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by Edward Lyddell Sawyer, woodburytype, 1879

What does it take to pursue one’s art?

On a cold evening in London, 1871,  Henry Irving, not yet a Sir, and his wife were riding in a horse-carriage. Irving was the first actor ever to be knighted, but on this evening, he was still relatively unknown. He had just opened in a new play, The Bells, which would make him a star. Later, along with his acting partner Ellen Terry, he would score in dozens of plays. Hamlet, Much Ado, Merchant of Venice, provided him with some of his greatest roles. His portrayals were acclaimed for their realism; his Shylock was unique for the time—his Jew was an actual person with feelings (see the photo above). But right now, he was just a journeyman actor from the working class who had struggled hard to make a name for himself.

In The Bells, he played Matthias, a guilt-stricken murderer. At the end of the play, Irving’s character dreams of a noose put around his neck; upon awakening, he struggles to take the imaginary noose from his throat, but then dies of a heart attack.

“The play left the first-nighters a little dazed. Old fashioned playgoers did not know what to make of it as a form of entertainment. But when the final curtain fell, the audience, after a gasp or two, realised that they had witnessed the most masterly form of tragic acting that the British stage had seen for many a long day, and there was a storm of cheers,” said a writer for the Evening News.

But Irving was only a star that night to the few people in the stalls who had come out to see him.

As he got into the horse-carriage to go home, his wife, Florence, pregnant with their second child, turned to him and said, “Tell me Henry, are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?”

Without a word to her, Irving stopped the carriage, got out at Hyde Park Corner, and never saw his wife again.

Rhett Butler, eat your heart out.