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Actor-manager Henry Irving

An actor-manager is a leading actor who sets up their own permanent theatrical company and manages the company's business and financial arrangements, sometimes taking over the management of a theatre, to perform plays of their own choice and in which they will usually star. It was a method of theatrical production and management particularly common in 19th-century England and the United States.


The first actor-managers, such as Robert Browne, appeared in the late 16th century, to be followed by another Robert Browne (no relation) and George Jolly in the 17th century. In the 18th century, actor-managers such as Colley Cibber and David Garrick gained prominence. The system of actor-management generally produced high standards of performance, as demonstrated by such 19th-century actors as William Macready, Charles Wyndham, Henry Irving, Frank Benson and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, by husband-wife teams such as Squire Bancroft and Effie Bancroft, Frank Wyatt and Violet Melnotte, William Hunter Kendal and Madge Robertson Kendal and Thomas and Priscilla German Reed, and by women stars, such as Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, Selina Dolaro, Evelyn Millard, Sarah Bernhardt, Sarah Thorne, Gertrude Kingston, Emily Soldene, Laura Keene and Lydia Thompson, among many others.[1][2]

The repertoire usually consisted of a combination of the works of Shakespeare, popular melodramas, and new dramas, comedies or musical theatre works. The era of the actor-manager was geared to star performances, such as Irving’s role in the 1871 play The Bells.[3]

The system of actor-management waned in the early twentieth century, as actor-managers were replaced first by stage managers and later by theatre directors.[1][2] In addition, the system of actor-management was adversely affected by factors such as the increasing cost of mounting theatrical productions, more corporate ownership of theatres, such as by the Theatrical Syndicate, Edward Laurillard and The Shubert Organization, a trend toward ensemble-style acting, and a move towards the financial security offered by long runs rather than rotating plays for a short period.[3]

An example of a modern actor-manager is Kenneth Branagh when he ran Renaissance; another is Kevin Spacey, who was the artistic director of the Old Vic in London from 2004 to 2014 and who also appeared in plays there under his own direction.[4]



  • Donaldson, Lady Frances Annesley. The Actor Managers Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (1970)
  • Thomas, James. The Art of the Actor-Manager: Wilson Barrett and the Victorian Theatre Bowker (1984)
  • Pearson, Hesketh. The Last Actor-Managers Methuen and Co Ltd (1950)