The Story of My Life
Part 4 out of 7
looking precisely like the Vandyck portraits, but not because he had
been busy building up his face with wig-paste and similar atrocities.
His make-up in this, as in other parts, was the process of _assisting
subtly and surely the expression from within_. It was elastic, and never
hampered him. It changed with the expression. As Charles, he was
assisted by Nature, who had given him the most beautiful Stuart hands,
but his clothes most actors would have consigned to the dust-bin! Before
we had done with Charles I.--we played it together for the last time in
1902--these clothes were really threadbare. Yet he looked in them every
inch a king.
His care of detail may be judged from the fact that in the last act his
wig was not only grayer, but had far less hair in it. I should hardly
think it necessary to mention this if I had not noticed how many actors
seem to think that age may be procured by the simple expedient of
dipping their heads, covered with mats of flourishing hair, into a
Unlike most stage kings, he never seemed to be _assuming_ dignity. He
was very, very simple.
Wills has been much blamed for making Cromwell out to be such a
wretch--a mean blackguard, not even a great bad man. But in plays the
villain must not compete for sympathy with the hero, or both fall to the
ground! I think that Wills showed himself a true poet in his play, and
in the last act a great playwright. He gave us both wonderful
opportunities, yet very few words were spoken.
Some people thought me best in the camp scene in the third act, where I
had even fewer lines to speak. I was proud of it myself when I found
that it had inspired Oscar Wilde to write me this lovely sonnet:
In the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain;
The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky,
War's ruin, and the wreck of chivalry
To her proud soul no common fear can bring;
Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord, the King,
Her soul aflame with passionate ecstasy.
O, hair of gold! O, crimson lips! O, face
Made for the luring and the love of man!
With thee I do forget the toil and stress,
The loveless road that knows no resting place,
Time's straitened pulse, the soul's dread weariness,
My freedom, and my life republican!
That phrase "wan lily" represented perfectly what I had tried to convey,
not only in this part but in Ophelia. I hope I thanked Oscar enough at
the time. Now he is dead, and I cannot thank him any more.... I had so
much _bad_ poetry written to me that these lovely sonnets from a real
poet should have given me the greater pleasure. "He often has the poet's
heart, who never felt the poet's fire." There is more good _heart_ and
kind feeling in most of the verses written to me than real poetry.
"One must discriminate," even if it sounds unkind. At the time that
Whistler was having one of his most undignified "rows" with a sitter
over a portrait and wrangling over the price, another artist was
painting frescoes in a cathedral for nothing. "It is sad that it should
be so," a friend said to me, "but _one must discriminate_. The man
haggling over the sixpence is the great artist!"
How splendid it is that _in time_ this is recognized. The immortal soul
of the artist is in his work, the transient and mortal one is in his
Another sonnet from Oscar Wilde--to Portia this time--is the first
document that I find in connection with "The Merchant," as the play was
always called by the theater staff.
"I marvel not Bassanio was so bold
To peril all he had upon the lead,
Or that proud Aragon bent low his head,
Or that Morocco's fiery heart grew cold;
For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold,
Which is more golden than the golden sun,
No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.
Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield
The sober-suited lawyer's gown you donned,
And would not let the laws of Venice yield
Antonio's heart to that accursed Jew--
O, Portia! take my heart; it is thy due:
I think I will not quarrel with the Bond."
Henry Irving's Shylock dress was designed by Sir John Gilbert. It was
never replaced, and only once cleaned by Henry's dresser and valet,
Walter Collinson. Walter, I think, replaced "Doody," Henry's first
dresser at the Lyceum, during the run of "The Merchant of Venice."
Walter was a wig-maker by trade--assistant to Clarkson the elder. It was
Doody who, on being asked his opinion of a production, said that it was
fine--"not a _join_ to be seen anywhere!" It was Walter who was asked
by Henry to say which he thought his master's best part. Walter could
not be "drawn" for a long time. At last he said Macbeth.
[Footnote 1: A "join" in theatrical wig-makers' parlance is the point
where the front-piece of the wig ends and the actor's forehead begins.]
This pleased Henry immensely, for, as I hope to show later on, he
fancied himself in Macbeth more than in any other part.
"It is generally conceded to be Hamlet," said Henry.
"Oh, no, sir," said Walter, "_Macbeth._ You sweat twice as much in
In appearance Walter was very like Shakespeare's bust in Stratford
Church. He was a most faithful and devoted servant, and was the only
person with Henry Irving when he died. Quiet in his ways, discreet,
gentle, and very quick, he was the ideal dresser.
The Lyceum production of "The Merchant of Venice" was not so strictly
archaeological as the Bancrofts' had been, but it was very gravely
beautiful and effective. If less attention was paid to details of
costumes and scenery, the play itself was arranged and acted very
attractively and always went with a swing. To the end of my partnership
with Henry Irving it was a safe "draw" both in England and America. By
this time I must have played Portia over a thousand times. During the
first run of it the severe attack made on my acting of the part in
_Blackwood's Magazine_ is worth alluding to. The suggestion that I
showed too much of a "coming-on" disposition in the Casket Scene
affected me for years, and made me self-conscious and uncomfortable. At
last I lived it down. Any suggestion of _indelicacy_ in my treatment of
a part always blighted me. Mr. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, of the immortal
"Alice in Wonderland") once brought a little girl to see me in "Faust."
He wrote and told me that she had said (where Margaret begins to
undress): "Where is it going to stop?" and that perhaps in consideration
of the fact that it could affect a mere child disagreeably, I ought to
alter my business!
I had known dear Mr. Dodgson for years and years. He was as fond of me
as he could be of any one over the age of ten, but I was _furious_. "I
thought you only knew _nice_ children," was all the answer that I gave
him. "It would have seemed to me awful for a _child_ to see harm where
harm is; how much more when she sees it where harm is not."
But I felt ashamed and shy whenever I played that scene. It was the
Casket Scene over again.
The unkind _Blackwood_ article also blamed me for showing too plainly
that Portia loves Bassanio before he has actually won her. This seemed
to me unjust, if only because Shakespeare makes Portia say _before_
Bassanio chooses the right casket:
"One half of me is yours--the other half yours--_All yours!_"
Surely this suggests that she was not concealing her fondness like a
Victorian maiden, and that Bassanio had most surely won her love, though
not yet the right to be her husband.
"There is a soul of goodness in things evil," and the criticism made me
alter the setting of the scene, and so contrive it that Portia was
behind and out of sight of the men who made hazard for her love.
Dr. Furnivall, a great Shakespearean scholar, was so kind as to write me
the following letter about Portia:
"Being founder and director of the New Shakespeare Society, I
venture to thank you most heartily for your most charming and
admirable impersonation of our poet's Portia, which I witnessed
to-night with a real delight. You have given me a new light on the
character, and by your so pretty by-play in the Casket Scene have
made bright in my memory for ever the spot which almost all critics
have felt dull, and I hope to say this in a new edition of
(He did say it, in "The Leopold" edition.)
"Again those touches of the wife's love in the advocate when
Bassanio says he'd give up his wife for Antonio, and when you
kissed your hand to him behind his back in the Ring bit--how pretty
and natural they were! Your whole conception and acting of the
character are so true to Shakespeare's lines that one longs he
could be here to see you. A lady gracious and graceful, handsome,
witty, loving and wise, you are his Portia to the life."
That's the best of Shakespeare, _I_ say. His characters can be
interpreted in at least eight different ways, and of each way some one
will say: "That is Shakespeare!" The German actress plays Portia as a
low comedy part. She wears an eighteenth-century law wig, horn
spectacles, a cravat (this last anachronism is not confined to Germans),
and often a mustache! There is something to be said for it all, though I
should not like to play the part that way myself.
Lady Pollock, who first brought me to Henry Irving's notice as a
possible leading lady, thought my Portia better at the Lyceum than it
had been at the Prince of Wales's.
"Thanks, my dear Valentine and enchanting Portia," she writes to me
in response to a photograph that I had sent her, "but the
photographers don't see you as you are, and have not the poetry in
them to do you justice.... You were especially admirable in the
Casket Scene. You kept your by-play quieter, and it gained in
effect from the addition of repose--and I rejoiced that you did not
kneel to Bassanio at 'My Lord, my governor, my King.' I used to
feel that too much like worship from any girl to her affianced, and
Portia's position being one of command, I should doubt the
possibility of such an action...."
I think I received more letters about my Portia than about all my other
parts put together. Many of them came from university men. One old
playgoer wrote to tell me that he liked me better than my former
instructress, Mrs. Charles Kean. "She mouthed it as she did most
things.... She was not real--a staid, sentimental 'Anglaise,' and more
than a little stiffly pokerish."
Henry Irving's Shylock was generally conceded to be full of talent and
reality, but some of his critics could not resist saying that this was
_not_ the Jew that Shakespeare drew! Now, who is in a position to say
what is the Jew that Shakespeare drew? I think Henry Irving knew as
well as most! Nay, I am sure that in his age he was the only person
able to decide.
Some said his Shylock was intellectual, and appealed more to the
intellect of his audiences than to their emotions. Surely this is
talking for the sake of talking. I recall so many things that touched
people to the heart! For absolute pathos, achieved by absolute
simplicity of means, I never saw anything in the theater to compare with
his Shylock's return home over the bridge to his deserted house after
A younger actor, producing "The Merchant of Venice" in recent years,
asked Irving if he might borrow this bit of business. "By all means,"
said Henry. "With great pleasure."
"Then, why didn't you do it?" inquired my daughter bluntly when the
actor was telling us how kind and courteous Henry had been in allowing
him to use his stroke of invention.
"What do you mean?" asked the astonished actor.
My daughter told him that Henry had dropped the curtain on a stage full
of noise, and light, and revelry. When it went up again the stage was
empty, desolate, with no light but a pale moon, and all sounds of life
at a great distance--and then over the bridge came the wearied figure of
the Jew. This marked the passing of the time between Jessica's elopement
and Shylock's return home. It created an atmosphere of silence, and the
middle of the night.
"_You_ came back without dropping the curtain," said my daughter, "and
so it wasn't a bit the same."
"I couldn't risk dropping the curtain for the business," answered the
actor, "_because it needed applause to take it up again_!"
Henry Irving never grew tired of a part, never ceased to work at it,
just as he never gave up the fight against his limitations. His diction,
as the years went on, grew far clearer when he was depicting rage and
passion. His dragging leg dragged no more. To this heroic perseverance
he added an almost childlike eagerness in hearing any suggestion for the
improvement of his interpretations which commended itself to his
imagination and his judgment. From a blind man came the most
illuminating criticism of his Shylock. The sensitive ear of the
sightless hearer detected a fault in Henry Irving's method of delivering
the opening line of his part:
"Three thousand ducats--well!"
"I hear no sound of the usurer in that," the blind man said at the end
of the performance. "It is said with the reflective air of a man to whom
money means very little."
The justice of the criticism appealed strongly to Henry. He revised his
reading not only of the first line, but of many other lines in which he
saw now that he had not been enough of the money-lender.
In more recent years he made one change in his dress. He asked my
daughter--whose cleverness in such things he fully recognized--to put
some stage jewels on to the scarf that he wore round his head when he
supped with the Christians.
"I have an idea that, when he went to that supper, he'd like to flaunt
his wealth in the Christian dogs' faces. It will look well, too--'like
the toad, ugly and venomous,' wearing precious jewels on his head!"
The scarf, witnessing to that untiring love of throwing new light on his
impersonations which distinguished Henry to the last, is now in my
daughter's possession. She values no relic of him more unless it be the
wreath of oak-leaves that she made him for "Coriolanus."
We had a beautiful scene for this play--a garden with a dark pine forest
in the distance. Henry was _not_ good in it. He had a Romeo part which
had not been written by Shakespeare. We played it instead of the last
act of "The Merchant of Venice." I never liked it being left out, but
people used to say, like parrots, that "the interest of the play ended
with the Trial Scene," and Henry believed them--for a time. I never did.
Shakespeare _never_ gives up in the last act like most dramatists.
Twice in "Iolanthe" I forgot that I was blind! The first time was when I
saw old Tom Mead and Henry Irving groping for the amulet, which they had
to put on my breast to heal me of my infirmity. It had slipped on to the
floor, and both of them were too short-sighted to see it! Here was a
predicament! I had to stoop and pick it up for them.
The second time I put out my hand and cried: "Look out for my lilies,"
when Henry nearly stepped on the bunch with which a little girl friend
of mine supplied me every night I played the part.
Iolanthe was one of Helen Faucit's great successes. I never saw this
distinguished actress when she was in her prime. Her Rosalind, when she
came out of her retirement to play a few performances, appeared to me
more like a _lecture_ on Rosalind, than like Rosalind herself: a lecture
all young actresses would have greatly benefited by hearing, for it was
of great beauty. I remember being particularly struck by her treatment
of the lines in the scene where Celia conducts the mock marriage between
Orlando and Ganymede. Another actress, whom I saw as Rosalind, said the
words, "And I do take thee, Orlando, to be my husband," with a comical
grimace to the audience. Helen Faucit flushed up and said the line with
deep and true emotion, suggesting that she was, indeed, giving herself
to Orlando. There was a world of poetry in the way she drooped over his
Mead distinguished himself in "Iolanthe" by speaking of "that immortal
land where God hath His--His--er--room?--no--lodging?--no--where God
hath His apartments!"
The word he could not hit was, I think, "dwelling." He used often to try
five or six words before he got the right one _or_ the wrong one--it was
generally the wrong one--in full hearing of the audience.
"THE MERCHANT OF VENICE" TO "ROMEO AND JULIET"
"The Merchant of Venice" was acted two hundred and fifty consecutive
nights on the occasion of the first production. On the hundredth night
every member of the audience was presented with Henry Irving's acting
edition of the play bound in white velum--a solid and permanent
souvenir, paper, print and binding all being of the best. The famous
Chiswick Press did all his work of this kind. On the title page was
"I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends."
At the close of the performance which took place on Saturday, February
14, 1880, Henry entertained a party of 350 to supper on the stage. This
was the first of those enormous gatherings which afterwards became an
institution at the Lyceum.
It was at this supper that Lord Houghton surprised us all by making a
very sarcastic speech about the stage and actors generally. It was no
doubt more interesting than the "butter" which is usually applied to the
profession at such functions, but every one felt that it was rather rude
to abuse long runs when the company were met to celebrate a hundredth
Henry Irving's answer was delightful. He spoke with good sense, good
humour and good breeding, and it was all spontaneous. I wish that a
phonograph had been in existence that night, and that a record had been
taken of the speech. It would be so good for the people who have
asserted that Henry Irving always employed journalists (when he could
not get Poets Laureate!) to write his speeches for him! The voice was
always the voice of Irving, if the hands were sometimes the hands of the
professional writer. When Henry was thrown on his debating resources he
really spoke better than when he prepared a speech, and his letters
prove, if proof were needed, how finely he could write! Those who
represent him as dependent in such matters on the help of literary hacks
are just ignorant of the facts.
During the many years that I played Portia I seldom had a Bassanio to my
mind. It seems to be a most difficult part, to judge by the colorless
and disappointing renderings that are given of it. George Alexander was
far the best of my Bassanio bunch! Mr. Barnes, "handsome Jack Barnes,"
as we called him, was a good actor, is a good actor still, as every one
knows, but his gentility as Bassanio was overwhelming. It was said of
him that he thought more of the rounding of his legs than the charms of
his affianced wife, and that in the love-scenes he appeared to be taking
orders for furniture! This was putting it unkindly, but there was some
truth in it.
He was so very dignified! My sister Floss (Floss was the first Lyceum
Nerissa) and I once tried to make him laugh by substituting two "almond
rings" for the real rings. "Handsome Jack" lost his temper, which made
us laugh the more. He was quite right to be angry. Such fooling on the
stage is very silly. I think it is one of the evils of long runs! When
we had seen "handsome Jack Barnes" imperturbably pompous for two hundred
nights in succession, it became too much for us, and the almond rings
were the result.
Mr. Tyars was the Prince of Morocco. Actors might come, and actors might
go in the Lyceum company, but Tyars went on for ever. He never left
Henry Irving's management, and was with him in that last performance of
"Becket" at Bradford on October 13, 1905--the last performance ever
given by Henry Irving who died the same night.
Tyars was the most useful actor that we ever had in the company. I
should think that the number of parts he has played in the same piece
would constitute a theatrical record.
I don't remember when Tom Mead first played the Duke, but I remember
"Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too."
He began the speech in the Trial Scene very slowly.
Between every word Henry was whispering: "Get on--get on!" Old Mead,
whose memory was never good, became flustered, and at the end of the
line came to a dead stop.
"Get on, get on," said Henry.
Mead looked round with dignity, opened his mouth and shut it, opened it
again, and in his anxiety to oblige Henry, did get on indeed!--to the
last line of the long speech.
"We all expect a gentle answer, Jew."
The first line and the last line were all that we heard of the Duke's
speech that night. It must have been the shortest version of it on
This was the play with which the Lyceum reopened in the autumn of 1880.
I was on the last of my provincial tours with Charles Kelly at the time,
but I must have come up to see the revival, for I remember Henry Irving
in it very distinctly. He had not played the dual role of Louis and
Fabien del Franchi before, and he had to compete with old playgoers'
memories of Charles Kean and Fechter. Wisely enough he made of it a
"period" play, emphasizing its old-fashioned atmosphere. In 1891, when
the play was revived, the D'Orsay costumes were noticed and considered
piquant and charming. In 1880 I am afraid they were regarded with
indifference as merely antiquated.
The grace and elegance of Henry as the civilized brother I shall never
forget. There was something in _him_ to which the perfect style of the
D'Orsay period appealed, and he spoke the stilted language with as much
truth as he wore the cravat and the tight-waisted full-breasted coats.
Such lines as--
"'Tis she! Her footstep beats upon my heart!"
were not absurd from his lips.
The sincerity of the period, he felt, lay in its elegance. A rough
movement, a too undeliberate speech, and the absurdity of the thing
might be given away. It was in fact given away by Terriss at
Chateau-Renaud, who was not the smooth, graceful, courteous villain that
Alfred Wigan had been and that Henry wanted. He told me that he paid
Miss Fowler, an actress who in other respects was not very remarkable,
an enormous salary because she could look the high-bred lady of elegant
It was in "The Corsican Brothers" that tableau curtains were first used
at the Lyceum. They were made of red plush, which suited the old
decoration of the theater. Those who only saw the Lyceum after its
renovation in 1881 do not realize perhaps that before that date it was
decorated in dull gold and dark crimson, and had funny boxes with high
fronts like old-fashioned church pews. One of these boxes was rented
annually by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts. It was rather like the toy
cardboard theater which children used to be able to buy for sixpence.
The effect was somber, but I think I liked it better than the cold,
light, shallow, bastard Pompeian decoration of later days.
In Hallam Tennyson's life of his father, I find that I described "The
Cup" as a "great little play." After thirty years (nearly) I stick to
that. Its chief fault was that it was not long enough, for it involved a
tremendous production, tremendous acting, had all the heroic size of
tragedy, and yet was all over so quickly that we could play a long play
like "The Corsican Brothers" with it in a single evening.
Tennyson read the play to us at Eaton Place. There were present Henry
Irving, Ellen Terry, William Terriss, Mr. Knowles, who had arranged the
reading, my daughter Edy, who was then about nine, Hallam Tennyson,
_and_ a dog--I think Charlie, for the days of Fussie were not yet.
Tennyson, like most poets, read in a monotone, rumbling on a low note
in much the same way that Shelley is said to have screamed in a high
one. For the women's parts he changed his voice suddenly, climbed up
into a key which he could not sustain. In spite of this I was beginning
to think how impressive it all was, when I looked up and saw Edy, who
was sitting on Henry's knee, looking over his shoulder at young Hallam
and laughing, and Henry, instead of reproaching her, on the broad grin.
There was much discussion as to what the play should be called, and as
to whether the names "Synorix" and "Sinnatus" would be confused.
"I don't think they will," I said, for I thought this was a very small
matter for the poet to worry about.
"I do!" said Edy in a loud clear voice, "I haven't known one from the
other all the time!"
"Edy, be good!" I whispered.
Henry, mischievous as usual, was delighted at Edy's independence, but
her mother was unutterably ashamed.
"Leave her alone," said Henry, "she's all right."
Tennyson at first wanted to call the play "The Senator's Wife," then
thought of "Sinnatus and Synorix," and finally agreed with us that "The
Cup" was the best as it was the simplest title.
The production was one of the most beautiful things that Henry Irving
ever accomplished. It has been described again and again, but none of
the descriptions are very successful. There was a vastness, a
spaciousness of proportion about the scene in the Temple of Artemis
which I never saw again upon the stage until my own son attempted
something like it in the Church Scene that he designed for my
production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1903.
A great deal of the effect was due to the lighting. The gigantic figure
of the many-breasted Artemis, placed far back in the scene-dock, loomed
through a blue mist, while the foreground of the picture was in yellow
light. The thrilling effect always to be gained on the stage by the
simple expedient of a great number of people doing the same thing in the
same way at the same moment, was seen in "The Cup," when the stage was
covered with a crowd of women who raised their arms above their heads
with a large, rhythmic, sweeping movement and then bowed to the goddess
with the regularity of a regiment saluting.
At rehearsals there was one girl who did this movement with peculiar
grace. She wore a black velveteen dress, although it was very hot
weather, and I called her "Hamlet." I used to chaff her about wearing
such a grand dress at rehearsals, but she was never to be seen in any
other. The girls at the theater told me that she was very poor, and that
underneath her black velveteen dress, which she wore summer and winter,
she had nothing but a pair of stockings and a chemise. Not long after
the first night of "The Cup" she disappeared. I made inquiries about
her, and found that she was dying in hospital. I went several times to
see her. She looked so beautiful in the little white bed. Her great
eyes, black, with weary white lids, used to follow me as I left the
hospital ward, and I could not always tear myself away from their dumb
beseechingness, but would turn back and sit down again by the bed. Once
she asked me if I would leave something belonging to me that she might
look at until I came again. I took off the amber and coral beads that I
was wearing at the time and gave them to her. Two days later I had a
letter from the nurse telling me that poor Hamlet was dead--that just
before she died, with closed eyes, and gasping for breath, she sent her
love to her "dear Miss Terry," and wanted me to know that the tall
lilies I had brought her on my last visit were to be buried with her,
but that she had wiped the coral and amber beads and put them in
cotton-wool, to be returned to me when she was dead. Poor "Hamlet"!
Quite as wonderful as the Temple Scene was the setting of the first act,
which represented the rocky side of a mountain with a glimpse of a
fertile table-land and a pergola with vines growing over it at the top.
The acting in this scene all took place on different levels. The hunt
swept past on one level; the entrance to the temple was on another. A
goatherd played upon a pipe. Scenically speaking, it was not Greece, but
Greece in Sicily, Capri, or some such hilly region.
Henry Irving was not able to look like the full-lipped, full-blooded
Romans such as we see in long lines in marble at the British Museum, so
he conceived his own type of the blend of Roman intellect and sensuality
with barbarian cruelty and lust. Tennyson was not pleased with him as
Synorix! _How_ he failed to delight in it as a picture I can't conceive.
With a pale, pale face, bright red hair, gold armor and a tiger-skin, a
diabolical expression and very thin crimson lips, Henry looked handsome
and sickening at the same time. _Lechery_ was written across his
The first act was well within my means; the second was beyond them, but
it was very good for me to try and do it. I had a long apostrophe to the
goddess with my back turned to the audience, and I never tackled
anything more difficult. My dresses, designed by Mr. Godwin, one of them
with the toga made of that wonderful material which Arnott had printed,
were simple, fine and free.
I wrote to Tennyson's son Hallam after the first night that I knew his
father would be delighted with Henry's splendid performance, but was
afraid he would be disappointed in me.
"Dear Camma," he answered, "I have given your messages to my father,
but believe me, who am not 'common report,' that he will thoroughly
appreciate your noble, _most_ beautiful and imaginative rendering of
'Camma.' My father and myself hope to see you soon, but not while this
detestable cold weather lasts. We trust that you are not now really the
worse for that night of nights.
"With all our best wishes,
"Yours ever sincerely,
"I quite agree with you as to H.I.'s Synorix."
The music of "The Cup" was not up to the level of the rest. Lady
Winchilsea's setting of "Moon on the field and the foam," written within
the compass of eight notes, for my poor singing voice, which will not go
up high nor down low, was effective enough, but the music as a whole was
too "chatty" for a severe tragedy. One night when I was singing my very
"Moon, bring him home, bring him home,
Safe from the dark and the cold,"
some one in the audience _sneezed_. Every one burst out laughing, and I
had to laugh too. I did not even attempt the next line.
"The Cup" was called a failure, but it ran 125 nights, and every night
the house was crowded! On the hundredth night I sent Tennyson the Cup
itself. I had it made in silver from Mr. Godwin's design--a
three-handled cup, pipkin-shaped, standing on three legs.
"The Cup" and "The Corsican Brothers" together made the bill too heavy
and too long, even at a time when we still "rang up" at 7:30; and in the
April following the production of Tennyson's beautiful tragedy--which I
think in sheer poetic intensity surpasses "Becket," although it is not
nearly so good a play--"The Belle's Stratagem" was substituted for "The
Corsican Brothers." This was the first real rollicking comedy that a
Lyceum audience had ever seen, and the way they laughed did my heart
good. I had had enough of tragedy and the horrors by this time, and I
could have cried with joy at that rare and welcome sight--an audience
rocking with laughter. On the first night the play opened propitiously
enough with a loud laugh due to the only accident of the kind that ever
happened at the Lyceum. The curtain went up before the staff had
"cleared," and Arnott, Jimmy and the rest were seen running for their
lives out of the center entrance!
People said that it was so clever of me to play Camma and Letitia Hardy
(the comedy part in "The Belle's Stratagem") on the same evening. They
used to say the same kind thing, "only more so," when Henry played
Jingle and Matthias in "The Bells." But I never liked doing it. A _tour
de force_ is always more interesting to the looker-on than to the person
who is taking part in it. One feels no pride in such an achievement,
which ought to be possible to any one calling himself an actor.
Personally, I never play comedy and tragedy on the same night without a
sense that one is spoiling the other. Harmonies are more beautiful than
contrasts in acting as in other things--and more difficult, too.
Henry Irving was immensely funny as Doricourt. We had sort of Beatrice
and Benedick scenes together, and I began to notice what a lot his
_face_ did for him. There have only been two faces on the stage in my
time--his and Duse's.
My face has never been of much use to me, but my _pace_ has filled the
deficiency sometimes, in comedy at any rate. In "The Belle's Stratagem"
the public had face and pace together, and they seemed to like it.
There was one scene in which I sang "Where are you going to, my pretty
maid?" I used to act it all the way through and give imitations of
Doricourt--ending up by chucking him under the chin. The house rose at
I was often asked at this time when I went out to a party if I would not
sing that dear little song from "The Cup." When I said I didn't think it
would sound very nice without the harp, as it was only a chant on two or
three notes, some one would say:
"Well, then, the song in 'The Belle's Stratagem'! _That_ has no
"No," I used to answer, "but it isn't a song. It's a look here, a
gesture there, a laugh anywhere, _and_ Henry Irving's face everywhere!"
Miss Winifred Emery came to us for "The Belle's Stratagem" and played
the part that I had played years before at the Haymarket. She was
bewitching, and in her white wig in the ball-room, beautiful as well.
She knew how to bear herself on the stage instinctively, and could dance
a minuet to perfection. The daughter of Sam Emery, a great comedian in a
day of comedians, and the granddaughter of _the_ Emery, it was not
surprising that she should show aptitude for the stage.
Mr. Howe was another new arrival in the Lyceum company. He was at his
funniest as Mr. Hardy in "The Belle's Stratagem." It was not the first
time that he had played my father in a piece (we had acted father and
daughter in "The Little Treasure"), and I always called him "Daddy." The
dear old man was much liked by every one. He had a tremendous pair of
legs, was bluff and bustling in manner, though courtly too, and cared
more about gardening than acting. He had a little farm at Isleworth, and
he was one of those actors who do not allow the longest theatrical
season to interfere with domesticity and horticulture! Because of his
stout gaitered legs and his Isleworth estate, Henry called him "the
agricultural actor." He was a good old port and whisky drinker, but he
could carry his liquor like a Regency man.
He was a walking history of the stage. "Yes, my dear," he used to say to
me, "I was in the original cast of the first performance of 'The Lady of
Lyons,' which Lord Lytton gave Macready as a present, and I was the
original Francois when 'Richelieu' was produced. Lord Lytton wrote this
part for a lady, but at rehearsal it was found that there was a good
deal of movement awkward for a lady to do, so I was put into it."
"What year was it, Daddy?"
"God bless me, I must think.... It must have been about a year after Her
Majesty took the throne."
For forty years and nine months old Mr. Howe had acted at the Haymarket
Theater! When he was first there, the theater was lighted with oil
lamps, and when a lamp smoked or went out, one of the servants of the
theater came on and lighted it up again during the action of the play.
It was the acting of Edmund Kean in "Richard III." which first filled
Daddy Howe with the desire to go on the stage. He saw the great actor
again when he was living in retirement at Richmond--in those last sad
days when the Baroness Burdett-Coutts (then the rich young heiress, Miss
Angela Burdett-Coutts), driving up the hill, saw him sitting huddled up
on one of the public seats and asked if she could do anything for him.
"Nothing, I think," he answered sadly. "Ah yes, there is one thing. You
were kind enough the other day to send me some very excellent brandy.
_Send me some more._"
[Footnote 1: This was a favorite story of Henry Irving's, and for that
reason alone I think it worth telling, although Sir Squire Bancroft
assures me that stubborn dates make it impossible that the tale should
Of Henry Irving as an actor Mr. Howe once said to me that at first he
was prejudiced against him because he was so different from the other
great actors that he had known.
"'This isn't a bit like Iago,' I said to myself when I first saw him in
'Othello.' That was at the end of the first act. But he had commanded my
attention to his innovations. In the second act I found myself deeply
interested in watching and studying the development of his conception.
In the third act I was fascinated by his originality. By the end of the
play I wondered that I could ever have thought that the part ought to be
Daddy Howe was the first member of the Lyceum company who got a
reception from the audience on his entrance as a public favorite. He
remained with us until his death, which took place on our fourth
American tour in 1893.
Every one has commended Henry Irving's kindly courtesy in inviting Edwin
Booth to come and play with him at the Lyceum Theater. Booth was having
a wretched season at the Princess's, which was when he went there a
theater on the down-grade, and under a thoroughly commercial management.
The great American actor, through much domestic trouble and bereavement,
had more or less "given up" things. At any rate he had not the spirit
which can combat such treatment as he received at the Princess's, where
the pieces in which he appeared were "thrown" on to the stage with every
mark of assumption that he was not going to be a success.
Yet, although he accepted with gratitude Henry Irving's suggestion that
he should migrate from the Princess's to the Lyceum and appear there
three times a week as Othello with the Lyceum company and its manager to
support him, I cannot be sure that Booth's pride was not more hurt by
this magnificent hospitality than it ever could have been by disaster.
It is always more difficult to _receive_ than to _give_.
Few people thought of this, I suppose. I did, because I could imagine
Henry Irving in America in the same situation--accepting the hospitality
of Booth. Would not he too have been melancholy, quiet, unassertive,
_almost_ as uninteresting and uninterested as Booth was?
I saw him first at a benefit performance at Drury Lane. I came to the
door of the room where Henry was dressing, and Booth was sitting there
with his back to me.
"Here's Miss Terry," said Henry as I came round the door. Booth looked
up at me swiftly. I have never in any face, in any country, seen such
wonderful eyes. There was a mystery about his appearance and his
manner--a sort of pride which seemed to say: "Don't try to know me, for
I am not what I have been." He seemed broken, and devoid of ambition.
At rehearsal he was very gentle and apathetic. Accustomed to playing
Othello with stock companies, he had few suggestions to make about the
stage-management. The part was to him more or less of a monologue.
"I shall never make you black," he said one morning. "When I take your
hand I shall have a corner of my drapery in my hand. That will protect
I am bound to say that I thought of Mr. Booth's "protection" with some
yearning the next week when I played Desdemona to _Henry's_ Othello.
Before he had done with me I was nearly as black as he.
Booth was a melancholy, dignified Othello, but not great as Salvini was
great. Salvini's Hamlet made me scream with mirth, but his Othello was
the grandest, biggest, most glorious thing. We often prate of "reserved
force." Salvini had it, for the simple reason that his was the gigantic
force which may be restrained because of its immensity. Men have no need
to dam up a little purling brook. If they do it in acting, it is tame,
absurd and pretentious. But Salvini held himself in, and still his groan
was like a tempest, his passion huge.
The fact is that, apart from Salvini's personal genius, the foreign
temperament is better fitted to deal with Othello than the English.
Shakespeare's French and Italians, Greeks and Latins, medievals and
barbarians, fancifuls and reals, all have a dash of Elizabethan English
men in them, but not Othello.
Booth's Othello was very helpful to my Desdemona. It is difficult to
preserve the simple, heroic blindness of Desdemona to the fact that her
lord mistrusts her, if her lord is raving and stamping under her nose!
Booth was gentle in the scenes with Desdemona until _the_ scene where
Othello overwhelms her with the foul word and destroys her fool's
paradise. Love _does_ make fools of us all, surely, but I wanted to make
Desdemona out the fool who is the victim of love and faith; not the
simpleton, whose want of tact in continually pleading Cassio's cause is
sometimes irritating to the audience.
My greatest triumph as Desdemona was not gained with the audience but
with Henry Irving! He found my endeavors to accept comfort from Iago so
pathetic that they brought the tears to his eyes. It was the oddest
sensation when I said "Oh, good Iago, what shall I do to win my lord
again?" to look up--my own eyes dry, for Desdemona is past crying
then--and see Henry's eyes at their biggest, luminous, soft and full of
tears! He was, in spite of Iago and in spite of his power of identifying
himself with the part, very deeply moved by my acting. But he knew how
to turn it to his purpose: he obtrusively took the tears with his
fingers and blew his nose with much feeling, softly and long (so much
expression there is, by the way, in blowing the nose on the stage), so
that the audience might think his emotion a fresh stroke of hypocrisy.
Every one liked Henry's Iago. For the first time in his life he knew
what it was to win unanimous praise. Nothing could be better, I think,
than Mr. Walkley's description: "Daringly Italian, a true compatriot
of the Borgias, or rather, better than Italians, that devil incarnate,
an Englishman Italianate."
[Footnote 1: Mr. A.B. Walkley, the gifted dramatic critic of _The
One adored him, devil though he was. He was so full of charm, so
sincerely the "honest" Iago, peculiarly sympathetic with Othello,
Desdemona, Roderigo, _all_ of them--except his wife. It was only in the
soliloquies and in the scenes with his wife that he revealed his devil's
nature. Could one ever forget those grapes which he plucked in the first
act, and slowly ate, spitting out the seeds, as if each one represented
a worthy virtue to be put out of his mouth, as God, according to the
evangelist, puts out the lukewarm virtues. His Iago and his Romeo in
different ways proved his power to portray _Italian_ passions--the
passions of lovely, treacherous people, who will either sing you a love
sonnet or stab you in the back--you are not sure which!
We played "Othello" for six weeks, three performances a week, to guinea
stalls, and could have played it longer. Each week Henry and Booth
changed parts. For both of them it was a change _for the worse_.
Booth's Iago seemed deadly commonplace after Henry's. He was always the
snake in the grass; he showed the villain in all the scenes. He could
not resist the temptation of making polished and ornate effects.
Henry Irving's Othello was condemned almost as universally as his Iago
was praised. For once I find myself with the majority. He screamed and
ranted and raved--lost his voice, was slow where he should have been
swift, incoherent where he should have been strong. I could not bear to
see him in the part. It was painful to me. Yet night after night he
achieved in the speech to the Senate one of the most superb and
beautiful bits of acting of his life. It was _wonderful_. He spoke the
speech, beaming on Desdemona all the time. The gallantry of the thing is
I think his failure as Othello was one of the unspoken bitternesses of
Henry's life. When I say "failure" I am of course judging him by his own
standard, and using the word to describe what he was to himself, not
what he was to the public. On the last night, he rolled up the clothes
that he had worn as the Moor one by one, carefully laying one garment on
top of the other, and then, half-humorously and very deliberately said,
"_Never again_!" Then he stretched himself with his arms above his head
and gave a great sigh of relief.
Mr. Pinero was excellent as Roderigo in this production. He was always
good in the "silly ass" type of part, and no one could say of him that
he was playing himself!
Desdemona is not counted a big part by actresses, but I loved playing
it. Some nights I played it beautifully. My appearance was right--I was
such a poor wraith of a thing. But let there be no mistake--it took
strength to act this weakness and passiveness of Desdemona's. I soon
found that, like Cordelia, she has plenty of character.
Reading the play the other day, I studied the opening scene. It is the
finest opening to a play I know.
How many times Shakespeare draws fathers and daughters, and how little
stock he seems to take of _mothers_! Portia and Desdemona, Cordelia,
Rosalind and Miranda, Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine and Hermione,
Ophelia, Jessica, Hero, and many more are daughters of _fathers_, but of
their mothers we hear nothing. My own daughter called my attention to
this fact quite recently, and it is really a singular fact. Of mothers
of sons there are plenty of examples: Constance, Volumnia, the Countess
Rousillon, Gertrude; but if there are mothers of daughters at all, they
are poor examples, like Juliet's mother and Mrs. Page. I wonder if in
all the many hundreds of books written on Shakespeare and his plays this
point has been taken up? I once wrote a paper on the "Letters in
Shakespeare's Plays," and congratulated myself that they had never been
made a separate study. The very day after I first read my paper before
the British Empire Shakespeare League, a lady wrote to me from Oxford
and said I was mistaken in thinking that there was no other contribution
to the subject. She enclosed an essay of her own which had either been
published or read before some society. Probably some one else has dealt
with Shakespeare's patronage of fathers and neglect of mothers! I often
wonder what the mothers of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia were like! I
think Lear must have married twice.
This was the first of Henry Irving's great Shakespearean productions.
"Hamlet" and "Othello" had been mounted with care, but, in spite of
statements that I have seen to the contrary, they were not true
reflections of Irving as a producer. In beauty I do not think that
"Romeo and Juliet" surpassed "The Cup," but it was very sumptuous,
impressive and Italian. It was the most _elaborate_ of all the Lyceum
productions. In it Henry first displayed his mastery of crowds. The
brawling of the rival houses in the streets, the procession of girls to
wake Juliet on her wedding morning, the musicians, the magnificent
reconciliation of the two houses which closed the play, every one on the
stage holding a torch, were all treated with a marvelous sense of
Henry once said to me: "'Hamlet' could be played anywhere on its acting
merits. It marches from situation to situation. But 'Romeo and Juliet'
proceeds from picture to picture. Every line suggests a picture. It is a
dramatic poem rather than a drama, and I mean to treat it from that
point of view."
While he was preparing the production he revived "The Two Roses," a
company in which as Digby Grant he had made a great success years
before. I rehearsed the part of Lottie two or three times, but Henry
released me because I was studying Juliet; and as he said, "You've got
to do all you know with it."
Perhaps the sense of this responsibility weighed on me. Perhaps I was
neither young enough nor old enough to play Juliet. I read everything
that had ever been written about her before I had myself decided what
she was. It was a dreadful mistake. That was the first thing wrong with
my Juliet--lack of original impulse.
As for the second and the third and the fourth--well, I am not more
than common vain, I trust, but I see no occasion to write them _all_
It was perhaps the greatest opportunity that I had yet had at the
Lyceum. I studied the part at my cottage at Hampton Court in a bedroom
looking out over the park. There was nothing wrong with _that_. By the
way, how important it is to be careful about environment and everything
else when one is studying. One ought to be in the country, but not all
the time.... It is good to go about and see pictures, hear music, and
watch everything. One should be very much alone, and should study early
and late--all night, if need be, even at the cost of sleep. Everything
that one does or thinks or sees will have an effect upon the part,
precisely as on an unborn child.
I wish now that instead of reading how this and that actress had played
Juliet, and cracking my brain over the different readings of her lines
and making myself familiar with the different opinions of philosophers
and critics, I had gone to Verona, and just _imagined_. Perhaps the most
wonderful description of Juliet, as she should be acted, occurs in
Gabriele d'Annunzio's "Il Fuoco." In the book an Italian actress tells
her friend how she played the part when she was a girl of fourteen in an
open-air theater near Verona. Could a girl of fourteen play such a part?
Yes, if she were not youthful, only young with the youth of the poet,
tragically old as some youth is.
Now I understand Juliet better. Now I know how she should be played. But
time is inexorable. At sixty, know what one may, one cannot play Juliet.
I know that Henry Irving's production of "Romeo and Juliet" has been
attributed to my ambition. What nonsense! Henry Irving now had in view
the production of all Shakespeare's actable plays, and naturally "Romeo
and Juliet" would come as early as possible in the programme.
The music was composed by Sir Julius Benedict, and was exactly right.
There was no _leit-motiv_, no attempt to reflect the passionate emotion
of the drama, but a great deal of Southern joy, of flutes and wood and
wind. At a rehearsal which had lasted far into the night I asked Sir
Julius, who was very old, if he wasn't sleepy.
"Sleepy! Good heavens, no! I never sleep more than two hours. It's the
end of my life, and I don't want to waste it in sleep!"
There is generally some "old 'un" in a company now who complains of
insufficient rehearsals, and says, perhaps, "Think of Irving's
rehearsals! They were the real thing." While we were rehearsing "Romeo
and Juliet" I remember that Mrs. Stirling, a charming and ripe old
actress whom Henry had engaged to play the nurse, was always groaning
out that she had not rehearsed enough.
"Oh, these modern ways!" she used to say. "We never have any rehearsals
at all. How am I going to play the Nurse?"
She played it splendidly--indeed, she as the Nurse and old Tom Mead as
the Apothecary--the two "old 'uns" romped away with chief honors, had
the play all to nothing.
I had one battle with Mrs. Stirling over "tradition." It was in the
"The clock struck twelve when I did send the nurse,
And yet she is not here...."
Tradition said that Juliet must go on coquetting and clicking over the
Nurse to get the news of Romeo out of her. Tradition said that Juliet
must give imitations of the Nurse on the line "Where's your mother?" in
order to get that cheap reward, "a safe laugh." I felt that it was
wrong. I felt that Juliet was angry with the Nurse. Each time she
delayed in answering I lost my temper, with genuine passion. At "Where's
your mother?" I spoke with indignation, tears and rage. We were a long
time coaxing Mrs. Stirling to let the scene be played on these lines,
but this was how it _was_ played eventually.
She was the only Nurse that I have ever seen who did not play the part
like a female pantaloon. She did not assume any great decrepitude. In
the "Cords" scene, where the Nurse tells Juliet of the death of Paris,
she did not play for comedy at all, but was very emotional. Her parrot
scream when she found me dead was horribly real and effective.
Years before I had seen Mrs. Stirling act at the Adelphi with Benjamin
Webster, and had cried out: "_That's_ my idea of an actress!" In those
days she was playing Olivia (in a version of the "Vicar of Wakefield" by
Tom Taylor), Peg Woffington, and other parts of the kind. She swept on
to the stage and in that magical way, never, never to be learned,
_filled_ it. She had such breadth of style, such a lovely voice, such a
beautiful expressive eye! When she played the Nurse at the Lyceum her
voice had become a little jangled and harsh, but her eye was still
bright and her art had not abated--not one little bit! Nor had her
charm. Her smile was the most fascinating, irresistible thing
The production was received with abuse by the critics. It was one of our
failures, yet it ran a hundred and fifty nights!
Henry Irving's Romeo had more bricks thrown at it even than my Juliet! I
remember that not long after we opened, a well-known politician who had
enough wit and knowledge of the theater to have taken a more original
view, came up to me and said:
"I say, E.T., why is Irving playing Romeo?"
I looked at his distraught. "You should ask me why I am playing Juliet!
Why are we any of us doing what we have to do?"
"Oh, _you're_ all right. But Irving!"
"I don't agree with you," I said. I was growing a little angry by this
time. "Besides, who would you have play Romeo?"
"Well, it's so obvious. You've got Terriss in the cast."
"Yes. I don't doubt Irving's intellectuality, you know. As Romeo he
reminds me of a pig who has been taught to play the fiddle. He does it
cleverly, but he would be better employed in squealing. He cannot shine
in the part like the fiddler. Terriss in this case is the fiddler."
I was furious. "I am sorry you don't realize," I said, "that the worst
thing Henry Irving could do would be better than the best of any one
When dear Terris did play Romeo at the Lyceum two or three years later
to the Juliet of Mary Anderson, he attacked the part with a good deal of
fire. He was young, truly, and stamped his foot a great deal, was
vehement and passionate. But it was so obvious that there was no
intelligence behind his reading. He did not know what the part was
about, and all the finer shades of meaning in it he missed. Yet the
majority, with my political friend, would always prefer a Terriss as
Romeo to a Henry Irving.
I am not going to say that Henry's Romeo was good. What I do say is that
some bits of it were as good as anything he ever did. In the big
emotional scene (in the Friar's cell), he came to grief precisely as he
had done in Othello. He screamed, grew slower and slower, and looked
older and older. When I begin to think it over I see that he often
failed in such scenes through his very genius for impersonation. An
actor of commoner mould takes such scenes rhetorically--recites them,
and gets through them with some success. But the actor who impersonates,
feels, and lives such anguish or passion or tempestuous grief, does for
the moment in imagination nearly die. Imagination impeded Henry Irving
in what are known as "strong" scenes.
He was a perfect Hamlet, a perfect Richard III., a perfect Shylock,
except in the scene with Tubal, where I think his voice failed him. He
was an imperfect Romeo; yet, as I have said, he did things in the part
which were equal to the best of his perfect Hamlet.
His whole attitude before he met Juliet was beautiful. He came on from
the very back of the stage and walked over a little bridge with a book
in his hand, sighing and dying for Rosaline. In Iago he had been
Italian. Then it was the Italy of Venice. As Romeo it was the Italy of
Tuscany. His clothes were as Florentine as his bearing. He ignored the
silly tradition that Romeo must wear a feather in his cap. In the course
of his study of the part he had found that the youthful fops and
gallants of the period put in their hats anything that they had been
given--some souvenir "dallying with the innocence of love." And he wore
in his hat a sprig of crimson oleander.
It is not usual, I think, to make much of the Rosaline episode. Henry
Irving chose with great care a tall dark girl to represent Rosaline at
the ball. Can I ever forget his face when suddenly in pursuit of _her_
he saw _me_.... Once more I reflect that a _face_ is the chiefest
equipment of the actor.
I know they said he looked too old--was too old for Romeo. In some
scenes he looked aged as only a very young man can look. He was not
boyish; but ought Romeo to be boyish?
I am not supporting the idea of an elderly Romeo. When it came to the
scenes where Romeo "poses" and is poetical but insincere, Henry _did_
seem elderly. He couldn't catch the youthful pose of melancholy with its
extravagant expression. It was in the repressed scenes, where the
melancholy was sincere, the feeling deeper, and the expression slighter,
that he was at his best.
"He may be good, but he isn't Romeo," is a favorite type of criticism.
But I have seen Duse and Bernhardt in "La Dame aux Camelias," and cannot
say which is Marguerite Gauthier. Each has her own view of the
character, and each _is_ it _according to her imagination_.
According to his imagination, Henry Irving was Romeo.
Again in this play he used his favorite "fate" tree. It gloomed over the
street along which Romeo went to the ball. It was in the scene with the
Apothecary. Henry thought that it symbolized the destiny hanging over
It is usual for Romeo to go in to the dead body of Juliet lying in
Capulet's monument through a gate on the _level_, as if the Capulets
were buried but a few feet from the road. At rehearsals Henry Irving
kept on saying: "I must go _down_ to the vault." After a great deal of
consideration he had an inspiration. He had the exterior of the vault in
one scene, the entrance to it down a flight of steps. Then the scene
changed to the interior of the vault, and the steps now led from a
height above the stage. At the close of the scene, when the Friar and
the crowd came rushing down into the tomb, these steps were thronged
with people, each one holding a torch, and the effect was magnificent.
At the opening of the Apothecary Scene, when Balthazar comes to tell
Romeo of Juliet's supposed death, Henry was marvelous. His face grew
whiter and whiter.
"Then she is well and nothing can be ill;
Her body sleeps in Capulet's monument."
It was during the silence after those two lines that Henry Irving as
Romeo had one of those sublime moments which an actor only achieves once
or twice in his life. The only thing that I ever saw to compare with it
was Duse's moment when she took Kellner's card in "Magda." There was
absolutely no movement, but her face grew white, and the audience knew
what was going on in her soul, as she read the name of the man who years
before had seduced and deserted her.
As Juliet I did not _look_ right. My little daughter Edy, a born
archaeologist, said: "Mother, you oughtn't to have a fringe." Yet,
strangely enough, Henry himself liked me as Juliet. After the first
night, or was it the dress rehearsal--I am not quite clear which--he
wrote to me that "beautiful as Portia was, Juliet leaves her far, far
behind. Never anybody acted more exquisitely the part of the performance
which I saw from the front. 'Hie to high fortune,' and 'Where spirits
resort' were simply incomparable.... Your mother looked very radiant
last night. I told her how proud she should be, and she was.... The play
will be, I believe, a mighty 'go,' for the beauty of it is bewildering.
I am sure of this, for it dumbfounded them all last night. Now
you--we--must make our task a delightful one by doing everything
possible to make our acting easy and comfortable. We are in for a long
To this letter he added a very human postscript: "I have determined not
to see a paper for a week--I know they'll cut me up, and I don't like
Yes, he _was_ cut up, and he didn't like it, but a few people knew. One
of them was Mr. Frankfort Moore, the novelist, who wrote to me of this
"revealing Romeo, full of originality and power."
"Are you affected by adverse criticism?" I was asked once. I answered
then and I answer now, that legitimate adverse criticism has always been
of use to me if only because it "gave me to think" furiously. Seldom
does the outsider, however talented, as a writer and observer, recognize
the actor's art, and often we are told that we are acting best when we
are showing the works most plainly, and denied any special virtue when
we are concealing our method. Professional criticism is most helpful,
chiefly because it induces one to criticize oneself. "Did I give that
impression to anyone? Then there must have been something wrong
somewhere." The "something" is often a perfectly different blemish from
that to which the critic drew attention.
Unprofessional criticism is often more helpful still, but alas! one's
friends are to one's faults more than a little blind, and to one's
virtues very kind! It is through letters from people quite unknown to me
that I have sometimes learned valuable lessons. During the run of "Romeo
and Juliet" some one wrote and told me that if the dialogue at the ball
could be taken in a lighter and _quicker_ way, it would better express
the manner of a girl of Juliet's age. The same unknown critic pointed
out that I was too slow and studied in the Balcony Scene. She--I think
it was a woman--was perfectly right.
On the hundredth night, although no one liked my Juliet very much, I
received many flowers, little tokens, and poems. To one bouquet was
pinned a note which ran:
As a mark of respect and Esteem
From the Gasmen of the Lyceum Theater."
That alone would have made my recollections of "Romeo and Juliet"
pleasant. But there was more. At the supper on the stage after the
hundredth performance, Sarah Bernhardt was present. She said nice things
to me, and I was enraptured that my "vraies larmes" should have pleased
and astonished her! I noticed that she hardly ever moved, yet all the
time she gave the impression of swift, butterfly movement. While
talking to Henry she took some red stuff out of her bag and rubbed it on
her lips! This frank "making-up" in public was a far more astonishing
thing in the 'eighties than it would be now. But I liked Miss Sarah for
it, as I liked her for everything.
How wonderful she looked in those days! She was as transparent as an
azalea, only more so; like a cloud, only not so thick. Smoke from a
burning paper describes her more nearly! She was hollow-eyed, thin,
almost consumptive-looking. Her body was not the prison of her soul, but
On the stage she has always seemed to me more a symbol, an ideal, an
epitome than a _woman_. It is this quality which makes her so easy in
such lofty parts as Phedre. She is always a miracle. Let her play
"L'Aiglon," and while matter-of-fact members of the audience are
wondering if she looks _really_ like the unfortunate King of Rome, and
deciding against her and in favor of Maude Adams who did look the boy to
perfection, more imaginative watchers see in Sarah's performance a truth
far bigger than a mere physical resemblance. Rostand says in the
foreword to his play, that in it he does not espouse this cause or that,
but only tells the story of "one poor little boy." In another of his
plays, "Cyrano de Bergerac," there is one poor little tune played on a
pipe of which the hero says:
"Ecoutez, Gascons, c'est toute la Gascogne."
Though I am not French, and know next to nothing of the language, I
thought when I saw Sarah's "L'Aiglon," that of that one poor little boy
too might be said:
"Ecoutez, Francais, c'est toute la France!"
It is this extraordinary decorative and symbolic quality of Sarah's
which makes her transcend all personal and individual feeling on the
stage. No one plays a love scene better, but it is a _picture_ of love
that she gives, a strange orchidaceous picture rather than a suggestion
of the ordinary human passion as felt by ordinary human people. She is
exotic--well, what else should she be? One does not, at any rate one
should not, quarrel with an exquisite tropical flower and call it
unnatural because it is not a buttercup or a cowslip.
I have spoken of the face as the chief equipment of the actor. Sarah
Bernhardt contradicts this at once. Her face does little for her. Her
walk is not much. Nothing about her is more remarkable than the way she
gets about the stage without one ever seeing her move. By what magic
does she triumph without two of the richest possessions that an actress
can have? Eleonora Duse has them. Her walk is the walk of the peasant,
fine and free. She has the superb carriage of the head which goes with
that fearless movement from the hips--and her face! There is nothing
like it, nothing! But it is as the real woman, a particular woman, that
Duse triumphs most. Her Cleopatra was insignificant compared with
Sarah's--she is not so pictorial.
How futile it is to make comparisons! Better far to thank heaven for
both these women.
EXTRACT FROM MY DIARY
_Saturday, June 11, 1892._--"To see 'Miss Sarah' as 'Cleopatre'
(Sardou superb!). She was inspired! The essence of Shakespeare's
'Cleopatra.' I went round and implored her to do Juliet. She said
she was too old. She can _never_ be old. 'Age cannot wither her.'
_June 18._--"Again to see Sarah--this time 'La Dame aux Camelias.'
Fine, marvelous. Her writing the letter, and the last act the best.
_July 11._--"_Telegraph_ says 'Frou-frou' was 'never at any time a
character in which she (Sarah) excelled.' Dear me! When I saw it I
thought it wonderful. It made me ashamed of ever having played it."
Sarah Bernhardt has shown herself the equal of any man as a manager. Her
productions are always beautiful; she chooses her company with
discretion, and sees to every detail of the stage-management. In this
respect she differs from all other foreign artists that I have seen. I
have always regretted that Duse should play as a rule with such a
mediocre company and should be apparently so indifferent to her
surroundings. In "Adrienne Lecouvreur" it struck me that the careless
stage-management utterly ruined the play, and I could not bear to see
Duse as Adrienne beautifully dressed while the Princess and the other
Court ladies wore cheap red velveteen and white satin and brought the
pictorial level of the performance down to that of a "fit-up" or booth.
Who could mention "Miss Sarah" (my own particular name for her) as being
present at a supper-party without saying something about her by the way!
Still, I have been a long time by the way. Now for Romeo and Juliet!
At that 100th-night celebration I saw Mrs. Langtry in evening dress for
the first time, and for the first time realized how beautiful she was.
Her neck and shoulders kept me so busy looking that I could neither
talk nor listen.
"Miss Sarah" and I have always been able to understand one another,
although I hardly know a word of French and her English is scanty. She
too, liked my Juliet--she and Henry Irving! Well, that was charming,
although I could not like it myself, except for my "Cords" scene, of
which I shall always be proud.
My dresser, Sarah Holland, came to me, I think, during "Romeo and
Juliet." I never had any other dresser at the Lyceum except Sally's
sister Lizzie, who dressed me during the first few years. Sally stuck to
me loyally until the Lyceum days ended. Then she perceived "a divided
duty." On one side was "the Guv'nor" with "the Guv'nor's" valet Walter,
to whom she was devoted; on the other was a precarious in and out job
with me, for after the Lyceum I never knew what I was going to do next.
She chose to go with Henry, and it was she and Walter who dressed him
for the last time when he lay dead in the hotel bedroom at Bradford.
Sally Holland's two little daughters "walked on" in "Romeo and Juliet."
Henry always took an interest in the children in the theater, and was
very kind to them. One night as we came down the stairs from our
dressing-rooms to go home--the theater was quiet and deserted--we found
a small child sitting forlornly and patiently on the lowest step.
"Well, my dear, what are you doing here?" said Henry.
"Waiting for mother, sir."
"Are you acting in the theater?"
"And what part do you take?"
"Please, sir, first I'm a water-carrier, then I'm a little page, and
then I'm a virgin."
Henry and I sat down on the stairs and laughed until we cried! Little
Flo Holland was one of the troop of "virgins" who came to wake Juliet on
her bridal morn. As time went on she was promoted to more important
parts, but she never made us laugh so much again.
Her mother was a "character," a dear character. She had an
extraordinarily open mind, and was ready to grasp each new play as it
came along as a separate and entirely different field of operations! She
was also extremely methodical, and only got flurried once in a blue
moon. When we went to America and made the acquaintance of that dreadful
thing, a "one-night stand," she was as precise and particular about
having everything nice and in order for me as if we were going to stay
in the town a month. Down went my neat square of white drugget; all the
lights in my dressing-room were arranged as I wished. Everything was
unpacked and ironed. One day when I came into some American theater to
dress I found Sally nearly in tears.
"What's the matter with you, Sally?" I asked.
"I 'aven't 'ad a morsel to heat all day, dear, and I can't 'eat my
"Eat your iron, Sally! What _do_ you mean?"
"'Ow am I to iron all this, dear?" wailed Sally, picking up my Nance
Oldfield apron and a few other trifles. "It won't get 'ot."
Until then I really thought that Sally was being sardonic about an iron
as a substitute for victuals!
When she first began to dress me, I was very thin, so thin that it was
really a grief to me. Sally would comfort me in my thin days by the
"Beautiful and fat to-night, dear."
As the years went on and I grew fat, she made a change in the
"Beautiful and thin to-night, dear."
Mr. Fernandez played Friar Laurence in "Romeo and Juliet." He was a very
nervous actor, and it used to paralyze him with fright when I knelt down
in the friar's cell with my back to the audience and put safety pins in
the drapery I wore over my head to keep it in position while I said the
"Are you at leisure, holy father, now
Or shall I come to you at evening mass?"
Not long after the production of "Romeo and Juliet" I saw the
performance of a Greek play--the "Electra," I think--by some Oxford
students. A young woman veiled in black with bowed head was brought in
on a chariot. Suddenly she lifted her head and looked round, revealing a
face of such pure classic beauty and a glance of such pathos that I
"What a supremely beautiful girl!"
Then I remembered that there were no women in the cast! The face
belonged to a young Oxford man, Frank Benson.
We engaged him to play Paris in "Romeo and Juliet," when George
Alexander, the original Paris, left the Lyceum for a time. Already
Benson gave promise of turning out quite a different person from the
others. He had not nearly so much of the actor's instinct as Terriss,
but one felt that he had far more earnestness. He was easily
distinguished as a man with a purpose, one of those workers who "scorn
delights and live laborious days." Those laborious days led him at last
to the control of two or three companies, all traveling through Great
Britain playing a Shakespearean repertoire. A wonderful organizer, a
good actor (oddly enough, the more difficult the part the better he
is--I like his _Lear_), and a man who has always been associated with
high endeavor, Frank Benson's name is honored all over England. He was
only at the Lyceum for this one production, but he always regarded Henry
Irving as the source of the good work that he did afterwards.
"Thank you very much," he wrote to me after his first night as Paris,
"for writing me a word of encouragement.... I was very much ashamed and
disgusted with myself all Sunday for my poverty-stricken and thin
performance.... I think I was a little better last night. Indeed I was
much touched at the kindness and sympathy of all the company and their
efforts to make the awkward new boy feel at home.... I feel doubly
grateful to you and Mr. Irving for the light you shed from the lamp of
art on life now that I begin to understand the labor and weariness the
process of trimming the Lamp entails."
LYCEUM PRODUCTIONS (_continued_)
"MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING" TO "FAUST"
Our success with "The Belle's Stratagem" had pointed to comedy, to
Beatrice and Benedick in particular, because in Mrs. Cowley's old comedy
we had had some scenes of the same type. I have already told of my first
appearance as Beatrice at Leeds, and said that I never played the part
so well again; but the Lyceum production was a great success, and
Beatrice a great personal success for me. It is only in high comedy that
people seem to know what I am driving at!
The stage-management of the play was very good; the scenery nothing out
of the ordinary except for the Church Scene. There was no question that
it _was_ a church, hardly a question that old Mead was a Friar. Henry
had the art of making ceremonies seem very real.
This was the first time that we engaged a singer from outside. Mr. Jack
Robertson came into the cast to sing "Sigh no more, ladies," and made an
Johnston Forbes-Robertson made his first appearance at the Lyceum as
Claudio. I had not acted with him since "The Wandering Heir," and his
improvement as an actor in the ten years that had gone by since then was
marvelous. I had once said to him that he had far better stick to his
painting and become an artist instead of an actor. His Claudio made me
"take it back." It was beautiful. I have seen many young actors play the
part since then, but not one of them made it anywhere near as
convincing. Forbes-Robertson put a touch of Leontes into it, a part
which some years later he was to play magnificently, and through the
subtle indication of consuming and insanely suspicious jealousy made
Claudio's offensive conduct explicable at least. On the occasion of the
performance at Drury Lane which the theatrical profession organized in
1906 in honor of my Stage Jubilee, one of the items in the programme was
a scene from "Much Ado about Nothing." I then played Beatrice for the
last time and Forbes-Robertson played his old part of Claudio.
During the run Henry commissioned him to paint a picture of the Church
Scene, which was hung in the Beefsteak Room. The engravings printed from
it were at one time very popular. When Johnston was asked why he had
chosen that particular moment in the Church Scene, he answered modestly
that it was the only moment when he could put himself as Claudio at the
"side"! Some of the other portraits in the picture are Henry Irving,
Terriss, who played Don Pedro; Jessie Millward as Hero, Mr. Glenny as
Don John, Miss Amy Coleridge, Miss Harwood, Mr. Mead, and his daughter
"Charley" Mead, a pretty little thing who was one of the pages.
The Lyceum company was not a permanent one. People used to come, learn
something, go away, and come back at a larger salary! Miss Emery left
for a time, and then returned to play Hero and other parts. I liked her
Hero better than Miss Millward's. Miss Millward had a sure touch;
strength, vitality, interest; but somehow she was commonplace in the
Henry used to spend hours and hours teaching people. I used to think
impatiently: "Acting can't be taught." Gradually I learned to modify
this conviction and to recognize that there are two classes of actors:
1. Those who can only do what they are taught.
2. Those who cannot be taught, but can be helped by suggestion to work
out things for themselves.
Henry said to me once: "What makes a popular actor? Physique! What makes
a great actor? Imagination and sensibility." I tried to believe it. Then
I thought to myself: "Henry himself is not quite what is understood by
'an actor of physique,' and certainly he is popular. And that he is a
great actor I know. He certainly has both imagination and 'sense and
sensibility.'" After the lapse of years I begin to wonder if Henry was
ever really _popular_. It was natural to most people to dislike his
acting--they found it queer, as some find the painting of Whistler--but
he forced them, almost against their will and nature, out of dislike
into admiration. They had to come up to him, for never would he go down
to them. This is not popularity.
_Brain_ allied with the instinct of the actor tells, but stupidity
allied with the instinct of the actor tells more than brain alone. I
have sometimes seen a clever man who was not a born actor play a small
part with his brains, and have felt that the cleverness was telling more
with the actors on the stage than with the audience.
Terriss, like Mrs. Pritchard, if we are to believe what Dr. Johnson said
of her, often did not know what on earth he was talking about! One
morning we went over and over one scene in "Much Ado"--at least a dozen
times I should think--and each time when Terriss came to the speech
"What needs the bridge much broader than the flood,"
he managed to give a different emphasis. First it would be:
"What! _Needs_ the bridge much broader than the flood!" Then:
"What needs the bridge _much_ broader than the flood."
After he had been floundering about for some time, Henry said:
"Terriss, what's the meaning of that?"
"Oh, get along, Guv'nor, _you_ know!"
Henry laughed. He never could be angry with Terriss, not even when he
came to rehearsal full of absurd excuses. One day, however, he was so
late that it was past a joke, and Henry spoke to him sharply.
"I think you'll be sorry you've spoken to me like this, Guv'nor," said
Terriss, casting down his eyes.
"Now no hanky-panky tricks, Terriss."
"Tricks, Guv'nor! I think you'll regret having said that when you hear
that my poor mother passed away early this morning."
And Terriss wept.
Henry promptly gave him the day off. A few weeks later, when Terriss and
I were looking through the curtain at the audience just before the play
began, he said to me gaily:
"See that dear old woman sitting in the fourth row of stalls--that's my
dear old mother."
The wretch had quite forgotten that he had killed her!
He was the only person who ever ventured to "cheek" Henry, yet he never
gave offense, not even when he wrote a letter of this kind:
"My dear Guv.,--
"I hope you are enjoying yourself, and in the best of health. I very
much want to play 'Othello' with you next year (don't laugh). Shall I
study it up, and will you do it with me on tour if possible? Say _yes_,
and lighten the drooping heart of yours sincerely,
I have never seen any one at all like Terriss, and my father said the
same. The only actor of my father's day, he used to tell me, who had a
touch of the same insouciance and lawlessness was Leigh Murray, a famous
One night he came into the theater soaked from head to foot.
"Is it raining, Terriss?" said some one who noticed that he was wet.
"Looks like it, doesn't it?" said Terriss carelessly.
Later it came out that he had jumped off a penny steamboat into the
Thames and saved a little girl's life. It was pretty brave, I think.
Mr. Pinero, who was no longer a member of the Lyceum company when "Much
Ado" was produced, wrote to Henry after the first night that it was "as
perfect a representation of a Shakespearean play as I conceive to be
possible. I think," he added, "that the work at your theater does so
much to create new playgoers--which is what we want, far more I fancy
than we want new theaters and perhaps new plays."
A playgoer whose knowledge of the English stage extended over a period
of fifty-five years, wrote another nice letter about "Much Ado" which
was passed on to me because it had some ridiculously nice things about
me in it.
_January 13, 1883._
"My dear Henry,--
"I were an imbecile ingrate if I did not hasten to give you my warmest
thanks for the splendid entertainment of last night. Such a performance
is not a grand entertainment merely, or a glorious pastime, although it
was all that. It was, too, an artistic display of the highest character,
elevating in the vast audience their art instinct--as well as purifying
any developed art in the possession of individuals.
"I saw the Kean revivals of 1855-57, and I suppose 'The Winter's Tale'
was the best of the lot. But it did not approach last night....
"I was impressed more strongly than ever with the fact that the plays of
Shakespeare were meant to be _acted_. The man who thinks that he can
know Shakespeare by reading him is a shallow ass. The best critic and
scholar would have been carried out of himself last night into the
poet's heart, his mind-spirit.... The Terry was glorious.... The scenes
in which she appeared--and she was in eight out of the sixteen--reminded
me of nothing but the blessed sun that not only beautifies but creates.
But she never acts so well as when I am there to see! That is a real
lover's sentiment, and all lovers are vain men.
"Terriss has 'come on' wonderfully, and his Don Pedro is princely and
"I have thus set down, my dear Irving, one or two things merely to show
that my gratitude to you is not that of a blind gratified idiot, but of
one whose intimate personal knowledge of the English stage entitles him
to say what he owes to you."
In 1891, when we revived "Much Ado," Henry's Benedick was far more
brilliant than it was at first. In my diary, January 5, 1891, I wrote:
"Revival of 'Much Ado about Nothing.' Went most brilliantly. Henry
has vastly improved upon his _old_ rendering of Benedick. Acts
larger now--not so 'finicking.' His model (of manner) is the Duke
of Sutherland. VERY good. I did some parts better, I think--made
Beatrice a nobler woman. Yet I failed to please myself in the
_Two days later._--"Played the Church Scene all right at last. More
of a _blaze_. The little scene in the garden, too, I did better (in
the last act). Beatrice has _confessed_ her love, and is now
_softer_. Her voice should be beautiful now, breaking out into
playful defiance now and again, as of old. The last scene, too, I
made much more merry, happy, _soft_."
_January 8._--"I must make Beatrice more _flashing_ at first, and
_softer_ afterwards. This will be an improvement upon my old
reading of the part. She must be always _merry_ and by turns
scornful, tormenting, vexed, self-communing, absent, melting,
teasing, brilliant, indignant, _sad-merry_, thoughtful, withering,
gentle, humorous, and gay, Gay, _Gay_! Protecting (to Hero),
motherly, very intellectual--a gallant creature and complete in
mind and feature."
After a run of two hundred and fifty nights, "Much Ado," although it was
still drawing fine houses, was withdrawn as we were going to America in
the autumn (of 1883) and Henry wanted to rehearse the plays that we were
to do in the States by reviving them in London at the close of the
summer season. It was during these revivals that I played Janette in "The
Lyons Mail"--not a big part, and not well suited to me, but I played it
well enough to support my theory that whatever I have _not_ been, I
_have_ been a useful actress.
I always associate "The Lyons Mail" with old Mead, whose performance of
the father, Jerome Lesurques, was one of the most impressive things
that this fine actor ever did with us. (Before Henry was ever heard of,
Mead had played Hamlet at Drury Lane!) Indeed when he "broke up," Henry
put aside "The Lyons Mail" for many years because he dreaded playing
Lesurques' scene with his father without Mead.
In the days just before the break-up, which came about because Mead was
old, and--I hope there is no harm in saying of him what can be said of
many men who have done finely in the world--too fond of "the wine when
it is red," Henry use to suffer great anxiety in the scene, because he
never knew what Mead was going to do or say next. When Jerome Lesurques
is forced to suspect his son of crime, he has a line:
"Am I mad, or dreaming? Would I were."
Mead one night gave a less poetic reading:
"Am I mad or _drunk_? Would I were!"
It will be remembered by those who saw the play that Lesurques, an
innocent man, will not commit the Roman suicide of honor at his father's
bidding, and refuses to take up his pistol from the table. "What! you
refuse to die by your own hands, do you?" says the elder Lesurques.
"Then die like a dog by mine!" (producing a pistol from his pocket).
One night, after having delivered the line with his usual force and
impressiveness, Mead, after prolonged fumbling in his coat-tail pockets,
"D---, b----! God bless my soul! Where's the pistol? I haven't got the
The last scene in the eventful history of "Meadisms" in "'The Lyons
Mail" was when Mead came on to the stage in his own top-hat, went over
to the sofa, and lay down, apparently for a nap! Not a word could Henry
get from him, and Henry had to play the scene by himself. He did it in
"You say, father, that I," etc. "I answer you that it is false!"
Mead had a remarkable _foot_. Norman Forbes called it an _architectural_
foot. Bunions and gout combined to give it a gargoyled effect! One
night, I forget whether it was in this play or another, Henry, pawing
the ground with his foot before an "exit"--one of the mannerisms which
his imitators delighted to burlesque--came down on poor old Mead's foot,
bunion gargoyles and all! Hardly had Mead stopped cursing under his
breath than on came Tyars, and brought down _his_ weight heavily on the
same foot. Directly Tyars came off the stage he looked for Mead in the
wings and offered an apology.
"I beg your pardon--I'm really awfully sorry, Mead."
"Sorry! sorry!" the old man snorted. "It's a d----d conspiracy!"
It was the dignity and gravity of Mead which made everything he said so
funny. I am afraid that those who never knew him will wonder where the
joke comes in.
I forget what year he left us for good, but in a letter of Henry's dated
September, 1888, written during a provincial tour of "Faust," when I was
ill and my sister Marion played Margaret instead of me, I find this
allusion to him:
"Wenman does the Kitchen Witch now (I altered it this morning) and Mead
the old one--the climber. Poor old chap, he'll not climb much longer!"
This was one of the least successful of Henry's Shakespearean
productions. Terriss looked all wrong as Orsino; many other people were
miscast. Henry said to me a few years later when he thought of doing
"The Tempest," "I can't do it without three great comedians. I ought
never to have attempted 'Twelfth Night' without them."
I don't think that I played Viola nearly as well as my sister Kate. Her
"I am the man" was very delicate and charming. I overdid that. My
daughter says: "Well, you were far better than any Viola that I have
seen since, but you were too simple to make a great hit in it. I think
that if you had played Rosalind the public would have thought you too
simple in that. Somehow people expect these parts to be acted in a
'principal boy' fashion, with sparkle and animation."
We had the curious experience of being "booed" on the first night. It
was not a comedy audience, and I think the rollickings of Toby Belch and
his fellows were thought "low." Then people were put out by Henry's
attempt to reserve the pit. He thought that the public wanted it. When
he found that it was against their wishes he immediately gave in. His
pride was the service of the public.
His speech after the hostile reception of "Twelfth Night" was the only
mistake that I ever knew him make. He was furious, and showed it.
Instead of accepting the verdict, he trounced the first-night audience
for giving it. He simply could not understand it!
My old friend Rose Leclercq, who was in Charles Kean's company at the
Princess's when I made my first appearance upon the stage, joined the
Lyceum company to play Olivia. Strangely enough she had lost the touch
for the kind of part. She, who had made one of her early successes as
the spirit of Astarte in "Manfred," was known to a later generation of
playgoers as the aristocratic dowager of stately presence and incisive
repartee. Her son, Fuller Mellish, was also in the cast as Curio, and
when we played "Twelfth Night" in America was promoted to the part of
Sebastian, my double. In London my brother Fred played it. Directly he
walked on to the stage, looking as like me as possible, yet a _man_ all
over, he was a success. I don't think that I have ever seen anything so
unmistakable and instantaneous.
In America "Twelfth Night" was liked far better than in London, but I
never liked it. I thought our production dull, lumpy and heavy. Henry's
Malvolio was fine and dignified, but not good for the play, and I never
could help associating my Viola with physical pain. On the first night I
had a bad thumb--I thought it was a whitlow--and had to carry my arm in
a sling. It grew worse every night, and I felt so sick and faint from
pain that I played most of my scenes sitting in a chair. One night Dr.
Stoker, Bram Stoker's brother, came round between the scenes, and, after
looking at my thumb, said:
"Oh, that'll be all right. I'll cut it for you."
He lanced it then and there, and I went on with my part for _that_
night. George Stoker, who was just going off to Ireland, could not see
the job through, but the next day I was in for the worst illness I ever
had in my life. It was blood-poisoning, and the doctors were in doubt
for a little as to whether they would not have to amputate my arm. They
said that if George Stoker had not lanced the thumb that minute, I
_should_ have lost my arm.
A disagreeable incident in connection with my illness was that a member
of my profession made it the occasion of an unkind allusion (in a speech
at the Social Science Congress) to "actresses who feign illness and have
straw laid down before their houses, while behind the drawn blinds they
are having riotous supper-parties, dancing the can-can and drinking
champagne." Upon being asked for "name," the speaker would neither
assert nor deny that it was Ellen Terry (whose poor arm at the time was
as big as her waist, and _that_ has never been very small!) that she
I think we first heard of the affair on our second voyage to America,
during which I was still so ill that they thought I might never see
Quebec, and Henry wrote a letter to the press--a "scorcher." He showed
it to me on the boat. When I had read it, I tore it up and threw the
bits into the sea.
"It hasn't injured me in any way," I said. "Any answer would be
Henry did what I wished in the matter, but, unlike me, whose heart I am
afraid is of wax--no impression lasts long--he never forgot it, and
never forgave. If the speech-maker chanced to come into a room where he
was--he walked out. He showed the same spirit in the last days of his
life, long after our partnership had come to an end. A literary club,
not a hundred yards from Hyde Park Corner, "blackballed"' me (although I
was qualified for election under the rules) for reasons with which I was
never favored. The committee, a few months later, wished Henry Irving to
be the guest of honor at one of the club dinners. The honor was
The first night of "Olivia" at the Lyceum was about the only
_comfortable_ first night that I have ever had! I was familiar with the
part, and two of the cast, Terriss and Norman Forbes, were the same as
at the Court, which made me feel all the more at home. Henry left a
great deal of the stage-management to us, for he knew that he could not
improve on Mr. Hare's production. Only he insisted on altering the last
act, and made a bad matter worse. The division into two scenes wasted
time, and nothing was gained by it. _Never_ obstinate, Henry saw his
mistake and restored the original end after a time. It was weak and
unsatisfactory but not pretentious and bad like the last act he
presented at the first performance.
We took the play too slowly at the Lyceum. That was often a fault there.
Because Henry was slow, the others took their time from him, and the
result was bad.
The lovely scene of the vicarage parlor, in which we used a harpsichord
and were accused of pedantry for our pains, did not look so well at the
Lyceum as at the Court. The stage was too big for it.
The critics said that I played Olivia better at the Lyceum, but I did
not feel this myself.
At first Henry did not rehearse the Vicar at all well. One day when he
was stamping his foot very much, as if he was Matthias in "The Bells,"
my little Edy, who was a terrible child _and_ a wonderful critic, said:
"Don't go on like that, Henry. Why don't you talk as you do to me and
Teddy? At home you _are_ the Vicar."
The child's frankness did not offend Henry, because it was illuminating.
A blind man had changed his Shylock; a little child changed his Vicar.
When the first night came he gave a simple, lovable performance. Many
people now understood and liked him as they had never done before. One
of the things I most admired in it was his sense of the period.
In this, as in other plays, he used to make his entrance in the _skin_
of the part. No need for him to rattle a ladder at the side to get up
excitement and illusion as Macready is said to have done. He walked on,
and was the simple-minded old clergyman, just as he had walked on a
prince in "Hamlet," a king in "Charles I.," and a saint in "Becket."
A very handsome woman, descended from Mrs. Siddons and looking exactly
like her, played the gipsy in "Olivia." The likeness was of no use,
because the possessor of it had no talent. What a pity!
"Olivia" has always been a family play. Edy and Ted walked on the stage
for the first time in the Court "Olivia." In later years Ted played
Moses and Edy made her first appearance in a speaking part as Polly
Flamborough, and has since played both Sophia and the Gipsy. My brother
Charlie's little girl Beatrice made her first appearance as Bill, my
sister Floss played Olivia on a provincial tour, and my sister Marion
played it at the Lyceum when I was ill.
I saw Floss play it, and took from her a lovely and sincere bit of
"business." In the third act, where the Vicar has found his erring
daughter and has come to take her away from the inn, I had always
hesitated at my entrance as if I were not quite sure what reception my
father would give me after what had happened. Floss in the same
situation came running in and went straight to her father, quite sure
of his love if not of his forgiveness.
I did _not_ take some business which Marion did on Terriss's suggestion.
Where Thornhill tells Olivia that she is not his wife, I used to thrust
him away with both hands as I said--"Devil!"
"It's very good, Nell, very fine," said Terriss to me, "but believe me,
you miss a great effect there. You play it grandly, of course, but at
that moment you miss it. As you say 'Devil!' you ought to strike me full
in the face."
"Oh, don't be silly, Terriss," I said, "she's not a pugilist."
Of course I saw, apart from what was dramatically fit, what would
However Marion, very young, very earnest, very dutiful, anxious to
please Terriss, listened eagerly to the suggestion during an understudy
"No one could play this part better than your sister Nell," said Terriss
to the attentive Marion, "but as I always tell her, she does miss one
great effect. When Olivia says 'Devil!' she ought to hit me bang in the
"Thank you for telling me," said Marion gratefully.
"It will be much more effective," said Terriss.
It was. When the night came for Marion to play the part, she struck out,
and Terriss had to play the rest of the scene with a handkerchief held
to his bleeding nose!
I think it was as Olivia that Eleonora Duse first saw me act. She had
thought of playing the part herself some time, but she said: "_Never_
now!" No letter about my acting ever gave me the same pleasure as this
"Madame,--Avec Olivia vous m'avez donne bonheur et peine. _Bonheur_ part
votre art qui est noble et sincere ... _peine_ car je sens la tristesse
au coeur quand je vois une belle et genereuse nature de femme, donner
son ame a l'art--comme vous le faites--quand c'est la vie meme, _votre_
coeur meme qui parle tendrement, douleureusement, noblement _sous_ votre
jeu. Je ne puis me debarrasser d'une certaine tristesse quand je vois
des artistes si nobles et hauts tels que vous et Irving.... Si vous etes
si forts de soumettre (avec un travail continu) la vie a l'art, il faut
done vous admirer comme des forces de la nature meme qui auraient
pourtant le droit de vivre pour elles-memes et non pour la foule. Je
n'ose pas vous deranger, Madame, et d'ailleurs j'ai tant a faire aussi
qu'il m'est impossible de vous dire de vive voix tout le grand plaisir
que vous m'avez donne, mais puisque j'ai senti votre coeur, veuillez,
chere Madame, croire au mien qui ne demande pas mieux dans cet instant
que de vous admirer et de vous le dire tant bien que mal d'une maniere
quelconque. Bien a vous.
When I wrote to Madame Duse the other day to ask her permission to
publish this much-prized letter, she answered:
_Septembre 11, 1907._
"Chere Ellen Terry,--
"Au milieu du travail en Amerique, je recois votre lettre envoyee a
"Vous me demandez de publier mon ancienne lettre amicale. Oui, chere
Ellen Terry; ce que j'ai donne vous appartient; ce que j'ai dit, je le
peux encore, et je vous aime et admire comme toujours....
"J'espere que vous accepterez cette ancienne lettre que j'ai rendue plus
claire et un peu mieux ecrite. Vous en serez contente avec moi car,
ainsi faisant, j'ai eu le moyen de vous dire que je vous aime et de vous
le dire deux fois.
"A vous de coeur,
Dear, noble Eleanora Duse, great woman, great artist--I can never
appreciate you in words, but I store the delight that you have given me
by your work, and the personal kindness that you have shown me, in the
treasure-house of my heart!
When I celebrated my stage jubilee you traveled all the way from Italy
to support me on the stage at Drury Lane. When you stood near me,
looking so beautiful with wings in your hair, the wings of glory they
seemed to me, I could not thank you, but we kissed each other and you
"Clap-trap" was the verdict passed by many on the Lyceum "Faust," yet
Margaret was the part I liked better than any other--outside
Shakespeare. I played it beautifully sometimes. The language was often
very commonplace--not nearly as poetic or dramatic as that of "Charles
I."--but the character was all right--simple, touching, sublime.
The Garden Scene I know was unsatisfactory. It was a bad, weak
love-scene, but George Alexander as Faust played it admirably. Indeed he
always acted like an angel with me; he was so malleable, ready to do
anything. He was launched into the part at very short notice, after H.B.
Conway's failure on the first night. Poor Conway! It was Coghlan as
Shylock all over again.
Henry called a rehearsal the next day--on Sunday, I think. The company
stood about in groups on the stage while Henry walked up and down,
speechless, but humming a tune occasionally, always a portentous sign
with him. The scene set was the Brocken Scene, and Conway stood at the
top of the slope as far away from Henry as he could get! He looked
abject. His handsome face was very red, his eyes full of tears. He was
terrified at the thought of what was going to happen. The actor was
summoned to the office, and presently Loveday came out and said that Mr.
George Alexander would play Faust the following night. Alec had been
wonderful as Valentine the night before, and as Faust he more than
justified Henry's belief in him. After that he never looked back. He had
come to the Lyceum for the first time in 1882, an unknown quantity from
a stock company in Glasgow, to play Caleb Decie in "The Two Roses." He
then left us for a time, returned for "Faust," and remained in the
Lyceum company for some years playing all Terriss's parts.
Alexander had the romantic quality which was lacking in Terriss, but
there was a kind of shy modesty about him which handicapped him when he
played Squire Thornhill in "Olivia." "Be more dashing, Alec!" I used to
say to him. "Well, I do my best," he said. "At the hotels I chuck all
the barmaids under the chin, and pretend I'm a dog of a fellow for the
sake of this part!" Conscientious, dear, delightful Alec! No one ever
deserved success more than he did and used it better when it came, as
the history of the St. James's Theater under his management proves. He
had the good luck to marry a wife who was clever as well as charming,
and could help him.
The original cast of "Faust" was never improved upon. What Martha was
ever so good as Mrs. Stirling? The dear old lady's sight had failed
since "Romeo and Juliet," but she was very clever at concealing it. When
she let Mephistopheles in at the door, she used to drop her work on the
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