Question that Wrecked Sir Henry Irving’s Marriage

Sir Henry Irving, superstar of the stage in Victorian England
Sir Henry Irving, superstar of the stage in Victorian England

by Ray Setterfield

October 13, 1905 — Florence Irving did not approve of her husband’s acting profession. As they made their way to the opening night of a play she asked him: “Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?”

For Henry Irving, there was only one answer to that. According to the historical anecdote, he stopped their carriage, walked off into the night and chose never to see her again. And he did not.

Such was the passion and dedication to his work of a man who was to be acknowledged internationally as the greatest actor of his generation.

In 1838, the same year as Queen Victoria was crowned, Irving was born as John Henry Brodribb in a small English town. His father was a travelling salesman and his mother the daughter of a farmer. He began work as a clerk in a law firm at the age of 13.

But then he went to see a performance of Hamlet and decided immediately to take to the stage. It was a decision against his religious mother’s wishes who was well aware that the profession was still much tarnished with the stigma of rogues and vagabonds, as it was in Shakespeare’s day.

Irving joined one of the theatrical companies that travelled from town to town and in three years he played more than 400 different parts in 330 plays, including most of the Shakespeare repertoire.

Of course, he had to have a new stage name, John Brodribb not fitting the bill, to say the least. Irving was chosen because he admired the writings of American author Washington Irving.

The big breakthrough came in 1871 with the success of a play called The Bells at the Royal Lyceum theatre in London – the production that he and Florence were on their way to when she asked that devastating question.

In the play his role was of a conscious-stricken murderer, suiting his gift for the macabre and the melodramatic. It was an instant success and was to remain a feature of his repertoire until his death.

For the next 30 years he was to be at the centre of Victorian society and in 1895 he became the first actor to be knighted. It set a standard of social respectability and professional integrity of which his mother would have been proud.

One of the exciting innovations that Irving introduced was the use of gaslight for his spectacular productions of Shakespeare and romantic melodrama at the Lyceum. He became the theatre's manager in 1878.

Straight away he engaged Ellen Terry as his leading lady, beginning one of the most famous partnerships in the history of the English stage. According to an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry: “Their theatrical qualities complemented each other admirably: he the brooding introvert, she the spontaneous, impulsive creature whose charm won every heart. Together, they drew enormous audiences.”

Irving and Terry made several hugely successful tours in the US and Canada and became an international sensation.

Eventually the time came to contemplate the final curtain and in 1904 Irving began a series of farewell tours with plans to retire in 1906, after celebrating 50 years on the stage. But he died on October 13 1905 after suffering s stroke.

His death shocked and saddened the nation. Irving became the first person ever to be cremated before having his ashes interred at Westminster Abbey.

Published: October 6, 2019

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