Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century. Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.
Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb. He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive business of acting in the mid nineteenth century.
Irving was not the stuff of heroic leading men. he was thinner than the average actor, and had a peculiar habit of moving onstage, a sort of bent knee sideways shuffle, which fascinated audiences and exasperated critics. He also had some strange habits of pronunciation closing up vowel sounds and dropping consonants, so that a line like : “Take this rope from around my neck.” became, “Tek this rup from around muy nick.”
None of this mattered because Irving knew the tastes of his audiences and played to them. His slender, dark, good looks made him excellent villain material, and his Iagos, Macbeths, and murderers, like Mathias in The Bells, were chilling successes.
In 1878 Irving acquired a long lease of The Lyceum Theater in London, and made it the de facto center for British drama up until his death in 1905. His great acting partner in the Lyceum venture was the actress Ellen Terry whose interpretations of Portia in the Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth remained memorable for decades.
In 1895 Irving was knighted for services to the British stage and became the first actor to be so honored. This was important to Irving, because from the beginning of his career, he had always striven to make acting a respectable occupation. When he began on the boards, it was not, as the stage was still perceived as far too close to the demi-monde. Acting was not recognized as an actual, distinct profession requiring specific skills and standards. It was in large part Henry Irving who changed all that, by maintaining a thoroughly professional theater for thirty years at the Lyceum. After his death at 67 he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a simple black square in the floor with his dates, marks his grave.
All this sounds respectable enough, but the life of Henry Irving had a crimson coda. He employed Bram Stoker, author of Dracula (1897) as his manager, and there has always been speculation that Bram drew upon his employer’s famously hypnotic, selfish, and nocturnal life to create his deathless monster.
Could it be that the true memorial to Victorian England’s most successful actor was not his interment at the Abbey, but his place between the covers of countless copies of Dracula? Perhaps his novelizing manager really did have the last laugh.