From Henry Irving to Laurence Olivier: The London Library and The Stage

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Archive Advent Calendar: 11 December 2013

We continue our archival countdown to Christmas by lifting the curtain on some of the Library’s theatrical members.

I promised a trip to the theatre yesterday and so in four archival records we will whisk through over a hundred years of acting and theatrical heritage evidenced in the Library’s membership records.

One of the earliest playwrights in the records is John Oxenford (1812-1877) author of over 100 plays, an accomplished translator and theatre critic for The Times. His play A Day Well Spent staged at the Lyceum theatre in 1836 was adapted by Johann Nestroy in Vienna in 1845 as Einen Jux will er sich machen.  Nestroy’s play adapted again by Tom Stoppard in On the Razzle which opened at the Lyttleton Theatre on 18 September 1981 and is also the inspiration behind the hit musical Hello Dolly!

No-one did more in the Victorian era than Henry Irving (1838-1905) to elevate the status of the stage and the profession of acting and he was rewarded for his efforts with a knighthood – the first actor to receive the accolade. His wit, verve and humility all in evidence in the description of his occupation on his joining form to the Library: “Comedian”.

The actress Isabel Bateman (1854-1934) came from an American acting family her father Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman took over management of the Lyceum in 1871 and it was he that spotted and recruited the talent of the young Irving who in turn provided the Lyceum with a runaway success with his critically acclaimed performance as Hamlet in 1874. Irving took over the management of the Lyceum in 1878 after the death of Mr Bateman and became the defining actor theatre manager of the Victorian age.

Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) is considered Irving’s natural successor.  He too was knighted for services to the stage and film in 1947: the youngest actor to have received the honour.  His joining form to the Library dates from 1944, a landmark year for Olivier.  His film version of Henry V in which he not only starred in but co-produced and directed was released and it was also the year in which he joined Ralph Richardson and Ralph Burrell in running the Old Vic at the New Theatre – and it is the address of the New Theatre which appears on his joining form.

Join us tomorrow when we find out who used the Annual Registers (currently shelved in the Sackler Study) in her research for one of the most enduring novels in the English language.


Irving as Hamlet.
Austin Brereton Henry Irving: A Biographical Sketch London: David Bogue 1883.

Irving (2)

The defining actor of his generation Henry Irving joined the Library in 1890. His right hand man at the Lyceum Theatre, Bram Stoker joined the same year.


From an American acting dynasty Isabel Bateman joined the Library in 1878. In 1898 she gave up the stage to take holy orders.


John Oxenford was the 705th person to join the Library in 1843.


Laurence Olivier joined the Library in 1944 the year in which he won critical acclaim for the film version of Henry V.