Sir Henry Irving, as Hamlet, in an 1893 illustration from The Idler magazine
John Henry Brodribb (b. February 6, 1838 – d. October 13, 1905) became better known (in 1895, when he was knighted) as Sir Henry Irving. Irving was one of the most famous stage actors of all time. Irving was born at Keinton Mandeville in the county of Somerset. His son, H. B. Irving also became a famous actor.
After a few years schooling, he became a clerk to a firm of East India merchants in London, but he soon gave up a commercial career and started as an actor. On 29 September 1856 he made his first appearance at Sunderland as Gaston, Duke of Orleans, in Bulwer Lytton's play, Richelieu, billed as Henry Irving. This name he eventually assumed by royal licence.
For ten years, he went through an arduous training in various stock companies in Scotland and the north of England, acting in more than five hundred parts. By degrees his talent gained recognition, and in 1866 he obtained an engagement at the St James's Theatre, London, to play Doricourt in The Belle's Stratagem.
A year later he joined the company of the newly-opened Queen's Theatre, where he acted with Charles Wyndham, J. L. Toole, Lionel Brough, John Clayton, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wigan, Ellen Terry and Nelly Farren. This was followed by short engagements at the Haymarket, Drury Lane, and the Gaiety.
At last he made his first conspicuous success as Digby Grant in James Albery's Two Roses, which was produced at the Vaudeville on the 4 June 1870 and ran for 300 nights.
In 1871 he began his association with the Lyceum Theatre by an engagement under Bateman's management. The fortunes of the house were at a low ebb when the tide was turned by Irving's sudden success as Mathias in The Bells, a version of Erckmann-Chatrian's Le Juif Polonais by Leopold Lewis. The play ran for 150 nights. With a Miss Bateman, Irving was seen in W. G. Wills' Charles I and Eugene Aram, in Richelieu, and in 1874 in Hamlet. The unconventionality of this last performance, during a run of 200 nights, aroused keen discussion, and singled him out as the most interesting English actor of his day. In 1875, still with a Miss Bateman, he was seen as Macbeth; in 1876 as Othello, and as Philip in Tennyson's Queen Mary; in 1877 in Richard III; and in The Lyons Mail.
In 1878, Irving entered into a partnership with the actress Ellen Terry and re-opened the Lyceum under his own management. With Ellen Terry as Ophelia and Portia, he revived Hamlet and produced The Merchant of Venice (1879). His Shylock was as much discussed as his Hamlet had been, the dignity with which he invested the Jew marking a departure from the traditional interpretation of the role, and pleasing some as much as it offended others. It is this portrayal which is the origin of the practice of naming Jewish boys "Irving".
After the production of Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Cup, a revival of Othello (in which Irving played Iago to Edwin Booth's title character) and Romeo and Juliet, there began a period at the Lyceum which had a potent effect on the English stage. The Lyceum stage management, and the brilliancy of its productions in scenery, dressing and accessories, were revelations in the art of mise-en-scene.
Henry Irving was friends with Abraham "Bram" Stoker who tailored the mannerisms of his character Dracula
for Irving, in the hope he would play the villain on stage, but never did.
Much Ado about Nothing (1882) was followed by Twelfth Night (1884), Olivian adaptation of Goldsmith's Vicar of Lakefield by W. G. Wills (1885); Faust (1886); Macbeth (1888): The Dead Heart, by Watts Phillips (1889); and Ravenswood by Herman. Merivales dramatic version of Scotts Bride of Lammermoor (1890). Fine assumptions in 1892 of the characters of Wolsey in Henry VIII and of King Lear were followed in 1893 by a striking and dignified performance of Becket in Tennyson's play of the same name. During these years, too, Irving, with the whole Lyceum company, paid several visits to America, which met with conspicuous success, and were repeated in succeeding years.
The chief remaining novelties at the Lyceum (luring Irving's sole manager (the theatre passed, at the beginning of 1899, into the hands of a limited liability company) were Comyns Carr's King Arthur in 1895; Cymbeline, in which Irving played Iachimo, in 1896; Sardou's Madame Sans-Gene in 1897; Peter the Great, a play by Laurence Irving, the actor's second son, in 1898; and Conan Doyle's Waterloo (1894) (see King, Henry Irving's 'Waterloo'). The new regime at the Lyceum was signalized by the production of Sardou's Robespierre in 1899, in which Irving reappeared after a serious illness, and in 1901 by an elaborate revival of Coriolanus. Irving's only subsequent production in London was as Sardou's Dante (1903), a vast spectacular drama, staged at the Drury Lane.
He died on tour in Bradford on 13 October 1905, aged 67, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. There is a statue near the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Both on and off the stage, Irving always maintained a high ideal of his profession, and in 1895 he received the honour of knighthood, the first ever accorded an actor. He was also the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Dublin, Cambridge, and Glasgow. His acting, apart from his genius as a presenter of plays, divided criticism, opinions differing as to the extent to which his mannerisms of voice and deportment interfered with or assisted the expression of his ideas. So strongly marked a personality as his could not help giving its own colouring to whatever part he might assume, but the richness and originality of this colouring at its best cannot be denied, any more than the spirit and intellect which characterised his renderings. At the least, extraordinary versatility must be conceded to an actor who could satisfy exacting audiences in roles so widely different as Digby Grant and Louis XI, Richard III and Becket, Benedick and Shylock, Mathias and Dr. Primrose.
Sir Henry Irving had two sons. Harry Brodribb Irving (b. 1870) established himself as the most prominent of the younger English actors at the time of his father's death then went into management. His other son, Laurence Irving (b. 1872), became a dramatist.
For further reading, see Laurence Irving's biography, Henry Irving: The Actor and His World, published in 1989.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain