The Story of My Life
Part 3 out of 7
very simple womanly emotion as the part demanded. At this time friends
who had fallen in love with Portia used to gather at the Prince of
Wales's and applaud me in a manner more vigorous than judicious. It was
their fault that it got about that I had hired a claque to clap me! Now,
it seems funny, but at the time I was deeply hurt at the insinuation,
and it cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a very happy
It is the way of the public sometimes, to keep all their enthusiasm for
an actress who is doing well in a minor part, and to withhold it from
the actress who is playing the leading part. I don't say for a minute
that Mrs. Bancroft's Peg Woffington in "Masks and Faces" was not
appreciated and applauded, but I know that my Mabel Vane was received
with a warmth out of all proportion to the merits of my performance, and
that this angered some of Mrs. Bancroft's admirers, and made them the
bearers of ill-natured stories. Any unpleasantness that it caused
between us personally was of the briefest duration. It would have been
odd indeed if I had been jealous of her, or she of me. Apart from all
else, I had met with my little bit of success in such a different field,
and she was almost another Madame Vestris in popular esteem.
When I was playing Blanche Hayes in "Ours," I nearly killed Mrs.
Bancroft with the bayonet which it was part of the business of the play
for me to "fool" with. I charged as usual; either she made a mistake and
moved to the right instead of to the left, or _I_ made a mistake.
Anyhow, I wounded her in the arm. She had to wear it in a sling, and I
felt very badly about it, all the more because of the ill-natured
stories of its being no accident.
Miss Marie Tempest is perhaps the actress of the present day who reminds
me a little of what Mrs. Bancroft was at the Prince of Wales's, but
neither nature nor art succeed in producing two actresses exactly alike.
At her best Mrs. Bancroft was unapproachable. I think that the best
thing I ever saw her do was the farewell to the boy in "Sweethearts." It
In "Masks and Faces" Taylor and Reade had collaborated, and the exact
share of each in the result was left to one's own discernment. I
remember saying to Taylor one night at dinner when Reade was sitting
opposite me, that I wished he (Taylor) would write me a part like that.
"If only I could have an original part like Peg!"
Charles Reade, after fixing me with his amused and _very_ glittering
eye, said across the table: "I have something for your private ear,
Madam, after this repast!" And he came up _with_ the ladies, sat by me,
and, calling me "an artful toad"--a favorite expression of his for
me!--told me that _he_, Charles Reade and no other, had written every
line of Peg, and that I ought to have known it. I _didn't_ know, as a
matter of fact, but perhaps it was stupid of me. There was more of Tom
Taylor in Mabel Vane.
I played five parts in all at the Prince of Wales's, and I think I may
claim that the Bancrofts found me a _useful_ actress--ever the dull
height of my ambition! They wanted Byron--the author of "Our Boys"--to
write me a part in the new play, which they had ordered from him, but
when "Wrinkles" turned up there was no part which they felt they could
offer me, and I think Coghlan was also not included in the cast. At any
rate, he was free to take me to see Henry Irving act. Coghlan was always
raving about Irving at this time. He said that one evening spent in
watching him act was the best education an actor could have. Seeing
other people act, even if they are not Irvings, is always an education
to us. I have never been to a theater yet without learning something. It
must have been in the spring of 1876 that I received this note:
"Will you come in our box on Tuesday for Queen Mary? Ever yours,
"CHARLES T. COGHLAN.
"P.S.--I am afraid that they will soon have to smooth their wrinkled
front of the P. of W. Alas! Helas! Ah, me!"
This postscript, I think, must have referred to the approaching
withdrawal of "Wrinkles" from the Prince of Wales's, and the return of
Coghlan and myself to the cast.
Meanwhile, we went to see Irving's King Philip.
Well, I can only say that he never did anything better to the day of his
death. Never shall I forget his expression and manner when Miss Bateman,
as Queen Mary (she was _very_ good, by the way), was pouring out her
heart to him. The horrid, dead look, the cruel unresponsiveness, the
indifference of the creature! While the poor woman protested and wept,
he went on polishing up his ring! Then the tone in which he asked:
"Is dinner ready?"
It was the perfection of quiet malignity and cruelty.
The extraordinary advance that he had made since the days when we had
acted together at the Queen's Theater did not occur to me. I was just
spellbound by a study in cruelty, which seemed to me a triumphant
assertion of the power of the actor to create as well as to interpret,
for Tennyson never suggested half what Henry Irving did.
We talk of progress, improvement, and advance; but when I think of Henry
Irving's Philip, I begin to wonder if Oscar Wilde was not profound as
well as witty when he said that a great artist moves in a cycle of
masterpieces, of which the last is no more perfect than the first. Only
Irving's Petruchio stops me. But, then, he had not found himself. He was
not an artist.
"Why did Whistler paint him as Philip?" some one once asked me. How
dangerous to "ask why" about anyone so freakish as Jimmy Whistler. But I
answered then, and would answer now, that it was because, as Philip,
Henry, in his dress without much color (from the common point of view),
his long, gray legs, and Velasquez-like attitudes, looked like the kind
of thing which Whistler loved to paint. Velasquez had painted a real
Philip of the same race. Whistler would paint the actor who had created
the Philip of the stage.
I have a note from Whistler written to Henry at a later date which
refers to the picture, and suggests portraying him in all his
characters. It is common knowledge that the sitter never cared much
about the portrait. Henry had a strange affection for the wrong picture
of himself. He disliked the Bastien Lepage, the Whistler, and the
Sargent, which never even saw the light. He adored the weak, handsome
picture by Millais, which I must admit, all the same, held the mirror up
to one of the characteristics of Henry's face--its extreme refinement.
Whistler's Philip probably seemed to him not nearly showy enough.
Whistler I knew long before he painted the Philip. He gave me the most
lovely dinner-set of blue and white Nanking that any woman ever
possessed, and a set of Venetian glass, too good for a world where glass
is broken. He sent my little girl a tiny Japanese kimono when Liberty
was hardly a name. Many of his friends were my friends. He was with the
dearest of those friends when he died.
The most remarkable men I have known were, without a doubt, Whistler and
Oscar Wilde. This does not imply that I liked them better or admired
them more than the others, but there was something about both of them
more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to
When I went with Coghlan to see Henry Irving's Philip I was no stranger
to his acting. I had been present with Tom Taylor, then dramatic critic
of _The Times_, at the famous first night at the Lyceum in 1874, when
Henry Irving put his fortune, counted not in gold, but in years of
scorned delights and laborious days--years of constant study and
reflection, of Spartan self-denial, and deep melancholy--I was present
when he put it all to the touch "to win or lose it all." This is no
exaggeration. Hamlet was by far the greatest part that he had ever
played, or was ever to play. If he had failed--but why pursue it? He
could not fail.
Yet the success on the first night at the Lyceum in 1874 was not of that
electrical, almost hysterical splendor which has greeted the momentous
achievements of some actors. The first two acts were received with
indifference. The people could not see how packed they were with superb
acting--perhaps because the new Hamlet was so simple, so quiet, so free
from the exhibition of actors' artifices which used to bring down the
house in "Louis XI" and in "Richelieu," but which were really the _easy_
things in acting, and in "Richelieu" (in my opinion) not especially well
done. In "Hamlet" Henry Irving did not go to the audience. He made them
come to him. Slowly but surely attention gave place to admiration,
admiration to enthusiasm, enthusiasm to triumphant acclaim.
I have seen many Hamlets--Fechter, Charles Kean, Rossi, Frederick Haas,
Forbes-Robertson, and my own son, Gordon Craig, among them, but they
were not in the same hemisphere! I refuse to go and see Hamlets now. I
want to keep Henry Irving's fresh and clear in my memory until I die.
When he engaged me to play Ophelia in 1878 he asked me to go down to
Birmingham to see the play, and that night I saw what I shall always
consider the _perfection_ of acting. It had been wonderful in 1874. In
1878 it was far more wonderful. It has been said that when he had the
"advantage" of my Ophelia, his Hamlet "improved." I don't think so. He
was always quite independent of the people with whom he acted.
The Birmingham night he knew I was there. He played--I say it without
vanity--for me. We players are not above that weakness, if it be a
weakness. If ever anything inspires us to do our best it is the presence
in the audience of some fellow-artist who must in the nature of things
know more completely than any one what we intend, what we do, what we
feel. The response from such a member of the audience flies across the
footlights to us like a flame. I felt it once when I played Olivia
before Eleonora Duse. I felt that she felt it once when she played
Marguerite Gauthier for me.
When I read "Hamlet" now, everything that Henry did in it seems to me
more absolutely right, even than I thought at the time. I would give
much to be able to record it all in detail--but it may be my
fault--writing is not the medium in which this can be done. Sometimes I
have thought of giving readings of "Hamlet," for I can remember every
tone of Henry's voice, every emphasis, every shade of meaning that he
saw in the lines and made manifest to the discerning. Yes, I think I
could give some pale idea of what his Hamlet was if I read the play.
"Words! words! words!" What is it to say, for instance, that the
cardinal qualities of his Prince of Denmark were strength, delicacy,
distinction? There was never a touch of commonness. Whatever he did or
said, blood and breeding pervaded him.
His "make-up" was very pale, and this made his face beautiful when one
was close to him, but at a distance it gave him a haggard look. Some
said he looked twice his age.
He kept three things going at the same time--the antic madness, the
sanity, the sense of the theater. The last was to all that he imagined
and thought, what charity is said by St. Paul to be to all other
He was never cross or moody--only melancholy. His melancholy was as
simple as it was profound. It was touching, too, rather than defiant.
You never thought that he was wantonly sad and enjoying his own misery.
He neglected no _coup de theatre_ to assist him, but who notices the
servants when the host is present?
For instance, his first entrance as Hamlet was, what we call in the
theater, very much "worked up." He was always a tremendous believer in
processions, and rightly. It is through such means that Royalty keeps
its hold on the feeling of the public, and makes its mark as a Figure
and a Symbol. Henry Irving understood this. Therefore, to music so apt
that it was not remarkable in itself, but merely a contribution to the
general excited anticipation, the Prince of Denmark came on to the
stage. I understood later on at the Lyceum what days of patient work had
gone to the making of that procession.
At its tail, when the excitement was at fever heat, came the solitary
figure of Hamlet, looking extraordinarily tall and thin. The lights
were turned down--another stage trick--to help the effect that the
figure was spirit rather than man.
He was weary--his cloak trailed on the ground. He did _not_ wear the
miniature of his father obtrusively round his neck! His attitude was one
which I have seen in a common little illumination to the "Reciter,"
compiled by Dr. Pinches (Henry Irving's old schoolmaster). Yet how right
to have taken it, to have been indifferent to its humble origin! Nothing
could have been better when translated into life by Irving's genius.
The hair looked blue-black, like the plumage of a crow, the eyes
burning--two fires veiled as yet by melancholy. But the appearance of
the man was not single, straight or obvious, as it is when I describe
it--any more than his passions throughout the play were. I only remember
one moment when his intensity concentrated itself in a straightforward,
unmistakable emotion, without side-current or back-water. It was when he
"The play's the thing
With which to catch the conscience of the King."
and, as the curtain came down, was seen to be writing madly on his
tablets against one of the pillars.
"Oh, God, that I were a writer!" I paraphrase Beatrice with all my
heart. Surely a _writer_ could not string words together about Henry
Irving's Hamlet and say _nothing, nothing_.
"We must start this play a living thing," he used to say at rehearsals,
and he worked until the skin grew tight over his face, until he became
livid with fatigue, yet still beautiful, to get the opening lines said
with individuality, suggestiveness, speed, and power.
_Bernardo:_ Who's there?
_Francisco:_ Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
_Bernardo:_ Long live the King!
_Francisco:_ You come most carefully upon your hour.
_Bernardo:_ 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
_Francisco:_ For this relief much thanks; 'tis bitter cold....
And all that he tried to make others do with these lines, he himself did
with every line of his own part. Every word lived.
Some said: "Oh, Irving only makes Hamlet a love poem!" They said that, I
suppose, because in the Nunnery scene with Ophelia he was the lover
above the prince and the poet. With what passionate longing his hands
hovered over Ophelia at her words:
"Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind."
His advice to the players was not advice. He did not speak it as an
actor. Nearly all Hamlets in that scene give away the fact that they are
actors, and not dilettanti of royal blood. Irving defined the way he
would have the players speak as an _order_, an instruction of the merit
of which he was regally sure. There was no patronizing flavor in his
acting here, not a touch of "I'll teach you how to do it." He was
swift--swift and simple--pausing for the right word now and again, as in
the phrase "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." His slight pause
and eloquent gesture was the all-embracing word "Nature" came in answer
to his call, were exactly repeated unconsciously years later by the
Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). She was telling us the story of a
play that she had written. The words rushed out swiftly, but
occasionally she would wait for the one that expressed her meaning most
comprehensively and exactly, and as she got it, up went her hand in
triumph over her head. "Like yours in 'Hamlet,'" I told Henry at the
I knew this Hamlet both ways--as an actress from the stage, and as an
actress putting away her profession for the time as one of the
audience--and both ways it was superb to me. Tennyson, I know, said it
was not a perfect Hamlet. I wonder, then, where he hoped to find
James Spedding, considered a fine critic in his day, said Irving was
"simply hideous ... a monster!" Another of these fine critics declared
that he never could believe in Irving's Hamlet after having seen "_part_
(sic) of his performance as a murderer in a commonplace melodrama."
Would one believe that any one could seriously write so stupidly as that
about the earnest effort of an earnest actor, if it were not quoted by
some of Irving's biographers?
Some criticism, however severe, however misguided, remains within the
bounds of justice, but what is one to think of the _Quarterly_ Reviewer
who declared that "the enormous pains taken with the scenery had ensured
Mr. Irving's success"? The scenery was of the simplest--no money was
spent on it even when the play was revived at the Lyceum after Colonel
Bateman's death. Henry's dress probably cost him about L2!
My Ophelia dress was made of material which could not have cost more
than 2_s._ a yard, and not many yards were wanted, as I was at the time
thin to vanishing point! I have the dress still, and, looking at it the
other day, I wondered what leading lady now would consent to wear it.
At all its best points, Henry's Hamlet was susceptible of absurd
imitation. Think of this well, young actors, who are content to play for
safety, to avoid ridicule at all costs, to be "natural"--oh, word most
vilely abused! What sort of _naturalness_ is this of Hamlet's?
"O, villain, villain, smiling damned villain!"
Henry Irving's imitators could make people burst with laughter when they
took off his delivery of that line. And, indeed, the original, too, was
almost provocative of laughter--rightly so, for such emotional
indignation has its funny as well as its terrible aspect. The mad, and
all are mad who have, as Socrates put it, "a divine release from the
common ways of men," may speak ludicrously, even when they speak the
All great acting has a certain strain of extravagance which the
imitators catch hold of and give us the eccentric body without the
From the first I saw this extravagance, this bizarrerie in Henry
Irving's acting. I noticed, too, its infinite variety. In "Hamlet,"
during the first scene with Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo, he began by
being very absent and distant. He exchanged greetings sweetly and
gently, but he was the visionary. His feet might be on the ground, but
his head was towards the stars "where the eternal are." Years later he
said to me of another actor in "Hamlet": "_He_ would never have seen the
ghost." Well, there was never any doubt that Henry Irving saw it, and
it was through his acting in the Horatio scene that he made us sure.
As a bad actor befogs Shakespeare's meaning, so a good actor illuminates
it. Bit by bit as Horatio talks, Hamlet comes back into the world. He is
still out of it when he says:
"My father! Methinks I see my father."
But the dreamer becomes attentive, sharp as a needle, with the words:
"For God's love, let me hear."
Irving's face, as he listened to Horatio's tale, blazed with
intelligence. He cross-examined the men with keenness and authority. His
mental deductions as they answered were clearly shown. With "I would I
had been there" the cloud of unseen witnesses with whom he had before
been communing again descended. For a second or two Horatio and the rest
did not exist for him.... So onward to the crowning couplet:
"... foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them to men's eyes."
After having been very quiet and rapid, very discreet, he pronounced
these lines in a loud, clear voice, dragged out every syllable as if
there never could be an end to his horror and his rage.
I had been familiar with the scene from my childhood--I had studied it;
I had heard from my father how Macready acted in it, and now I found
that I had a _fool_ of an idea of it! That's the advantage of study,
good people, who go to see Shakespeare acted. It makes you know
sometimes what is being done, and what you never dreamed would be done
when you read the scene at home.
As one of the audience I was much struck by Irving's treatment of
interjections and exclamations in "Hamlet." He breathed the line: "O,
that this too, too solid flesh would melt," as one long yearning, and,
"O horrible, O horrible! most horrible!" as a groan. When we first went
to America his address at Harvard touched on this very subject, and it
may be interesting to know that what he preached in 1885 he had
practiced as far back as 1874.
"On the question of pronunciation, there is something to be said
which I think in ordinary teaching is not sufficiently considered.
Pronunciation should be simple and unaffected, but not always
fashioned rigidly according to a dictionary standard. No less an
authority than Cicero points out that pronunciation must vary
widely according to the emotions to be expressed; that it may be
broken or cut with a varying or direct sound, and that it serves
for the actor the purpose of color to the painter, from which to
draw variations. Take the simplest illustration. The formal
pronunciation of A-h is 'Ah,' of O-h, 'Oh,' but you cannot
stereotype the expression of emotion like this. These exclamations
are words of one syllable, but the speaker who is sounding the
gamut of human feeling will not be restricted in his pronunciation
by dictionary rule. It is said of Edmund Kean that he never spoke
such ejaculations, but always sighed or groaned them. Fancy an
'My Desdemona! Oh! oh! oh!'
"Words are intended to express feelings and ideas, not to bind them
in rigid fetters; the accents of pleasure are different from the
accents of pain, and if a feeling is more accurately expressed as
in nature by a variation of sound not provided by the laws of
pronunciation, then such imperfect laws must be disregarded and
It was of the address in which these words occur that a Boston hearer
said that it was felt by every one present that "the truth had been
spoken by a man who had learned it through living and not through
I leave his Hamlet for the present with one further reflection. It was
in _courtesy_ and _humor_ that it differed most widely from other
Hamlets that I have seen and heard of. This Hamlet was never rude to
Polonius. His attitude towards the old Bromide (I thank you, Mr. Gelett
Burgess, for teaching me that word which so lightly and charmingly
describes the child of darkness and of platitude) was that of one who
should say: "You dear, funny old simpleton, whom I have had to bear with
all my life--how terribly in the way you seem now." With what slightly
amused and cynical playfulness this Hamlet said: "I had thought some of
Nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well; they imitated
humanity so abominably."
Hamlet was by far his greatest triumph, although he would not admit it
himself--preferring in some moods to declare that his finest work was
done in Macbeth, which was almost universally disliked.
When I went with Coghlan to see Irving's Philip, this "Hamlet"
digression may have suggested that I was not in the least surprised at
what I saw. Being a person little given to dreaming, and always living
wholly in the present, it did not occur to me to wonder if I should ever
act with this marvelous man. He was not at this time lessee of the
Lyceum--Colonel Bateman was still alive--and I looked no further than my
engagement at the Prince of Wales's, although in a few months it was to
come to an end.
Although I was now earning a good salary, I still lived in lodgings at
Camden Town, took an omnibus to and from the theater, and denied myself
all luxuries. I did not take a house until I went to the Court Theater.
It was then, too, that I had my first cottage--a wee place at Hampton
Court where my children were very happy. They used to give performances
of "As You Like It" for the benefit of the Palace custodians--old
Crimean veterans, most of them--and when the children had grown up these
old men would still ask affectionately after "little Miss Edy" and
"Master Teddy," forgetting the passing of time.
My little daughter was a very severe critic! I think if I had listened
to her, I should have left the stage in despair. She saw me act for the
first time as Mabel Vane, but no compliments were to be extracted from
"You _did_ look long and thin in your gray dress."
"When you fainted I thought you was going to fall into the
orchestra--you was so _long_."
In "New Men and Old Acres" I had to play the piano while I conducted a
conversation consisting on my side chiefly of haughty remarks to the
effect that "blood would tell," to talk naturally and play at the same
time. I "shied" at the lines, became self-conscious, and either sang the
words or altered the rhythm of the tune to suit the pace of the speech.
I grew anxious about it, and was always practicing it at home. After
much hard work Edy used to wither me with:
"_That's_ not right!"
Teddy was of a more flattering disposition, but very obstinate when he
chose. I remember "wrastling" with him for hours over a little Blake
poem which he had learned by heart, to say to his mother:
"When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of the night arise,
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away,
Till morning appears in the skies.
No, no, let us play, for yet it is day,
And we cannot go to sleep.
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all covered with sheep...."
All went well until the last line. Then he came to a stop.
_Nothing_ would make him say sheep!
With a face beaming with anxiety to please, looking adorable, he would
offer any word but the right one.
"And the hills are all covered with--"
"With what, Teddy?"
"Master Teddy don't know."
"Something white, Teddy."
"No, no--does snow rhyme with 'sleep'?"
"No, no. Now, I am not going to the theater until you say the right
word. What are the hills covered with?"
"Teddy, you're a very naughty boy."
At this point he was put in the corner. His first suggestion when he
came out was:
"Are grass or trees white?" said the despairing mother with her eye on
the clock, which warned her that, after all, she would have to go to the
theater without winning.
Meanwhile, Edy was murmuring: "_Sheep_, Teddy," in a loud aside, but
Teddy would _not_ say it, not even when both he and I burst into tears!
At Hampton Court the two children, dressed in blue and white check
pinafores, their hair closely cropped--the little boy fat and fair (at
this time he bore a remarkable resemblance to Laurence's portrait of the
youthful King of Rome), the little girl thin and dark--ran as wild as
though the desert had been their playground instead of the gardens of
this old palace of kings! They were always ready to show visitors (not
so numerous then as now) the sights; prattled freely to them of "my
mamma," who was acting in London, and showed them the new trees which
they had assisted the gardeners to plant in the wild garden, and
christened after my parts. A silver birch was Iolanthe, a maple Portia,
an oak Mabel Vane. Through their kind offices many a stranger found it
easy to follow the intricacies of the famous Maze. It was a fine life
for them, surely, this unrestricted running to and fro in the gardens,
with the great Palace as a civilizing influence!
It was for their sake that I was most glad of my increasing prosperity
in my profession. My engagement with the Bancrofts was exchanged at the
close of the summer season of 1876 for an even more popular one with Mr.
John Hare at the Court Theater, Sloane Square.
I had learned a great deal at the Prince of Wales's, notably that the
art of playing in modern plays in a tiny theater was quite different
from the art of playing in the classics in a big theater. The methods
for big and little theaters are alike, yet quite unlike. I had learned
breadth in Shakespeare at the Princess's, and had had to employ it again
in romantic plays for Charles Reade. The pit and gallery were the
audience which we had to reach. At the Prince of Wales's I had to adopt
a more delicate, more subtle, more intimate style. But the breadth had
to be there just the same--as seen through the wrong end of the
microscope. In acting one must possess great strength before one can be
delicate in the right way. Too often weakness is mistaken for delicacy.
Mr. Hare was one of the best stage managers that I have met during the
whole of my long experience in the theater. He was snappy in manner,
extremely irritable if anything went wrong, but he knew what he wanted,
and he got it. No one has ever surpassed him in the securing of a
perfect _ensemble_. He was the Meissonier among the theater artists.
Very likely he would have failed if he had been called upon to produce
"King John," but what better witness to his talent than that he knew his
line and stuck to it?
The members of his company were his, body and soul, while they were
rehearsing. He gave them fifteen minutes for lunch, and any actor or
actress who was foolish or unlucky enough to be a minute late, was sorry
afterwards. Mr. Hare was peppery and irascible, and lost his temper
Personally, I always got on well with my new manager, and I ought to be
grateful to him, if only because he gave me the second great opportunity
of my career--the part of Olivia in Wills's play from "The Vicar of
Wakefield." During this engagement at the Court I married again. I had
met Charles Wardell, whose stage name was Kelly, when he was acting in
"Rachael the Reaper" for Charles Reade. At the Court we played together
in several pieces. He had not been bred an actor, but a soldier. He was
in the 66th Regiment, and had fought in the Crimean War; been wounded,
too--no carpet knight. His father was a clergyman, vicar of Winlaton,
Northumberland--a charming type of the old-fashioned parson, a
friendship with Sir Walter Scott in the background, and many little
possessions of the great Sir Walter's in the foreground to remind one of
what had been.
Charlie Kelly, owing to his lack of training, had to be very carefully
suited with a part before he shone as an actor. But when he was
suited--his line was the bluff, hearty, kindly, soldier-like
Englishman--he was better than many people who had twenty years' start
of him in experience. This is absurdly faint praise. In such parts as
Mr. Brown in "New Men and Old Acres," the farmer father in "Dora,"
Diogenes in "Iris," no one could have bettered him. His most ambitious
attempt was Benedick, which he played with me when I first appeared as
Beatrice at Leeds. It was in many respects a splendid performance, and
perhaps better for the play than the more polished, thoughtful, and
deliberate Benedick of Henry Irving.
Physically a manly, bulldog sort of a man, Charles Kelly possessed as an
actor great tenderness and humor. It was foolish of him to refuse the
part of Burchell in "Olivia," in which he would have made a success
equal to that achieved by Terriss as the Squire. But he was piqued at
not being cast for the Vicar, which he could not have played well, and
stubbornly refused to play Burchell.
Alas! many actors are just as blind to their true interests.
We were married in 1876; and after I left the Court Theater for the
Lyceum, we continued to tour together in the provinces during vacation
time when the Lyceum was closed. These tours were very successful, but I
never worked harder in my life! When we played "Dora" at Liverpool,
Charles Reade, who had adapted the play from Tennyson's poem, wrote:
"What have you to fear from me for such a masterly performance! Be
assured nobody can appreciate your value and Mr. Kelley's as I do.
It is well played all round."
EARLY DAYS AT THE LYCEUM
It is humiliating to me to confess that I have not the faintest
recollection of "Brothers," the play by Coghlan, in which I see by the
evidence of an old play-bill that I made my first appearance under Mr.
Hare's management. I remember another play by Coghlan, in which Henry
Kemble made one of his early appearances in the part of a butler, and
how funny he was, even in those days, in a struggle to get rid of a pet
monkey--a "property" monkey made of brown wool with no "devil" in it,
except that supplied by the comedian's imagination. We trusted to our
acting, not to real monkeys and real dogs to bring us through, and when
the acting was Henry Kemble's, it was good enough to rely upon!
Charles Coghlan seems to have been consistently unlucky. Yet he was a
good actor and a brilliant man. I always enjoyed his companionship;
found him a pleasant, natural fellow, absorbed in his work, and not at
all the "dangerous" man that some people represented him.
Within less than a month from the date of the production of "Brothers,"
"New Men and Old Acres" was put into the Court bill. It was not a new
play, but the public at once began to crowd to see it, and I have heard
that it brought Mr. Hare L30,000. My part, Lilian Vavasour, had been
played in the original production by Mrs. Kendal, but it had been
written for me by Tom Taylor when I was at the Haymarket, and it suited
me very well. The revival was well acted all round. Charles Kelly was
splendid as Mr. Brown, and Mr. Hare played a small part perfectly.
H.B. Conway, a young actor whose good looks were talked of everywhere,
was also in the cast. He was a descendant of Lord Byron's, and had a
look of the _handsomest_ portraits of the poet. With his bright hair
curling tightly all over his well-shaped head, his beautiful figure, and
charming presence, Conway created a sensation in the 'eighties almost
equal to that made by the more famous beauty, Lillie Langtry.
As an actor he belonged to the Terriss type, but he was not nearly as
good as Terriss. Of his extraordinary failure in the Lyceum "Faust" I
shall say something when I come to the Lyceum productions.
After "New Men and Old Acres," Mr. Hare tried a posthumous play by Lord
Lytton--"The House of Darnley." It was _not_ a good play, and I was
_not_ good in it, although the pleasant adulation of some of my friends
has made me out so. The play met with some success, and during its run
Mr. Hare commissioned Wills to write "Olivia."
I had known Wills before this through the Forbes-Robertsons. He was at
one time engaged to one of the girls, but it was a good thing it ended
in smoke. With all his charm, Wills was not cut out for a husband. He
was Irish all over--the strangest mixture of the aristocrat and the
sloven. He could eat a large raw onion every night like any peasant, yet
his ideas were magnificent and instinct with refinement.
A true Bohemian in money matters, he made a great deal out of his
plays--and never had a farthing to bless himself with!
In the theater he was charming--from an actor's point of view. He
interfered very little with the stage management, and did not care to
sit in the stalls and criticise. But he would come quietly to me and
tell me things which were most illuminating, and he paid me the
compliment of weeping at the wing while I rehearsed "Olivia."
_I_ was generally weeping, too, for Olivia, more than any part, touched
me to the heart. I cried too much in it, just as I cried too much later
on in the Nunnery scene in "Hamlet," and in the last act of "Charles I."
My real tears on the stage have astonished some people, and have been
the envy of others, but they have often been a hindrance to me. I have
had to _work_ to restrain them.
Oddly enough, although "Olivia" was such a great success at the Court,
it has never made much money since. The play could pack a tiny theater;
it could never appeal in a big way to the masses. In itself it had a
sure message--the love story of an injured woman is one of the cards in
the stage pack which it is always safe to play--but against this there
was a bad last act, one of the worst I have ever acted in. It was always
being tinkered with, but patching and alteration only seems to weaken
Mr. Hare produced "Olivia" perfectly. Marcus Stone designed the clothes,
and I found my dresses--both faithful and charming as reproductions of
the eighteenth century spirit--stood the advance of time and the
progress of ideas when I played the part later at the Lyceum. I had not
to alter anything. Henry Irving discovered the same thing about the
scenery and stage management. They could not be improved upon. There was
very little scenery at the Court, but a great deal of taste and care in
Every one was "Olivia" mad. The Olivia cap shared public favor with the
Langtry bonnet. That most lovely and exquisite creature, Mrs. Langtry,
could not go out anywhere, at the dawn of the 'eighties, without a crowd
collecting to look at her! It was no rare thing to see the crowd, to ask
its cause, to receive the answer, "Mrs. Langtry!" and to look in vain
for the object of the crowd's admiring curiosity.
This was all the more remarkable, and honorable to public taste, too,
because Mrs. Langtry's was not a showy beauty. Her hair was the color
that it had pleased God to make it; her complexion was her own; in
evening dress she did not display nearly as much of her neck and arms as
was the vogue, yet they outshone all other necks and arms through their
"No worker has a right to criticise _publicly_ the work of another in
the same field," Henry Irving once said to me, and Heaven forbid that I
should disregard advice so wise! I am aware that the professional
critics and the public did not transfer to Mrs. Langtry the actress the
homage that they had paid to Mrs. Langtry the beauty, but I can only
speak of the simplicity with which she approached her work, of her
industry, and utter lack of vanity about her powers. When she played
Rosalind (which my daughter, the best critic of acting _I_ know, tells
me was in many respects admirable), she wrote to me:
"I bundled through my part somehow last night, a disgraceful
performance, and _no_ waist-padding! Oh, what an impudent wretch you
must think me to attempt such a part! I pinched my arm once or twice
last night to see if it was really me. It was so sweet of you to write
me such a nice letter, and then a telegram, too!
"Yours ever, dear Nell,
"P.S.--I am rehearsing, all day--'The Honeymoon' next week. I love the
hard work, and the thinking and study."
Just at this time there was a great dearth on the stage of people with
lovely diction, and Lillie Langtry had it. I can imagine that she spoke
Rosalind's lines beautifully, and that her clear gray eyes and frank
manner, too well-bred to be hoydenish, must have been of great value.
To go back to "Olivia." Like all Hare's plays, it was perfectly cast.
Where all were good, it will be admitted, I think, by every one who saw
the production, that Terriss was the best. "As you stand there, whipping
your boot, you look the very picture of vain indifference," Olivia says
to Squire Thornhill in the first act, and never did I say it without
thinking how absolutely _to the life_ Terriss realized that description!
As I look back, I remember no figure in the theater more remarkable than
Terriss. He was one of those heaven-born actors who, like kings by
divine right, can, up to a certain point, do no wrong. Very often, like
Dr. Johnson's "inspired idiot," Mrs. Pritchard, he did not know what he
was talking about. Yet he "got there," while many cleverer men stayed
behind. He had unbounded impudence, yet so much charm that no one could
ever be angry with him. Sometimes he reminded me of a butcher-boy
flashing past, whistling, on the high seat of his cart, or of Phaethon
driving the chariot of the sun--pretty much the same thing, I imagine!
When he was "dressed up" Terriss was spoiled by fine feathers; when he
was in rough clothes, he looked a prince.
He always commanded the love of his intimates as well as that of the
outside public. To the end he was "Sailor Bill"--a sort of grown-up
midshipmite, whose weaknesses provoked no more condemnation than the
weaknesses of a child. In the theater he had the tidy habits of a
sailor. He folded up his clothes and kept them in beautiful condition;
and of a young man who had proposed for his daughter's hand he said:
"The man's a blackguard! Why, he throws his things all over the room!
The most untidy chap I ever saw!"
Terriss had had every sort of adventure by land and sea before I acted
with him at the Court. He had been midshipman, tea-planter, engineer,
sheep-farmer, and horse-breeder. He had, to use his own words,
"hobnobbed with every kind of queer folk, and found myself in extremely
queer predicaments." The adventurous, dare-devil spirit of the roamer,
the incarnate gipsy, always looked out of his insolent eyes. Yet,
audacious as he seemed, no man was ever more nervous on the stage. On a
first night he was shaking all over with fright, in spite of his
confident and dashing appearance.
His bluff was colossal. Once when he was a little boy and wanted money,
he said to his mother: "Give me L5 or I'll jump out of the window." And
she at once believed he meant it, and cried out: "Come back, come back!
and I'll give you anything."
He showed the same sort of "attack" with audiences. He made them
believe in him the moment he stepped on to the stage.
His conversation was extremely entertaining--and, let me add, ingenuous.
One of his favorite reflections was: "Tempus fugit! So make the most of
it. While you're alive, gather roses; for when you're dead, you're dead
a d----d long time."
He was a perfect rider, and loved to do cowboy "stunts" in Richmond Park
while riding to the "Star and Garter."
When he had presents from the front, which happened every night, he gave
them at once to the call-boy or the gas-man. To the women-folk,
especially the plainer ones, he was always delightful. Never was any man
more adored by the theater staff. And children, my own Edy included,
were simply _daft_ about him. A little American girl, daughter of
William Winter, the famous critic, when staying with me in England,
announced gravely when we were out driving:
"I've gone a mash on Terriss."
There was much laughter. When it had subsided, the child said gravely:
"Oh, you can laugh, but it's true. I wish I was hammered to him!"
Perhaps if he had lived longer, Terriss would have lost his throne. He
died as a beautiful youth, a kind of Adonis, although he was fifty years
old when he was stabbed at the stage-door of the Adelphi Theater.
Terriss had a beautiful mouth. That predisposed me in his favor at once!
I have always been "cracked" on pretty mouths! I remember that I used to
say "Naughty Teddy!" to my own little boy just for the pleasure of
seeing him put out his under-lip, when his mouth looked lovely!
At the Court Terriss was still under thirty, but doing the best work of
his life. He _never_ did anything finer than Squire Thornhill, although
he was clever as Henry VIII. His gravity as Flutter in "The Belle's
Stratagem" was very fetching; as Bucklaw in "Ravenswood" he looked
magnificent, and, of course, as the sailor hero in Adelphi melodrama he
was as good as could be. But it is as Thornhill that I like best to
remember him. He was precisely the handsome, reckless, unworthy creature
that good women are fools enough to love.
In the Court production of "Olivia," both my children walked on to the
stage for the first time. Teddy had such red cheeks that they made all
the _rouged_ cheeks look quite pale! Little Edy gave me a bunch of real
flowers that she had picked in the country the day before.
Young Norman Forbes-Robertson was the Moses of the original cast. He
played the part again at the Lyceum. How charming he was! And how very,
very young! He at once gave promise of being a good actor and of having
done the right thing in following his brother on to the stage. At the
present day I consider him the only actor on the stage who can play
Shakespeare's fools as they should be played.
Among the girls "walking on" was Kate Rorke. This made me take a special
interest in watching what she did later on. No one who saw her fine
performance in "The Profligate" could easily forget it, and I shall
never understand why the London public ever let her go.
It was during the run of "Olivia" that Henry Irving became sole lessee
of the Lyceum Theater. For a long time he had been contemplating the
step, but it was one of such magnitude that it could not be done in a
hurry. I daresay he found it difficult to separate from Mrs. Bateman and
from her daughter, who had for such a long time been his "leading lady."
He had to be a little cruel, not for the last time, in a career devoted
unremittingly and unrelentingly to his art and his ambition.
It was said by an idle tongue in later years that rich ladies financed
Henry Irving's ventures. The only shadow of foundation for this
statement is that at the beginning of his tenancy of the Lyceum, the
Baroness Burdett-Coutts lent him a certain sum of money, every farthing
of which was repaid during the first few months of his management.
The first letter that I ever received from Henry Irving was written on
July 20, 1878, from 15A, Grafton Street, the house in which he lived
during the entire period of his Lyceum management.
"Dear Miss Terry,--
"I look forward to the pleasure of calling upon you on Tuesday next at
"With every good wish, believe me, sincerely,
The call was in reference to my engagement as Ophelia. Strangely
characteristic I see it now to have been of Henry that he was content to
take my powers as an actress more or less on trust. A mutual friend,
Lady Pollock, had told him that I was the very person for him; that "all
London" was talking of my Olivia; that I had acted well in Shakespeare
with the Bancrofts; that I should bring to the Lyceum Theater what
players call "a personal following." Henry chose his friends as
carefully as he chose his company and his staff. He believed in Lady
Pollock implicitly, and he did not--it is possible that he could
not--come and see my Olivia for himself.
I was living in Longridge Road when Henry Irving first came to see me.
Not a word of our conversation about the engagement can I remember. I
did notice, however, the great change that had taken place in the man
since I had last met him in 1867. Then he was really almost ordinary
looking--with a mustache, an unwrinkled face, and a sloping forehead.
The only wonderful thing about him was his melancholy. When I was
playing the piano once in the greenroom at the Queen's Theater, he came
in and listened. I remember being made aware of his presence by his
sigh--the deepest, profoundest, sincerest sigh I ever heard from any
human being. He asked me if I would not play the piece again.
The incident impressed itself on my mind, inseparably associated with a
picture of him as he looked at thirty--a picture by no means pleasing.
He looked conceited, and almost savagely proud of the isolation in which
he lived. There was a touch of exaggeration in his appearance--a dash of
Werther, with a few flourishes of Jingle! Nervously sensitive to
ridicule, self-conscious, suffering deeply from his inability to express
himself through his art, Henry Irving, in 1867, was a very different
person from the Henry Irving who called on me at Longridge Road in 1878.
In ten years he had found himself, and so lost himself--lost, I mean,
much of that stiff, ugly, self-consciousness which had encased him as
the shell encases the lobster. His forehead had become more massive, and
the very outline of his features had altered. He was a man of the world,
whose strenuous fighting now was to be done as a general--not, as
hitherto, in the ranks. His manner was very quiet and gentle. "In
quietness and confidence shall be your strength," says the Psalmist.
That was always like Henry Irving.
And here, perhaps, is the place to say that I, of all people, can
perhaps appreciate Henry Irving least justly, although I was his
associate on the stage for a quarter of a century, and was on the terms
of the closest friendship with him for almost as long a time. He had
precisely the qualities that I never find likable.
He was an egotist--an egotist of the great type, _never_ "a mean
egotist," as he was once slanderously described--and all his faults
sprang from egotism, which is in one sense, after all, only another name
for greatness. So much absorbed was he in his own achievements that he
was unable or unwilling to appreciate the achievements of others. I
never heard him speak in high terms of the great foreign actors and
actresses who from time to time visited England. It would be easy to
attribute this to jealousy, but the easy explanation is not the true
one. He simply would not give himself up to appreciation. Perhaps
appreciation is a _wasting_ though a generous quality of the mind and
heart, and best left to lookers-on, who have plenty of time to develop
I was with him when he saw Sarah Bernhardt act for the first time. The
play was "Ruy Blas," and it was one of Sarah's bad days. She was
walking through the part listlessly, and I was angry that there should
be any ground for Henry's indifference. The same thing happened years
later, when I took him to see Eleonora Duse. The play was "La
Locandiera," in which to my mind she is not at her very best. He was
surprised at my enthusiasm. There was an element of justice in his
attitude towards the performance which infuriated me, but I doubt if he
would have shown more enthusiasm if he had seen her at her very best.
As the years went on he grew very much attached to Sarah Bernhardt, and
admired her as a colleague whose managerial work in the theater was as
dignified as his own, but of her superb powers as an actress, I don't
believe he ever had a glimmering notion!
Perhaps it is not true, but, as I believe it to be true, I may as well
state it: _It was never any pleasure to him to see the acting of other
actors and actresses._ All the same, Salvini's Othello I know he thought
magnificent, but he would not speak of it.
How dangerous it is to write things that may not be understood! What I
have written I have written merely to indicate the qualities in Henry
Irving's nature, which were unintelligible to me, perhaps because I have
always been more woman than artist. He always put the theater first. He
lived in it, he died in it. He had none of what I may call my
_bourgeois_ qualities--the love of being in love, the love of a home,
the dislike of solitude. I have always thought it hard to find my
inferiors. He was sure of his high place. He was far simpler than I in
some ways. He would talk, for instance, in such an ingenuous way to
painters and musicians that I blushed for him. But I know now that my
blush was far more unworthy than his freedom from all pretentiousness in
matters of art.
_He never pretended._ One of his biographers has said that he posed as
being a French scholar. Such a thing, and all things like it, were
impossible to his nature. If it were necessary in one of his plays to
say a few French words, he took infinite pains to learn them and said
Henry once told me that in the early part of his career, before I knew
him, he had been hooted because of his thin legs. The first service I
did him was to tell him they were beautiful, and to make him give up
"What do you want with fat, podgy, prize-fighter legs!" I expostulated.
Praise to some people at certain stages of their career is more
developing than blame. I admired the very things in Henry for which
other people criticized him. I hope this helped him a little.
I brought help, too, in pictorial matters. Henry Irving had had little
training in such matters--I had had a great deal. Judgment about colors,
clothes and lighting must be _trained_. I had learned from Mr. Watts,
from Mr. Godwin, and from other artists, until a sense of decorative
effect had become second nature to me.
Before the rehearsals of "Hamlet" began at the Lyceum I went on a
provincial tour with Charles Kelly, and played for the first time in
"Dora," and "Iris," besides doing a steady round of old parts. In
Birmingham I went to see Henry's Hamlet. (I have tried already, most
inadequately, to say what it was to me.) I had also appeared for the
first time as Lady Teazle--a part which I wish I was not too old to play
now, for I could play it better. My performance in 1877 was not finished
enough, not light enough. I think I did the screen scene well. When the
screen was knocked over I did not stand still and rigid with eyes cast
down. That seemed to me an attitude of guilt. Only a _guilty_ woman,
surely, in such a situation would assume an air of conscious virtue. I
shrank back, and tried to hide my face--a natural movement, so it seemed
to me, for a woman who had been craning forward, listening in increasing
agitation to the conversation between Charles and Joseph Surface.
I shall always regret that we never did "The School for Scandal," or any
of the other classic comedies, at the Lyceum. There came a time when
Henry was anxious for me to play Lady Teazle, but I opposed him, as I
thought that I was too old. It should have been one of my best parts.
"Star" performances, for the benefit of veteran actors retiring from the
stage, were as common in my youth as now. About this time I played in
"Money" for the benefit of Henry Compton, a fine comedian who had
delighted audiences at the Haymarket for many years. On this occasion I
did not play Clara Douglas as I had done during the revival at the
Prince of Wales's, but the comedy part, Georgina Vesey. John Hare, Mr.
and Mrs. Kendal, Henry Neville, Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft, and, last but not
least, Benjamin Webster, who came out of his retirement to play
Graves--"his original part"--were in the cast.
I don't think that Webster ever appeared on the stage again, although
he lived on for many years in an old-fashioned house near Kennington
Church, and died at a great age. He has a descendant on the stage in Mr.
Ben Webster, who acted with us at the Lyceum, and is now well known both
in England and America.
Henry Compton's son, Edward, was in this performance of "Money." He was
engaged to the beautiful Adelaide Neilson, an actress whose brilliant
career was cut off suddenly when she was riding in the Bois. She drank a
glass of milk when she was overheated, was taken ill, and died. I am
told that she commanded L700 a week in America, and in England people
went wild over her Juliet. She looked like a child of the warm South,
although she was born, I think, in Manchester, and her looks were much
in her favor as Juliet. She belonged to the ripe, luscious, pomegranate
type of woman. The only living actress with the same kind of beauty is
Adelaide Neilson had a short reign, but a most triumphant one. It was
easy to understand it when one saw her. She was so gracious, so
feminine, so lovely. She did things well, but more from instinct than
anything else. She had no science. Edward Compton now takes his own
company round the provinces in an excellent repertoire of old comedies.
He has done as much to make country audiences familiar with them as Mr.
Benson has done to make them familiar with Shakespeare.
I come now to the Lyceum rehearsals of November, 1878. Although Henry
Irving had played Hamlet for over two hundred nights in London, and for
I don't know how many nights in the provinces, he always rehearsed in
cloak and rapier. This careful attention to detail came back to my mind
years afterwards, when he gave readings of Macbeth. He never gave a
public reading without first going through the entire play at home--at
home, that is to say, in a miserably uncomfortable hotel.
During the first rehearsal he read every one's part except mine, which
he skipped, and the power that he put into each part was extraordinary.
He threw himself so thoroughly into it that his skin contracted and his
eyes shone. His lips grew whiter and whiter, and his skin more and more
drawn as the time went on, until he looked like a livid thing, but
He never got at anything _easily_, and often I felt angry that he would
waste so much of his strength in trying to teach people to do things in
the right way. Very often it only ended in his producing actors who gave
colorless, feeble and unintelligent imitations of him. There were
exceptions, of course.
When it came to the last ten days before the date named for the
production of "Hamlet," and my scenes with him were still unrehearsed, I
grew very anxious and miserable. I was still a stranger in the theater,
and in awe of Henry Irving personally; but I plucked up courage, and
"I am very nervous about my first appearance with you. Couldn't we
rehearse _our_ scenes?"
"_We_ shall be all right!" he answered, "but we are not going to run the
risk of being bottled up by a gas-man or a fiddler."
When I spoke, I think he was conducting a band rehearsal. Although he
did not understand a note of music, he felt, through intuition, what the
music ought to be, and would pull it about and have alterations made. No
one was cleverer than Hamilton Clarke, Henry's first musical director,
and a most gifted composer, at carrying out his instructions. Hamilton
Clarke often grew angry and flung out of the theater, saying that it was
quite impossible to do what Mr. Irving required.
"Patch it together, indeed!" he used to say to me indignantly, when I
was told off to smooth him down. "Mr. Irving knows nothing about music,
or he couldn't ask me to do such a thing."
But the next day he would return with the score altered on the lines
suggested by Henry, and would confess that the music was improved. "Upon
my soul, it's better! The 'Guv'nor' was perfectly right."
His Danish march in "Hamlet," his Brocken music in "Faust," and his
music for "The Merchant of Venice" were all, to my mind, exactly
_right_. The brilliant gifts of Clarke, before many years had passed,
"o'er-leaped" themselves, and he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.
The only person who did not profit by Henry's ceaseless labors was poor
Ophelia. When the first night came, I did not play the part well,
although the critics and the public were pleased. To myself I _failed_.
I had not rehearsed enough. I can remember one occasion when I played
Ophelia really well. It was in Chicago some ten years later. At Drury
Lane, in 1896, when I played the mad scene for Nelly Farren's benefit,
and took farewell of the part for ever, I was just _damnable_!
Ophelia only _pervades_ the scenes in which she is concerned until the
mad scene. This was a tremendous thing for me, who am not capable of
_sustained_ effort, but can perhaps manage a _cumulative_ effort better
than most actresses. I have been told that Ophelia has "nothing to do"
at first. I found so much to do! Little bits of business which, slight
in themselves, contributed to a definite result, and kept me always in
Like all Ophelias before (and after) me, I went to the madhouse to study
wits astray. I was disheartened at first. There was no beauty, no
nature, no pity in most of the lunatics. Strange as it may sound, they
were too _theatrical_ to teach me anything. Then, just as I was going
away, I noticed a young girl gazing at the wall. I went between her and
the wall to see her face. It was quite vacant, but the body expressed
that she was waiting, waiting. Suddenly she threw up her hands and sped
across the room like a swallow. I never forgot it. She was very thin,
very pathetic, very young, and the movement was as poignant as it was
I saw another woman laugh with a face that had no gleam of laughter
anywhere--a face of pathetic and resigned grief.
My experiences convinced me that the actor must imagine first and
observe afterwards. It is no good observing life and bringing the result
to the stage without selection, without a definite idea. The idea must
come first, the realism afterwards.
Perhaps because I was nervous and irritable about my own part from
insufficient rehearsal, perhaps because his responsibility as lessee
weighed upon him, Henry Irving's Hamlet on the first night at the Lyceum
seemed to me less wonderful than it had been at Birmingham. At
rehearsals he had been the perfection of grace. On the night itself, he
dragged his leg and seemed stiff from self-consciousness. He asked me
later on if I thought the ill-natured criticism of his walk was in any
way justified, and if he really said "Gud" for "God," and the rest of
it. I said straight out that he _did_ say his vowels in a peculiar way,
and that he _did_ drag his leg.
I begged him to give up that dreadful, paralyzing waiting at the side
for his cue, and after a time he took my advice. He was never obstinate
in such matters. His one object was to _find out_, to _test_ suggestion,
and follow it if it stood his test.
He was very diplomatic when he meant to have his own way. He never
blustered or enforced or threatened. My first acquaintance with this
side of him was made over my dresser for Ophelia. He had heard that I
intended to wear black in the mad scene, and he intended me to wear
white. When he first mentioned the subject, I had no idea that there
would be any opposition. He spoke of my dresses, and I told him that as
I was very anxious not to be worried about them at the last minute, they
had been got on with early and were now finished.
"Finished! That's very interesting! Very interesting. And what--er--what
colors are they?"
"In the first scene I wear a pinkish dress. It's all rose-colored with
her. Her father and brother love her. The Prince loves her--and so she
"Pink," repeated Henry thoughtfully.
"In the nunnery scene I have a pale, gold, amber dress--the most
beautiful color. The material is a church brocade. It will 'tone down'
the color of my hair. In the last scene I wear a transparent, black
Henry did not wag an eyelid.
"I see. In mourning for her father."
"No, not exactly that. I think _red_ was the mourning color of the
period. But black seems to me _right_--like the character, like the
"Would you put the dresses on?" said Henry gravely.
At that minute Walter Lacy came up, that very Walter Lacy who had been
with Charles Kean when I was a child, and who now acted as adviser to
Henry Irving in his Shakespearean productions.
"Ah, here's Lacy. Would you mind, Miss Terry, telling Mr. Lacy what you
are going to wear?"
Rather surprised, but still unsuspecting, I told Lacy all over again.
Pink in the first scene, yellow in the second, black--
You should have seen Lacy's face at the word "black." He was going to
burst out, but Henry stopped him. He was more diplomatic than that!
"They generally wear _white_, don't they?"
"I believe so," I answered, "but black is more interesting."
"I should have thought you would look much better in white."
"Oh, no!" I said.
And then they dropped the subject for that day. It _was_ clever of him!
The next day Lacy came up to me:
"You didn't really mean that you are going to wear black in the mad
"Yes, I did. Why not?"
"_Why not!_ My God! Madam, there must be only one black figure in this
play, and that's Hamlet!"
I did feel a fool. What a blundering donkey I had been not to see it
before! I was very thrifty in those days, and the thought of having been
the cause of needless expense worried me. So instead of the _crepe de
Chine_ and miniver, which had been used for the black dress, I had for
the white dress Bolton sheeting and rabbit, and I believe it looked
The incident, whether Henry was right or not, led me to see that,
although I knew more of art and archaeology in dress than he did, he had
a finer sense of what was right for the _scene_. After this he always
consulted me about the costumes, but if he said: "I want such and such a
scene to be kept dark and mysterious," I knew better than to try and
introduce pale-colored dresses into it.
Henry always had a fondness for "the old actor," and would engage him in
preference to the tyro any day. "I can trust them," he explained
In the cast of "Hamlet" Mr. Forrester, Mr. Chippendale, and Tom Mead
worthily repaid the trust. Mead, in spite of a terrible excellence in
"Meadisms"--he substituted the most excruciatingly funny words for
Shakespeare's when his memory of the text failed--was a remarkable
actor. His voice as the Ghost was beautiful, and his appearance
splendid. With his deep-set eyes, hawklike nose, and clear brow, he
reminded me of the Rameses head in the British Museum.
We had young men in the cast, too. There was one very studious youth who
could never be caught loafing. He was always reading, or busy in the
greenroom studying by turns the pictures of past actor-humanity with
which the walls were peopled, or the present realities of actors who
came in and out of the room. Although he was so much younger then, Mr.
Pinero looked much as he does now. He played Rosencrantz very neatly.
Consummate care, precision, and brains characterized his work as an
actor always, but his chief ambition lay another way. Rosencrantz and
the rest were his school of stage-craft.
Kyrle Bellew, the Osric of the production, was another man of the
future, though we did not know it. He was very handsome, a tremendous
lady-killer! He wore his hair rather long, had a graceful figure, and a
good voice, as became the son of a preacher who had the reputation of
saying the Lord's Prayer so dramatically that his congregation sobbed.
Frank Cooper, a descendant of the Kembles, another actor who has risen
to eminence since, played Laertes. It was he who first led me onto the
Lyceum stage. Twenty years later he became my leading man on the first
tour I took independently of Henry Irving since my tours with my
husband, Charles Kelly.
WORK AT THE LYCEUM
When I am asked what I remember about the first ten years at the Lyceum,
I can answer in one word: _Work_. I was hardly ever out of the theater.
What with acting, rehearsing, and studying--twenty-five reference books
were a "simple coming-in" for one part--I sometimes thought I should go
blind and mad. It was not only for my parts at the Lyceum that I had to
rehearse. From August to October I was still touring in the provinces on
my own account. My brother George acted as my business manager. His
enthusiasm was not greater than his loyalty and industry. When we were
playing in small towns he used to rush into my dressing-room after the
curtain was up and say excitedly:
"We've got twenty-five more people in our gallery than the Blank Theater
Although he was very delicate, he worked for me like a slave. When my
tours with Mr. Kelly ended in 1880 and I promised Henry Irving that in
future I would go to the provincial towns with him, my brother was given
a position at the Lyceum, where, I fear, his scrupulous and
uncompromising honesty often got him into trouble. "Perks," as they are
called in domestic service, are one of the heaviest additions to a
manager's working expenses, and George tried to fight the system. He
hurt no one so much as himself.
One of my productions in the provinces was an English version of
"Frou-Frou," made for me by my dear friend Mrs. Comyns Carr, who for
many years designed the dresses that I wore in different Lyceum plays.
"Butterfly," as "Frou-Frou" was called when it was produced in English,
went well; indeed, the Scots of Edinburgh received it with overwhelming
favor, and it served my purpose at the time, but when I saw Sarah
Bernhardt play the part I wondered that I had had the presumption to
meddle with it. It was not a case of my having a different view of the
character and playing it according to my imagination, as it was, for
instance, when Duse played "La Dame aux Camelias," and gave a
performance that one could not say was _inferior_ to Bernhardt's,
although it was so utterly _different_. No people in their right senses
could have accepted my "Frou-Frou" instead of Sarah's. What I lacked
technically in it was _pace_.
Of course, it is partly the language. English cannot be phrased as
rapidly as French. But I have heard foreign actors, playing in the
English tongue, show us this rapidity, this warmth, this fury--call it
what you will--and have just wondered why we are, most of us, so
deficient in it.
Fechter had it, so had Edwin Forrest. When strongly moved, their
passions and their fervor made them swift. The more Henry Irving felt,
the more deliberate he became. I said to him once: "You seem to be
hampered in the vehemence of passion." "I _am_," he answered. This is
what crippled his Othello, and made his scene with Tubal in "The
Merchant of Venice" the least successful _to him_. What it was to the
audience is another matter. But he had to take refuge in speechless rage
when he would have liked to pour out his words like a torrent.
In the company which Charles Kelly and I took round the provinces in
1880 were Henry Kemble and Charles Brookfield. Young Brookfield was just
beginning life as an actor, and he was so brilliantly funny off the
stage that he was always a little disappointing _on_ it. My old
manageress, Mrs. Wigan, first brought him to my notice, writing in a
charming little note that she knew him "to have a power of _personation_
very rare in an unpracticed actor," and that if we could give him varied
practice, she would feel it a courtesy to her.
I had reason to admire Mr. Brookfield's "powers of personation" when I
was acting at Buxton. He and Kemble had no parts in one of our plays, so
they amused themselves during their "off" night by hiring bath-chairs
and pretending to be paralytics! We were acting in a hall, and the most
infirm of the invalids visiting the place to take the waters were
wheeled in at the back, and up the center aisle. In the middle of a very
pathetic scene I caught sight of Kemble and Brookfield in their
bath-chairs, and could not _speak_ for several minutes.
Mr. Brookfield does not tell this little story in his "Random
Reminiscences." It is about the only one that he has left out! To my
mind he is the prince of storytellers. All the cleverness that he should
have put into his acting and his play-writing (of which since those
early days he has done a great deal) he seems to have put into his life.
I remember him more clearly as a delightful companion than an actor, and
he won my heart at once by his kindness to my little daughter Edy, who
accompanied me on this tour. He has too great a sense of humor to resent
my inadequate recollection of him. Did he not in his own book quote
gleefully from an obituary notice published on a false report of his
death, the summary: "Never a great actor, he was invaluable in small
parts. But after all it is at his club that he will be most missed!"
In the last act of "Butterfly," as we called the English version of
"Frou-Frou," where the poor woman is dying, her husband shows her a
locket with a picture of her child in it. Night after night we used a
"property" locket, but on my birthday, when we happened to be playing
the piece, Charles Kelly bought a silver locket of Indian work and put
inside it two little colored photographs of my children, Edy and Teddy,
and gave it to me on the stage instead of the "property" one. When I
opened it, I burst into very real tears! I have often wondered since if
the audience that night knew that they were seeing _real_ instead of
assumed emotion! Probably the difference did not tell at all.
At Leeds we produced "Much Ado About Nothing." I never played Beatrice
as well again. When I began to "take soundings" from life for my idea of
her, I found in my friend Anne Codrington (now Lady Winchilsea) what I
wanted. There was before me a Beatrice--as fine a lady as ever lived, a
great-hearted woman--beautiful, accomplished, merry, tender. When Nan
Codrington came into a room it was as if the sun came out. She was the
daughter of an admiral, and always tried to make her room look as like a
cabin as she could. "An excellent musician," as Benedick hints Beatrice
was, Nan composed the little song that I sang at the Lyceum in "The
Cup," and very good it was, too.
When Henry Irving put on "Much Ado About Nothing"--a play which he may
be said to have done for me, as he never really liked the part of
Benedick--I was not the same Beatrice at all. A great actor can do
nothing badly, and there was so very much to admire in Henry Irving's
Benedick. But he gave me little help. Beatrice must be swift, swift,
swift! Owing to Henry's rather finicking, deliberate method as Benedick,
I could never put the right pace into my part. I was also feeling
unhappy about it, because I had been compelled to give way about a
traditional "gag" in the church scene, with which we ended the fourth
act. In my own production we had scorned this gag, and let the curtain
come down on Benedick's line: "Go, comfort your cousin; I must say she
is dead, and so farewell." When I was told that we were to descend to
the buffoonery of:
_Beatrice:_ Benedick, kill him--kill him if you can.
_Benedick:_ As sure as I'm alive, I will!
I protested, and implored Henry not to do it. He said that it was
necessary: otherwise the "curtain" would be received in dead silence. I
assured him that we had often had seven and eight calls without it. I
used every argument, artistic and otherwise. Henry, according to his
custom, was gentle, would not discuss it much, but remained obdurate.
After holding out for a week, I gave in. "It's my duty to obey your
orders, and do it," I said, "but I do it under protest." Then I burst
into tears. It was really for his sake just as much as for mine. I
thought it must bring such disgrace on him! Looking back on the
incident, I find that the most humorous thing in connection with it was
that the critics, never reluctant to accuse Henry of "monkeying" with
Shakespeare if they could find cause, never noticed the gag at all!
Such disagreements occurred very seldom. In "The Merchant of Venice" I
found that Henry Irving's Shylock necessitated an entire revision of my
conception of Portia, especially in the trial scene, but here there was
no point of honor involved. I had considered, and still am of the same
mind, that Portia in the trial scene ought to be very _quiet_. I saw an
extraordinary effect in this quietness. But as Henry's Shylock was
quiet, I had to give it up. His heroic saint was splendid, but it wasn't
good for Portia.
Of course, there were always injudicious friends to say that I had not
"chances" enough at the Lyceum. Even my father said to me after
"We must have no more of these Ophelias and Desdemonas!"
"_Father!_" I cried out, really shocked.
"They're second fiddle parts--not the parts for you, Duchess."
"Father!" I gasped out again, for really I thought Ophelia a pretty good
part, and was delighted at my success with it.
But granting these _were_ "second fiddle" parts, I want to make quite
clear that I had my turn of "first fiddle" ones. "Romeo and Juliet,"
"Much Ado About Nothing," "Olivia," and "The Cup" all gave me finer
opportunities than they gave Henry. In "The Merchant of Venice" and
"Charles I." they were at least equal to his.
I have sometimes wondered what I should have accomplished without Henry
Irving. I might have had "bigger" parts, but it doesn't follow that they
would have been better ones, and if they had been written by
contemporary dramatists my success would have been less durable. "No
actor or actress who doesn't play in the 'classics'--in Shakespeare or
old comedy--will be heard of long," was one of Henry Irving's sayings,
by the way, and he was right.
It was a long time before we had much talk with each other. In the
"Hamlet" days, Henry Irving's melancholy was appalling. I remember
feeling as if I had laughed in church when he came to the foot of the
stairs leading to my dressing-room, and caught me sliding down the
banisters! He smiled at me, but didn't seem able to get over it.
"Lacy," he said some days later, "what do you think! I found her the
other day sliding down the banisters!"
Some one says--I think it is Keats, in a letter--that the poet lives not
in one, but in a thousand worlds, and the actor has not one, but a
hundred natures. What was the real Henry Irving? I used to speculate!
His religious upbringing always left its mark on him, though no one
could be more "raffish" and mischievous than he when entertaining
friends at supper in the Beefsteak Room, or chaffing his valued
adjutants, Bram Stoker and Loveday. H.J. Loveday, our dear stage
manager, was, I think, as absolutely devoted to Henry as anyone except
his fox-terrier, Fussie. Loveday's loyalty made him agree with everything
that Henry said, however preposterous, and didn't Henry trade on it
Once while he was talking to me, when he was making up, he absently took
a white lily out of a bowl on the table and began to stripe and dot the
petals with the stick of grease-paint in his hand. He pulled off one or
two of the petals, and held it out to me.
"Pretty flower, isn't it?"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Henry!" I said.
"You wait!" he said mischievously. "We'll show it to Loveday."
Loveday was sent for on some business connected with the evening's
performance. Henry held out the flower obtrusively, but Loveday wouldn't
"Pretty, isn't it?" said Henry carelessly.
"Very," said Loveday. "I always like those lilies. A friend of mine has
his garden full of them, and he says they're not so difficult to grow if
only you give 'em enough water."
Henry's delight at having "taken in" Loveday was childish. But sometimes
I think Loveday must have seen through these innocent jokes, only he
wouldn't have spoiled "the Guv'nor's" bit of fun for the world.
When Henry first met him he was conducting an orchestra. I forget the
precise details, but I know that he gave up this position to follow
Henry, that he was with him during the Bateman regime at the Lyceum, and
that when the Lyceum became a thing of the past, he still kept the post
of stage manager. He was literally "faithful unto death," for it was
only at Henry's death that his service ended.
Bram Stoker, whose recently published "Reminiscences of Irving" have
told, as well as it ever _can_ be told, the history of the Lyceum
Theater under Irving's direction, was as good a servant in the front of
the theater as Loveday was on the stage. Like a true Irishman, he has
given me some lovely blarney in his book. He has also told _all_ the
stories that I might have told, and described every one connected with
the Lyceum except himself. I can fill _that_ deficiency to a certain
extent by saying that he is one of the most kind and tender-hearted of
men. He filled a difficult position with great tact, and was not so
universally abused as most business managers, because he was always
straight with the company, and never took a mean advantage of them.
Stoker and Loveday were daily, nay, hourly, associated for many years
with Henry Irving; but, after all, did they or any one else _really_
know him? And what was Henry Irving's attitude. I believe myself that he
never wholly trusted his friends, and never admitted them to his
intimacy, although they thought he did, which was the same thing to
From his childhood up, Henry was lonely. His chief companions in youth
were the Bible and Shakespeare. He used to study "Hamlet" in the Cornish
fields, when he was sent out by his aunt, Mrs. Penberthy, to call in the
cows. One day, when he was in one of the deep, narrow lanes common in
that part of England, he looked up and saw the face of a sweet little
lamb gazing at him from the top of the bank. The symbol of the lamb in
the Bible had always attracted him, and his heart went out to the dear
little creature. With some difficulty he scrambled up the bank,
slipping often in the damp, red earth, threw his arms round the lamb's
neck and kissed it.
_The lamb bit him!_
Did this set-back in early childhood influence him? I wonder! He had
another such set-back when he first went on the stage, and for some six
weeks in Dublin was subjected every night to groans, hoots, hisses, and
cat-calls from audiences who resented him because he had taken the place
of a dismissed favorite. In such a situation an actor is not likely to
take stock of _reasons_. Henry Irving only knew that the Dublin people
made him the object of violent personal antipathy. "I played my parts
not badly for me," he said simply, "in spite of the howls of execration
with which I was received."
The bitterness of this Dublin episode was never quite forgotten. It
colored Henry Irving's attitude towards the public. When he made his
humble little speeches of thanks to them before the curtain, there was
always a touch of pride in the humility. Perhaps he would not have
received adulation in quite the same dignified way if he had never known
what it was to wear the martyr's "shirt of flame."
This is the worst of my trying to give a consecutive narrative of my
first years at the Lyceum. Henry Irving looms across them, reducing all
events, all feelings, all that happened, and all that was suggested, to
Let me speak _generally_ of his method of procedure in producing a play.
First he studied it for three months himself, and nothing in that play
would escape him. Some one once asked him a question about "Titus
Andronicus." "God bless my soul!" he said. "I never read it, so how
should I know!" The Shakespearean scholar who had questioned him was a
little shocked--a fact which Henry Irving, the closest observer of men,
did not fail to notice.
"When I am going to do 'Titus Andronicus,' or any other play," he said
to me afterwards, "I shall know more about it than A---- or any other
There was no conceit in this. It was just a statement of fact. And it
may not have been an admirable quality of Henry Irving's, but all his
life he only took an interest in the things which concerned the work
that he had in hand. When there was a question of his playing Napoleon,
his room at Grafton Street was filled with Napoleonic literature. Busts
of Napoleon, pictures of Napoleon, relics of Napoleon were everywhere.
Then, when another play was being prepared, the busts, however fine,
would probably go down to the cellar. It was not _Napoleon_ who
interested Henry Irving, but _Napoleon for his purpose_--two very
His concentration during his three months' study of the play which he
had in view was marvelous. When, at the end of the three-months, he
called the first rehearsal, he read the play exactly as it was going to
be done on the first night. He knew exactly by that time what he
personally was going to do on the first night, and the company did well
to notice how he read his own part, for never again until the first
night, though he rehearsed with them, would he show his conception so
fully and completely.
These readings, which took place sometimes in the greenroom or Beefsteak
Room at the Lyceum, sometimes at his house in Grafton Street, were
wonderful. Never were the names of the characters said by the reader,
but never was there the slightest doubt as to which was speaking. Henry
Irving swiftly, surely, acted every part in the piece as he read. While
he read, he made notes as to the position of the characters and the
order of the crowds and processions. At the end of the first reading he
gave out the parts.
The next day there was the "comparing" of the parts. It generally took
place on the stage, and we sat down for it. Each person took his own
character, and took up the cues to make sure that no blunder had been
made in writing them out. Parts at the Lyceum were written, or printed,
These first two rehearsals--the one devoted to the reading of the play,
and the other to the comparing of the parts, were generally arranged for
Thursday and Friday. Then there was two days' grace. On Monday came the
first stand-up rehearsal on the stage.
We then did one act straight through, and, after that, straight through
again, even if it took all day. There was no luncheon interval. People
took a bite when they could, or went without. Henry himself generally
went without. The second day exactly the same method was pursued with
the second act. All the time Henry gave the stage his personal
direction, gave it keenly, and gave it whole. He was the sole
superintendent of his rehearsals, with Mr. Loveday as his working
assistant, and Mr. Allen as his prompter. This despotism meant much less
wasted time than when actor-manager, "producer," literary adviser, stage
manager, and any one who likes to offer a suggestion are all competing
in giving orders and advice to a company.
Henry Irving never spent much time on the women in the company, except
in regard to position. Sometimes he would ask me to suggest things to
them, to do for them what he did for the men. The men were as much like
him when they tried to carry out his instructions as brass is like gold;
but he never grew weary of "coaching" them, down to the most minute
detail. Once during the rehearsals of "Hamlet" I saw him growing more
and more fatigued with his efforts to get the actors who opened the play
to perceive his meaning. He wanted the first voice to ring out like a
"Do give it up," I said. "It's no better!"
"Yes, it's a little better," he answered quietly, "and so it's worth
From the first the scenery or substitute scenery was put upon the stage
for rehearsal, and the properties or substitute properties were to hand.
After each act had been gone through twice each day, it came to half an
act once in a whole day, because of the development of detail. There was
no detail too small for Henry Irving's notice. He never missed anything
that was cumulative--that would contribute something to the whole
The messenger who came in to announce something always needed a great
deal of rehearsal. There were processions, and half processions, quiet
bits when no word was spoken. There was _timing_. Nothing was left to
In the master carpenter, Arnott, we had a splendid man. He inspired
confidence at once through his strong, able personality, and, as time
went on, deserved it through all the knowledge he acquired and through
his excellence in never making a difficulty.
"You shall have it," was no bluff from Arnott. You _did_ "have it."
We could not find precisely the right material for one of my dresses in
"The Cup." At last, poking about myself in quest of it, I came across
the very thing at Liberty's--a saffron silk with a design woven into it
by hand with many-colored threads and little jewels. I brought a yard to
rehearsal. It was declared perfect, but I declared the price
"It's twelve guineas a yard, and I shall want yards and yards!"
In these days I am afraid they would not only put such material on to
the leading lady, but on to the supers too! At the Lyceum _wanton_
extravagance was unknown.
"Where can I get anything at all like it?"
"You leave it to me," said Arnott. "I'll get it for you. That'll be all
"But, Arnott, it's a hand-woven Indian material. How _can_ you get it?"
"You leave it to me," Arnott repeated in his slow, quiet, confident way.
"Do you mind letting me have this yard as a pattern?"
He went off with it, and before the dress rehearsal had produced about
twenty yards of silk, which on the stage looked better than the
"There's plenty more if you want it," he said dryly.
He had had some raw silk dyed the exact saffron. He had had two blocks
made, one red and the other black, and the design had been printed, and
a few cheap spangles had been added to replace the real jewels. My toga
This was but one of the many emergencies to which Arnott rose with
talent and promptitude.
With the staff of the theater he was a bit of a bully--one of those men
not easily roused, but being vexed, "nasty in the extreme!" As a
craftsman he had wonderful taste, and could copy antique furniture so
that one could not tell the copy from the original.
The great aim at the Lyceum was to get everything "rotten perfect," as
the theatrical slang has it, before the dress rehearsal. Father's test
of being rotten perfect was not a bad one. "If you can get out of bed in
the middle of the night and do your part, you're perfect. If you can't,
you don't really know it!"
Henry Irving applied some such test to every one concerned in the
production. I cannot remember any play at the Lyceum which did not begin
punctually and end at the advertised time, except "Olivia," when some
unwise changes in the last act led to delay.
He never hesitated to discard scenery if it did not suit his purpose.
There was enough scenery rejected in "Faust" to have furnished three
productions, and what was finally used for the famous Brocken scene cost
next to nothing.
Even the best scene-painters sometimes think more of their pictures than
of scenic effects. Henry would never accept anything that was not right
_theatrically_ as well as pictorially beautiful. His instinct in this
was unerring and incomparable.
I remember that at one scene-rehearsal every one was fatuously pleased
with the scenery. Henry sat in the stalls talking about everything _but_
the scenery. It was hard to tell what he thought.
"Well, are you ready?" he asked at last.
"My God! Is that what you think I am going to give the public?"
Never shall I forget the astonishment of stage manager, scene-painter,
and staff! It was never safe to indulge in too much self-satisfaction
beforehand with Henry. He was always liable to drop such bombs!
He believed very much in "front" scenes, seeing how necessary they were
to the swift progress of Shakespeare's diverging plots. These cloths
were sometimes so wonderfully painted and lighted that they constituted
scenes of remarkable beauty. The best of all were the Apothecary scene
in "Romeo and Juliet" and the exterior of Aufidius's house in
We never had electricity installed at the Lyceum until Daly took the
theater. When I saw the effect on the faces of the electric footlights,
I entreated Henry to have the gas restored, and he did. We used gas
footlights and gas limes there until we left the theater for good in
To this I attribute much of the beauty of our lighting. I say "our"
because this was a branch of Henry's work in which I was always his
chief helper. Until electricity has been greatly improved and developed,
it can never be to the stage what gas was. The thick softness of
gaslight, with the lovely specks and motes in it, so like _natural_
light, gave illusion to many a scene which is now revealed in all its
naked trashiness by electricity.
The artificial is always noticed and recognized as art by the
superficial critic. I think this is what made some people think Irving
was at his best in such parts as Louis XI, Dubosc, and Richard III. He
could have played Louis XI three times a day "on his head," as the
saying is. In "The Lyons Mail," Dubosc the wicked man was easy
enough--strange that the unprofessional looker-on always admires the
actor's art when it is employed on easy things!--but Lesurques, the
_good_ man in the same play ("The Lyons Mail"), was difficult. Any
actor, skillful in the tricks of the business, can play the drunkard;
but to play a good man sincerely, as he did here, to show that double
thing, the look of guilt which an innocent man wears when accused of
crime, requires great acting, for "_the look_" is the outward and
visible sign of the inward and spiritual emotion--and this delicate
emotion can only be perfectly expressed when the actor's heart and mind
and soul and skill are in absolute accord.
In dual parts Irving depended little on make-up. Make-up was, indeed,
always his servant, not his master. He knew its uselessness when not
informed by the _spirit_. "The letter" (and in characterization
grease-paint is the letter) "killeth--the spirit giveth life." His
Lesurques was different from his Dubosc because of the way he held his
shoulders, because of his expression. He always took a deep interest in
crime (an interest which his sons have inherited), and often went to the
police-court to study the faces of the accused. He told me that the
innocent man generally looked guilty and hesitated when asked a
question, but that the round, wide-open eyes corrected the bad
impression. The result of this careful watching was seen in his
expression as Lesurques. He opened his eyes wide. As Dubosc he kept them
Our plays from 1878 to 1887 were "Hamlet," "The Lady of Lyons," "Eugene
Aram," "Charles I.," "The Merchant of Venice," "Iolanthe," "The Cup,"
"The Belle's Stratagem," "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," "Much Ado About
Nothing," "Twelfth Night," "Olivia," "Faust," "Raising the Wind," and
"The Amber Heart." I give this list to keep myself straight. My mental
division of the years at the Lyceum is _before_ "Macbeth," and _after_.
I divide it up like this, perhaps, because "Macbeth" was the most
important of all our productions, if I judge it by the amount of
preparation and thought that it cost us and by the discussion which it
Of the characters played by Henry Irving in the plays of the first
division--before "Macbeth," that is to say--I think every one knows that
I considered Hamlet to be his greatest triumph. Sometimes I think that
was so because it was the only part that was big enough for him. It was
more difficult, and he had more scope in it than in any other. If there
had been a finer part than Hamlet, that particular part would have been
When one praises an actor in this way, one is always open to accusations
of prejudice, hyperbole, uncritical gush, unreasoned eulogy, and the
rest. Must a careful and deliberate opinion _always_ deny a great man
genius? If so, no careful and deliberate opinions from me!
I have no doubt in the world of Irving's genius--no doubt that he is
with David Garrick and Edmund Kean, rather than with other actors of
great talents and great achievements--actors who rightly won high
opinions from the multitude of their day, but who have not left behind
them an impression of that inexplicable thing which we call genius.
Since my great comrade died I have read many biographies of him, and
nearly all of them denied what I assert. "Now, who shall arbitrate?" I
find no contradiction of my testimony in the fact that he was not
appreciated for a long time, that some found him like olives, an
acquired taste, that others mocked and derided him.
My father, who worshiped Macready, put Irving above him because of
Irving's _originality_. The old school were not usually so generous.
Fanny Kemble thought it necessary to write as follows of one who had had
his share of misfortune and failure before he came into his kingdom and
made her jealous, I suppose, for the dead kings among her kindred:
"I have seen some of the accounts and critics of Mr. Irving's
acting, and rather elaborate ones of his Hamlet, which, however,
give me no very distinct idea of his performance, and a very hazy
one indeed of the part itself as seen from the point of view of his
critics. Edward Fitzgerald wrote me word that he looked like my
people, and sent me a photograph to prove it, which I thought much
more like Young than my father or uncle. _I have not seen a play of
Shakespeare's acted I do not know when. I think I should find such
an exhibition extremely curious as well as entertaining._"
Now, shall I put on record what Henry Irving thought of Fanny Kemble! If
there is a touch of malice in my doing so, surely the passage that I
have quoted gives me leave.
Having lived with Hamlet nearly all his life, studied the part when he
was a clerk, dreamed of a day when he might play it, the young Henry
Irving saw that Mrs. Butler, the famous Fanny Kemble, was going to give
a reading of the play. His heart throbbed high with anticipation, for in
those days TRADITION was everything--the name of Kemble a beacon and a
The studious young clerk went to the reading.
An attendant came on to the platform, first, and made trivial and
apparently unnecessary alterations in the position of the reading desk.
A glass of water and a book were placed on it.
After a portentous wait, on swept a lady with an extraordinary flashing
eye, a masculine and muscular outside. Pounding the book with terrific
energy, as if she wished to knock the stuffing out of it, she announced
in thrilling tones:
"I suppose this is all right," thought the young clerk, a little
dismayed at the fierce and sectional enunciation.
Then the reader came to Act I, Sc. 2, which the old actor (to leave the
Kemble reading for a minute), with but a hazy notion of the text, used
"Although of Hamlet, our dear brother's death,
The memory be--memory be--(What _is_ the color?) _green_"....
When Fanny Kemble came to this scene the future Hamlet began to listen
_Gertrude_: Let not thy mother lose _her_ prayers, _Ham--a--lette_.
_Hamlet_: I shall in all respects obey _you_, madam (obviously with
a fiery flashing eye of hate upon the King).
When he heard this and more like it, Henry Irving exercised his
independence of opinion and refused to accept Fanny Kemble's view of the
gentle, melancholy, and well-bred Prince of Denmark.
He was a stickler for tradition, and always studied it, followed it,
sometimes to his own detriment, but he was not influenced by the Kemble
Hamlet, except that for some time he wore the absurd John Philip
feather, which he would have been much better without!
Let me pray that I, representing the old school, may never look on the
new school with the patronizing airs of "Old Fitz" and Fanny Kemble.
I wish that I could _see_ the new school of acting in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare must be kept up, or we shall become a third-rate nation!
[Footnote 1: Edward FitzGerald.]
Henry told me this story of Fanny Kemble's reading without a spark of
ill-nature, but with many a gleam of humor. He told me at the same time
of the wonderful effect that Adelaide Kemble (Mrs. Sartoris) used to
make when she recited Shelley's lines, beginning:
"Good-night--Ah, no, the hour is ill
Which severs those it should unite.
Let us remain together still--
Then it will be _good-night_!"
I have already said that I never could cope with Pauline Deschapelles,
and why Henry wanted to play Melnotte was a mystery. Claude Melnotte
after Hamlet! Oddly enough, Henry was always attracted by fustian. He
simply reveled in the big speeches. The play was beautifully staged; the
garden scene alone probably cost as much as the whole of "Hamlet." The
march past the window of the apparently unending army--that good old
trick which sends the supers flying round the back-cloth to cross the
stage again and again--created a superb effect. The curtain used to go
up and down as often as we liked and chose to keep the army marching!
The play ran some time, I suppose because even at our worst the public
found _something_ in our acting to like.
As Ruth Meadowes I had very little to do, but what there was, was worth
doing. The last act of "Eugene Aram," like the last act of "Ravenswood,"
gave me opportunity. It was staged with a great appreciation of grim and
poetic effect. Henry always thought that the dark, overhanging branch of
the cedar was like the cruel outstretched hand of Fate. He called it the
Fate Tree, and used it in "Hamlet," in "Eugene Aram," and in "Romeo and
In "Eugene Aram," the Fate Tree drooped low over the graves in the
churchyard. On one of them Henry used to be lying in a black cloak as
the curtain went up on the last act. Not until a moonbeam struck the
dark mass did you see that it was a man.
He played all such parts well. Melancholy and the horrors had a peculiar
fascination for him--especially in these early days. But his recitation
of the poem "Eugene Aram" was finer than anything in the
play--especially when he did it in a frock-coat. No one ever looked so
well in a frock-coat! He was always ready to recite it--used to do it
after supper, anywhere. We had a talk about it once, and I told him that
it was _too much_ for a room. No man was ever more willing to listen to
suggestion or less obstinate about taking advice. He immediately
moderated his methods when reciting in _a room_, making it all the less
theatrical. The play was a good repertoire play, and we did it later on
in America with success. There the part of Houseman was played by
Terriss, who was quite splendid in it, and at Chicago my little boy
Teddy made his second appearance on any stage as Joey, a gardener's boy.
He had, when still a mere baby, come on to the stage at the Court in
"Olivia," and this must be counted his _first_ appearance, although the
chroniclers, ignoring both that and Joey in "Eugene Aram," _say_ he
never appeared at all until he played an important part in "The Dead
It is because of Teddy that "Eugene Aram" is associated in my mind with
one of the most beautiful sights upon the stage that I ever saw in my
life. He was about ten or eleven at the time, and as he tied up the
stage roses, his cheeks, untouched by rouge, put the reddest of them to
shame! He was so graceful and natural; he spoke his lines with ease, and
smiled all over his face! "A born actor!" I said, although Joey was my
son. Whenever I think of him in that stage garden, I weep for pride, and
for sorrow, too, because before he was thirty my son had left the
stage--he who had it all in him. I have good reason to be proud of what
he has done since, but I regret the lost actor _always_.
Henry Irving could not at first keep away from melancholy pieces.
Henrietta Maria was another sad part for me--but I used to play it well,
except when I cried too much in the last act. The play had been one of
the Bateman productions, and I had seen Miss Isabel Bateman as Henrietta
Maria and liked her, although I could not find it possible to follow her
example and play the part with a French accent! I constantly catch
myself saying of Henry Irving, "That is by far the best thing that he
ever did." I could say it of some things in "Charles I."--of the way he
gave up his sword to Cromwell, of the way he came into the room in the
last act and shut the door behind him. It was not a man coming on to a
stage to meet some one. It was a king going to the scaffold, quietly,
unobtrusively, and courageously. However often I played that scene with
him, I knew that when he first came on he was not aware of my presence
nor of any _earthly_ presence: he seemed to be already in heaven.
Much has been said of his "make-up" as Charles I. Edwin Long painted him
a triptych of Vandyck heads, which he always had in his dressing-room,
and which is now in my possession. He used to come on to the stage
Back to Full Books