Sir Henry Lytton (3 January 1865 – 15 August 1936) was an English actor and singer who was the leading exponent of the comic patter-baritone roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the early part of the twentieth century. His career in these Savoy operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company spanned 50 years, and he is the only person ever knighted for achievements as a Gilbert and Sullivan performer.
Lytton began his career singing in operettas and plays, also doing odd jobs in the early 1880s. His wife, Louie Henri, performed with him and helped him get started in theatre, also serving as his music and acting coach. Lytton joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on tour in 1884 and, after various tours, performed with the company at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1886 and 1887. After this, he played almost continuously with D'Oyly Carte touring companies for a decade as principal comedian, performing roles like Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and Ko-Ko in The Mikado. He returned to the Savoy Theatre from 1897 to 1903, where he created a number of roles and played a large variety of roles with D'Oyly Carte, although not the principal comedian roles.
When the D'Oyly Carte company left the Savoy Theatre in 1903, Lytton left the company. He then starred in a number of successful Edwardian musical comedies for the next four years, including The Earl and the Girl, The Spring Chicken, The Little Michus and Billee Taylor. He also performed in music hall. During the D'Oyly Carte repertory seasons at the Savoy between 1906 and 1909, Lytton rejoined the company, again playing a variety of roles, but mostly not the principal comedian roles. From 1909 to 1934, Lytton performed on tour and in London with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company as its principal comedian.
Life and career
Lytton was born Henry Alfred Jones in Kensington, London, England, the son of Henry Jones, a jeweller, and Martha Lavinia Harris. He attended St Mark's School, Chelsea, where he took part in amateur theatricals and boxing. He wrote that he was also a boy soloist in the choir of St. Philip's Church, Kensington, London. Biographer Brian Jones concludes that Lytton tells a number of untruths about his teenage years and early career in his 1922 memoir, Secrets of a Savoyard. In fact, at the age of fourteen Lytton left school and was apprenticed to the young artist William Henry Hamilton Trood, to study painting and sculpture, around 1880. Lytton's father hoped that he would outgrow his interest in the theatre. Lytton probably met his future wife, Louisa Webber, later known on stage as Louie Henri, at St. Philip's.
In 1879, Lytton's wife, Louie Henri, had been engaged by Florence St. John's operetta company but left to help Lytton begin his acting career. In 1881, they joined the Philharmonic Theatre, Islington, appearing in several plays, including The Obstinate Bretons and The Shaughraun by Dion Boucicault, and then, with Kate Santley, played at the Royalty Theatre. There they appeared in Ixion, or the Man at the Wheel by F. C. Burnand, but the theatre closed soon afterwards. Henri rejoined St. John's company, where she played in several operettas and had a small role in Olivette at the Avenue Theatre. She then rejoined Santley's company in 1883, but Lytton was out of acting work all this time and was forced to take a variety of odd jobs. Henri then played in the lavish Christmas pantomime of Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. They married in early 1884, both aged 19, at St. Mary Abbot's Church, Kensington. Lytton was estranged from his father, who disapproved of Lytton's and Henri's profession, and neither family attended the ceremony.
Henri left Drury Lane to join the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company to play the small role of Ada in the first provincial tour of Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida, beginning in February 1884, in which Courtice Pounds played Hilarion and Fred Billington played Hildebrand. She obtained an audition for Lytton, claiming that he was her brother, and he was also engaged in the chorus and small parts, and immediately as the understudy for the principal comic role of King Gama in Princess Ida. The Ida tour continued for almost a year, and then the couple toured in additional D'Oyly Carte productions, interspersed with other engagements until May 1885. Also, in January 1885, Henri gave birth to the couple's first child, Ida Louise Jones, taking off only a few weeks before returning to the stage.
After this, they joined with other out-of-work actors and travelled from town to town in Surrey for three months, performing a drama called All of Her, a comedy entitled Masters and Servants, and an operetta, Tom Tug the Waterman. The plays were augmented by songs and dances. The income provided by this work was not adequate, and the struggling young actors experienced hunger. In the autumn of 1885, Lytton and Henri joined a D'Oyly Carte tour, playing in Trial by Jury (with Henri as the Plaintiff), The Sorcerer, Patience and The Pirates of Penzance. The two then played in the Christmas pantomime Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Manchester. In the summer of 1886, Lytton and Henri joined the chorus of Erminie and The Lily of Leoville by Ivan Caryll and Clement Scott, at the Comedy Theatre, and then toured in Erminie into the latter months of that year. Whenever out of work, Lytton took more odd jobs, putting his artist training to use by occasionally painting decorative plaques. At the end of the year, Lytton was engaged in the chorus of The Mikado, which was nearing the end of its original run at the Savoy Theatre.
Not only did Henri help Lytton get started in the theatre world and nurture his career, but since Lytton was nearly musically illiterate, Henri played the piano for him to prepare him for his roles, as well as coaching him in acting.
Principal comedian on tour: 1887 to 1897
In early 1887, Eric Lewis, who had been understudying George Grossmith in the comic "patter" roles, resigned from the company in frustration that Grossmith had rarely taken ill in four years. Lytton, luckily in the right place at the right time, was appointed understudy, and a week later Grossmith did fall ill, giving Lytton, at the age of 22, the chance to appear as Robin Oakapple for more than two weeks in the original run of Ruddigore. When Grossmith returned, Lytton returned to the chorus in Ruddigore. After his success at the Savoy, Lytton was sent on tour in April 1887 playing Robin and earning good notices. Early in his career, Lytton was credited on stage as "H. A. Henri" (to match Louie Henri's stage name), but on this 1887 tour, he changed his stage name to H. A. Lytton at the suggestion of W. S. Gilbert, in memory of Gilbert's old friend Marie Litton and the author-playwright-politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
Lytton continued to serve almost continuously in D'Oyly Carte touring companies as principal comedian until 1897. On tour, by the end of 1888, Lytton had played several more of the Gilbert and Sullivan principal comic roles. In addition to Robin, he began to play Ko-Ko in The Mikado, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, and Jack Point the jester in The Yeomen of the Guard, which became his favourite role. Unlike Grossmith, who gave the opera a comic ending, Lytton's Jack Point, following the example of George Thorne (another D'Oyly Carte touring artist), died of a broken heart at the end. Carte and Gilbert blessed the departure from Grossmith's interpretation. In subsequent years, he portrayed these and the other principal comic Gilbert and Sullivan roles played by the D'Oyly Carte touring companies in which he played.
In 1890, Lytton was called to New York City along with other D'Oyly Carte principals, to bolster the weak cast of the original New York production of The Gondoliers as the Duke of Plaza-Toro. Thereafter, he played the Rev. William Barlow in The Vicar of Bray, the McCrankie in Haddon Hall, and Captain Flapper in Billee Taylor, as well as the Gilbert and Sullivan roles. In late 1893, he added to his repertoire the role of King Paramount in the original touring company of Utopia, Limited. In 1895, the tour included non-G&S pieces mounted by the company at the Savoy, and Lytton played Bobinet in Mirette and Peter Grigg in The Chieftain. In 1896, he played Ludwig in the first provincial tour of The Grand Duke.
Return to London: 1897 to 1908
Lytton was called to the Savoy Theatre in 1897 to play King Ferdinand in a new piece mounted by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, His Majesty, replacing George Grossmith, who had returned to the stage after many years, only to fail in the role. Walter Passmore had taken over the principal comedian parts in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy Theatre when Grossmith retired. Therefore, when Lytton returned to the Savoy, over the next half dozen years, he played other baritone roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan revivals (except that he did play the Major General in Pirates in 1890), once again being in the right place at the right time to take over for the ailing Fred Billington. These included Wilfred Shadbolt in Yeomen, Giuseppe in The Gondoliers, the Learned Judge in Trial, Dr. Daly in The Sorcerer, Captain Corcoran in Pinafore, Archibald Grosvenor in Patience, and Strephon in Iolanthe. He also created roles in a number of additional non-Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including Prince Paul in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1897–98), Simon Limal in The Beauty Stone (1898), Baron Tabasco in The Lucky Star (1899), Sultan Mahmoud in The Rose of Persia and Charlie Brown in the curtain raiser, Pretty Polly (1899–90), Ib's Father in Ib and Little Christina (1901), Pat Murphy in The Emerald Isle (1901), the Earl of Essex in Merrie England (1902), and William Jelf in A Princess of Kensington (1903).
Lytton was stung financially by two attempts at theatrical management. He and some partners leased the Criterion Theatre in 1899 to produce The Wild Rabbit, a farce by George Arliss, who later became a famous actor in America. The production opened during a heat wave and played for only three weeks in London (after more successful tryouts out of town), sustaining over £1,000 in losses, a serious loss for Lytton this early in his career. Later, Lytton bailed out some friends who had run out of money while producing a tour of Melnotte, an operatic version of the comedy The Lady of Lyons. This also lost money.
Beginning in 1903, Lytton took a four-year break from D'Oyly Carte, starring in a number of successful West End musicals, including in the title role in The Earl and the Girl (1903–04), as Lieut. Reggie Drummond in The Talk of the Town (1905, a Seymour Hicks production), as Lieut. Reginald Armitage in The White Chrysanthemum (1905), as Boniface in The Spring Chicken (1905), as Aristide in The Little Michus (1905), as Captain Flapper in Billee Taylor (revival, c. 1906), as the Hon. Jack Hylton in My Darling (1907, also a Hicks production), and in the title role in The Amateur Raffles (1907) Lytton performed in music hall between these engagements, performing in comic sketches with Connie Ediss for a time.
He also returned to the Savoy Theatre, during this period, for some guest appearances and appeared in the D'Oyly Carte repertory seasons in 1906–07 and 1908–09, where C. H. Workman had been engaged as the principal comedian. Lytton's roles during those seasons were the title role in The Mikado, Dick Deadeye in Pinafore, Strephon in Iolanthe, the Pirate King in Pirates, Giuseppe in The Gondoliers, and briefly, Ko-Ko in The Mikado and Sir Joseph in Pinafore. He also wrote lyrics for a number of operettas, including Knights of the Road, with a book by Richard Turpin and music by Alexander Mackenzie, which played at the Palace Theatre.
Years as principal comedian
After the end of the second repertory season, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company left the Savoy Theatre. C. H. Workman took over the lease at the Savoy and played there in his own productions. Lytton remained with the D'Oyly Carte company on tour, now resuming the principal comedian roles. From 1909 until 1934, Lytton served the D'Oyly Carte organisation as principal comedian. Fortunately for Lytton, C. H. Workman became involved in a quarrel with Gilbert in 1909, who banned Workman from playing in any further Gilbert and Sullivan operas in Britain. It is likely that, otherwise, Workman would have been engaged as the principal comedian for the company's Principal Repertory Company instead of Lytton. Indeed, Rupert D'Oyly Carte wrote to Workman in 1919, after Gilbert's death, asking Workman to return to the D'Oyly Carte company as principal comedian, instead of Lytton, but Workman declined.
During his five-decade tenure with the company, Lytton played an unprecedented range of roles (exceeded only by Richard Walker), including Counsel and the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, Dr. Daly and John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer, Captain Corcoran, Dick Deadeye and Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, the Pirate King and Major-General Stanley in Pirates, Bunthorne and Grosvenor in Patience, Strephon and the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, King Gama in Princess Ida, Ko-Ko and The Mikado in The Mikado, Robin in Ruddigore, Jack Point and Wilfred Shadbolt in The Yeomen of the Guard, Giuseppe and the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, King Paramount in Utopia Limited, and Ludwig in The Grand Duke, as well as roles in many non-Gilbert and Sullivan pieces.
Although Lytton had played lyric baritone roles in his earlier years, by the 1920s his voice had deteriorated to the point that he was not included in most of the D'Oyly Carte recordings of the period. As The Times noted in its 20 September 1926 review of the refurbished Mikado production, Lytton "shows more respect for Gilbert's words than for Sullivan's notes, though he still manages to give the gist even of the latter." Lytton was knighted in 1930, the only person to receive the accolade for achievements as a Gilbert and Sullivan performer.
In 1931, Lytton was injured in a car accident in which D'Oyly Carte principal contralto Bertha Lewis was killed; Lytton was the driver. Martyn Green, his understudy and eventual successor, took over Lytton's roles until Lytton's return a few months later. Green took over two of the roles, Robin Oakapple and the Major General, in 1932. Lytton's final London appearance was as Ko-Ko in The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in January 1933. He then toured with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company until June 1934, when he played Jack Point in Yeomen at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. He made his last stage appearance as the Emperor of China in Aladdin in the Birmingham Prince of Wales Theatre's Christmas season of pantomime in 1934–35.
Lytton died at his home in Earls Court, London, survived by Louie Henri (Lady Lytton), who died in 1947, their two sons, including Henry Lytton, Jr., whose high profile marriage to Jessie Matthews in 1925 ended in divorce in 1930, and two daughters, including, Ena Elverston. Another son was killed in February 1918 while serving in the Royal Flying Corps, and two others died in infancy.
Lytton made many recordings between 1901 and 1905, including songs from The Sorcerer, Iolanthe, Merrie England, A Princess of Kensington, A Country Girl, The Toreador, The Earl and the Girl (his recording of "My Cosy Corner Girl" from this musical was a strong success) and many others. By the time HMV began using D'Oyly Carte principals in its recordings of the Savoy Operas, however, Lytton's voice was not thought suitable for the gramophone. Of the many HMV recordings issued in the inter-war years, he was included in only Princess Ida in 1924 (acoustic) and 1932 (electrical), The Mikado in 1926, The Gondoliers in 1927, and H.M.S. Pinafore in 1930. He also sang Ko-Ko in a 1926 BBC radio broadcast of The Mikado and appeared in the same role in a four-minute long silent promotional film made of the D'Oyly Carte organisation in 1926. On most of the other recordings of the period, George Baker replaced him in the patter roles. Twenty-five of Lytton's recordings were collected on the LP The Art of Henry Lytton.
A photograph of Lytton and D'Oyly Carte colleagues with the huge recording horn used in the acoustic recording process can be seen here.
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 1, accessed 8 May 2008
- Jones, pp. 13–14
- Jones, p. 16
- Jones, p. 23
- Jones, pp. 24–25
- Jones, pp. 30–31
- Biography of Lytton in the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 11 May 2008
- Jones, pp. 13 and 32
- Jones, p. 72
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 2, accessed 8 May 2008
- Jones, p. 41
- Jones, p. 42
- Profile of Lytton at the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 11 May 2008
- Parker, J., rev. K. D. Reynolds. "Lytton, Sir Henry Alfred (1865–1936)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 5 October 2008, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34658
- On 29 January 1887, one week after the opening night of Ruddygore, Grossmith fell dangerously ill (Lytton wrote that the diagnosis was peritonitis, but sources vary on what the illness was). As reported in The Times, 2 February 1887, p. 10: "It is feared that a severe cold, caught on Friday [28 January], has turned to inflammation." He resumed the role of Robin by 18 February. The Times, 18 February 1887, p. 12, col. B.
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 3, accessed 8 May 2008
- Jones, p. 49
- Jones, pp. 52–55
- Jones, pp. 59–70. This reference states that Lytton played in Falka in 1888.
- Jones, pp. 59–60
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 5, accessed 9 May 2008
- Jones, pp. 69–70
- Stone, David. "Fred Billington" Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 22 March 2003, accessed 30 July 2010
- Lytton (Secrets), Editorial Notes by Robert Morrison
- Jones, p. 89
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 8
- Lytton (Secrets), chapter 6, accessed 9 May 2008
- Morrison, Robert. "The Controversy Surrounding Gilbert's Last Opera", The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive.
- Murray, Roderick. "A review of Lytton – Gilbert and Sullivan's Jester by Brian Jones" in The Gaiety (Summer, 2006)
- Howarth, Paul. Fallen Fairies cast information at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, 19 March 2005, accessed 4 November 2009
- Wilson and Lloyd, p. 125
- Jones, p. 96
- The Art of Henry Lytton, Pearl, GEMM197.
- Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514769-3.
- Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd. ISBN 0-396-06634-8.
- Jones, Brian (2005). Lytton, Gilbert and Sullivan's Jester. London: Trafford Publishing. ISBN 1-4120-5482-6 (See Murray, Roderick. Review of Jones' book[dead link] in The Gaiety, 2005)
- Lytton, Henry (1922). Secrets of a Savoyard. London: Jarrolds. This book is available online here.
- Lytton, Henry (1933). A Wandering Minstrel. London: Jarrolds.
- Parker, John (ed.) (1936). Who's Who in the Theatre, 8th edn. London.
- Wilson, Robin; Frederic Lloyd (1984). Gilbert & Sullivan – The Official D'Oyly Carte Picture History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 0-394-54113-8.
- The Times obituary, 17 August 1936
- Daily Telegraph obituary 17 August 1936