Ben-Hur on the London Stage

In March of 1901, Klaw and Erlanger announced their arrangement with Arthur Collins, the director of London’s Drury Lane Theater, to take the play to England. Collins had travelled to New York to stage a play, but also to secure the rights to Ben-Hur. Ben Teal and A.L. Erlanger were to superintend the London production. Collins, himself, would oversee the creation of the stage scenery and costumes. Klaw and Erlanger were the producers of the Broadway presentation of Ben-Hur.

Rather than the eight horses generally used for the chariot race, the London production boasted 16 horses in the great race. The horses and mechanical apparatus for the race were to be sent from America. In January of 1902, Joseph Brooks, who worked for Klaw & Erlanger and negotiated with Lew Wallace for New York’s original production, sailed for England to supervise the final preparations for the London premier, set for March 31.

The Drury Lane Theater that premiered Ben-Hur had been built in 1812 on the site of several earlier important theaters. It is still considered one of the most significant theaters in the world. Over the years the Drury Theater has seen its share of historic performances and personnel, ranging from Edmund Kean and Lord Byron to Noel Coward to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Monty Python to Shrek the Musical.

Drury Lane Theater

Original 1901 plans called for using the Broadway cast for the London staging of Wallace’s play. However, only J.E. Dodson, who portrayed Simonides, travelled overseas. While most of the other cast members, almost 500 of them, were members of British theatre troops, Judah Ben-Hur was portrayed by the popular American actor Robert Taber.

Taber started his career in 1886 portraying Silvius in the play As You Like It with the famed acting company of Helena Modjeska. Taber went on to marry leading Shakespearean actress Julia Marlowe. He enjoyed a string of successful stage performances in the 1890s in America. He also experienced great success in London at the turn of the 20th century, including portraying Macduff in Macbeth at the Lyceum Theater and Orsino in a production of Twelfth Night at Her Majesty’s Theater.

Constance Collier as Cleopatra

The impressive London cast of Ben-Hur also included Constance Collier as the temptress, Iras, despite the fact that she was also starring as Calypso in Ulysses at His Majesty’s Theatre nearby. She ran between the theatres and slipped out of Calypso’s flowing robes into Iras’s unkempt wig and exotic, disheveled clothing. Born in Kensington, Collier had been a Gaiety Girl before she switched to “legitimate” theatre, specializing in goddesses, queens, and romantic heroines.

With Taber in the lead, the play opened on schedule in early April of 1902. Friends of General Wallace who saw him in Crawfordsville at the time of the premiere were amused by published reports that he attended the London opening, sitting in the audience with famed actress Mary Anderson. Even the great General Wallace could not be two places at the same time!

The play had received acceptable reviews in America, and many in the English press liked the performances and were overwhelmed by the ingenuity of the production. The Illustrated London News’s critic stated that Robert Taber played the Jewish prince with “rare personal charm” and the whole was “capitally acted,” while Collier was coyly described by the Sketch’s critic as “very alluring.”

In spite of positive reviews, some London critics were scathing. If Wallace, Klaw & Erlanger, and Collins were distressed by these reviews, the thousands of dollars that came streaming in probably softened the blow. Ben-Hur opened to the largest receipts of any dramatic production for the Drury Lane Theater, making over $50,000 in just 20 presentations. As word of mouth spread, attendance increased. Saturday performances always exceeded $6,000, and its average take in a week was $23,000, making it the greatest financial success the London stage had ever seen. In May 1902, newspapers reported that attendance at the Drury had so hurt other theaters, that certain managers had lost heart and were closing until the excitement surrounding Ben-Hur subsided.

Although some critics continued to take issue with the play, their voices were drowned out by public acclaim. Even King Edward and Queen Alexandra enjoyed the show. The royals had a specially constructed box in the pit, which was considered a radical departure for royal viewing. According to published reports, their majesties highly commended the drama and its production and spoke of the very reverent manner in which its religious theme was treated.

Robert Taber with
Lena Ashwell

Although he was only in his 30s, Taber’s portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur would be among his last roles. He and Julia Marlowe had divorced by 1900. In 1901 and 1902, he was on the London stage. In 1903, he was involved in a scandalous affair with an English actress named Lena Ashwell. Just a year later he was ill with pleurisy and dying. His ex-wife provided him a home in the Adirondacks in hopes that he would recover his health, but Taber died in 1904 at the age of 39.

At the same time the London production was being readied for its opening in 1902, another staging of the play was preparing for its opening at Her Majesty’s Theater in Sydney, Australia. In addition, plans were being discussed for productions in France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Wallace’s literary efforts had reached an international audience in the nineteenth century. However, just after the turn-of-the twentieth century, the stage play was proving equally successful at spreading the message of Ben-Hur and the name of Lew Wallace. The impressive production of the play contributed to this success. Beyond its theatrical presentation, as the critic for Sketches wrote of the London production, this play had the unique ability to move audiences, especially by its “beautiful finale, breathing peace to those who have suffered.”

Samantha Ellis, The Guardian, 2003
Crawfordsville Journal, March 12, 1901; April 15, 1901; January 24, 1902; May 14, 1902; May 21, 1902.

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