H. B. Irving (1870-1919) & Dorothea Baird (1875-1933)

February 16, 2009 by: admin

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THEATRE (1880-1920)

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 after whose birth-name he shared.

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

DOROTHEA BAIRD as Trilby
(signed postcard, matt, Beagles, 755, c.1900)

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H B Irving &
Kate Rorke in
School.
Click 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.

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H B Irving in
A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
.
Click to enlarge

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

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H. B. Irving as Hamlet

Walter Hampden as Laertes
Oscar Asche as King Claudius
Maud Milton as the Queen
H. B. Irving as Hamlet

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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 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 version’s 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.

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 skillfully 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, skillfully 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

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Click to enlarge

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

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

Dorothea Baird was born in Teddington (GB) on May 20, 1875. Her first stage appearances (when she was sixteen) were as one of the young women who were invited to participate in the student productions at the then all-male Oxford University. It was at this time she met H B Irving. In 1894, she joined Ben Greet’s company, making her London debut as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The following year, Beerbohm Tree chose her to play Trilby opposite his Svengali in his production of Trilby at the Haymarket Theatre. It opened on October 30, 1895, and was a phenomenal success. As had happened when the play had earlier been premiered in the United States, Trilby created a sensation. Playing as she did a modern woman who smoked continuously, went everywhere barefoot and wore a style-setting soft hat, Dorothea Baird as the talk of the town. Everybody went ‘trilby’ mad. There was, of course, the copies of her headwear for men that still perpetuate the name but, in addition, the shops filled with all kinds of Trilby souvenir, there were a dozen Trilby-musical-hall songs and Toulouse Lautrec named his yacht ‘Trilby’.

Dorothea Baird
Dorothea Baird
as Rosalind in
As You Like It.
Click to enlarge

In 1896, Dorothea Baird married H B Irving. Over the next few years, she played major roles in many plays including Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Rosalind in As You Like I and, in 1900, Helena 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. She did not restrict herself to Shakespeare, however, in 1902, for example, playing the herd-boy in Tattercoats, a dramatization of the children’s fable.

Having, with Trilby, already created one of the most famous female roles in a Nineteenth Century, it is noteworthy that, in 1904, she appeared in the first production of one of the Twentieth Century’s most successful non-musical play, Peter Pan, playing the part of Mrs Darling.
Both plays were also enormous triumphs for the du Maurier family. George du Maurier had written the best selling novel Trilby on which the play was based; his son, the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier played Captain Hook (and Mr Darling) in Peter Pan; and, it was for the five young children of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies – Gerald’s sister – that James Barrie had originally spun the story of Peter Pan. Another coincidence – in the first production of Peter Pan, to fill in during the elaborate scene-change from the Frozen  River to the House Underground, Gerald du Maurier gave impersonations of fellow actors, Beerbohm Tree, Martin Harvey and Sir Henry Irving – Dorothea Baird’s father-in-law.

After Sir Henry Irving’s death in 1905, H B Irving established his own company, and, for the rest of her theatrical career, Dorothea Baird toured with her husband playing mainly repeats of Sir Henry Irving’s best remembered performances.

In 1913, she retired from the stage. She had undoubtedly been an actor of considerable talent – more so, it has been rumored, than her husband. But, like so many women of her era, her theatrical career was subordinate to that of her husband’s. Six years after she retired, her husband died. She did not return to the stage but involved herself in charitable causes, especially those concerned with infant welfare.

Dorothea Baird died, aged 58, in Broadstairs (GB) on September 24, 1933.

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