Sir Herbert, from Haverstock Hill to Haymarket
In the first of a series of essays about notable Camden Victorians, Neil Titley examines the legacy of actor, Herbert Beerbohm Tree
12 June, 2018 — By Neil Titley
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree
“IT is so difficult to live up to one’s posters,” sighed one of Hampstead’s most eccentric actors, now resident in the cemetery at Church Row.
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a giant of Victorian theatre whose career included creating the original roles of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and Lord Illingworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. In 1899 he performed the title role of King John in the first ever film of a Shakespeare play, and in 1904 he founded Rada in Gower Street. He lodged in Haverstock Hill in the 1880s and, financially flushed with success, lived in grand style at The Grange in Branch Hill. Among many illegitimate children he sired the film director Sir Carol Reed and was the grandfather of the actor Oliver Reed.
He considered his crowning achievement to have been the establishment of His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket, but not everyone was convinced of his abilities when dealing with the Bard, though. It was said that Tree’s main acting weakness stemmed from his conviction that he was best in tragic roles when in fact he was a born comedian.
Maybe his worst performance was Hamlet in 1892. He always suffered terribly from nerves before a first night. As he said himself: “Why do we choose a calling that causes us such unutterable agony?”
Before Hamlet, his nerves were so bad that his dresser found him in the dressing room chewing a stick of greasepaint while applying makeup with a mutton cutlet.
The performance itself failed badly. A critic said that it was “funny without being vulgar”. At the end of the show, amid a storm of catcalls, Tree walked out to the footlights and, holding up his hands for silence, announced: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I still have a few pearls to cast.”
Back in the dressing room, a friend came to visit him. Tree asked: “Um…What did you think of my Hamlet, dear chap?”
The friend hesitated then admitted: “Well, frankly, Herbert, I didn’t much care for it”.
“Um… no… But it’s a good part though, isn’t it?”
Tree directed one rehearsal of a play in which he felt that the actresses had not quite caught the nuances of their roles. He stopped them with the words: “Ladies, ladies, just a little more virginity, if you don’t mind.”
One plummy-voiced actress kept speaking about the “glorious skay”, Tree stopped her: “Oh, my God, no. It’s called the sky. Remember you’re in Egypt. The skay is only seen in Kensington.”
When Tree played Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII, at one matinee the king came off stage cursing heartily about a member of the audience who was reading a newspaper:
“Herbert, we are all being insulted.”
“Um… leave it to me,” said Tree. He strode on stage, a towering figure in long, flowing Tudor robes, dignified and massively imposing. Spotting the offending spectator in the front row, he swept down to the footlights. The man still did not notice. So Tree knelt down and leaned over, gazing straight at the reader. The man sensed something was wrong, looked up and found himself staring directly at Cardinal Wolsey. Tree peered back.
“Tell me, my man, which horse won the 2.30?”
His eldest daughter was the actress Viola Tree. She died in 1938 and is buried in Hampstead, next to her father. Even as an infant, Viola displayed considerable intelligence. When their family friend WS Gilbert visited their house, he made a fuss of Viola and, as he was about to leave, Tree encouraged her to kiss Gilbert goodbye. She pouted and refused. Tree pressed her further: “Oh, kiss Gillie, darling. Daddy loves Gillie.”
With irrefutable logic, the three-year-old replied: “Then Daddy kiss Gillie.”
Sometimes Tree’s disconnection from the everyday world approached the surreal. On one occasion he went into a post office. After pondering for a few minutes over why he was there, he approached the counter. “I hear that you sell stamps?”
“We do, sir”
“May I see some?”
“You may, sir.”
Tree surveyed the sheet of stamps, then pointed to one right in the centre and said: “Um… I’ll take that one.”
It was sometimes difficult to know whether some of his most famous statements were intentional or not. He once strode into Waterloo station, with top hat and cane and followed by a retinue of theatrical flunkies. He marched up to the ticket office and boomed: “I wish to purchase a ticket.”
“Oh, yes, sir. What station do you want?”
“What stations have you got?”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For information go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk