Who was Henry Irving?

Henry Irving was the most celebrated actor of the late Victorian period. He was not just an actor but an actor manager, what we would today call a theatre director or artistic director.

Irving was an intelligent actor, he acted with his mind as much as with his body and he delighted audiences with his characterisations. He had his critics too who thought his characterisations were completely unrealistic, unnatural and un-necessary. They found little to praise in his composure and it was widely reported that his pronunciation was so strained and contorted that oftentimes it was incomprehensible. 

However, his status and reputation were known throughout the world and his tours both at home and abroad were always played to packed houses. He played over 700 characters in his 49 year career.

Irving was the first actor to be awarded a Knighthood, he received honours from all the main universities in Britain and he was invited to speak at many of them about his art.

Irving may have been the most celebrated actor of his generation but whether he was the greatest actor, or even a great actor, divided opinion at the time.

The intelligent actor who used his mind was also described as walking ‘like an automaton whose wheels need oiling, and speaks alternately from the pit of his stomach and the top of his head’. For a number of critics Irving was simply fashionable, not very good, in fact not good at all.

Irving believed all of the arts were one and that acting was no less an art form than playing an instrument or painting on canvas. His life’s work was to ensure that his profession was accepted and respected as one of the arts, thereby elevating the quality of theatre for all.

His greatest critics were the clergy and Irving spent years trying to convince them that his choice of drama, steeped in morality, was the equivalent of preaching from the pulpit.

Henry Irving died in 1905 but his legacy is not immediately obvious to us in the 21st-century. For many years his influence was carried around in the hearts and minds of the great classical actors that followed him onto the stage but they too became great and Irving’s accomplishments have faded through the generations.

He was a prolific letter writer but never wrote anything of himself in the form of an autobiography.

Today there are a few short, scratchy recordings of his voice but nothing of his performances exist on film. We have endless reviews of his plays, which tell us a great deal about his performances but to understand the man himself we have to piece together the memories of all those who knew him and worked with him. And they weren’t always complimentary.

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