The first knighted actor

13 October 2014

Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to receive a knighthood, died today in 1905.

Born John Henry Brodribb in Keinton Mandeville, Somerset in 1838, the year of Victoria’s Coronation, Irving’s rise to prominence as an actor-manager was a slow and torturous one. Against his Methodist mother’s wishes, he chose a profession still much tarnished with the stigma of rogues.

He began his acting career in 1856, after a Brodribb uncle gave him a legacy of £100, which he invested in theatrical necessities such as wigs, swords and costumes. The legacy also allowed him to buy the leading part in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Soho Theatre. As was the custom of the day, he adopted a stage name – Irving – his choice determined by the romances of Washington Irving and the evangelical sermons of the Scottish preacher, Edward Irving. A warm reception of his performance gave him the encouragement he needed. He joined a theatrical stock company in Sunderland in the north of England as a ‘walking gentleman’ (i.e. in non-comedic supporting roles).

He appeared with various provincial stock companies playing over 600 parts during the following ten years. In 1866, he made his London debut but it was another five years before he found overnight fame in The Bells. The finest Shakespearean actor of his time, he gave memorable performances both in title roles – including Macbeth and Othello – and in character parts, such as Shylock and Malvolio.

Irving had two sons from a short and unhappy marriage (1869-71): Henry Brodribb Irving (‘H B’) and Laurence Sidney Brodribb Irving. In 1878, he became actor-manager of the Lyceum Theatre, with Ellen Terry as his leading lady, playing Ophelia to his Hamlet in the opening production. Their successful professional partnership lasted for 25 years.

His sons both followed their father into the theatre – H B as an actor-manager and Laurence as a playwright. H B’s son, Laurence Henry Forster Irving, was a stage designer and the author of a biography of his grandfatherHenry Irving, the Actor and his World  (1951).

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