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19th-Century Superstardom: Six Months in the Life of Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Terry

With the eagerly anticipated Bram and the Guv'nor event fast approaching, our Research Associate, Ella Hawkins, offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of the nineteenth century theatre stars , Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Ella Hawkins
Henry Irving (left) and Ellen Terry (right) as Coriolanus and Volumnia in Coriolanus, 1901
Henry Irving (left) and Ellen Terry (right) as Coriolanus and Volumnia in Coriolanus, 1901

The year is 1901. Sir Henry Irving – an internationally-famous Shakespearean actor – is 63, and has enjoyed enormous success during his two decades as manager of the Lyceum Theatre, London. Six years previously, Irving became the first actor to be awarded a knighthood. The actor-manager recently led his company on their sixth American tour.

Ellen Terry, an actress of equal renown, has worked in partnership with Irving at the Lyceum since 1878. Together, the pair have staged several Shakespeare plays, along with the work of numerous contemporary playwrights. In 1925, Terry will become the second actress to be created a dame.

In April 1901, Irving and Terry stage their first Roman Shakespeare play: Coriolanus. Irving plays Caius Marcius Coriolanus, and Terry takes the role of Volumnia – Coriolanus’ mother. Coriolanus will be Irving’s last, and least successful, Shakespeare revival: the production runs for just 36 performances as a result of the play’s limited popularity and the production’s questionable casting (Richards 139). 

Coriolanus
The programme for Irving’s 1901 production of Coriolanus at the Lyceum Theatre

In the months surrounding the opening of Coriolanus, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry maintain an impressively active social life. Before the 1901 Lyceum season opens in April, the duo and company embark on a provincial tour of the UK. Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Bradford, and Birmingham all play host to the Lyceum Company between Monday 4th February and Monday 18th March. 

Programmes
Programmes from various venues visited during the company’s 1901 provincial tour

The Merchant of Venice is the play to be performed in each city. Irving plays Shylock, and Terry Portia. This production continues to be the most commercially and critically successful of the actor-manager’s career: Irving’s Merchant had run for 250 performances during its first Lyceum season in 1879, and will have been performed on 1,000 occasions before Irving and Terry’s partnership comes to an end (Bulman 28). The actor-manager marks the beginning of the tour with a speech, given in Belfast on Saturday 9th February, in which he thanks the press and the city for their kindness.

Provincial Tour
Saturday 9th February: Henry Irving gives a speech in Belfast to mark the beginning of the London Lyceum Company’s 1901 provincial tour, reading from these handwritten notes

Luncheons and dinners held in honour of Irving and/or Terry are certainly not a rare occurrence at this point in the pair’s careers. Invitations to such events arrive regularly, and Bram Stoker – business manager of the Lyceum and personal assistant to Irving – collects and carefully stores the evidence. The London Lyceum Company’s 1901 provincial tour provides many opportunities for social activities: Irving, Terry, and Stoker are guests at numerous gatherings throughout the company’s time on the tour, and Stoker documents details of the events attended by the trio.

Luncheon
6th February, 1901: Bram Stoker is invited to a luncheon in honour of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry
Menu
Saturday 9th February, 1901: Members of the party attend an eight-course dinner at the Ulster Club in Belfast

Back in London, and following the opening of Coriolanus, Irving attends a dinner held by the London Playgoers’ Club. As with many events at which Irving was an invited guest, the actor-manager gives a speech. Irving reflects on Ellen Terry’s contribution to his stage and company throughout their partnership, his ongoing debate with Mr. Cecil Raleigh (the ‘worthy Chairman’ of the society) about the contemporary relevance and significance of Shakespeare, and the need for an Endowed Theatre in the United Kingdom.

Speech
Sunday 28th April: Henry Irving gives a speech at a London Playgoers’ Club dinner

Not all social invitations can be accepted, however. In connection with his work in the theatre, Henry Irving is a member of The Kinsmen – a ‘little dining club of literary and artistic men of British and American nationality’ (Stoker 80). An invitation to one of the club’s regular dinner events arrives during the week of the Playgoers’ Club dinner; Irving scrawls ‘sorry engaged’ across the top of the invitation, and Stoker sends the actor-manager’s apologies to the remainder of the group. 

The Kinsmen
Monday 22nd April: Irving receives an invitation to a dinner event organised by The Kinsmen, but is unable to attend

On Tuesday 30th April, Henry Irving participates in a fundraising event at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. A ‘special matinée’ is held by The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society; Irving performs the role of a Waterloo Veteran in Waterloo – a one-act play by Arthur Conan Doyle that will also be included in the 1901 Lyceum season. 

Theatre Royal
Tuesday 30th April: Irving participates in a fundraising event at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

The Lyceum season continues, meanwhile. Coriolanus plays in repertory with Robespierre, Waterloo, The Bells, Madame Sans-Gêne, The Lyons Mail, King Charles I, Louis XI, The Merchant of Venice, and Nance Oldfield.

Mid-way through the season, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry attend one of many sumptuous suppers hosted at the theatre during the period of Irving’s management. Attendees dine on six courses of elegant French fare following the final performance of King Charles I. In typical fashion, Bram Stoker documents the occasion: the manager keeps his copy of the menu, and sketches out a diagram of the table’s seating arrangements on a sheet of ‘Lyceum Theatre’ headed paper. Irving and Terry sit opposite one another at the centre of the table.

Menu
Friday 28th June: Irving, Terry, and Stoker attend a sumptuous supper at the Lyceum Theatre following the final performance of King Charles I
Irving speech
Saturday 20th July: Henry Irving marks the close of the 1901 Lyceum season with a speech

On Saturday 20th July, the close of the 1901 Lyceum season is marked with a speech given by Irving. ‘Our season has been brief’, reflects the actor-manager, ‘though we have, I think, put a fair amount of work into it’. Irving announces the production that will be staged at the opening of the subsequent season – a revival of Faust – and gives details of the London Lyceum Company’s planned activities for the coming months. The cycle will continue: before the April opening of the 1902 season, Irving, Terry, and company will fulfil a series of regional engagements, then cross the Atlantic for further performances and social events.

The 1902 Lyceum season, however, is to be Irving and Terry’s last. The actor-manager will relinquish the reigns of the Lyceum Theatre, and later embark on a series of Farewell Tours. In 1906, Irving will die suddenly while on tour. Terry will go on to find further success in theatre and cinema until her death in 1928.

This blog post was developed using materials from the Bram Stoker Collection. Owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and held in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this Collection documents the careers and social lives of Bram Stoker, Henry Irving, and Ellen Terry.
In relation to an upcoming series of performances of Bram and the Guv’nor, an original play by Jefny Ashcroft, numerous items from the Bram Stoker Collection will be on display at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. To find out more about this production and exhibition, visit https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/whats-on/bram-and-guvnor/


Works cited:

Bulman, James C. The Merchant of Venice. Manchester University Press, 1991. Print.

Richards, Jeffrey. Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World. A&C Black, 2007. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.


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