Irving’s Merchant

Posted on 11th November 2019 by simonbeattie

The Boston Book Fair is only days away and, as the trunks have already left to go on their journey across the Atlantic, we find ourselves with a little bit of time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and write a blog post.

We were pleased to be able to include in our latest e-list a special item relating to the history of theatre: the souvenir script and programme for the one hundredth performance of Henry Irving’s staging of The Merchant of Venice, featuring Irving and Ellen Terry as Shylock and Portia, respectively.

The souvenir script and programme, bound in the original parchment-covered boards lettered gilt.
Irving in costume as Shylock. Image courtesy of the BL.

The performance was accompanied by a banquet in the performance space itself, and was attended by 350 guests including Oscar Wilde, whose poem ‘Portia’ was written after first seeing Ellen Terry in the role in 1879. It was then, after the toast, that ‘attendants brought round books of the Merchant of Venice, as arranged by Mr. Irving, specially prepared for the occasion. They were bound in white parchment and lettered in gold, the cover as well as the title-page’ (The Musical World; the title-page here is printed in black). The event, like its accompanying souvenir, was lavish: ‘All the paraphernalia of the stage and the piece had been removed [from the stage], and over the whole vacant space, of some 4000 square feet, rose an immense pavilion of white and scarlet bands, looped around the walls with tasteful draperies and lit by two gigantic chandeliers … The transformation was so magically effected, and displayed such thoroughness of organization in all concerned’ (ibid.).

For more, check out our latest e-list of largely recent acquisitions, available here. The British Library also has a great summary of Irving’s staging of The Merchant of Venice on their website, which you can read by clicking here.

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