Sir Henry Irving (real name John Henry Brodribb), was born at Keinton Mandeville, Somerset, on 6 February 1838. He moved to London in 1849 and left school at the age of thirteen to become a solicitor's clerk. He quickly developed an interest in the theatre (thereby incurring his mother's lasting disapproval) and in 1856, after some elementary training and amateur work, he joined E.D. Davis's company at the Lyceum Theatre, Sunderland. He spent thirteen years touring Britain with repertory companies and playing more than 700 parts, enduring periods of considerable hardship. He returned to the capital in 1869 and the following year he appeared in a new play, Two Roses, by James Albery, which ran for almost 300 nights and secured Irving's place as a leading actor. For the next few years he was the principal actor at the Lyceum Theatre under the management of his friend, the American impresario Col. Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman, until Bateman's widow sold the business to Irving in 1878.
Irving was at the helm of the Lyceum Theatre for the next twenty-three years, a period in which he achieved legendary status for his Shakespearean productions and notoriety for his relationship with Ellen Terry, who played several of Shakespeare's heroines as well as less taxing roles in melodramas. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 'Irving spent without stint on everything that was needed to make his presentations perfect'; he employed leading artists as designers, such as Lawrence Alma Tadema and Edward Burne-Jones; Charles Villiers Stanford and Arthur Sullivan, amongst others, composed incidental music for him; and he was pioneering in his use of lighting effects. He surrounded himself with an exceptional team of staff, including Abraham (Bram) Stoker as his business manager, and H.J. Loveday, his stage-manager. The Lyceum was the first theatre company to tour with its own costumes and sets (almost all the sets were destroyed by fire in 1898). Eight tours of the United States between 1883 and 1903 met with huge critical acclaim, but they were a financial drain, and Irving was forced to relinquish control of the Lyceum, turning it into a joint-stock company administered by a syndicate.
Henry Irving was the first actor ever to be knighted, in 1895. He died on 13 October 1905, just after performing Tennyson's Becket in Bradford. A week later he was buried in Westminster Abbey, beside the statue of Shakespeare and the grave of David Garrick.
Source: Robertson Davies, 'Irving, Sir Henry (1838-1905)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34116.
Irving's production of Faust was his greatest commercial success and the culmination of his skills in artistic invention and staging. While fully satisfying the public taste for romantic spectacle, Faust received considerable critical acclaim for its highly creative staging, lighting, scenery and costume. Irving commissioned the translation/dramatization of Goethe's play from William Gorman Wills, who visited Nuremberg with Ellen Terry to absorb local 'colour'. Faust was undoubtedly the most 'Irvingesque' of all the Lyceum productions, with spectacular Gothic scenery by Hawes Craven. Audiences thrilled to Irving's demonic portrayal of Mephistopheles and were greatly affected by the pathos of Terry's Margaret. The play was first produced on 19 December 1885 and ran until 1888. It was revived in 1894 and the 500th performance took place on 30 June 1894. It is likely that Irving's prompter, James H. Allen, prepared this very finished and professional prompt book to mark the occasion, as a tribute to 'the Guv'nor'.