And here, perhaps, is the place to say that I, of all people, can perhaps appreciate Henry Irving least justly, although I was his associate on the stage for a quarter of a century, and was on terms of the closest friendship with him for almost as long a time. He had precisely the qualities that I never find likable.
He was an egotist, an egotist of the great type, never "a mean egotist," as he was once slanderously described; and all his faults sprang from egotism, which is, after all, only another name for greatness. So much absorbed was he in his own achievement that he was unable or unwilling to appreciate the achievements of others. I never heard him speak in high terms of the great foreign actors and actresses who from time to time visited England. It would be easy to attribute this to jealousy, but the easy explanation is not the true one. He simply would not give himself up to appreciation. Perhaps appreciation is a wasting though a generous quality of the mind and heart, and best left to lookers-on who have plenty of time to develop it.
I was with him when he saw Sarah Bernhardt act for the first time. The play was "Ruy Blas," and it was one of Sarah's bad days. She was walking through the part listlessly, and I was angry that there should be any ground for Henry's indifference. The same thing happened years later when I took him to see Eleonora Duse. The play was "Locandiera," to which she was eminently unsuited, I think. He was surprised at my enthusiasm. There was an element of justice in his attitude toward the performance which infuriated me, but I doubt if he would have shown more enthusiasm if he had seen her at her best.
As the years went on he grew very much attached to Sarah Bernhardt, and admired her as a colleague whose managerial work in the theatre was as dignified as his own; but of her superb powers as an actress I don't believe he ever had a glimmering notion!
Perhaps it is not true, but, as I believe it to be true, I may as well state it: It was never any pleasure to him to see the acting of other actors and actresses. Salvini's Othello I know he thought magnificent, but he would not speak of it.
IRVING'S SIMPLICITY OF CHARACTER
How dangerous it is to write things that may not be understood! What I have written I have written merely to indicate the qualities in Henry Irving's nature which were unintelligible to me, perhaps because I have always been more woman than artist. He always put the theatre first. He lived in it, he died in it. He had none of my bourgeois qualities--the love of being in love, the love of a home, the dislike of solitude. I have always thought it hard to find my inferiors. He was sure of his high place. In some ways he was far simpler than I. He would talk, for instance, in such an ignorant way to painters and musicians that I blushed for him. But was not my blush far more unworthy than his freedom from all pretentiousness in matters of art?
He never pretended. One of his biographers had said that he posed as being a French scholar. Such a thing, and all things like it, were impossible to his nature. If it were necessary, in one of his plays, to say a few French words, he took infinite pains to learn them, and said them beautifully.