Much Ado About Churches: Henry Irving does a wedding

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In anticipation of the Indian-themed production of Much Ado About Nothing opening at the Courtyard Theatre in July, I’m thinking back to spectacular Victorian mountings of Shakespeare’s comedy. And what more striking production of this play was there in this period than that of Henry Irving: the rigorous Methodist and much-debated actor-manager of the Lyceum Theatre, London?

Sir Henry Irving

Towards the end of 1882, Irving opened a production of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum, over which he had presided as manager since 1878. The actors were assembled; designers and costumers employed and, curiously enough, so was a Catholic priest.

As his manager Bram Stoker was to point out in his posthumous reminiscences on Irving, ‘When the reverend critic pointed out that the white cloth spread in front of the tabernacle on the High Altar meant that the Host was within, Irving at once ordered that a piece of cloth of gold should be spread in its place’ (1907).

Details were always crucial in late-Victorian ‘realistic’ sets and so too, it seems, were the intricacies of religious ceremony. Secularising the spectacle, however, was necessary to avoid any kind of offence to an audience, particularly given that certain church ornaments and Catholic rituals were made illegal in Anglican ceremonies after the controversial Public Worship Regulations Act of 1874.

Rather curiously, the business at the altar was not really what struck audiences at the time. It was, in fact, the spectacle of the church surrounding the altar, and the general effect elicited by the extravagant set, that caused a sensation. There are few reviews or recollections of this production that do not, at the very least, mention the grand wedding scene.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was to become an eminent actor-manager years later, played Claudio to Irving’s Benedick. But Forbes-Robertson, a companion  of Irving’s, was also a talented artist, and it was he who produced this great wedding spectacle.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Claudio

The Standard described the scene as follows: ‘The candles cast their light on the plate with which the altar is decked; over the altar is a picture of ceiling of blue silk; massive marble columns support the roof; and a stained-glass window is visible through the heavy iron gates which shut off the chapel. Incense rises in the air; the organ peals out its harmonies as the throng of guests, superb in their wedding garments, troop into the chapel; and before the altar stands the priest, his sombre robes in contrast to those around him’ (12 October 1882).

The wedding of Hero and Claudio

 

The illusion of a church must have been impressive: really, memorably striking. Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady and the Beatrice of this production, recalled Forbes-Robertson’s artistic genius here, noting that ‘there was no question that it was a church’. With the large, colourful set, Terry added that the effect was achieved because ‘Henry had the art of making ceremonies seem very real’ (1932).

Ellen Terry as Beatrice

‘Reality’ in performances of religious ceremonies is perhaps a contested issue; but it can do no harm to appreciate the research, skill and effort required to have produced such a magnificent scene. It was, as the Pall Mall Gazette noted, more than a ‘picturesque representation of the ceremonial of Catholic worship’, it was ‘a gain to art’ and ‘a light of absolute illumination […] upon a comparatively neglected play’ (12 October 1882).

Please do leave your thoughts and comments below.

 

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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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