Rambunctious, witty, gifted and decent, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a dominant figure in London theatre from the late 1870s until his death in 1917. After initially making his name as an actor he went onto become a successful theatre manager and president of the nascent Society of West End Theatre.
Born as Herbert Draper Beerbohm in London in 1852 (the arboreal flourish was added later), Tree’s first major stage appearance came in 1878 when he played Grimaldi in Dion Boucicault’s The Life Of An Actress. In an early example of his life-long gift for courting controversy, this stage debut was made in spite of stern disapproval from his parents.
Adhering to his personal philosophy of “everything comes to him who doesn’t wait”, Beerbohm soon launched himself into theatre management, starting at the Comedy theatre in 1886 before establishing himself at the Haymarket between 1887 and 1896. Tree had a robust attitude to staging plays and his productions were usually packed with action and featured at least a scintilla of scandal. He was equally bombastic when he took to the stage himself, making memorable appearances as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1. Tree was perhaps somewhat less well suited to the role of Hamlet, which earned the equivocatory review of being “funny without being vulgar”.
Tree’s next major project was His Majesty’s theatre (currently Her Majesty’s) which he managed from 1897 to 1915. The building was entirely rebuilt for Tree, who was intimately involved in all aspects of its planning. During his tenure as manager, the theatre established a reputation for staging sumptuous Shakespearian productions.
By the start of the First World War, Tree was established as one of the most powerful men in British theatre. His rebellious streak remained very much intact, however, and when asked by the Theatre Managers’ Association to delete the word ‘bloody’ from his production of Pygmalion, his response was: “Delete the word? Not bloody likely”.