"We must start this play a living thing," he used to say at rehearsals, and he worked until the skin grew tight over his face, until he became livid with fatigue, yet still beautiful, to get the opening lines said with individuality, suggestiveness, speed, and power:
_Bernardo_: Who's there? _Francisco_: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself. _Bernardo_: Long live the king! _Francisco_: Bernardo? _Bernardo_: He. _Francisco_: You come most carefully upon your hour. _Bernardo_: 'Tis now struck twelve: get thee to bed, Francisco. _Francisco_: For this relief much thanks: 't is bitter cold.
And all that he tried to make others do with these lines he himself did with every line of his own part. Every word lived.
Some said: "Oh, Irving only makes 'Hamlet' a love poem!" They said that, I suppose, because in the nunnery scene with Ophelia he was the lover above the prince and the poet. With what passionate longing his hands hovered over Ophelia at her words, "Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind!"
His advice to the players was not advice. He did not speak it as an actor. Nearly all Hamlets in that scene give away the fact that they are actors and not dilettanti of royal blood. Henry defined the way he would have the players speak as an order, an instruction of the merit of which he was regally sure. There was no patronising flavour in his acting here, not a touch of "I'11 teach you how to do it." He was swift, swift and simple--pausing for the right word now and again, as in the phrase "to hold as 't were the mirror up to nature." His slight pause and eloquent gesture, as the all embracing word "nature" came in answer to his call, were exactly repeated unconsciously, years later, by the Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). She was telling us the story of a play that she had written. The words rushed out swiftly, but occasionally she would wait for the one that expressed her meaning most comprehensively and exactly, and, as she got it, up went her hand in triumph over her head--"Like yours in Hamlet," I told Henry at the time.
The first letter that I ever received from Henry Irving was written on the 20th of July, 1878, from 15A Grafton Street, the house in which he lived during the entire period of his Lyceum management.
DEAR MISS TERRY: I look forward to the pleasure of calling upon you on Tuesday next at two o'clock,
With every good wish, believe me, Yours sincerely,