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Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving

The Theatre, New York, December 1906

Vol. VI, No. 70

Arthur Hornblow, Editor

New Dramatic Books

Personal Reminiscences Of Henry Irving. By Bram Stoker. Two volumes. The Macmillan Company: New York, London, 1906.

In the nature of the case various authoritative books about Henry Irving were to be expected, and no one can speak by better right and with better information than Bram Stoker, Irving's business manager and intimate associate during the entire period of his independent activity. There is much in the pages that is unnecessary for permanent record and some information, particularly of an artistic kind, might have been elaborated, but the volumes are exceedingly interesting and valuable and of a kind that could have been written by Bram Stoker only. The first impression that one gains is of the enormous energy of Irving, his unceasing labor, his earnestness and unsparing lavishness in securing artistic results. Incidental to this was his personal prodigality in the recognition of the services of others, either by way of sentiment or business. While he spared no expense in production the receipts were enormous and, for many years, prosperity was uninterrupted.

Mr. Stoker does not give the exact figures of every production, but is explicit about many of them. There was always, of course, much speculation concerning the financial affairs of the great actor. Exact figures were accessible only to Irving and Stoker, the head of no one department seeing the reports from any or at least all of the others. Acknowledgment is made that friends were always ready with money in case of need, but obligations of all kinds were met to the penny. There was no private subsidy. There was one gift of five thousand pounds by the will of Mrs. Brown, a wealthy woman of advanced years, who, from the beginning of his career, manifested a personal interest in the actor that was strengthened by his uninterrupted successes. Stoker tells of a curious incident when this money was paid to Irving. The executors of the will, strangely enough, paid the legacy in bank notes at his room. On being told of this, Stoker opened the safe to deposit the money. Irving had left it in his room. Where? in a hat box that had been left half open as a precaution of safety.

There is a passage concerning the vast number of plays submitted, which will enlighten amateurs as to the difficulty of procuring suitable dramas or good acting plays of any kind:

"Only those who are or have been concerned in theatrical management can have the least idea of the difficulty of obtaining plays suitable for acting. There are plenty of plays to be had. When any one goes into management—indeed, from the time the fact of his intention is announced—plays begin to rain in on him. All those rejected consistently throughout a generation are tried afresh on the new victim, for the hope of the unacted dramatist never dies. There is just a sufficient percentage of ultimate success in the case of long neglected plays to obviate despair. Every one who writes a play sends it on and on to manager after manager. When a player makes some abnormal success every aspirant to dramatic fame tries his hand at a play for him. It is all natural enough. The work is congenial, and the rewards —when there are rewards—are occasionally great. There is, I suppose, no form of literary work which seems so easy and is so difficult—which, while seeming to only require the common knowledge of life, needs in reality great technical knowledge and skill. From the experience alone which we had in the Lyceum one might well have come to the conclusion that to write a play of some kind is an instinct of human nature. To Irving were sent plays from every phase and condition of life. Not only from writers, whose work lay in other lines of effort; historians, lyric poets, divines from the curate to the bishop, but from professional men, merchants, manufacturers, traders, clerks. He has had them sent by domestic servants, and from as far down the social scale as a workhouse boy.

"But from all these multitudinous and varied sources we had very few plays indeed which afforded even a hope or promise. Irving was always anxious for good plays, and spared neither trouble nor expense to get them. Every play that was sent in was read and very many commissions were given and purchase money or advance fees paid. In such cases subjects were often suggested, scenario being the basis. In addition to the plays, in which he or Ellen Terry took part, which he produced during his own management, he purchased or paid fees or options on twenty-seven plays. Not one of these, from one cause or another, could he produce.

Some of the chapters on the stage management of certain plays are as interesting as they are instructive. In fact, details of Irving's acting and stage management are greatly to be desired. A book from Loveday, the stage manager, on this subject would be of inestimable value and, it is to be hoped that we may have some authoritative study of the kind. Henry Irving entertained constantly at dinners, many notable ones being held on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre itself. These suppers are notable in the history of the stage. Stoker's reminiscences of many of these distinguished guests are largely personal experiences of his own, but that gives them no less value, the atmosphere is that which surrounded his chief and properly belongs to the record. Sarah Bernhardt's expressions against the conventionality of tradition are notable. While waiting in Irving's dressing room for Irving to come from the stage Stoker was left alone with Gounod:

"I asked him what in his estimation were the best words to which he had composed music. He answered almost at once without hesitation:

"'Oh, that we two were Maying!' I can never think of those words without emotion! How can one help it? He spoke some of the words—the last verse of the poem from The Saint's Tragedy:

            "Oh! that we two lay sleeping

        In our nest in the churchyard sod,

      With our limbs at rest on the quiet earth's breast,

         And our souls at home with God."

As he spoke, the emotion seemed to master him more and more; at the last line the tears were running down his cheeks. He spoke with an extraordinary concentration and emphasis. It was hard to believe that he was not singing, for the effect of his speaking the words of Charles Kingsley's song was the same. His speech seemed like —was music. Later on I asked him who, in his opinion, was the best composer. "Present company, of course, excepted!" I added, whereat he smiled. After a moment's thought he answered:

"Mendelssohn! Mendelssohn is the best!" Then after another but shorter pause: "But there is only one Mozart!"

Stoker's account of the last years of Irving is simple and direct, and all the more feeling by reason of it. While Irving kept his indomitable energy to the last, his failing strength and waning opportunity wore on his pride and spirits. Mr. Stoker thus describes his last moments:

"The actual cause of Irving's death was physical weakness; he lost a breath, and had not strength to recover it. Sheppard told me that when Irving was leaving the theatre he had said to him that he had better come to the hotel with him, as was sometimes his duty. When he had got into the carriage he had sat with his back to the horses; this being his usual custom by which he avoided a draft. He was quite silent during the short journey. When he got out of the carriage he seemed very feeble, and as he passed through the outer hall of the hotel seemed uncertain of his step. He stumbled slightly and Sheppard held him up. Then when he got as far as the inner hall he sat down on a bench for an instant. That instant was the fatal one. In the previous February at Wolverhampton, when he had suffered from a similar attack of weakness, he had fallen down flat. In that attitude Nature asserted herself, and the lungs being in their easiest position allowed him to breathe mechanically. Now the seated attitude did not give the opportunity for automatic effort. The syncope grew worse; he slipped on the ground. But it was then too late. By the time the doctor arrived, after only a few minutes in all, he had passed too far into the World of Shadows to be drawn back by any effort of man or science. The heart beat faintly, and more faintly still. And then came the end. Before I left the hotel in the grey of the morning I went into the bedroom. It wrung my heart to see my dear old friend lie there so cold and white and still. It was all so desolate, as so much of his life had been. So lonely that in the midst of my own sorrow I could not but rejoice at one thing; for him there was now Peace and Rest.

The Book Monthly, Volume 4

A London Letter

Tennyson Small-Talk and The New Titmarsh Club

November 1, 1906.

DEAR MR. Bookseller AND DEAR GENERAL READER,--It was the Duke of Wellington who said, in reference to the young Queen Victoria, that he had no small-talk. Well, she soon showed that small-talk was not a world to which she was bound, although she happened to be a woman.

But why not small-talk, why discount it, why plume ourselves on being superior to it? It is, eminently human, and therefore it must be informing and it may also be entertaining. For example there is some very good gossip about Tennyson in Mr. Bram Stoker's “Personal Reminiscences '' of Henry Irving. It arises from meetings in connection with the Tennyson plays, and it really has quite a Boswellian touch.

“Tennyson,” said Irving of the man, as distinguished from his work, “is like a great Newfoundland dog. He is like an incarnate truth—a great creature.” “I do not think Irving could have improved his Hamlet of five years ago,” said Tennyson on one occasion; “but now he has improved it five degrees, and those five degrees have lifted it to Heaven."

When Mr. Stoker asked Tennyson if he would allow Irving to alter “Becket,” so far as he might think necessary for stage purposes, the answer came, “Irving may do whatever he pleases with it.” Not long before the poet's death he said to Dr. Dabbs, “I suppose I shall never see “Becket,’” “I fear not.” “Ah!" and then, “They did not do me justice with “‘The Promise of May’, but... I can trust Irving—he will do me justice.”

Tennyson on himself: “I am seventy, and yet I don't feel old— I wonder how it is!'' Mr. Stoker quoted the Tennyson lines, “Unto him that works, and feels he works, The same grand year is ever at the doors.” “Good!” quoth Tennyson again, after saying he would read something which he had just written, he added, “But you must not say anything about it yet.” “All right,” replied Mr. Stoker, “of course I shall not, but why, may I ask, do you wish it so?” “Well, you see,” said Tennyson, “I have to be careful. If it is known that I am writing on a particular subject I get dozens of poems on it the next day. And then, when mine comes out, they say I plagiarised them.”

Tennyson on eternity: “You know I don't believe in an eternal hell, with an All-merciful God. I believe in the All-merciful God.| It would be better otherwise that men should believe they are only ephemera!” There is something almost painful in a detail which we get of the Laureate’s last illness. It had been found out that a beggar man who came daily to Aldworth for the broken meat, was being paid to retail the gossip of the kitchen as, eventually, news. “Don’t let them know how ill I am or they'll have me buried in twenty-four hours,” exclaimed Tennyson to Mr. Stoker. “Can't they all let me alone?” he went on; “I sometimes wish I had never written a line.” “Oh I don't say that;” and Tennyson softened, adding “Well, perhaps you are right! But can’t they leave me alone!”

We also have glimpses of him in lighter vein, for he could tell a humorous story—tell it the more merrily if it concerned himself.

“Shakespeare and Tennyson" a workman was heard to say: “I don’t think nothin' of neither of ‘em.”And there was a Grimsby fishmonger who, being asked by an autograph hunter if he had any letters from Tennyson, answered: “No! His son writes 'em. He still keeps on the business; but he ain't a patch on his fayther!"

Small-talk, all that, if you will call it so, but it is what interests us…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (written by the editor, James Milne)