First Knight: The life and theatrical achievements of Sir Henry Irving

By Philip Pearce

IF YOU ARE A FAN of English theater, and who isn’t, you’ll be delighted with First Knight: The life and theatrical achievements of Sir Henry Irving, Howard Burnham’s portrait of the 19th century British superstar.  

Colorful, relentlessly ambitious, histrionic in word and action, Irving’s triumphs and failures on the rocky road to international fame provide the versatile Howard with a glorious chance to pull out all the stops in a character who lived and performed at full dramatic throttle. 

A master of quick, telling characterization and dialect, Burnham also brings the passing parade of Irving supporting parts vividly to life. We hear from all ages and social classes, from the snotty West Country urchins who mocked Henry’s boyhood pretensions to the widowed Victoria piping out her praises for the highly energetic melodramas that earned Irving the first knighthood ever given to a man of the stage.

The main character and his biography are again set in the framework of a particular time, place and incident. In First Knight it’s the night the aging matinee idol collapsed and died in a railway hotel in Bradford, after a performance in Tennyson’s Becket.

Using self-declared poetic license, Burnham imagines the dying thespian engaging his business manager Bram Stoker in an extended conversation that never actually happened about a lifetime of things that actually did.

Irving had little encouragement from his parents in seeking a stage career. His mother, a religious fanatic, dismissed theater as “the devil’s playground.” His choice of a wife was just as unfortunate. Returning home from the triumphant opening night of a high-flown melodrama called The Bells, that made his name and reputation, his wife Florence asked, “Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this for the rest of your life?” Irving stepped from their carriage, left her to make her way home from Hyde Park Corner unaccompanied and never spoke to her again. Offstage or on, high drama was his way of life.

He trained and starred with the acting company of Hezekiah Bateman’s London’s Lyceum Theatre.  When Bateman retired, Irving took over, becoming the preeminent example of the florid Victorian actor/managers who didn’t just play all the leads but ran and operated the theater and directed its actors and technicians. In this, he had the business acumen and moral support of Stoker, who also found the spare time to write a runaway bestseller called Dracula.  

On his way up and throughout his years of unrivaled fame, Irving’s co-star was the luminous Ellen Terry.  She partnered with him in a long succession of productions, including his first and unsuccessful Hamlet, which critics said was fatally marred by a bandy-legged Prince of Denmark. He and Terry got back at them with a later major success in the play, along with other triumphs in leading Shakespearean roles. The exception seems to have been Macbeth, which is odd in that the most famous portrait of Terry is as Lady Macbeth.  

Irving’s knighthood was his crowning triumph. But a new realism was moving and shaking the English-speaking theater with a force, which showed up and belittled the flamboyant and mannered acting of the likes of Sir Henry Irving. Shaw begged him to look at the work of Ibsen and Strindberg. Sir Henry refused, labeled GBS “Mister Pshaw” and volunteered to deliver the eulogy at a future Shavian funeral. But by the early years of the twentieth century, he and the faithful Bram were touring the provinces and the Lyceum had become a London music hall.

The streamed show is carefully and clearly researched and labeled. And this particular work turns out to be a real labor of love for its author and performer. In the talk after the performance, Howard recalled being taken by his parents to a Bournemouth theater museum that featured Sir Henry Irving’s make-up box and a death mask of the actor which, he admits, kept Burnham the schoolboy sleeping with the light on for the next two nights.