William Archer.

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No, i.

*' F? NGLisH AS She is Spoke ; or, A Jest in Sober
\_^ Earnest," '■^ Excruciatingly funny,''' ^TJie

No. ii.

by C. B., with numerous whole page illustrations, by
Edwin J. Ellis. The te.xt, which is set eyitirely in
the very beautiful and artistic type which heads this
notice, and the illustrations, are printed throughout in
a new shade of blue ink.

No. iii.

HENRY Irving, Actor and Manager : A Critical
Study. By William Archer.

No. iv.

Christmas Entertainments, illustrated with
many diverting cuts — a reprint of the very
amusing and scarce 1740 edition, an original copy of
which would now command more than twice its weight
in gold.

{Others in the Press. 1


Vellum-Parchment Shilling Series


Miscellaneous Literature.

Field & Tuer,
T' Leadenhalle Presse, E,C.

Henry Irving.



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Author of ^'■English Dramatists of To-day"


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THE future biographer of Mr. Henry In-ing
will probably have to close with the
autumn of 1883 one period of his hero's career.
The third period it may be called, if we reckon
Mr. Irving's earhest efforts in the Provinces and
in London as the first, and the Bateman
management at the Lyceum as the second.
This third period, then, comprises the five years
of Mr. Irving's own management. His con-
templated visit to America will form a break
long and important enough to mark a new

12 Henry Irving^

chapter in liis career. Epoch-making it will
hardly be. His tour is not likely to produce
much effect, for better or worse, on Mr. Irving's
art. Travelling with his own company, his own
scenery, his own appointments of every sort,
he will in effect carry with him his own
Lyceum from the orchestra backwards. Only
the auditorium and its occupants will be
changed ; and if the visit were to be prolonged
over years instead of months this change might
be all-important. In the course of a winter
tour, however, he will scarcely have the time,
even if he had the will, to adapt his style to the
changed conditions. I am not prepared to
say that a prolonged separation from his
Lyceum audiences — and his Lyceum critics —
might not have a beneficial effect upon Mr.
Irving's art. It is useless to speculate one way
or the other, for on separation long enough
seriously to influence his style is likely to take
place. Any ''Yankee notions" he may bring

Actor and Manager. 13

back with him will probably be confined to
stage-mechanism or arrangements for the com-
fort of his audiences. Thus the importance of
the present break in his career is in all likeli-
hood purely external. It concerns not his
artistic development but his managerial policy.
Still it affords a point of rest, as it were, for a
retrospect of the few but eventful and significant
years of his management. It suggests a sum-
ming up of his achievements and an attempt to
define his true position in our art-world of

14 Henry having ^


ACTING, like all other arts, says George
Henry Lewes, " is obstructed by a mass
of unsystematized opinion, calling itself criti-
cism." He might have gone further and pointed
out that acting, more than any other art, is
subject to this disadvantage, since it is trebly
difficult to systematize opinion concerning it.
A critic of sculpture, of painting, of music, of
poetry, can have ever before him the master-
pieces from which his critical canons are gene-
ralized. He can go to work both inductively
and deductively. He evolves from his inner
consciousness the idea of what art should be : he
looks backward through the centuries and learns
what art has been : and a compromise between
the two gives him his standard of what art can

Actor and Manager. 15

be under existing conditions, teaches him what
he may reasonably demand of the artist of the
present. It is his own fault if his opinions
remain unsystematized, mere impressions of the
moment. If he has the perceptive faculty pre-
supposed in all criticism, the formation of a
rational standard becomes a mere matter of
study. The materials are at his hand : he can
formulate a faith and give his reasons for it.
With the critic of acting the case is different
Each individual, or at any rate each genera-
tion, has to form a new ideal, unaided by the
ideals and achievements of the past. Sup-
pose that all the paintings then in the world
had suddenly faded at the beginning, say, of
this century ; suppose our whole knowledge of
Italian, Spanish, German, and Flemish art, nay,
of Reynolds and Hogarth themselves, had to be
gathered from printed descriptions ; how empiric
would our art criticism be, how utterly given
over to individual mood and whim ! It would

1 6 Henry Irving^

be in the position of a judge with neither
statute-law nor case-law to guide him, but at
best some vague maxims of theoretical juris-
prudence. It would err in two directions.
Some critics would form an ideal of what
painting might conceivably be, disregarding its
material conditions, and pinning their faith to
misunderstood and hyperbolical descriptions of
vanished masterpieces. Others would be con-
tent to make an ideal of the actual, would
accept the banalities of the day as all that could
be desired, and might not improbably allow
their judgment to be influenced by the size of
the canvas and the splendour of the frame.
A few general rules of perspective and com-
position would help but little. Art criticism
would be lost in vague theorizing on the one
hand and conventional reporting on the other.
And is not this the very tragedy of acting
— that its greatest triumphs, as well as its
merest failures, fade even as they come into

Actor and Manager. 1 7

being and leave not a wrack behind ? The
Raphaels and Tintorets, the Diirers and Rem-
brandts of acting are names and nothing more.
We have descriptive catalogues of their achieve-
ments, but the achievements themselves are
beyond our study and safe from our criticism.
To try to reconstruct them from description is
futile, since we cannot tell what shades of mean-
ing the critics of the day attached to their
epithets. We read Hamlet's admonition to the
players with thorough agreement, because we
interpret his terms according to our own pre-
conceptions. Disputes as to what Shake-
speare meant by "the modesty of nature,"
" mouthing," '' temperance," " smoothness," &c.,
would be as barren as controversies on the
colour-epithets in Homer. One has an un-
pleasant suspicion that if Burbage could come
to life again he would be more likely to find
an engagement in the East-end than in the
West, and that Betterton would be consigned


i8 Henry Irving^

to the Provinces as stilted and stagey past
endurance. Even if Garrick redivivus were
announced to make his re-appearance at Drury
Lane, I, for my part, should look forward to the
occasion with more nervousness than confidence.
All we really know about the great actors of the
past is the effect they produced upon their
audiences. That they commanded laughter and
tears, and called forth wonder and enthusiasm,
is plenteously attested. But one age is moved
to ecstasy where another would be bored or dis-
gusted. We know how Cimabue's Virgin en-
raptured the Florentines, so that

" Even the place
Containing such a miracle, grew bold.
Named the Glad Borgo from that beauteous face."

Were we left to reconstruct the picture on the
basis of the enthusiasm it excited, we should
imagine it a glorified Sistine Madonna, instead
of the almond-eyed Byzantine giantess with
"stiff draperies and loose joints" who darkens

Acfor and Manager. 19

the dark chapel of Santa IMaria Novella. The
enthusiasm excited by this or that actor of
the past may be deceptive in the same way, and
in any case forms no criterion of absolute merit.
As providing material for an inductive critical
standard, the great actors of the eighteenth
centur}^ are of scarcely more use to us than the
great actors of the twentieth.

This is one reason why criticism of acting is,
and must be, more empirical than criticism of
the other arts. We have to form our own
standard from the art of our own generation.
Even if we have had the luck to see all the best
acting of the time, our basis of experience
remains comparatively narrow. Some of us are
apt to insist on an unattainable ideal ; others —
and this is a commoner error — come to accept
convention for nature, rant for passion, and
eccentricity for originality. As years go on
our experience no doubt widens, but a halo of
pleasant associations is apt to form around the

20 Henry Irving,

memories of our youth and give them an undue
charm in our eyes. Time filters our impres-
sions for us — we forget all that was mean and
mistaken, and remember only that this actor
or that moved or amused us at a time when
tears flowed lightly and it was easier to laugh
than to be grave. We cannot test our own
recollections of actors of the past, any more than
we can test the descriptions of Lamb and
Ilazlitt. Moreover, the vague sympathies and
antipathies which come into play whenever one
human being is brought into personal relation
with another, form a disturbing element in our
criticism from which we are exempt in dealing
with the other arts. IMany a critical Areopagus
has had its judgment stayed by the beauty of
a Phryne ; but actual beauty and ugliness are
not the subtlest or most dangerous of these
influences, because we are more or less on our
guard against them. Indefinable trifles of
accent and manner, the cun^e of an eyebrow

Actor and Ma7iage7\ 21

or the quiver of a lip, a likeness so faint that
Ave do not consciously note it, yet strong enough
to awaken a host of vague associations — these
are the unseen currents which sweep our judg-
•ment this way or that, and prevent it from
answering the helm of reason.

" Things of no moment, colour of the hair
Shape of a leg, complexion bro\vn or fair,
A dress well chosen, or a patch misplaced
Conciliate favour or create distaste.''

Thus opinion on acting must necessarily be
more tentative, or, if I may use the word, more
subjective, than on any other art. It is less reduci-
ble to rule, while such rules as have been formu-
lated are harder to apply with impartiality and
precision. And, conversely, there is no art on
which so many people have an itching to utter
the most confident opinions. In the first place,
there is a common but mistaken idea that the
experience and observation of any intelligent
adult are sufficient to provide him with an in-


Henry Irving^

fallible standard of what is or is not " natural."
People will grant that some knowledge of per-
spective is required for the criticism of paintings,
but in acting, they think, there is no such
convention to be taken into account They
will allow that some study of anatomy is
necessary before one can authoritatively criticise
the muscular modelling of a statue, but acting
is not concerned with such technical details.
They do not see that the actor, concentrating
life upon his little stage, is working under con-
ditions quite as conventional as the painter who
places the horizon and the pole-star upon his
square yard of flat canvas. They will not admit
that the mobile muscles of the actor require at
least as delicate observation as the statue's rigid
lines, if we are to form any valid opinion as to
the truth of the effect produced by them. Thus
there is a doubly strong tendency in dealing
with acting to translate " This pleases me "
into ''This is good," "That displeases me"

Actor and Manager, 23

into " That is bad." And the very vividness of
the effect of acting compels the expression of
opinion. In revenge for its evanescence, it gives
us for the moment greater pleasure or pain
than any other art, except perhaps music. We
may walk through miles of art galleries without
any very potent sensation of satisfaction or the
reverse. Even when we particularly admire a
picture we do not applaud and shout and wave
handkerchiefs, but at most make a cross in our
catalogues and buy a photograph of it. In
the theatre, on the other hand, we enjoy or suffer
vividly, and feel a natural craving to find fitting
expression for our emotion. The muscular
action of applause or hissing, handing bouquets
or throwing orange-peel, does not satisfy us.
We declaim, discuss, describe and imitate. W^e
write letters to the actors and sonnets to the
actresses. We envy the professional critic who
can pour forth his soul through the far-resonant
mouthpiece of the Press, feeling convinced that

24 Henry Irving^

were we in his place we could say some-
thing far more to the purpose. Acting, in short,
produces a physical effect upon us which
somehow issues in the confident expression of
definite opinion to an extent unknown in the
other arts. It is the old paradox — we are surer
of our prejudices than of our best-grounded
judgments, and will stake our credit on a whim
rather than on a mathematical demonstration.

Actor and AIanager\ 25


THIS enumeration, incomplete as it is, of
the difficulties which beset the criticism of
acting, may seem a strange opening for a
critical study of an eminent actor. I intend it
in a measure as an apology for what is to follow,
but more particularly as an indication of what I
do, and do not, mean to attempt. Interpretation,
rather than criticism properly so called, is my
purpose. Regarding Mr. Irving and his theatre
as "accomplished facts " of no small importance in
the world of art, I wish to examine a little into
the relation in which they stand towards other
phenomena in the same sphere. Distinguish-
ing between Mr. Irving the actor and Mr. Irving
the manager, I wish to inquire how, in these
two capacities, he has raised the Lyceum to

26 Henry Irving^

the position it at present occupies. I wish
to diagnose the two diseases of Irving-mania
and Irving-phobia which are raging among
the pubUc, the former endemic, the latter
sporadic, but none the less violent where
it does break out. Shunning the contagion
of these almost equally pestilent heresies, I
wish to suggest the conditions of a sane and
healthy criticism. In short, I do not desire to
force my personal impressions upon my reader,
but rather to lead him to test and analyse
his own. I shall not feel myself bound to decry
Mr. Irving because he is not Edmund Kean and
Macready in one, or because he is not the ideal
tragedian of my dreams ; nor shall I proclaim
him the greatest actor of all time because he
spends ;£"200 on a tableau-curtain, and con-
tributes to the Nineteenth Century. I do not
hold a brief for either the prosecution or the
defence ; rather I would attempt to report
concisely the pleadings on both sides, so that

Actor mid Maiiag-er. 21

v>*" • ^ I

the emphatic award of the jury- — the great
public which flocks nightly to the Lyceum —
may be explained, if not justified, to those
whose opinion tends in the opposite direction.


Hcmy Ii-ving^


^ nrT is scarcely too much to say that the Lyceum
y is as prominent an element in the social

I life of London as the Theatre Francais in that
i of Paris. As prominent, not as important — for
^"^ the drama of the past, of which the Lyceum
repertor)^ is almost exclusively composed, can
never grasp and mould the thoughts of men as
do the vivid pictures of contemporary life pre-
sented from time to time in the Rue Richelieu.
Still, the productions at the Lyceum excite
almost as much discussion, and occupy almost
as large a space in the mind of cultivated
London. Fifteen years ago the intelligent
foreigner, reporting upon the intellectual life
of England, would have felt himself justified

Actor and Manager. 29

in altogether omitting the theatre from his
survey ; now he could no more overlook Mr.
Irving and Miss Ellen Terry than Tieck in
1 8 17 could overlook John Kemble and Miss
O'Neill. Indeed, the Lyceum probably in-
fluences a wider range of thought than did the
patent theatres of those days, for puritanic pre-
judice against the stage, everywhere rapidly on
the decline, has almost vanished with respect
to that house in particular. An amusement
which was formerly "worse than wicked —
vulgar," has now become better than respect-
able — fashionable. But the Lyceum is more
than fashionable, it is popular. There is pro-
bably no artistic institution in England which
unites all classes as it does. The whole social
menagerie of Du Maurier may be seen any
evening in the stalls : the Duke and Duchess
of Stilton, Sir Gorgius and Lady Midas, Mr.
and Mrs. Ponsonby de Tompkyns, Maudle,
Postlethwaite, and Mrs. Cimabue Brown.

^o Henry Irving^


Artists, men of science, men of letters, church-
men and soldiers, dons of the universities,
magnates of the city, notables of the bench and
bar, meet there on common ground ; and even
the " masher " sometimes strays across from
the other side of Wellington Street. The intel-
ligent foreigner is there as a matter of course,
and the non-intelligent foreigner, the Prince of
Crim Tartary or the Ambassador from Cariboo,
is taken to the Lyceum just as to the House
of Lords or ?kladame Tussaud's. Brompton and
Bayswater congregate in the dress-circle, Cam-
berwell and Kentish Town in the upper boxes.
In the unreserved places, beneath the salt, as
it were, at the intellectual feast, gather all who
are not included in the above enumeration —
the community as opposed to society. Brown,
Jones, and Robinson, Tom, Dick, and Harry, are
there — aye, even 'Arry with his 'Arriet, though
not Mr. Irving, but the accomplished manager
of Drury Lane, is 'Arry's favourite tragedian.

Actor a?id Alanager. "- ^


Thus the whole of our modern London, not
merely a play-going class, is attracted to the
Lyceum ; and the attraction is not temporary
or fitful but constant. The moment I\Ir. Irvin^j
finds his electro-magnet becoming feeble, he
sends a fresh current of electricity through the
coil, and not iron but gold rushes together in
piles, responsive to the subtle influence. The
Lyceum is a recognised institution in London
life. A periodical visit to it has become a
matter of habit. Were it suddenly to vanish
away, its loss would impoverish the small talk,
if not eclipse the gaiety, of the whole nation.

Such a brilliant success, achieved and main-
tained by one man, is probably without prece-
dent in the history of the stage. The manage-
rial careers of Charles Kean and Macready were
full of storm and stress — Mr. Ir\'ing steers his
bark steadily over halcyon seas. Garrick, even
in the days of monopoly, was only the centre
of a circle of actors scarcely less distinguished

32 Henry Irving^

than himself. Mr. Irving has in his company
but one artist whose attraction is at all com-
parable to his, while all others of equal dis-
tinction compete instead of co-operate with
him. Reasoning from results, in fame, social
consideration, and hard cash — for the fierce
light that beats upon a managerial throne
reveals also the secrets of the treasury — should
we not conclude that this actor, whom an en-
lightened nation delights to honour as never
actor was honoured before, must be one of
the most incontestably great artists of all

But here comes in the anomaly. There
has probably never been an actor of equal
prominence whose talent, nay, whose mere com-
petence, has been so much contested. He is
the idol of a select circle of devotees, but
even it is small, and its fervour is apt to be
tempered with apology. The great public
regards him with interest and respect rather

A dor and Manager. ^;^

than with enthusiasm ; or if with enthusiasm,
then it is for his success rather than his talent,
since with the British public success is ever
the strongest title to admiration. Towards
some great actors men have felt the warmest
personal gratitude, as though towards bene-
factors whom they had to thank for the pro-
foundest emotions of their lives. These it
would have required some courage to criti-
cise, since, in some of their parts at least,
general consent pronounced them ideally great.
Towards Mr. Irving there is no such feeling
among the thousands who flock to his theatre.
In no single part has general consent pro-
nounced him ideal ; in many it has empha-
tically pronounced him quite the reverse,
though the Lyceum was none the less crowded
on that account. In general society, one needs
far more courage to praise than to condemn
Mr. Irving. To admire him without reserve
is held eccentric to the verge of affectation.


Henry Irving

<b 5

The orthodox dilate upon the splendour of
the scenery, admire Miss Ellen Terry, and
are reticent about Mr. Irving. Pressed for a
decided opinion, they generally intimate that
if, as Mrs. Poyser puts it, IMr. Irv^ing could
be "hatched over again and hatched dift'e-
rcnt " he would be a very great actor. I
believe this is a pretty fair statement of the
attitude of mind of, say, four-fifths of an
average Lyceum audience. On a first night the
devotees of course muster largely, and enthu-
siasm is the order of the evening ; but it is
otherwise after a piece has run a week or so.
This I can vouch from repeated personal obser-
vation. The crowded audiences at the Lyceum
as a rule applaud but feebly, and the atten-
dants in front of the house are not above
contributing to the rapturous ovations. In
some theatres, such as the Hay market and
the old Prince of Wales's, the mildness of
the applause is explained by the prepon-

Actor and Manager. 35

derance of stalls and dress-circle over un-
reserved places. As well expect thunder
from a clear sky as applause from a theatre
with no pit. But this does not account for
the comparative silence of the Lyceum, where
the pit and gallery bear a fair proportion to
the rest of the house. The true explanation
is that the great majority of the audience are
intellectually interested, not emotionally excited.
There is often as much applause when the
curtain rises on an elaborate " set " as when
it falls on a thrilling situation.

If four-fifths of the audience are of this
tepid temperature, what of the remaining
fraction ? It is composed of the aforesaid
ebullient devotees on the one hand, and of the
frigid sceptics on the other. For there is
undoubtedly a minority ,^ small but not unim-
portant, who can see nothing but faults in
]\Ir. Irving, who consider his popularity an ex-
traordinary delusion, and who go to the Lyceum

Henry Irving^

as they would to a Chinese joss-house, curious
to witness a set of superstitious rites incom-
prehensible to their intellect and remote from
their sympathies. This attitude of mind is
especially common among those who have not
seen Mr. Irving often enough to become
accustomed to him. The taste for his art must
be acquired, and the mere commencement of
the process is so irksmoe that they never get
beyond the first sip, as it were, but make a wry
face and refuse to repeat the dose. Familiarity
with Mr. Irving's art, so far from lessening respect,
may almost be called a necessary condition of
the merest tolerance. If heretics can only be
attracted often enough to the temple, they arc
almost sure to become — more or less — con-
verted. Though they go to scoff, they will
remain, not, perhaps, to pray, but at least to
reflect and qualify their unbelief. But there
are some unbelievers to whom the Lyceum is
anathema, its mere mention sufficing to excite

Acloi" and Manager. 37

a transport of iconoclastic fury. They arc
stiff-necked and very rebellious. Wild horses
and country cousins shall scarcely drag them
to the accursed place. The craving for "orders,"
that last infirmity of noble minds, moves them

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Online LibraryWilliam ArcherHenry Irving, actor and manager, a critical study → online text (page 1 of 4)