Irving Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre

Under the management of Henry Irving and the syndicate that briefly followed his tenure, London’s Lyceum Theatre functioned as an unofficial British national theater and helped transform the acting profession in England from itinerant to established and from marginal to socially respectable. An official seal was set on the Lyceum’s success when Irving became the first actor to be knighted in 1895.

Summary of Event

From his base at the Lyceum, Henry Irving dominated the London theater scene for nearly a quarter of a century. He also took his company on regular and exceptionally well-received tours of North America and performed by invitation for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. His after-show dinners at the theater’s Beefsteak Club also became legendary, as they were attended by such dignitaries as the Prince of Wales; Germany’s future kaiser, William II William II (emperor of Germany) ; Irving’s right-hand man, author Bram Stoker; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan and many others. Lyceum Theatre
Irving, Henry
Stoker, Bram
[kw]Irving Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre (1878-1899)
[kw]Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre, Irving (1878-1899)
[kw]London’s Lyceum Theatre, Irving Manages (1878-1899)
[kw]Lyceum Theatre, Irving Manages London’s (1878-1899)
[kw]Theatre, Irving Manages London’s Lyceum (1878-1899)
Lyceum Theatre
Irving, Henry
Stoker, Bram
[g]Great Britain;1878-1899: Irving Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre[5000]
[c]Theater;1878-1899: Irving Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre[5000]
Terry, Ellen

Irving first appeared at the Lyceum Theatre in 1871, in The Bells, a melodrama staged under the aegis of the American impresario H. L. Bateman Bateman, H. L. . In that play, he played Mathias, a man who has committed a murder and escaped justice but is tormented by his own conscience. Irving was an instant success, and The Bells later became a permanent staple of the Lyceum’s repertoire. Irving continued to act for Bateman until the latter’s death in 1875, when his widow took over the management of the theater and ran it for a further two years. Irving then proposed taking it over himself, which he did in 1878.

To join him, Irving invited two people who were to prove crucial to the Lyceum’s success. The first was the gifted and beautiful comic actress Ellen Terry Terry, Ellen , who was to act as his regular leading lady through the next quarter of a century. The second was Bram Stoker, a young Irish clerk who had been so affected by seeing Irving on tour in Dublin Dublin;theater
Theater;Irish that he had volunteered to become Dublin’s first, unpaid theater critic and had subsequently formed a strong bond with Irving. These two, and other staples of the Lyceum’s management such as Austin Brereton Brereton, Austin , formed Irving’s professional and personal support network. He became permanently estranged from his wife, Florence O’Callaghan, after she asked him the night that The Bells opened if he proposed to go on making a fool of himself all his life. However, both of Irving’s sons by Florence, Laurence Irving Irving, Laurence and H. B. Irving Irving, H. B. , subsequently followed him into the theater.

Irving’s most famous roles were Mathias in The Bells, a hit to which he could always turn in troubled periods and which he performed more than any other part; Mephistopheles in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823); Eugene Aram, another guilt-tortured murderer; and Thomas à Becket in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Tennyson, Alfred, Lord
[p]Tennyson, Alfred, Lord;Becket
Becket (wr. 1879, pb. 1884, pr. 1893), which Tennyson wrote with Irving in mind. Irving also enjoyed notable successes in several historical dramas, including one on Charles I, and a number of Shakespearean roles, including Shylock, Macbeth Macbeth (Shakespeare) , Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] Hamlet Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) , Cardinal Wolsey, and Iago and Othello Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) —roles that he alternated with the American actor Edwin Booth.

Irving’s mannered and eccentric delivery was best suited to melodrama, which was in any case popular and in which he seems to have exerted a quasi-hypnotic effect on the audience. However, this effect tended to marginalize the talents of Ellen Terry, who was best suited to comedy. Irving’s repertoire was popular with audiences, but not always with critics. George Bernard Shaw Shaw, George Bernard
[p]Shaw, George Bernard;on Henry Irving[Irving] accused Irving of conspiring to keep serious drama off the London stage by refusing to stage the plays of the great Norwegian naturalist Henrik Ibsen Ibsen, Henrik . That this was indeed Irving’s sole decision was confirmed after the breakup of the Lyceum company, when Terry Terry, Ellen produced and acted in Henrik Ibsen’s Hærmænde paa Helgeland (pr., pb. 1858; The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890). The Lyceum was also drawn into scandal when it was suggested that the gruesome Jack the Ripper Jack the Ripper murders might have been triggered by the theater’s staging of a theatrical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Stevenson, Robert Louis
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The (Stevenson)

Henry Irving and Ellen Terry as Benedick and Beatrice in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

(Library of Congress)

Despite these occasional more negative notes, the impact of the Lyceum on the London theatrical, literary and social scenes can hardly be overestimated. In his two-volume memoir, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906), Irving’s faithful stage manager Stoker provided a list of people in Irving’s social circle. It covers several pages and includes virtually every name of note in the London of the time, foreign royalty, and several American presidents, with whom Irving regularly dined during the eight major American tours that he and the Lyceum company undertook between 1883 and 1901.

During his years at the Lyceum, Stoker wrote his famous novel Dracula
Dracula (Stoker) (1897), which is sometimes seen as either a homage to, or a critique, of Irving. Irving himself refused to play the lead role in a dramatization of Dracula, although Stoker hoped he would. Stoker also wrote several other novels and was instrumental in accepting the first play by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan .

England’s poet laureate Tennyson Tennyson, Alfred, Lord was a close friend of Irving whose plays became two of Irving’s successes. W. S. Gilbert Gilbert, W. S. and Sir Arthur Sullivan Sullivan, Arthur were other Lyceum regulars, as was the now forgotten but then hugely popular novelist Hall Caine Caine, Hall , to whom Stoker dedicated Dracula. Irving was also a longstanding and active Freemason, a fact that helped win him the friendship of the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), the grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England. The prince was instrumental in procuring for Irving an invitation to give a private performance at Windsor Castle in front of his mother, Queen Victoria, and also in having him knighted in 1895—the apogee of Irving’s success.

The end of the Lyceum followed soon after Irving’s knighthood. In 1897, Irving suffered a bad fall and strained his knee. Afterward, he struggled to appear on stage. During the same year, he sponsored a production of a play about Russia’s Peter the Peter the Great Great mounted by his son Laurence. However, it was a financial disaster. The death-knell of the theater was sounded by a disastrous fire Fires;theaters on February 18, 1898, that destroyed many of the sets and costumes needed for productions. For a visual, effects-dominated theater such as Irving’s this loss was a disaster from which the Lyceum company never recovered. In 1899, a consortium took over management of the theater, to the immense consternation of Stoker and others of Irving’s faithful followers. The end came in 1902, when the company went into liquidation. At the age of sixty-five, Irving was forced to go on tour again. Three years later he died in Bradford, in northern England, after performing in Tennyson’s Becket.


Irving’s reign at the Lyceum permanently changed the perception of the theater in England. Instead of being a marginal, rootless figure barely managing to scrape a living, at least one actor was seen to have acquired social status and, temporarily at any rate, financial success. The Lyceum and its repertoire became important cultural artifacts central to the social and artistic life of late Victorian London.

Further Reading

  • Belford, Barbara. Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula. London: Da Capo Press, 2002. Obligatory reading for those interested in the suggestion that Irving inspired Stoker’s title character in Dracula.
  • Brereton, Austin. Life of Henry Irving. London: Ayer, 1974. Originally published in 1908, this biography was written by a man who knew Irving well and was intimately involved in running the Lyceum. It is interesting to compare Brereton with Stoker, whom Irving seems sometimes to have pitted against him.
  • Irving, Laurence. Henry Irving and His World. 1951. Reprint. London: Virgin Books, 1988. Biography written by Henry Irving’s grandson.
  • Richards, Jeffrey. Sir Henry Irving: An Actor and His World. London: Hambledon & London, 2005. Written by a leading English authority on Victorian theater, this biography is likely to become the standard work on Irving.
  • Stoker, Bram. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. 2 vols. 1906. Reprint. London: Greenwood Press, 1970. More hagiography than biography, but a unique record by the man who may have been closer to Irving than anyone else.

Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America

Rise of Burlesque and Vaudeville

A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama

London’s Savoy Theatre Opens

Moscow Art Theater Is Founded

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Edwin Booth; Anton Chekhov; W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; Henrik Ibsen; Henry Irving; William Charles Macready; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Ellen Terry; Oscar Wilde. Lyceum Theatre
Irving, Henry
Stoker, Bram