Monument in Brompton Cemetery
Memorial fountain at Drury Lane
Augustus Henry Glossop Harris
18 March 1852
|Died||22 June 1896 (aged 44)|
|Occupation(s)||Actor, impresario, dramatist|
|Years active||1873–1896 |
Sir Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (18 March 1852 – 22 June 1896) was a British actor, impresario, and dramatist, a dominant figure in the West End theatre of the 1880s and 1890s.
Born into a theatrical family, Harris briefly pursued a commercial career before becoming an actor and subsequently a stage-manager. At the age of 27 he became the lessee of the large Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he mounted popular melodramas and annual pantomimes on a grand and spectacular scale. The pantomimes featured leading music hall stars such as Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, Little Tich and Vesta Tilley. The profits from these productions subsidised his opera seasons, equally lavish, starrily cast and with an innovative repertoire. He presented the first British production of Die Meistersinger and the first production anywhere outside Germany of Tristan und Isolde, and revitalised the staging of established classics.
Harris remained in charge at Drury Lane for the rest of his life, and in 1888 took on the additional responsibility of running the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden, modernising its productions and repertory and abandoning the old convention that all operas, whatever their nationality, were sung in Italian. He changed the name of the theatre to The Royal Opera House in 1892. Both at Drury Lane and Covent Garden he engaged the most admired artists, including Hans Richter and Gustav Mahler as conductors, and Emma Albani, Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Jean and Édouard de Reszke and Victor Maurel among the singers.
In 1892 Harris took over the failed Royal English Opera House and turned it into a successful music hall with the new name The Palace Theatre of Varieties. He was active in civic affairs, a member of the new London County Council, a sheriff of the City of London and a prominent Freemason. His health gave way under the pressure of his multifarious activities, and after a short illness he died at the age of 44.
Harris came from a musical and theatrical family. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Glossop (1793–1850), was at various times manager of the Royal Coburg Theatre in London (later known as the Old Vic), La Scala, Milan, and the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples;  his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Feron (1797–1853), was a popular soprano, dubbed "The English Catalani";  his father, Augustus Glossop Harris (1825–1873), was a leading stage-manager,  [n 1] and his mother, Maria Ann, née Bone (1825–1892), was a theatrical costumier known under the name of "Madame Auguste".  Augustus senior and his wife had five children all of whom became connected with the theatre. [n 2] Harris was born on 18 March 1852 in the Rue Taitbout, Paris, near the Salle Ventadour, where his father was stage-manager of the Comédie-Italienne opera company.  
The young Harris was educated in London, and then, from age 12, in Paris at the Lycée Chaptal and the music academy L'École Niedermeyer.   Friends he made then included the composer Gabriel Fauré, the music publisher Louis Brandus, the opera manager Léon Carvalho, his future brother-in-law Horace Sedger, and the soprano Adelina Patti.   He completed his education in Hanover to learn German, after which he joined the financial firm Emile Erlanger & Co. and then the Paris house of Tiffany's.  After his father died in 1873, Harris abandoned commerce ("I saw no prospect in 'quill driving'")  and followed the family's theatrical calling. He made his debut as an actor in the role of Malcolm in Macbeth in September 1873 at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in a company headed by W. H. Pennington, Geneviève Ward and Tom Swinbourne.   According to his biographer J. P. Wearing he followed this with juvenile and light comedy roles in Barry Sullivan's company at the Amphitheatre, Liverpool. 
The opera impresario J. H. Mapleson engaged Harris as an assistant stage-manager and was soon sufficiently impressed to put him in sole charge of his Italian Opera Company.  Harris went on tour with Mapleson's company as stage-manager, together with his younger brother Charles, later best-known as Richard D'Oyly Carte's stage director.  [n 3] In 1876 Harris was appointed resident stage-manager at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester,  and by the end of that year, when he staged the pantomime Sindbad [sic] the Sailor for Charles Wyndham at the Crystal Palace, he had established a high reputation: one reviewer wrote that the management could not possibly have a better stage-manager than Harris. 
Harris continued to appear as an actor. In 1877 Wyndham cast him as the juvenile lead in The Pink Dominos at the Criterion Theatre in the West End.  It ran for 555 performances, of which Harris did not miss one.  He was a competent actor, but his talents and inclination drew him towards management. In 1879, seeing that the huge Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was closed and empty, he determined to reopen it. He had little money but raised enough funds from friends including his future father-in-law to acquire the lease. He was not immediately able to mount a production of his own, and at first he sub-let the theatre to George Rignold, who presented and starred in a spectacular production of Henry V, which lost money, adding to Drury Lane's reputation as an unprofitable house. 
Harris followed Rignold's production with the first of his Drury Lane pantomimes, Bluebeard, written by "the Brothers Grinn" ( E. L. Blanchard and T. L. Greenwood), lavishly mounted, well-reviewed and financially successful.  After a short Shakespeare season, presented by Marie Litton's company, Harris staged the first of his series of melodramas, The World (July 1880), which he co-wrote, staged, and acted in (Wearing comments, "he never took things lightly"). He established a pattern of lucrative melodramas in the late summer and autumn and even more lucrative pantomimes in the winter, all of which subsidised the culturally ambitious seasons he presented in the spring and early summer. In his pantomimes Harris featured top-line music-hall stars – Marie Lloyd, Kate Santley and Vesta Tilley among the women performers and Herbert Campbell, Dan Leno, Arthur Roberts and Little Tich among the men.  Some critics held that Harris had vulgarised the pantomime by importing music-hall turns, particularly knockabout comedians, but the theatre historian Phyllis Hartnoll writes that he "had a feeling for the old harlequinade, providing for it lavish scenery and machinery and engaging excellent clowns and acrobats". 
In 1881 Harris married Florence Edgcumbe Rendle (1859–1914). They had one child, Florence Nellie (1884–1931), who married the actor Frank Cellier in 1910.  
Harris's ambitious seasons of high culture included the Meiningen Court Theatre company in 1881, with a repertoire of German plays and Shakespeare in German translations, and the following year Adelaide Ristori and Rignold in Macbeth.  In 1882 Harris engaged leading German singers and the conductor Hans Richter for a season of German operas that included the first British performances of Die Meistersinger and the first production anywhere outside Germany of Tristan und Isolde.   Over the next four years he hosted the Carl Rosa Opera Company's seasons of opera in English, and he also presented operatic seasons sung in the original languages by celebrated international singers. His productions did much to revitalise the presentation of Italian opera in London, which had for some years chiefly consisted of vocal display and little dramatic coherence. 
The 1887 opera season at Drury Lane celebrated Queen Victoria's golden jubilee by featuring a particularly starry international cast, including Jean de Reszke, Édouard de Reszke, Victor Maurel, Minnie Hauk and Lilian Nordica. The repertoire was Italian ( Il barbiere di Siviglia, La traviata and Rigoletto), French ( Les Huguenots, Faust and Carmen) and German or Austrian ( Don Giovanni and Lohengrin).  Wearing comments that the season was an artistic and social success, but lost £10,000. 
As well as the opera, Harris presented serious non-musical drama, including seasons by the Comédie-Française (1893), Eleonora Duse (1895), and the ducal court company of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1895). 
By 1888 Harris was so closely identified with his theatre that he was popularly known as "Druriolanus".  He remained in charge at Drury Lane for the rest of his life, but having had to contend with the rival opera seasons of the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden (run by Antonio Lago) and Her Majesty's Theatre (run by Mapleson), he concluded that "in London there is room for but one operatic enterprise at a time", and that he should take over Covent Garden.  He assembled a syndicate of influential backers including Lord Charles Beresford, Earl de Grey and Henry Chaplin and took over the lease of the house in early 1888.  From May to July he presented a ten-week season with Luigi Mancinelli and Alberto Randegger as conductors and 21 leading singers including Emma Albani, the de Reszkes, Hauk, Nordica, and Nellie Melba in her London debut.  The repertoire consisted of 19 operas, beginning with Lucrezia Borgia and ending with Les Huguenots. [n 4]
There was no rival opera season in 1888, but Mapleson mounted an Italian season at Her Majesty's the following year. His mediocre casts, conventional repertoire and old-fashioned productions did not draw the public.  By contrast Harris attracted capacity audiences with top-flight stars and works such as Die Meistersinger never before seen at Covent Garden.  [n 5] He also began a fundamental, and lasting, reform of the house's linguistic policy. In keeping with its title "Royal Italian Opera House", operas of whatever nationality were sung in Italian, including Carmen and Die Zauberflöte ("Il flauto magico").  Although 21 of the 22 operas in Harris's 1889 season were sung in Italian, including Die Meistersinger and Les Huguenots, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette was sung in French, an innovation much remarked upon in the press.  Harris's decision was widely praised;  The Times said:
Harris continued with his policy of starry casts, impressive staging and texts sung in their original language – a practice that became known as "the cosmopolitan system".  By 1892, when he engaged Gustav Mahler to conduct the British premiere of The Ring, [n 6] it had become the norm at Covent Garden,  and has remained so (with the exception of the late 1940s and 1950s, when opera in English was the general house policy).  [n 7] To reflect the new reality the "Italian" was dropped from the name of the opera house in the same year.  When there was no room in Covent Garden's schedules for a new work that he favoured, he leased another theatre for the purpose. [n 8] At Covent Garden, as earlier at Drury Lane, Harris was keen to present new works; his 1894 season included the world premiere of Massenet's La Navarraise and the British premieres of Massenet's Werther, Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Verdi's Falstaff.  He made the auditorium of the Royal Opera House both brighter and darker: he introduced electric lighting in 1892, and instituted the practice of lowering the house lights completely during performances, to the chagrin of those in the expensive seats who were used to directing their attention to their fellow operagoers as much as to the opera. 
Harris played a part in the brief story of Richard D'Oyly Carte's abortive project The Royal English Opera House. Carte commissioned the theatre and opened it in 1891 with Arthur Sullivan's romantic opera Ivanhoe, which ran exceptionally well (161 performances); he followed it with André Messager's The Basoche, for which Harris adapted the original French dialogue into English. Despite enthusiastic reviews The Basoche ran for only 61 performances.  Having failed to commission an opera to replace it, Carte eventually sold the theatre, at a loss, to a company formed by Harris to run it as a music hall. [n 9] It re-opened in December 1892, after some remodelling, as The Palace Theatre of Varieties. After running it for a year, Harris appointed the veteran Charles Morton – "the father of the halls"  – as manager. Morton, though more than thirty years his senior, continued to run the Palace successfully for eight years after Harris's death. 
In the 1890s Harris maintained his various activities at an unflagging pace. At Covent Garden he presented the debuts of Emma Eames (1891) and Emma Calvé (1892), and visits by Leoncavallo, Mascagni (1893), and Puccini (1894). He took his company to Windsor Castle in 1892, 1893 and 1894 to give Command Performances for Queen Victoria and her family and court. [n 11] In 1895 Harris ("always adept in handling divas" in Wearing's words) persuaded Adelina Patti to return to the stage for a final series of performances. 
At Drury Lane, Harris continued to devise elaborate spectacle and effects for his melodramas: in A Life of Pleasure (1893) there was a representation of the promenade at the Empire music hall, and in Cheer Boys, Cheer (1895) the sinking of HMS Birkenhead was spectacularly portrayed.  He continued to stage the annual pantomimes, which he wrote in collaboration with Harry Nicholls and others. They ran from Christmas to Easter. An example from the 1890s is Little Bo-Peep, Little Red Riding Hood and Hop o' my Thumb (1892) with Marie Loftus, Marie Lloyd and Little Tich in the title roles, Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell as Mr and Mrs Thumb, and Arthur Williams as the Dame, heading a cast of more than 40. The reviewer in the theatrical paper The Era remarked that every year people felt that Harris had "reached the limit of splendour and ingenuity", and were proved wrong the following year. 
In his late thirties Harris began participating in civic affairs, becoming a member of the London County Council in 1890, representing the Strand division.  He was appointed a sheriff of the City of London in 1890, [n 12] and was knighted in 1891 in recognition of his contribution to the state visit to Britain of the German Emperor.  He was also prominent in Freemasonry, hosting a lodge at Drury Lane, participating in the Savage Club Lodge,  and becoming Grand Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of England, under the Prince of Wales as Grand Master. 
The reviewer in The Era who praised the 1892 pantomime commented on the astonishing pressures on Harris:
Sir Henry Wood recalled Harris in action:
Harris's health gave way under his enormous workload.  In June 1896 he went to the seaside resort of Folkestone for leisure and rest, but developed what at first seemed to be a chill; he was found to be suffering from diabetes.  [n 13] Over a week his condition deteriorated and he died at the Royal Pavilion Hotel on 22 June 1896 at the age of 44.  His funeral, on 27 June at Brompton Cemetery, was attended by several thousand people of all classes ("a final grand procession he would have surely enjoyed", in Wearing's words). Among the mourners were musicians, comedians, managers, authors, singers, critics and politicians, as well as the general public.  [n 14]
Harris's widow married Edward O'Connor Terry in 1904. 
On Harris's death, the critic Clement Scott wrote:
The Illustrated London News said:
In addition to the funerary monument in Brompton Cemetery, Harris is commemorated by a fountain on the Catherine Street side of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It was designed by Sidney R. J. Smith and erected by public subscription through the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Above the fountain is a bronze bust of Harris by Sir Thomas Brock. 
Staged at Drury Lane. Co-authors shown in brackets.
After Bluebeard in 1879, Harris's next nine pantomimes at Drury Lane were written by E. L. Blanchard. From 1888 Harris co-wrote them: his collaborators are shown in brackets: