THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
|(signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 108, c.1905)|
John Hare was born John Fairs in Giggleswick in Yorkshire (GB) and became one of the most famous English actors and theatre managers of his generation.
From 1865 to 1875, he achieved considerable success at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, where he was a member of the famous company run by Squire Bancroft (1841-1926) an accomplished actor who had taken the sensible step of marrying the theatre's lessee, the actress, Marie Wilton (1839-1921) who together made the theatre into a fashionable venue. At the Prince of Wales's, John Hare created major character parts in all the comedies of T W Robertson, including Sam Gerridge in Caste (1867), in which the preparation of tea and sandwiches in the first act was a famed comic tour de force of the period.
Established as a major comic actor, he took over the management of the Court Theatre in 1975. Famed for the close attention he gave to every detail of his productions, he achieved considerable success. In 1877, he commissioned W G Wills to dramatize Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. He selected Ellen Terry to play Olivia, the female lead, and in this sentimental piece she created her first important stage role, which brought her considerable public acclaim and led to Henry Irving inviting her to join him at the Lyceum Theatre, where she was to remain for 25 years. Also in the cast were William Terris (who played Squire Thornhill) and Charles Kelly, who became Terry's second husband.
In 1879, Lord Newry, the owner of St. James's Theatre, was looking for an actor manager of high repute to take over his theatre. He approached the Bancrofts, who were leaving the Prince of Wales's, but they chose instead to go to the Haymarket. Lord Newry then offered the management to John Hare who accepted, agreeing to go there in partnership with W H Kendal and his wife Madge Robertson, who were both in his company at the Court.
For the arrival of the new management, St James's Theatre was reconstructed and redecorated. The Era of October 5, 1879, enthused:
Messrs. Hare and Kendal are now in possession of a house which, for taste, elegance, and comfort, is far in advance of anything the Metropolis has yet been able to boast. For them the old St. James's has been transformed into a Temple of the Drama complete and beautiful in all its details, and likely, we should say, to become one of the sights of London. The visitor, on entering, will imagine that he has passed the portals of some Parisian mansion, for the very ticket office has all the appearance of an antechamber sumptuously furnished.
The Hare-Kendal management continued at the St. James's Theatre for nine enormously successful years. Cecil Howard describes the opening season in an article published in The Theatre, September 1888:
During the whole of the term they have done their utmost to provide plays that would not only amuse but would elevate the public taste, and their efforts have been so far successful that they have experienced but few failures, and those works that have been adapted from the French stage have invariably been made pure and wholesome.
Those who attended the opening night of October 4, 1879, experienced a foretaste, from the manner in which the house itself had been redecorated and improved in appearance, of the elegance and lavish perfection with which the plays would be put upon the stage. After the singing of the National Anthem by Charles Santley, the curtain drew up on the comedietta Monsieur le Duc, written by Val Prinsep, A.R.A., in which John Hare was the libertine Duc de Richelieu, who discovers his own daughter in Marguerite (Cissy Grahame), a young girl whom he meant to betray. William Terriss was the Count de la Roque. The pièce de résistance was The Queen's Shilling, by G. W. Godfrey, founded on Le Fils de Famille of Bayard, of which there had been other adaptations. In this Madge Kendal, Mrs. Gaston Murray, Kate Phillips, John Hare, W. H. Kendal, William Terriss, William Mackintosh and T. E. Wenman appeared. This piece, first produced in London at the Court, April 19 of the same year, proved so successful as to be several times revived.
December 18, 1879, saw the production of The Falcon, founded by Lord (then Mr. Alfred) Tennyson on a story in the Decameron of Boccaccio. Kendal was the Count Alberighi and his wife Lady Giovanna. Marcus Stone, R.A., painted some exquisite scenery, and the costumes were extremely rich and archaeologically correct. Kendal gained much credit for his singing of 'Dead Mountain Flowers.' This ran till March 6, 1880, when Old Cronies, comedietta by Theyre Smith, took its place with William Mackintosh and Wenman.
From March 13 till May 22, 1880, Tom Taylor's Still Waters Run Deep held the boards, with Hare, Kendal, Terriss, Cissy Grahame and Madge Kendal as Mrs. Sternhold (by many thought one of her greatest assumptions). On the latter date The Queen's Shilling was revived, and ran till June 17, when the Ladies' Battle was revived, with Madge Kendal as the Countess D'Autreval; Hare, Kendal, Terriss, Albert Chevalier and Cissy Grahame; with this was given A Regular Fix, with Kendal as Sir Hugh de Brass. These two pieces were played till the close of the first season on July 10.
Among the many great successes of subsequent seasons were several plays by A W Pinero, whose playwrighting talents Hare was one of the first to recognize. They included The Money Spinner (1881), The Squire (1881) in which Hare played the Rev. Paul Dormer, The Iron Master (1884), Mayfair (1885) and The Hobby Horse (1886). It was a revival of The Squire that was to be the last performance presented at the St. James's Theatre by the Hare-Kendal management team. Cecil Howard, in his article, describes the occasion:
The last performance of The Squire, on July 21, 1888, was a brilliant one before a brilliant audience, the cheers that greeted Hare and the Kendals were enthusiastic. It was only natural that a few words should be expected from the lessees, and these were well chosen and appropriate. Kendal concluded - 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, the time has come to say, in this place, Farewell. We separate from our recent associations with no inconsiderable pain. Ties such as we have maintained with the St. James's Theatre through all these years are not broken without regret. We go each our way, with no shadow of rivalry save the worthy rivalry of striving each for himself and herself to earn a continuance of your favour, and to sustain the honour of our profession. (Loud cheers.)'
The Kendals went on a tour of America and Hare joined Mrs. John Wood at the re-built Royal Court Theatre, while awaiting the completion of the Garrick Theatre which he managed from 1889 to 1895. While there, he created what was to be his best remembered role, that of Benjamin Goldfinch in Sydney Grindy's A Pair of Spectacles (1890).
When, in 1895, he gave up his twenty-year career as an actor-managers, Hare was one of England's most revered theatrical figures. For another sixteen years, he continued to act, creating, for example the title part in Pinero's The Gay Lord Quex (1899). He was also an honored guest at many important functions. On November 10, 1900, he was one of the speakers at the Lotus Club for a welcome home to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). Talking about the theatre, he said:
My task is rendered comparatively easy because we are not here to enter the lists in oratorical rivalry, but to unite in paying homage to a great distinguished and brilliant writer - and to use an Americanism - a lovely man. The last time I had the pleasure of listening to Mr. Clemens was at a dinner in London on the occasion of Mr. Henry Irving's return from America. Among the toasts was one to the drama with the names of Mark Twain and Mr. Pinero coupled. We all looked forward to the speeches of these two. Mr. Pinero had come, we could see from the expression of his face, all prepared to give us a very weighty essay on the drama, but Mr. Clemens spoke first, and with such brilliant humour and wit that the effect was electrical. We waited for Mr. Pinero, but the air was so charged with the electricity of humour that Mr. Pinero could only sit down with the remark, 'I beg to return my thanks for this honour.'
The health of the drama is extremely good. Its vitality is excessive. In the past we have had as good - better - plays and as good players, but at present we have more of them. There may be no genius, but the average is far better. In this there is a great solace and a great danger. Genius may do what it likes. Average ability must be controlled. The practical extinction of the actor-manager in our country is a great menace. It is impossible for the commercial director to amalgamate and control those forces which give to the public the perfect drama. It is the fashion now to cry down the actor-manager. What a mistake! What a folly! The more I look around the more I deplore the lack of State and municipal aid for the theatre. In England we can never hope for it, but in this country it could be, and looking upon the ability of your actors and the grace of your actresses my impression is that in this country could be founded the finest dramatic school in the world.
In December 1906, Hare was appointed the Chairman of the Irving Memorial Committee which oversaw the erection of a bronze statue in London in memory of Sir Henry Irving who had died in 1905. In 1907, Hare was knighted and, five years later, he retired from the stage. He did, however, appear in three silent films (including one of The Vicar of Wakefield) that were made in 1916 and 1917.
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