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"Henry Irving's Hamlet"
Henry Irving's Hamlet
Jack Drewes
As one biographer claims of Henry Irving, "His career not only spanned the whole history of the Victorian theatre, but it was the Victorian theatre." Born John Henry Brodbibb in 1838, Irving was the son of devoutly Methodist parents—in fact, after he became an actor, which was not considered a respectable profession, his mother neither spoke to him nor saw him again. At age 12, his father, a traveling salesman, took him to a performance of Hamlet and from that moment on, Henry Irving was determined to become an actor. Irving performed in almost every popular play. As Jeffrey Richards writes, "He made no distinction between high and low brow, alternating happily between Shakespeare and popular melodramas, showing all of them equal respect." He not only performed to audiences in the Lyceum—the theatre he was ultimately to manage--but also toured extensively, and is credited with, by Oscar Wilde among others, establishing a truly national theatrical taste. He is associated with Ellen Terry, his leading lady as well as business and most likely private partner—She was the most famous actress of the period, who, at one point, played Ophelia to Irving's Hamlet. (Gordon Craig's mother).

Before Irving (same era), Charles Fechter (in London) and Edwin Booth (of the famous Booth family, which included John Wilkes) (in London and America) were the most famous of the actors playing Hamlet. Irving was taking a risk in playing Hamlet; he was famous but not yet considered distinguished enough to be a true Shakespearian actor. In addition, there was a saying in the theatre world, "Shakespeare spells ruin." This association of Shakespeare with ruin came partly because a few theatres had attempted to produce Shakespeare with extremely costly spectacular effects common to the Victorian melodrama, without achieving the same popular success. Hamlet, however, firmly established Irving...

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