Mr. Edwin Booth—Othello and Iago at supper—The guest—Mr. Irving’s little speech—Mr. Booth’s graceful reply—A striking tableau—A more memorable gathering—The hundredth night of “The Merchant of Venice”—The guests—Lord Houghton’s speech—Mr. Irving’s reply—Mr. J: L. Toole supplies an omission—Mr. Dion Boncicault at the Lyceum—English as she is spoke—“Trippingly on the tongue”—The man who was born to teach the pronunciation of English—A Trinity College student—The coveted acorn—A good word for the English.

I DID not mean to enter upon a course of theatrical anecdotage in these pages, but having mentioned the name of a great actor recently dead, I cannot refrain from making a brief reference to what was certainly one of the most interesting episodes in his career. I allude to Mr. Edwin Booth’s professional visit to London in 1881. It may truthfully be said that if Mr. Booth was not wholly responsible for the financial failure of his abbreviated “season” at the Princess’s Theatre, neither was he wholly responsible for his subsequent success at the Lyceum. I should like, however, to have an opportunity of bearing testimony to his frank and generous appreciation of the courtesy shown to him by Mr. Henry Irving, in inviting him to play in Othello. when it became plain that the performances of the American actor at the Princess’s were not likely to make his reputation in England. It would be impossible for me to forget the genuine emotion shown by Mr. Booth when, on the Saturday night that brought to a close the notable representations of Othello at the Lyceum, he referred to the kindness which he had received at that theatre. Although the occasion to which I refer was the most private of private suppers, I do not feel that I can be accused of transgressing the accepted codex of the Beefsteak Room in touching upon a matter which is now of public interest. Early in the week Mr. Irving had been good enough to invite me to meet Mr. Booth at supper on the Saturday. After the performance, in which Mr. Irving was Othello and Mr. Booth Iago, I found in the supper-room, in addition to the host and the guest of the evening, Mr. John McCullough, who, it will be remembered, paid a visit to England at the same time as Mr. Booth; and a member of Parliament who subsequently became the Leader of the House of Commons. Mr. J. L. Toole and Mr. Bram Stoker subsequently arrived. We found a good deal to talk about, and it was rather late—too late for the one guest who was unconnected with theatrical matters (at least, those outside St. Stephen’s)—when Mr. Irving, in a few of those graceful, informal sentences which he seems always to have at his command, and only rising to his feet for a moment, asked us to drink to the health of Mr. Booth. Mr. Irving, I recollect, referred to the fact that the representations of Othello had filled the theatre nightly, and that the instant the American actor appeared, the English actor had to “take a back seat.”

The playful tone assumed by him was certainly not sustained by Mr. Booth. It would be impossible to doubt that he made his reply under the influence of the deepest feeling. He could scarcely speak at first, and when at last he found words, they were the words of a man whose eyes are full of tears. “You all know how I came here,” he said. “You all know that I went to another theatre in London, and that I was a big failure, although some newspaper writers on my side of the water had said that I would make Henry Irving and the other English actors sit up. Well, I didn’t make them sit up. Yes, I was a big failure. But what happened then? Henry Irving invites me to act with him at his theatre, and makes me share the success which he has so well earned. He changes my big failure into a big success. What can I say about such generosity? Was the like of it ever seen before? I am left without words. Friend Irving, I have no words to thank you.” The two actors got upon their feet, and as they clasped hands, both of them overcome, I could not help feeling that I was looking upon an emblematic tableau of the artistic union of the Old World and the New. So I was.

I could not help contrasting this graceful little incident with the more memorable episode which had taken place in the same building some years previously. On the evening of February 14th, 1880, Mr. Irving gave a supper on the stage of the Lyceum, to celebrate the hundredth representation of The Merchant of Venice. I do not suppose that upon any occasion within the memory of a middle-aged man so remarkable a gathering had assembled at the bidding of an actor. Every notable man in every department of literature, art, and science seemed to me to be present. The most highly representative painters, poets, novelists, play-writers, actors of plays, composers of operas, singers of operas, composers of laws, exponents of the meaning of these laws, journalists, financiers,—all this goodly company attended on that moist Saturday night to congratulate the actor upon one of the most signal triumphs of the latter half of the century. Of course it was well understood by Mr. Irving’s personal friends that an omission of their names from the list of invitations to this marvellous function was inevitable. Capacious though the stage of the Lyceum is, it would not meet the strain that would be put on it if all the personal friends of Mr. Irving were to be invited to the supper. So soon as I heard, however, that every living author who had written a play that had been produced at the Lyceum Theatre would be invited, I knew that, in spite of the fact that I only escaped by the skin of my teeth being an absolute nonentity—I had only published nine volumes in those days—I would not be an “outsider” upon this occasion. Two years previously a comedietta of mine had been played at this theatre for some hundred nights, while the audience were being shown to their places and were chatting genially with the friends whom they recognised three or four seats away. That was my play. No human being could deprive me of the consciousness of having written a play that was produced at the Lyceum Theatre. It was not a great feat, but it constituted a privilege of which I was not slow to avail myself.

The invitations were all in the handwriting of Mr. Irving, and the menu was, in the words of Joseph in “Divorçons,” délicat, distingué—très distingué. While we were smoking some cigars the merits of which have never been adequately sung, though they would constitute a theme at least equal to that of the majority of epics, our host strolled round the tables, shaking hands and talking with every one in that natural way of his, which proves conclusively that at least one trait of Garrick’s has never been shared by him.

“Twas only that when he was off he was acting,”

wrote Garrick’s—and everybody else’s—friend, Goldsmith. No; Mr. Irving cannot claim to be the inheritor of all the arts of Garrick.

More than an hour had passed before Lord Houghton rose to propose the toast of the evening. He did so very fluently. He had evidently prepared his speech with great care; and as the doyen of literature—the true patron of art and letters during two generations—his right to speak as one having authority could not be questioned. No one expected a commonplace speech from Lord Houghton, but few of Mr. Irving’s guests could have looked for precisely such a speech as he delivered. It struck a note of far-reaching criticism, and was full of that friendly counsel which the varied experiences of the speaker made doubly valuable. Its commendation of the great actor was wholly free from that meaningless adulation, which is as distasteful to any artist who knows the limitations of his art, as it is prejudicial to the realisation of his aims. In his masterly biography of the late Lord Houghton, Mr. Wemyss Reid refers to the great admiration which Lord Houghton had for Mr. Irving; and this admiration was quite consistent with the tone of the speech in which he proposed the health of our host. It was probably Lord Houghton’s sincere appreciation of the aims of Mr. Irving that caused him to make some delicate allusion to the dangers of long runs. Considering that we had assembled on the stage of the Lyceum to celebrate a phenomenal run on that stage, the difficulty of the course which Lord Houghton had to steer in order to avoid giving the least offence to even the most susceptible of his audience, will be easily recognised. There were present several playwriters who, by the exercise of great dexterity, had succeeded in avoiding all their lives the pitfall of the long run; and these gentlemen listened, with mournful acquiescence, while Lord Houghton showed, as he did quite conclusively, that, on the whole, the interests of dramatic art are best advanced by adopting the principles which form the basis of the Théâtre Français. But there were also present some managers who had been weak enough to allow certain plays which they had produced, to linger on the stage, evening after evening, so long as the public chose to pay their money to see them. I glanced at one of these gentlemen while Lord Houghton was delivering his tactful address, and I cannot say that the result of my glance was to assure me that the remarks of his lordship were convincing to that manager. Contrition for those past misdeeds that took the form of five-hundred-night runs was not the most noticeable expression upon his features. But then the manager was an actor as well, so that he may only have been concealing his remorse behind a smiling face.

Mr. Irving’s reply was excellent. With amazing good-humour he touched upon almost every point brought forward by Lord Houghton, referring to his own position somewhat apologetically. Lord Houghton had, however, made the apologetic tone inevitable; but after a short time Mr. Irving struck the note for which his friends had been waiting, and spoke strongly, earnestly, and eloquently on behalf of the art of which he hoped to be the exponent.

We who knew how splendid were the aims of the hero of a hundred nights, with what sincerity and at how great self-sacrifice he had endeavoured to realize them; we who had watched his career in the past, and were hopefully looking forward to a future for the English drama in a legitimate home; we who were enthusiastic almost to a point of passion in our love and reverence for the art of which we believed Irving to be the greatest interpreter of our generation,—we, I say, felt that we should not separate before one more word at least was spoken to our friend whose triumph we regarded as our own.

It was Mr. J. L. Toole, our host’s oldest and closest friend, who, in the Beefsteak Room some hours after midnight, expressed, in a few words that came from his heart and were echoed by ours, how deeply Mr. Irving’s triumph was felt by all who enjoyed his friendship—by all who appreciated the difficulties which he had surmounted, and who, having at heart the best interests of the drama, stretched forth to him hands of sympathy and encouragement, and wished him God-speed.

Thus closed a memorable gathering, the chief incidents in which I have ventured to chronicle exactly as they appeared to me.

Only to one more Lyceum performance may I refer in this place. It may be remembered that ten or eleven years ago the late Mr. Dion Boucicault was obliging enough to offer to give a lecture to English actors on the correct pronunciation of their mother-tongue. The offer was, I suppose, thought too valuable to be neglected, and it was arranged that the lecture should be delivered from the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. A more interesting and amusing function I have never attended. It was clear that the lecturer had formed some very definite ideas as to the way the English language should be spoken; and his attempts to convey these ideas to his audience were most praiseworthy. His illustrations of the curiosities of some methods of pronouncing words were certainly extremely curious. For instance, he complained bitterly of the way the majority of English actors pronounced the word “war.”

“Ye prenounce the ward as if it wuz spelt w-a-u-g-h,” said the lecturer gravely. “Ye don’t prenounce it at all as ye shud. The ward rhymes with ‘par, ‘are,’ and ‘kyar,’ and yet ye will prenounce it as if it rhymed with ‘saw’ and ‘Paw-’ Don’t ye see the diffurnce?”

“We do, we do!” cried the audience; and, thus encouraged by the ready acquiescence in his pet theories, the lecturer went on to deal with the gross absurdity of pronouncing the word “grass,” not to rhyme with “lass,” which of course was the correct way, but almost—not quite—as if it rhymed with “laws.”

“The ward is ‘grass,’ not ‘graws,’” said our lecturer. “It grates on a sinsitive ear like mine to hear it misprenounced. Then ye will never be injuced to give the ward ‘Chrischin’ its thrue value as a ward of three syllables; ye’ll insist on calling it ‘Christyen,’ in place of ‘Chrischin.’ D’ye persave the diffurnce?”

“We do, we do!” cried the audience.

“Ay, and ye talk about ‘soots’ of gyar-ments, when everybody knows that ye shud say ‘shoots’; ye must give the full valye to the letter ‘u’—there’s no double o in a shoot of clothes. Moreover, ye talk of the mimbers of the polis force as ‘cunstables,’ but there’s no ‘u’ in the first syllable—it’s an ‘o,’ and it shud be prenounced to rhyme with ‘gone,’ not with ‘gun.’ Then I’ve heard an actor who shud know better say, in the part of Hamlet, ‘wurds, wurds, wurds’; instead of giving that fine letter ‘o’ its full value. How much finer it sounds to prenounce it as I do, ‘wards, wards, wards’! But when I say that I’ve heard the ward ‘pull’ prenounced not to rhyme with ‘dull,’ as ye’ll all admit it shud be, but actually as if it was within an ace of being spelt ‘p double o l,’ I think yell agree with me that it’s about time that actors learnt something of the rudiments of the art of ellycution.”

I do not pretend that these are the exact instances given by Mr. Boucicault of the appalling incorrectness of English pronunciation, but I know that he began with the word “war,” and that the impression produced upon my mind by the discourse was precisely as I have recorded it.

There is a tradition at Trinity College, Dublin, that a student who spoke with a lovely brogue used every art to conceal it, but with indifferent success; for however perfect the “English accent” which he flattered himself he had grafted upon the parent stem indigenous to Kerry may have been when he was cool and collected, yet in moments of excitement—chiefly after supper—the old brogue surrounded him like a fog. This was a great grief to him; but his own weakness in this way caused him to feel a deep respect for the natives of England.

After a visit to London he gave the result of his observations in a few words to his friends at the College.

“Boys,” he cried, the “English chaps are a poor lot, no matter how you look at them. But I will say this for them,—no matter how drunk any one of them may be, he never forgets his English accent.”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook