Herbert Beerbohm Tree

A Victorian Playgoer

The new Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1897, via Wikipedia

Source: Kate Terry Gielgud (ed. Muriel St Claire Byrne), A Victorian Playgoer (London: Heinemann, 1980), pp. 51-52

Production: Gilbert Parker, The Seats of the Mighty, Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 28 April 1897

Text: London has a new theatre, and a very fine one, and Mr. Tree and all those who have worked in its production deserve the heartiest congratulations. No pains have been spared to ensure good views of the stage throughout, and to make the front of the house comfortable. The theatre is very wide and somewhat shallow in proportion, with the circles pitched very high. and the effect is extremely good.

Mrs. Tree in the gorgeous dress of a lady of Louis XV’s Court stepped before the curtains and opened proceedings by delivering – very nervously – an ode especially composed by the Poet Laureate. It was very elaborate and patriotic but it really had not much to do with the theatre, and was not a brilliant piece of versification. Then came Miss Clara Butt and a choir to give a staccato rendering of the National Anthem, which took a very long time, and then, these forms and ceremonies being at an end we could settle down to enjoy and criticise the picture that Mr. Tree had thought fit to place first in this fine frame.

Since every one in the theatre-going world will inevitably go and see the new theatre, it cannot be wondered at that Mr. Tree should at first ‘work off’ a play that has not any very great individual attraction, keeping for later pieces of tho more importance. To be candid, Mr. Parker’s play is a bit tedious. The long arm of stage coincidence stretches so abnormally far, the play bears such evident signs of compression, events are piled together – with first rate melodramatic situations – but they are bewilderingly compressed without being concise, there are rough edges and threads picked up from nowhere in particular. It is a novelist’s play, the points are almost too dramatic for the stage except as lending themselves to triumphs of stage management, most impressive and praiseworthy on a previously untried field (excuse enough for the long waits, which, by the way, mattered nothing last night, as everyone wanted to look about the house and the audience.)

The plot is all very involved and hard to disentangle, and it seems a pity to waste so many dramatic moments in telling so invertebrate a story, for there is much that is good. Mr. Lewis Waller has an utterly bad part, a hero with never a chance being otherwise than passively heroic; he was most dignified and sympathetic and it is always a treat to hear him speak.

Making all allowance for the nervousness, the excitement of such a first night, I still think Mr. Tree has made too elaborate a study of Doltaire. He poses too perpetually, works his effects until they lost all spontaneity and, most important, he fails altogether to my mind, in presenting the strange fascination of the man. We cannot understand the secret of his power over then and women alike. His was the most artificial part in a palpably built-up play and I thought he accentuated rather than slurred over the artificiality. Mrs. Tree looked very well and acquitted herself well too, in no easy task. Her part begins with great promise; she has one good scene of cajolery and subsequent fury when Doltaire repels her advances, and then she drops out of the play – one of the ragged ends.

Miss Kate Rorke showed infinite tact and earnestness and made up in many ways for a a certain youthfulness that she lacks now. Her figure seemed the more matronly in juxtaposition with Mrs. Tree’s slight and graceful one, but the contrasts of art and simplicity, diplomacy and love. were at the same time heightened thereby.

It was a memorable evening altogether and one I should have been very sorry to miss; and if as an actor Mr. Tree hardly came up to his usual standard, as manager he excelled himself.

Comments: Kate Terry Gielgud (1868–1958) was the daughter of actress Kate Terry, niece of Ellen Terry, and the mother of the actor John Gielgud. Between 1892 and 1903 she wrote accounts of her visits to the London theatre as letters to an invalid friend who was unable to visit the theatre. The Her Majesty’s Theatre was built on the site of three earlier theatres. It was owned and managed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also made the theatre his home. The opening play was an adaptation by Gilbert Parker of his popular novel The Seats of the Mighty, which Tree had previously presented in America in late 1896. Its subject is the British capture of Quebec under James Wolfe. The poet laureate was Alfred Austin.

A Letter to Martin Harvey

Source: Letter from Maurice B. Adams to John Martin-Harvey, 4 January 1920, Lucie Dutton collection

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden, London, 2 January 1920

Text: Jan 4, 1920

Martin Harvey Esq.

My dear sir,

I do not want to trouble you with a long note. It would be far from a short one if I ventured to express all that I felt about the excellence & artistic rendering of your treatment of “Hamlet”. I do wish to thank you for the real treat you gave us on Friday and to say how entirely the setting of the scenes & grouping of personages presented most telling pictures. The draperies in lieu of elaborate architecture & other scenery helped us to realize that the play itself & the acting of the players after all must be the chief importance. The restraint of the whole idea struck me most impressively and in this everyone seemed in accord. Nothing seemed overdone & no detail seemed over looked while the costumes in subdued colourings with here & there a dash of primaries in some subordinate gave the joy of contrast which I for one did not fail to notice. I was so glad you did not allow Hamlet to be really mad. Of course I saw Hamlet at the Lyceum & at the Haymarket. Irving was a master in his get up & boundless expenses on detail, but always it was Irving & of Tree with all his reputation & cleverness it must be confessed that he left me unconvinced, much as I enjoyed their efforts & need not indulge in any comparisons. I am happy to have seen your work once more & I do hope this season will repay you for all your loving care. It is evident throughout & needs no bush, least of all from a mere outsider in theatrical affairs. As an art craftsman myself at any rate I speak with a sense of recognition which pray accept in the spirit of good fellowship.


Maurice B. Adams, F.R.I.B.A.

Comments: Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933), the author of this fan letter, was an architect living in Chiswick. He had been Architect to Brighton Borough Council, and was a prolific designer of public libraries. John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) was appearing as Hamlet at the Covent Garden Royal Opera House. He was a British stage actor, who began his career with Henry Irving‘s Lyceum Theatre company, before establishing a reputation as a leading performer, particular in The Only Way (an adaptation of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities). My thanks to Lucie Dutton for permission to reproduce this letter from her personal collection.

Links: John Martin-Harvey and Fan Letters to Hamlet (Lucie Dutton’s blog)

An Old Playgoer at the Play

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer at the Play’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 255-259, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, pp. 3-4

Productions: Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Grauford Grove, Forget-Me-Not, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883, and Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883

Text: Twice at the Olympic! At last I have seen Forget-me-Not. If the renovated and crowded house at the Princess’s was quite unlike the house of my recollections, I must own that the Olympic is dingy and shabby enough to correspond to them perfectly. Nor was the house full. But then Forget-me-Not has been given seven hundred and something times, and one is the very Epimenides of playgoers to be seeing it for the first time now.

The piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale is full of clever things. The dialogue is always pointed and smart, sometimes quite brilliant. The piece has its life from its ability and verve, and it is effectively acted besides. What can one want more? Well, the talent of the authors, the talent of the actors, makes one exacting. The dialogue is so incisive, Miss Genevieve Ward is so powerful, that they make one take them seriously, make one reflect. Now the moment one deliberates, Forget-me-Not is, I will not say lost, but considerably compromised.

That Monsieur and Madame de Mohrivat should have kept a gambling-house, that their blameless son should have married Rose Verney, that Rose should have become a widow, that her disreputable father-in-law should have been killed by one of his victims, that his wife should desire to be whitewashed, and to this end should seek to extort the aid of Rose’s sister, Alice Verney, for getting into society, all this is admissible enough. But the gist of the play lies in the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice, and the force of the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice lies in Article 148 of the French Code. For by this article Madame de Mohrivat has the power, if she chooses to exert it, of making her son’s marriage with Rose Verney invalid in France. But the marriage is good in England. Rose lives with her English friends and on her English fortune; her worthy French connections have no effects, and their social status is all gone to ruin. Under these circumstances Madame de Mohrivat’s threatened invocation of Article 148 has by no means the substantial force which, for our authors’ purpose, it requires. Why all this terror and dismay, for why should Rose live in France at all? To live in the Capital of Pleasure without effects and with execrable connections for the mere satisfaction of belonging to a nation where, like the lady of whom M. Blowitz told us the other day, one can name one’s child Lucifer Satan Vercingetorix, is surely no such irresistible object of longing to an English girl. It is the last thing Alice Verney would naturally desire for her sister, or her sister for herself. But then Madame de Mohrivat’s power over the sisters has no basis.

I have seen, too, the new piece by Mr. Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch. If the piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale wants motive, that of Mr. Hamilton Aide wants development. It has not the terse and sparkling dialogue of Forget-me-Not, but it is better grounded and more substantial. It has one character which strongly attracts sympathy, Mrs. Henry de Motteville; and another which might easily be made to do so, Sir Martin Ingoldsby. But Sir Martin does not produce his due effect, and the piece does not produce its due effect, from a want of development. Why Mr. Hamilton Aide should develop the humours of his super numeraries so copiously, and the relations of his main characters so sparingly, I do not understand. The truth is, the piece requires another act, if not two. Mrs. Henry de Motteville is a widow who has in her youth knewn Sir Martin Ingoldsby as Richard Carlton. Her father was his benefactor; the young people loved one another. But Richard Carlton robs his benefactor, causes his ruin and death, leaves his daughter to her fate, flies to Australia, then reappears in England some years later, a prosperous and powerful man. At the height of his prosperity Mrs. Henry de Motteville recognises him, and can unmask him. But his conduct is not really what it has seemed; and, above all, his heart and that of Mrs. de Motteville still vibrate to each other. At the last moment he exculpates himself, and she relents. Here are elements of strong interest, and Mr. Hamilton Aide should have thrown all his power into their development. But they are summarily indicated in the last scene; they are not prepared, established, made to produce their due effect. Mr. Hamilton Aide’s play is seen with pleasure as it is ; but I cannot but think he might treble its effect by a more complete use of the resources which he has created, but does not employ.

The Olympic Company, on the whole, like that at the Princess’s, surprises by the merits of its acting an Epimenides who has been asleep all these years. Mr. Vernon is good as Sir Horace Welby, and good, too, in the more difficult part of Sir Martin Ingoldsby. Miss Lucy Buckstone is pleasing and sympathetic. Mr. Beerbohm Tree is excellent as a young nobleman of the period. Miss Genevieve Ward is a host in herself. External advantages go for much, and in A Great Catch Miss Genevieve Ward has three ‘arrangements’ – an arrangement in black, an arrangement in grey, and an arrangement in red, of which the arrangement in red is the most irresistible, but every one of them is charming. Her intellectual qualities are as eminent as these external advantages. Her cynicism, coolness, and scorn, her energy, invective, and hate, are unsurpassable. Have her pathos and tenderness quite the sincerity of these qualities, and therefore quite the power? Perhaps not; but one should see her in a more favourable part before deciding. Her elocution is admirable; she has an intonation supremely distinct, intelligent, and effective. A slight nasality, certainly; but perhaps this, like the transplanted French idioms in the novels of Mr. Howells, will be the English of the future. However this is, whatever the future may be or whatever the present, the gifts of Miss Genevieve Ward will always make their possessor a fine actress.


March 30, 1883.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Forget-Me-Not was an 1879 drama by British writer Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Crauford Grove (despite appearances, male). The cast included the actress-opera singer Geneviève Ward (who enjoyed worldwide success with the play) and W.H. Vernon. Both also appeared in A Great Catch, written by the Anglo-Armenian poet and playwright Charles Hamilton Aide, also with Lucy Buckstone and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive