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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83

Irving in America

Irving in America.

Henry Irving's tours in America have stamped him as a great actor, and not a mere London fashion. A memoir of him, by Mr. Daly, affords the particulars of an arduous uphill career.

J. H. Brodribb, stage name Irving, began life as a clerk, but at eighteen he was on the stage, making a poor exhibition of himself as the Duke of Orleans, in "Richelieu." The veteran Hoskins, now of Melbourne, rendered him valuable assistance. He was also considerably indebted to Creswick. Irving relates how he once stood outside the Liverpool theatre, without a friend, an engagement or a sixpence. He acted with Edwin Booth and Toole in the English provinces. At Manchester and Edinburgh he fixed his position as a leading man.

In 1866 he obtained a very favourable show at the London St. James' Theatre, as Doricourt, in the "Belle's Stratagem," a part in which he is very popular, but he did not then make a deep impression. He also played Young Dornton, in the "Road to Ruin." His standing declined, rather than otherwise. He had to act Compton Kerr, the villain, in "Formosa," on its original production, at Drury Lane, the hero being acted by J. B. Howard. Irving was the original Robert Redburn, in the "Lancashire Lass." In Byron's "Dearer Than Life" he acted with Toole, Wyndham, Brough, Clayton, and Miss Neilson. Irving appeared to settle permanently into villains, as Macready did when struggling upward against John Kemble and Young.

His impersonations of Mr. Chenevix, in "Uncle Dick's Darling," and Rawdon Scudamore in "Hunted Down," were noticeable, but a splendid chance came with the part of Digby Grant, in the first production of Albery's "Two Roses." Turning up the criticisms of the period, we notice how Montague's and Honey's characters are singled out, while the critics are cautious about praising Irving. The force of use and wont, in these affairs, is remarkable. It is doubtful whether Irving's acting was essentially better when he revived the play a few years back, but of course he almost monopolised the butter, while the chicken and champagne—but no critics are admitted to page 36 the nights and suppers of the gods, in the premises of the old Beefsteak Club, behind the Lyceum.

In 1871 the Lyceum was managed by Colonel Bateman, belonging to the same regiment as Colonel Mapleson. Bateman was an eccentric old fellow, who had started his two little daughters, at the tender ages of ten and twelve, acting Richard III., Richmond, Macbeth, Macduff, and all that round, as old Marshall educated his two little sons, Fred and Edmund, who were contemporary with the Bantam Batemen. The eldest Miss Bateman, Kate, like Rose Edouin, grew up into a leading actress. Isabel Bateman became the Ophelia to Irving's Hamlet. There is another sister, Virginia, acting.

Well, "Papa Bateman," as he was called, had a good deal of the Vincent Crummies about him. "My daughter, sir," "still harping on my daughter." His infant phenomena were trotted out with all the pertinacity displayed in the case of the young lady who recited the "Blood Drinker's Burial." We used to know a Mr. Deorwyn in Melbourne, and every theatrical city has its Heavy Father. Bateman's long experience led him to believe that there was "stuff in this Irving." He engaged Irving, as leading villain to the great Miss Bateman. She played Fanchon the Cricket, and Irving acted Landry. The piece failed. Irving was put up as Jingle in Albery's "Pickwick," but even here he only shared the honours with Addison, as Pickwick, and Belmore, as Sam Weller. Irving's versatile talent was also displayed as Jeremy Diddler, in "Raising the Wind."

Erckmann—Chatrian's "Polish Jew" had been played with enormous success at the Cluny Theatre, Paris. Bateman thought of it as a card for Irving, although an adaptation in London had not hit the town. Leopold Lewis wrote a fresh version of the play, in three acts, entitled "The Bells," and Irving flung himself with all his force into the study of Mathias, feeling that it fitted him to a T. Bateman spared no expense in putting the piece on. The melodramatic music was a particular feature. The composer and conductor was brought over from the Cluny to the Lyceum. "In Preparation—' The Bells'" appeared on the bills for a long time, while Irving arduously rehearsed the great last act, and Bateman exclaimed "It will go, Henry." "It will strike them between wind and water, and knock everything higher than a kite."

At last, the Times advertisement read "Lyceum. This evening. 'My Turn Next.' After which 'The Bells.' To conclude with 'Pickwick.'" Irving's heart beat high that evening. "This is the night which either makes me, or foredoes me quite." There was a full audience. The first act went rather tamely, till the final tableau of the white horse and sledge; the Polish Jew, in his furs, driving, and Mathias following, with page 37 uplifted axe. The second act was one of undecided expectation. In the third, Irving gripped the audience with a vyce, in the awful scene of the trance, under the hands of the mesmerist, when Mathias confessed the murder before the judge and court, in presence of his astounded friends and relatives—yet it is all a dream.

When the scene closed again, and the actor rushed forward, in shirt sleeves, from the curtains of his bed, there was such a tumult in the theatre as has scarcely been paralleled since Edmund Kean made his hit on Shylock, at Drury Lane, nearly sixty years before. The audience stormed and raved when the green curtain slowly fell on the death of Mathias. The actor had scored his "one niche the highest," and his fortune was made, when Bateman hustled him out, still in his shirt sleeves, flushed and panting, through the proscenium door, in response to the roar of the whirlwind.

Critics said "The Bells" was too painful, but it filled the canvas, and crowded houses were the rule at the Lyceum. It ran 150 nights, and Irving soon resigned Mr. Jingle to Chas. Warner. As Charles I., Richelieu, and Eugene Aram, Irving sustained his fame. Three years after the production of "The Bells," he essayed his first Shakspearian character, Hamlet, with overwhelming success, the run being 200 nights, which Wilson Barrett hopes to exceed. It would have sounded incredible to Macready that "Hamlet" could ever run 200 nights in London, and the "School for Scandal" 400 nights, while 1200 nights was reached by "Our Boys."

Irving did not obtain full swing at the Lyceum till he took the management, with the financial assistance of Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the proprietress. Perhaps, his most expensive production was "Romeo and Juliet," now rivalled by Mary Anderson's new setting of the piece, at the same theatre. Terriss, now the Romeo, was Irving's Mercutio, but of course the habitues would not have been satisfied with Irving in such a small part, though he knows well enough he is a bad Romeo, and only got worse throughout 180 nights of the sickly atmosphere. It was like stale lolly, but an effeminate, and one might almost say a depraved fashionable public gloated over Irving and Terry.

Irving has played, at the Lyceum, besides the pieces mentioned, in "Othello," "Macbeth," "Vanderdecken," "Iron Chest," "Lyons Mail," "Corsican Brothers,"" Lady of Lyons," "The Cup," "Queen Mary," Aide's "Philip," "Louis XL," "Richard III.," "Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado about Nothing," and "Twelfth Night." He and Booth were both off colour, in their acting, as Othello, but both shone as lago. In the order of excellence, Irving's best characters are;—Louis XL, Mathias, Charles L, Richard III., Digby Grant, Hamlet, lago, Richelieu, Shylock, Benedick. This indicates page 38 the limitation of his powers. He is the modern Lemaitre—distinctly French in his style.

When "Irving—' The Bells,'" appears under the gaslight over the entrance to the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, there will be the greatest crush ever known in Bourke-street. Barry Sullivan, however, might possibly run him close, for a first night here.