divorced. Did he enjoy a close platonic friendship? It’s hard to say. Narcissistic, and therefore self-protecting, friendships – yes, probably. Bram Stoker got no recognition for essentially giving his life to Irving; eventually, Irving committed the supreme betrayal of ignoring Stoker’s advice, and handing the Lyceum to a financially crippling syndicate.

This loneliness was the point of Irving’s life, though. I’m not sure it made him unhappy. The work was all. Bette Davis had this in common with Irving. She believed loneliness was central to the actor’s creative state: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ She had this to say on happiness: ‘I don’t think as a group actors are what I call “happy people”; I think we’re very moody people … And rather lonely people actually.’ I increasingly believe that if you want to do something really astounding in the theatre, this loneliness is non-negotiable. It’s part of the deal.

Irving also overcame himself by growing, inexorably, in scope as an actor: graduating from grotesque comedy (his Dickensian rogues; in a more realistic vein, his Digby Grant in Two Roses) to melodramatic villainy (The Bells) and finally to classical tragedy (the Great Four: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear). I think I’m still hovering between the grotesque and the melodramatic, and certainly not at the level that Irving was. But one of the reassurances of Irving’s career is that he kept melodrama and tragedy running in parallel: for every Lyceum Shakespeare, there was likely to be a production of Louis XI, The Corsican Brothers or a distinctly non-Goethe Faust. Nor did Irving betray his roots in the ostentatious ugliness of the grotesque. His idiosyncracies of manner made it so; for all his work on his person, he could never be other than himself. Irving was usually applauded for his facial expression and command of movement (mannerisms maketh man), seldom for the beauty of his voice. Irving was never one of the beautiful people. Well, so what? his characters seemed to say. See how high I’m soaring without your beauty! The paradox of such an attitude is that Irving was all magnetism; I imagine his charisma – sex appeal, even – was comparable to that of Alan Rickman. Although his Romeo was bad (how could it be otherwise?), he made a fine Benedick (much the better part). He even managed to make Iago loveable. As Ellen Terry wrote:

One adored him, devil though he was. He was so full of charm, so sincerely the ‘honest’ Iago, peculiarly sympathetic with Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, all of them – except his wife … His Iago and his Romeo in different ways proved his power to portray Italian passions – the passions of lovely, treacherous people, who will either sing you a love sonnet or stab you in the back – you are not sure which.

Love goes not simply to the beautiful; not in Irving’s Lyceum.

Irving also embraced the image in his acting. I wrote about this last year in a spoofing vein, but I truly believe the theatrical image to reach much further than the grotesque. Looking back to Wolfit, Laughton and Sher, I realise now that it was a sense of the images they’d left (or are leaving) behind that excites me so. James Agate appointed Wolfit as Irving’s successor, describing Wolfit’s Lear as ‘a ruined piece of nature’. An elemental description of Irving that I find enchanting was supplied by Ellen Terry. Near the end of his life, she said that he became ‘like some beautiful grey tree that I have seen in Savannah’. Irving’s was an inspiriting glide towards death, founded on the mantra of Boris Karloff: ‘I intend to die with my boots and my greasepaint on.’ (The performances of the great horror stars – who Irving so splendidly anticipated – are nothing if not an elucidation of death.) Laughton was that paradoxical combination of the physically unmistakable and the chimeric, transforming his ungainly frame by sheer force of will. Irving’s performance in The Bells might be the consummate example of affecting a change in one’s body and brain through will-power. There are too many enraptured accounts of Irving’s Mathias, and over too long a span, for it to be a shrewd concoction of effects. There’s black magic at work – particularly when it’s considered that The Bells, like many of Laughton’s screen vehicles, is so thinly written. Sher’s painterly approach to his characters is well-known. It can seem a self-absorbed approach to theatre – dictatorial, perhaps, so far as it forces others to conform to a pattern. But Irving harnessed images in like fashion: he revolutionised scene-painting with his ‘spectacular’ Shakespeares at the Lyceum. Of course, every carefully wrought frame had to lead the eye towards the central, completing element: Irving himself. Some would say egotism. I would say art.

I find Irving a great model for what my own path in theatre might be. Not in terms of the success Irving achieved – that was beyond what even Olivier accomplished, and very much bound by his time. But in terms of his artistic attack… It might be worth trying to run the same race. So who knows? Irving may even become my next one-man play.

I’ll end with the Sonnet that Oscar Wilde addressed to Irving. It’s a thrilling call to arms for any actor trapped on the treadmill of the macabre:


The silent room, the heavy creeping shade,
The dead that travel fast, the opening door,
The murdered brother rising through the floor,
The ghost’s white fingers on thy shoulders laid,
And then the lonely duel in the glade,
The broken swords, the stifled scream, the gore,
Thy grand revengeful eyes when all is o’er, –
These things are well enough, – but thou wert made
For more august creation! frenzied Lear
Should at thy bidding wander on the heath
With the shrill fool to mock him, Romeo
For thee should lure his love, and desperate fear
Mock Richard’s recreant dagger from its sheath –
Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare’s lips to blow!


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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Henry Irving

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