Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 18, 1893 --- A Command Performance

The greatest actor of his day, Henry Irving, brings his production of Lord Tennyson's Becket to Windsor Castle.  The play has been hugely successful in the West End. Irving covers all the costs himself, hiring a special train to carry the 180 actors and staff required to put on the play. The doomed Archbishop is one of Irving's favorite roles, "I do not see how any one could act it and feel it thoroughly without being a better man for it."

The play had to be slightly edited for the Queen and others in the Royal audience. Irving had been advised that some of the language might be considered "disagreeable & coarse—The Queen hates anything of that sort." Perhaps she wouldn't even have heard the offending words; in her journal this evening, she complains that Irving's "enunciation is not very distinct, especially when he gets excited." In addition, some jibes at Royal philanderers are excised from the script for fear of embarassing the Prince of Wales who attends, seated next to his mother. Also in the audience, home in England for the occasion, is the Queen's eldest, "Vicky," Dowager Empress of Prussia. She enjoys the play, recalling, "the last scene ... is very fine and his death and the way he falls down the steps, very striking."

At a brief private meeting with Irving and his lead actress (and mistress) Ellen Terry, the Queen alludes to the playwright, who had died the previous October, "What a pity old Tennyson did not live to see it. It would have delighted him as it has delighted us." As he lay dying, Tennyson had asked of his doctor, "I suppose I shall never see Becket?" The physician replied, "I fear not." Tennyson answered, "I'm sure Irving will do me justice." In his memoirs, the actor wrote, "Of that remark and confidence, I was justly proud."' 

[Lord Tennyson's photograph in the Twickenham Museum]

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