Sir Henry Irving – the first theatre manager and actor to be knighted – turned London’s Royal Lyceum Theatre into unofficial national theatre of England.
Taking over the theatre in 1878, with his acting reputation firmly established, Irving had a ‘grand conception for his new venture at the Lyceum. He wanted to create a national theatre, a place that would occupy a position of cultural importance in the capital and firmly legitimise theatre as an art form.’ Over a twenty year period, Irving lead the Lyceum to a position of preeminence amongst the cultural venues of London.
Recognising the importance of the Lyceum as a destination, he made it a focal point of London’s cultural life right from the start. H Booth, a contemporary writer, noted that ‘it soon became almost a religion to attend the Lyceum’ on a weekly or even a nightly basis. This applied to every strata of society and Irving’s appeal was crystallised by the “Lyceum roar” which greeted his appearances, giving the theatre a mass appeal later associated with the cinema. Irving successfully used quality and variety of programming to create demand for tickets, establishing a habit of attendance at the Lyceum that audiences retained for years.
Irving and his leading lady Ellen Terry held court at the Lyceum ‘like newly crowned royalty’, often hosting star-studded dinners in the refurbished Beefsteak Room, a dining room behind the stage decorated in gothic style, where Irving gathered the intellectual ‘celebrities’ of the day, including Franz Lizst. Extraordinarily, these dinners were arranged by Bram Stoker, now famous as the author of Dracula, who was Irving’s business manager throughout Irving’s time at the Lyceum. It was at one of these dinners that the Actors’ Benevolent Fund was formed, which still exists today.
Shakespeare was Irving’s forte and he presented many acclaimed productions during his time at the Lyceum, particular successes being Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, although he had a rare failure as Othello. In addition to Shakespeare Irving aimed for an eclectic repertoire incorporating revamped Victorian hits and some contemporary plays.
““He wanted the Lyceum to have the same educational and intellectual force that Phelps’ theatre had enjoyed in lslington. We do him, I think, a disservice if we assume that his carefully composed first night receptions, his long suppers and conversations in the Beefsteak Room, his grueling schedule of public lectures and debates, the carefully-contrived symposia in The Theatre, were simply a public relations exercise, or a convoluted attempt to achieve respectability for his profession. Cautious by nature, Irving wanted the Lyceum to generate and be in the forefront of political and intellectual debate […]. Irving never yielded to the new managerial commercialism, never doubted that the theatre had a higher purpose than making money” – “Irving’s Audience“, John Pick, Lecture to The Irving Society