SIR HENRY IRVING (1838-1905) was the greatest English actor of the late 19th Century. Sadly, however, very few now know anything about Irving. Yet his legacy lives on in London, primarily due the still operating Lyceum Theatre. This was Irving’s theatre – a grand proscenium arch theatre in which he performed his greatest roles, and to which the world came to be awed, entertained and shocked. Irving excelled at Shakespeare, yet his most famous role was Mathias in Leopold Davis Lewis’ The Bells (1871).
This play is an English Gothic melodrama and was an extremely popular, rivaling other significant plays of the late-19th Century, including those by Boucicault, Ibsen and Wilde. It has been called the first ‘modern horror’ play, a label that is not without justification and truth. It is perhaps difficult to grasp nearly 150 years since The Bells was first performed how radically different and innovative it was at the time. In the biography Henry Irving: The Actor and his Times (1951), written by Irving’s son. Laurence Irving, there are details about the opening night performance on 27 November, 1871. It was performed to a relatively small house, who steadily became more and more intensely fascinated with the play. One woman fainted, and at the end the audience was in a state of stunned silence. In a modern edition of the play, Henry Irving and ‘The Bells’: Irving’s personal script of the play (1980), editor Eric Jones-Evans wrote, ‘The play left the first-nighters a little dazed. Old fashioned playgoers did not know what to make of it as a form of entertainment. But when the final curtain fell the audience, after a gasp or two, realised that they had witnessed the most masterly form of tragic acting that the British stage had seen for many a long day, and there was a storm of cheers. Then, still pale, still haggard, still haunted, as it were, by the terror he had so perfectly counterfeited, the actor came forward with the sort of smile that did not destroy the character of the Burgomaster or dispel the illusion of the stage’. Irving was immediately catapulted to the forefront of English theatre, where he remained, often reviving ‘The Bells’, until his death in 1905. Not only was he extremely influential in regards to the art and evolution of acting, he also influenced the creation and evolution of the ‘horror’ genre. This is not just due to The Bells, but also because he was the primary source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Bram Stoker was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, as well as operating as Irving’s personal manager/agent and friend.
I’m fully aware that some may be a little perplexed as to why I would even bother to write about the now largely forgotten Irving. However, I have just re-read The Bells, partly because the edition I found in O’Connell’s Secondhand Bookshop in Adelaide had as its preface a wonderful piece by Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) titled Irving’s Masterpiece – “The Bells”. I don’t wish to dwell too much on Edward Gordon Craig, although there is much to relate and discuss. Suffice to state at that Craig is one of the grandfathers of modern theatre design. Craig knew Irving well, personally and professionally. He saw Irving perform in The Bells over 30 times, and this preface is extremely enlightening as it gives a glimpse of what Irving was actually like on stage in The Bells.
Craig writes of Irving’s ‘deep and human beauty which he lets you see’. In regard to Irving’s entrance in The Bells, following an ensemble scene of about 15 minutes, Craig provides a kind of challenging definition of true ensemble acting that runs contrary to modern assumptions and practice – ‘On his (Irving’s) appearance, they one and all fell back into their places, since to obtrude would have been out of the question. Ensemble was achieved, but there was something to achieve it for, something for which it can lend support; ensemble supporting itself, is it not rather a ridiculous spectacle? That’ democratic acting if you like – “for we are jolly good fellows…which none of us will deny.” For Craig, true ensemble acting is non-democratic; it only exists when there is something, or someone, to achieve it for – focus and a goal.
What Craig isolates is the power of the ‘star’ actor. When Irving entered he was greeted with a thunderous round of applause. Ordinarily, as stated by Craig, and referencing Stanislavsky, such applause was an annoying ‘interruption’. However, in the case of Irving, and other ‘star’ actors, such ‘hurricane of applause’ is not an interruption. “It is no boisterous greeting by an excitable race, for a blustering actor – it was something which can only be described as part and parcel of the whole, as right as rain…Power responded to power…It was necessary to them – not him’. This is very particular type of cathartic release that is necessary for the audience ‘to take in what he was about to give them’. Curious. I’ve only ever experienced such a release on the commercial West End and Broadway stage, as well as the Kabuki theatre in Japan; in egalitarian ‘democratic’ Australia it never happens. Is this why we tend not to see and rate our actors as great? Because we, the judicious ‘democratic’ orientated audience, won’t allow it?
Craig then references the classical Noh theatre of Japan; how an entrance of a great actor is preceded by ‘suspense’, followed by a ‘surprise’. In regard to Irving, as well as Edmund Kean, ‘an entrance was something to experience’ – ‘The manner of coming on made it extraordinary with great actors – it was this manner of timing the appearance – measuring its speed and direction – which created a rhythm that was irresistible’. Whist most actors do not possess the talent and skill to be ‘great’, nonetheless, the lesson here is in detail and timing, which is something that all good actors can concentrate on and achieve through thorough and precise preparation. The rhythm of entrances is also not just confined to the theatre but is a vital aspect of film – ‘suspense’ then ‘surprise’. The reward for such detail being, as Craig observes in regard to Irving, is the intense focus of attention of the audience on the actor – ‘now watch what he will do – better still, how will he do it – best of all, watch his face and figure, and follow what it is these are hinting at’.
Close attention to detail and the subtlety of psychological gestures is not something that is generally associated with 19th Century English acting, and yet it would seem that Henry Irving, as well as Ellen Terry, was a master at such insightful depth. Craig exemplifies Irving’s attention to detail, psychological gesture, and depth in how Irving as Mathias in The Bells removes his boots after entering, listening acutely to what is being said: ‘It was, in every gesture, every half move, in the play of his shoulders, legs, head and arms, mesmeric in the highest degree – slowly we were drawn to watch every inch of his work as we are drawn to read and linger on every syllable of a strangely fine writer. It was perfect craftsmanship’.
Craig clearly captures a hint of what made Henry Irving a ‘great actor’, not only as Mathias in The Bells but also in Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust and many other roles: ‘The thing Irving set out to do was to show us the sorrow which slowly and remorsely beat him down. As, no matter who the human being may be, and what his crime, the sorrow which he suffers must appeal to our hearts, so Irving set out to wring our hearts, not to give us a clever exhibition of antics such as a murderer would be likely to go through. He does not appeal to any silly sentimentality in you – he merely states the case by showing you that quite obviously here is a strong human being, through a moment of weakness, falls into error and becomes for two hours a criminal – does what he knows he is doing – acts deliberately – but (here is Irving) acts automatically, as though impelled by an immense force, against which no resistance is possible.’
What is stated above has become of crucial importance in modern acting; not just here in Adelaide but elsewhere I have taught and experienced so-called ‘modern’ and ‘innovative’ theatre. The attention to detail is one thing – and many of you have heard me exclaim – ‘Acting is detail‘. The other thing is deliberate simplicity rather than indulge in sentimentality (generalised passive-aggressive bleating and ‘playing the victim’). Acting is a deliberate process of creative and imaginative detailed choices; characters act deliberately and consciously, good and bad, and it should be automatic to make it seem as if it is spontaneaous, ‘in the moment’, as if experienced for the first timei, ‘as though impelled by an immense force, against which no resistance is possible’. Too often this is not the case; there is no sense of deliberate action, only sentimental and demonstrative re-action, usually of the bleating kind, complemented by face pulling and excessive and ridiculous gesturing that has no meaning, except registering an actor’s discomfort and not insight re the character.
Whilst by no means the whole story, nonetheless, Edward Gordon Craig’s short essay on Henry Irving in The Bells does complement many of the things I hold dear and teach – part of an essential Acting Manifesto. Many will, and have, dismiss and ignore such sensible and practical advice, preferring the histrionics and ‘theatricalism’ currently demanded by the modern theatre of despair and deconstruction. Stanislavsky also loathed and criticized overt ‘theatricalism’. However, like everything, this too will pass – even though so-called ‘innovative’ deconstructive theatre has dominated our stages for the past 30-odd years. I’m not sure our current 30-something and 40-something ‘bright young things’ can do anything else. They certainly show a reluctance to embrace and challenge themselves with any different ‘style’, and certainly become resentful and pouty when challenged in regard to their relatively limited vision and expression. I don’t mind being labelled ‘classical’, and have and will continue to challenge myself with as many different theatrical styles as possible. ‘Innovation’, an over-used word I have come to loath, is too often merely ‘distortion’ – leading to bad acting. I believe, like Craig and Irving, that the actor should follow and aim for ‘the most ancient and unshakable tradition, which says the Dramatist (not the director) is to take the audience into his confidence. The actor who fails to do this (via sentimentality, demonstration, and imposed generalised emotional bleating) fails as an actor’.
As a final postscript to this rather lengthy article, there is something else about Irving and The Bells that is worth mentioning in regard to great acting. After the opening night, Irving was returning home with his wife, Florence, in a carriage. They had just reached Hyde Park corner when Florence ridiculed Irving, stating – ‘Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ Where upon Irving stopped the carriage, got down, and walked away, and never saw Florence again. One thing that all truly great actors have, and in a way must possess, is an almost obessional dynamic energy in which the love of the art of acting is first and foremost. This may appear as completely selfish and ego driven to some, to many, but it is really once again this compelling ‘irresistible force’. It requires and demands great bravery, sacrifice, dedication and determination – even in the face of complete failure, ruin and ostracism. Whatever happens on a personal and professional front the ‘great actor’ never ever stops creating. Take that as you will. Laurence Olivier was once asked ‘Why do you act?’, Olivier responded with ‘Why do I breathe?’ – and that about sums it up – there actually isn’t a choice. This must have been what Irving experienced, a kind of epiphany, after his huge success on opening night of The Bells. Ironic in a way; that at roughly the same time that Ibsen wrote The Doll’s House (1872), the most controversial play of the 19th Century due to woman leaving husband, children, home and security, Henry Irving did the masculine version of the same thing.He walked out of his marriage for his own art. Of course he felt guilt – but he couldn’t live with this kind of negative judgment; the ‘irresistible force’ demanded he embrace his new identity – judge as you may.