Thursday, May 9, 2013

"With Catlike Tread" - That Holmesian Mystery When He Made History.

In that most nostalgic of Sherlockian years, 1895, Holmes was not the only Victorian at the height of his powers. The foremost actor-manager of the day, Henry Irving, became the first actor ever to be honoured with a knighthood. The act was symbolic: the stage was at last acknowledged as a respectable profession, fulfilling Irving's self-appointed task.
Sir Henry Irving drawn to the life by Paul Renouard 1896.

In certain circles, however, these events were but background scenery to the emergence in this year of years of a truly legendary talent. Much necessarily survives only as oral history; written records are so sparse that even gender and a name evade the historian.

 I shall call him 'Gus', which is short for 'Asparagus'. I know not by what name he might deign to be addressed by Sir Henry  Irving. Likewise, his adopted stage-name may not be discerned in the cast list of any extant programme of the period. As for "The name that no human research can discover"...Well, that, of course, is the name he himself knew, but would never ever confess: his 'Deep and inscrutable singular Name' .

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter indeed.

Royal Lyceum Theatre in 1891.

The word on the street in 1895 was that Gus, 'a forlorn and disreputable-looking kitten' had fallen on all four paws in selecting the Lyceum and its newly elevated knight-manager as the springboard to fame. 'With the touching confidence yet temerity of his kind'  Gus followed Henry into the theatre and settled in for the duration.

Having survived (cats have nine lives) the fire which swept through the Lyceum's costume and scenery storage house on February 18, 1898, Gus appropriated Sir Henry's dressing room and insisted (so patrician was this Aristocat) on taking the air by way of the Royal Entrance, where he would sign the occasional pawgraph. We hear from Mr. Eliot's poem that: 'I acted with Irving, I acted with Tree',  but it is to the Edwardian fad for postcard collecting and the pages of 'The Sketch' we must turn for photographic evidence of Gus's tenure at the Lyceum.

Gus with leading lady, Maude Fealy, waiting to go on in the last Act of "Sherlock Holmes".

Between September 9, 1901 and April 12, 1902, the Lyceum presented, in all, 216 performances of Sherlock Holmes by and starring the greatest American actor of the day, William Gillette. Irving was touring America when the play opened at The Garrick Theatre & he negotiated a three month run at the Lyceum, soon extended in part through the popularity of Maude Fealy who had recently joined the company to play Alice Faulkner.
Maude Fealy.
She was 18, talented and exquisitely beautiful, so much so that, a year after Sherlock Holmes closed, she was chosen first out of 30,00 entrants in the Paris Figaro Illustre International Beauty Competition. In that same year she would take the stage with Sir. Henry Irving himself, having been introduced by a mutual friend - Gus.

"We were at the Lyceum, and I had Sir Henry's dressing-room. A cat wandered in, and we became great friends. I shared my malted milk with pussy, and decorated it with blue ribbon. Then I discovered to whom it belonged, and that was really the beginning of my acquaintance with that great man. Sir Henry was so kind and thoughtful, and such a ceaseless worker."

Gus had given his stamp of approval.

The Sketch (May 21, 1902) carried a retrospect of the production, highlighting (to the delight of all Feline Fandom) the role of Gus.


"...sometimes he took it 'on'."

Act 2 as produced at The Garrick.

A glance at the opening of Act 2, scene 2 (see link below) solves I think the question of an exit cue for Gus. Before the action proper, Billy the page enters and exits - the ideal conveyor of Gus back to his green room. 

We do not know how often Gus trod the boards. Talk to any cat of your acquaintance and you will soon be convinced that Gus would only have stirred from his dressing room for the cream of occasions. Felinelore has it that he performed:

1. On opening night, when authors Conan Doyle and Gillette took the stage.
2. On January 30, 1902, when Conan Doyle was in the audience.
3. At the gala for the King and Queen on February 1, 1902.
4. April 12, the last performance.
N.B. Gus would certainly have mingled on stage with the 500 guests (including Conan Doyle) at Sir. Henry Irving's reception, given on July 3rd, 1902, 16 days before local fire ordinances closed the theatre and ended an era.

Irving had three more years of life and would die in Bradford's Midland Hotel on October 13, 1905. Maude Fealy would move on to become a screen actress (though not as Alice Faulkner in the lost 1916 Gillette film). Please see the links below for further information on Fealy and Gillette).

As for Gus...well, he's a legend now.

T.S. Eliot

Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His name, as I ought to have told you before,
Is really Asparagus. That's such a fuss
To pronounce, that we usually call him just Gus.
His coat's very shabby, he's thin as a rake,
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.
Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats--
But no longer a terror to mice and to rats.
For he isn't the Cat that he was in his prime;
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in its time.
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(Which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree--
He has acted with Irving, he's acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.
But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

I have played," so he says, "every possible part,
And I used to know seventy speeches by heart.
I'd extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag,
And I knew how to let the cat out of the bag.
I knew how to act with my back and my tail;
With an hour of rehearsal, I never could fail.
I'd a voice that would soften the hardest of hearts,
Whether I took the lead, or in character parts.
I have sat by the bedside of poor Little Nell;
When the Curfew was rung, then I swung on the bell.
In the Pantomime season I never fell flat,
And I once understudied Dick Whittington's Cat.
But my grandest creation, as history will tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell."

Then, if someone will give him a toothful of gin,
He will tell how he once played a part in East Lynne.
At a Shakespeare performance he once walked on pat,
When some actor suggested the need for a cat.
He once played a Tiger--could do it again--
Which an Indian Colonel purused down a drain.
And he thinks that he still can, much better than most,
Produce blood-curdling noises to bring on the Ghost.
And he once crossed the stage on a telegraph wire,
To rescue a child when a house was on fire.
And he says: "Now then kittens, they do not get trained
As we did in the days when Victoria reigned.
They never get drilled in a regular troupe,
And they think they are smart, just to jump through a hoop."
And he'll say, as he scratches himself with his claws,
"Well, the Theatre's certainly not what it was.
These modern productions are all very well,
But there's nothing to equal, from what I hear tell,
That moment of mystery
When I made history
As Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

1. William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes at the Garrick: CLICK
2. The only known recording of William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes:  CLICK

3. Maude Fealy Biography: CLICK
4. Maude Fealy in the 1913 film "King Rene's Daughter" :CLICK
5. The play of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle & William Gillette (read online): CLICK
6. Frank Langella's filmed production of the play:

7. Sir Henry Irving as Richard III, recorded in 1898.

"We too have our diplomatic secrets" Purr.

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