H. B. Irving (1870-1919)

H B Irving
H. B. IRVING as Mr Hyde
(signed postcard, glossy, Beagles, 276A, c.1912)

H(enry) B(rodribb) Irving, the eldest son of Sir Henry Irving, was born in London on August 5, 1870. Although, as a child, he appeared a couple of times in his father's productions, it was intended that he would become a lawyer. He went to Oxford University where he studied law and appeared in some student productions. Afterwards, in 1894, as was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, but instead of pursuing a career as a barrister he decided to become an actor, taking the stage name 'H. B. Irving' to distinguish himself from his father whose birth-name he shared.

H B Irving
H B Irving &
Kate Rorke in
School for Scandal.
Click photo to enlarge

Inevitably, his early years as an actor were spent in the shadow of his father, especially as, at first, he was a member of Sir Henry Irving's company. Occasionally, he did perform elsewhere, playing, for example the part of Leontes in an 1895 Stratford-on-Avon production of The Winter's Tale.

In 1896, he married Dorothea Baird, who, after playing the part of Trilby the year before, was, at that time, the best known actress in Britain. He continued to be part of his father's company, but soon felt the need to branch out. In 1898, he joined George Alexander at the St James's Theatre where he is played Don Juan in Much Ado About Nothing (that ran for 52 performances from February 16 until April 2) and appeared in the surprising hit, The Ambassador, a play written by Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie under her pen-name John Oliver Hobbes.

For the next seven years, both H B Irving and Dorothea Baird, selecting the parts that appealed to them moved between companies - sometimes together and sometimes separately. In 1900, they both appeared in Beerbohm Tree's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that ran for 153 performances (from January 10-May 26) at Her Majesty's Theatre.

In 1904, H B Irving (only a year before his father's sudden death on October 13, 1905) played Hamlet for the first time. The production, which was a popular success, was presented at the Royal Adelphi Theatre, with Oscar Asche as Claudius, Walter Hampden as Leartes and Lily Brayton as Ophelia.

Hamlet in 1904

H B Irving H B Irving H B Irving H B Irving
H. B. Irving as Hamlet Walter Hampden as Laertes
Oscar Asche as King Claudius
Maud Milton as the Queen
H. B. Irving as Hamlet
E. Lyall Sweete as Polonius
H. B. Irving as Hamlet
Oscar Asche as King Claudius
Maud Milton as the Queen
Oscar Asche as King Claudius
Maud Milton as the Queen
H. B. Irving as Hamlet
Click photo to enlarge

After his father's death, he established his own company that included his wife and, for the next seven years, toured most provincial cities. The repertoire consisted largely of Hamlet and some of his father's great successes. For the opening night of the new King's Theatre in Southsea on September 30, 1907, for example, he presented Charles I, The Bells and The Lyons Mail - after, it has to be said, the Portsmouth Orpheus Society had played, as the curtain rose, the National Anthem, in which, it is reported, 'the audience joined most heartily'.

Occasionally, other plays were presented including, most successfully, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde at the Queens Theatre, London, that opened on January 26, 1910.

In 1911, H B Irving, Dorothea Baird and their London Company toured Australia, again presenting Hamlet and Sir Henry's crowd-pleasers, such as The Bells. Two years later, Dorothea Baird retired from the stage. For a while, H B Irving kept on performing, for example, in 1914, playing with Basil Rathbone in The Sin of David at the Savoy Theatre.

Undoubtedly a talented performer, he suffered from being the son of England's most famous actor - even after his father's death, feeling obligated to put on cut-price versions of the lavishly produced originals.

During World War I, he withdrew from the theatre and returned to the law, writing the study for which he is now most famous - Book of Remarkable Criminals that examined the lives, motivations and crimes of some infamous murderers. And there's the rub. After spending twenty years of his life dedicated to the theatre, his greatest success came from being what it was intended he should be - a legal expert.

H B Irving
H B Irving in
A Midsummer
Night's Dream
Click photo to enlarge

An extract from H. B. Irving's Book of Remarkable Criminals (1918)

The most successful, and therefore perhaps the greatest, criminal in Shakespeare is King Claudius of Denmark. His murder of his brother by pouring a deadly poison into his ear while sleeping is so skilfully perpetrated as to leave no suspicion of foul play. But for a supernatural intervention, a contingency against which no murderer could be expected to have provided, the crime of Claudius would never have been discovered. Smiling, jovial and genial, King Claudius might have gone down to his grave in peace as the bluff hearty man of action, while his introspective nephew would in all probability have ended his days in the cloister, regarded with amiable contempt by his bustling fellowmen.

How Claudius got over the great difficulty of all poisoners, that of procuring the necessary poison without detection, we are not told; by what means he distilled the 'juice of cursed hebenon'; how the strange appearance of the late King's body, which 'an instant tetter' had barked about with 'vile and loathsome crust', was explained to the multitude we are left to imagine. There is no real evidence to show that Queen Gertrude was her lover's accomplice in her husband's murder. If that had been so, she would no doubt have been of considerable assistance to Claudius in the preparation of the crime. But in the absence of more definite proof we must assume Claudius' murder of his brother to have been a solitary achievement, skilfully carried out by one whose genial good-fellowship and convivial habits gave the lie to any suggestion of criminality. Whatever may have been his inward feelings of remorse or self-reproach, Claudius masked them successfully from the eyes of all. Hamlet's instinctive dislike of his uncle was not shared by the members of the Danish court. The 'witchcraft of his wit', his 'traitorous gifts', were powerful aids to Claudius, not only in the seduction of his sister-in-law, but the perpetration of secret murder.

H. B. Irving

H B Irving H B Irving
H. B. Irving & Dorothea Baird
as Mr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
Click photo to enlarge

Henry Brodribb Irving died, at the age of 49, on October 17, 1919.

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Bibliography of Cornish Medieval Drama

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