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Title: The magical body on the stage : Henry Irving reconsidered
Author: Punter, Michael Kendrick
ISNI:       0000 0004 8497 6595
Awarding Body: Royal Holloway, University of London
Current Institution: Royal Holloway, University of London
Date of Award: 2014
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This thesis proposes that Henry Irving, the Victorian actor and manager, has been undervalued as a performer, and that his position in the history of nineteenth century theatre is in need of revision. The argument is developed by a re-appraisal of two contesting narratives that have, in their different ways, both obscured the nature of Irving's work. Irving deployed a diverse range of techniques to present the Victorian body under stress from powerful and unseen forces. His work, although not obviously contributing to theatrical modernism, was both original and innovative in a number of important ways. Modernism's rejection of Victorian melodrama located Irving firmly at the centre of George Bernard Shaw's eviscerating criticism. This critical narrative was quickly countered with a number of pro-Irving biographies, mostly written after the actor's death by colleagues and members of his family. Yet these have worked effectively to reinforce another narrative of Victorian theatre; the move to respectability and the gentrification of the actor/manager, of whom Irving is the exemplar. Both narratives ignore important aspects of Irving's professional development and aesthetic approach, but the latter, identified here as the 'Irving Narrative', overwrites the actor's biography and reshapes it to fit the well-worn trope of 'rags to riches'. The thesis begins by defining the nature of the Irving Narrative and identifying the key texts that constitute it, then moves on to position Irving within the body of English nineteenth century actors, considering those who influenced his development via anecdote or personal observation. Irving's early career is then charted, focusing on three key incidents that the writers of the Irving Narrative have either simplified or chosen to ignore. Irving's encounter with the work of the spiritualist performers the Davenport brothers is of particular importance. This meeting exercised a profound influence on his subsequent approach to both performance and production. The techniques of occult performance continued to be employed by Irving throughout his career, beginning with his performance of Mathias in The Bells in 1871. Occult performance emphasised the power and importance of the transformative body, making it appear magical. The thesis continues by examining Irving as a performer of the body in crisis. It argues that the actor's selection of conflicted characters allowed him to demonstrate the effects of psychological extremity upon the body, resulting in a spectacular performance of male suffering and, eventually, hysteria. Irving applied this approach to Shakespeare, winning new audiences to his production of Hamlet by decoupling the play from certain well-established traditions. Finally, I consider the decline of Irving's use of the magical body, and his increasing dependence on the creation of an overwhelming spectacle in plays such as Faust and King Arthur. The final reflections consider the indirect influence of Irving upon contemporary theatre.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available