Henry Irving (1838-1905), while in the stock company at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, first played Hamlet, June 20, 1864, for his benefit. October 31, 1874, her first appeared as Hamlet in London, an event for which the crowd began to assemble around the entrance to the pit of the Lyceum at three o'clock in the afternoon. His success was so great in this character that he gave it 200 consecutive representations, the run ending June 29, 1875.
Says Brereton, his biographer:
"He wore no elaborate trappings or funeral velvet, no flaxen wig like that adopted by Charles Fechter; the order of the Danish elephant was absent. He appeared simply as a man and a prince, clothed in thick-ribbed silk, and a paletôt edged with fur, a rich but simple costume, relieved only by a massive gold chain. His face wore a troubled, wearied expression; the disordered black hair was carelessly thrown over his forehead, and the marvelous eye of the actor told of his distracted mind. But so subtle was the actor's art, so daring his originality, that almost two acts of the play were allowed to pass in silence before the audience began to understand him. After the scene with the Ghost, Mr. Irving came off the stage depressed, not by the silence of the audience, but by the thought that he had not reached his ideal. To use his own words, 'I felt that the audience did not go with me until the first meeting with Ophelia, when they changed toward me entirely.' From this point in the play his personation was recognized as the most human Hamlet that the audience had ever known, and the delighted spectators were loud in their applause, even at a quarter to one in the morning.
"Henry Irving shows a Hamlet of a highly nervous and sensitive disposition; a student, an artist, and a gentleman, born to great things, happy in the love of his parents and the confident attachment of a young and guileless woman, who, by a sudden turn of extraordinary misfortune, is forced to take arms against a sea of troubles. The terrible events which occur have the effect of unhinging the man's mind, but have no power to alter his nature. He is overwhelmed, he is distressed, he is irritable, he is reflective, he talks to himself, the strain on the nervous system is almost too great for human nature to bear, but nothing can alter the inherent disposition of Hamlet. He must always be a gentleman, he must always be soft and tender to women; when he sees Ophelia, his clouded face is illumined with the sun of passion; when they allude to his mother as contradistinct from his uncle, Hamlet rises from his seat--the refined gentleman. More than this, it is impossible for Hamlet to be cruel, wilfully and deliberately. He is too sensitive, too highly cultured and too feminine in his essence. There is nothing whatever cruel in the nature of Hamlet as illustrated by Henry Irving. He can do terrible things when irritated to madness, when he is set upon, trapped and abused; but, like many of us, he cannot be desperate unless he is in a passion; he cannot fight in cold blood; he is ever meditating, planning, arguing, soliloquizing, and discussing his plan of action. But he cannot screw his courage to the sticking point. He has not a Lady Macbeth by his side to urge him on to murder. He has no one but his conscience, and arguments with conscience are seldom decisive. He can become bitterly satirical to Ophelia when he discovers the infamous plot to which she has lent herself, and when he knows he is being watched from behind the arras. He can be excessively rude to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he discovers that their friendship is a gross deception, and when the curtain will hide his eyes from the murder; but he cannot kill the King at his prayers, and can only accomplish it when Hamlet is an actor in a murderous scene of bloodshed, and must per force take his man with the rest. Higher even than this Hamlet's hatred of cruelty is his intense heart. Probably no Hamlet who has yet appeared, so thoroughly brought out, as Mr. Irving did, the love for Ophelia, the devotion to his mother, and the warm attachment to his friend Horatio."
On becoming the lessee of the Lyceum Theatre, Mr. Irving produced Hamlet as the opening attraction (December 30, 1878), Miss Ellen Terry then playing Ophelia for the first time. It ran for 108 nights and was one of the best productions, certainly so far as scenery and minor parts were concerned, that the tragedy has ever had. "The performance you have seen tonight," said Mr. Irving after the curtain had fallen, "has been the dream of my life."
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