AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
26 June 1886
When I was honored by the request of your distinguished Vice-Chancellor to deliver an address before the members of this great University, I told him I could only say something about my own calling, for that I knew little or nothing about anything else. I trust, however, that this confession of the limitations of my knowledge will not prejudice me in your eyes, members as you are—privileged members I may say—of this seat of learning. In an age when so many persons think they know everything, it may afford a not unpleasing variety to meet with some who know that they know nothing.
I cannot discourse to you, even if you wished me to do so, of the respective merits of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; for if I did, I should not be able to tell you anything that you do not know already. I have not had the advantage—one that very few of the members of my profession in past, or even in present times have enjoyed—of an University education. The only Alma Mater I ever knew was the hard stage of a country theatre.
In the course of my training, long before I had taken, what I may call, my degree in London, I came to act in your city. I have a very pleasant recollection of the time I passed here, though I am sorry to say that, owing to the regulation which forbade theatrical performances during term time, I saw Oxford only in vacation, which is rather like—to use the old illustration—seeing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out. There was then no other building available for dramatic representations than the Town Hall. I may, perhaps, be allowed to congratulate you on the excellent theatre which you now possess—I do not mean the Sheldonian—and at the same time to express a hope that, as a more liberal, and might I say a wiser, regime allows the members of the University to go to the play, they will not receive any greater moral injury, or be distracted any more from their studies, than when they were only allowed the occasional relaxation of hearing comic songs. Macready once said that “a theatre ought to be a place of recreation for the sober-minded and intelligent.” I trust that, under whatsoever management the theatre in Oxford may be, it will always deserve this character.
You must not expect any learned disquisition from me; nor even in the modified sense in which the word is used among you will I venture to style what I am going to say to you a lecture. You may, by the way, have seen a report that I was cast for four lectures; but I assure you there was no ground for such an alarming rumor; a rumor quite as alarming to me as it could have been to you. What I do propose is, to say to you something about four of our greatest actors in the past, each of whom may