It’s all in the best Broadway tradition – the actor / actress who “overnight” becomes a star. I unexpectedly came across a real-life example of this when I found the story that lay behind a short piano piece in the UL’s music collections. While setting up the “Inspired by Dickens” exhibition, I discovered The Pickwick Quadrille composed by Frédéric Revallin. The Pickwick Quadrille was inspired by a London stage production adapted from the popular novel, and was dedicated to H.L. Bateman.
“Colonel” Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman was born in Baltimore, and was originally destined for a career as an engineer, however he became an actor-manager. Early in his career he played opposite Junius Brutus Booth, the elder – the father of John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Lincoln. After managing theatres in St. Louis, Missouri and New York, Bateman moved to London where he took over the lease of the Lyceum theatre just off the Strand in 1871.By the 1870s the Lyceum had an unlucky reputation. In 1830 it was destroyed by fire – prior to this it had staged musical entertainments by Charles Dibdin, hosted the first display in England of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, and was, for a brief time, a chapel. The composer, Michael Balfe, briefly managed the theatre, and tried to open a National Opera company there; but this was unsuccessful. Balfe was so exasperated that he announced from the stage of the Lyceum that he would never go into theatrical management again. By the time Bateman took over the license few among the superstitious theatrical fraternity were eager to take on the play house. Bateman however was eager to find a theatre in which he could stage his own productions. Bateman’s two eldest daughters were on the stage, as was his wife, who was also from a theatrical family. It was hoped that the Lyceum would provide a platform for their third daughter, Isabel.
When Bateman took over the theatre he was keen to assemble a company of adaptable character actors, and engaged the 33 year old Henry Irving. Irving had already starred with Ellen Terry, but he was hardly a big name. Bateman’s tenure at the Lyceum opened with a performance of his wife’s Fanchette with young Isabella [sic] Bateman in the leading role. She got great reviews in The Times, which praised her “triumphant debut”, but the play only ran for a few weeks before being superseded by Pickwick adapted by James Albery. Henry Irving played Alfred Jingle in the adaptation. The reviews generally were luke-warm, although Irving was praised: “The offhand pomp of his [i.e. Jingle’s] manner is capitally assumed by Mr. H. Irving.” Most of the applause seemed to be reserved for the affection in which the original novel was held, and the memory of Dickens himself, who had died the previous year, and whose bust held a prominent position onstage.
Both performances however were box-office flops, and it looked as though Bateman’s enterprise was going to fail. Then Irving had an idea, he had seen a play which was running to small audiences, but felt that he could make something out of it. Rather against Bateman’s better judgement, The Bells opened on November 25th 1871. The play was a huge success, and made Irving’s name. An advert in The Pall-Mall Gazette pronounced “Acting at once so intelligent and so intense has not been seen on the London stage for many years.”
Bateman died in 1875. In 1878 Irving took over the management of the Lyceum from Bateman’s widow, and controlled the theatre until 1899. The company was very successful and toured the United States on a number of occasions. During Irving’s tenure at the Lyceum Bram Stoker, Irving’s personal assistant, became the theatre’s business manager, and reputedly wrote much of Dracula backstage. Henry Irving continued to act right up until his death in 1905. His penultimate performance was as Mathias in The Bells, the play that had made him a star.