"Some of the company were not only home sick, they were getting stir crazy. One of the actors went mad and started attacking people."
By Gregory Doran:
Frank Benson's leading lady was often his wife, Constance, but on this occasion she had not been able to agree her parts with the Stratford management, and had not come along, staying in England with their teenage son, Eric. So Pa was alone.
Some of the company were not only home sick, they were getting stir crazy. One of the actors, Edward "Warby" Warburton (the Falstaff in Merry Wives) went mad and started attacking people. According to young Darby Foster, Warburton picked him up one night and threatened to tip him over a hotel balcony. It was only when the terrified actor exclaimed "let's rehearse it Warby!", that the large older man put him down saying "What a splendid idea!"
Benson's performances continued to be erratic. Darby Foster, wrote about just how variable "Pa" could be. "I saw him give a mighty performance as Shylock to a meagre audience of miners, yet he could be appalling in the season at Los Angeles".
The next dates were Portland, Oregon and the final US city was Seattle in Washington State. The final month took them from Vancouver via Calgary and Saskatoon and Winnipeg until they reached, Thunder Bay on the shores of Lake Superior, where their long journey was due to end.
But some of the company wanted to visit Quebec, and an extra date was quickly arranged. If they had not changed their plans they would have boarded an ocean liner called RMS The Empress of Ireland. On May 29th, in the freezing fog of the Gulf of St Lawrence, a Norwegian Collier rammed the great liner a-midships. It sank with the loss of over one thousand lives.
Benson's company narrowly escaped that terrible event, which so horribly echoed the loss of the Titanic just two years before. But as it happened, an old Bensonian was on board at the time of the collision. Laurence Irving was the son of the famous actor Sir Henry Irving, and had started his career with Benson's company. He and his wife Mabel had been on tour in the States, and they too were returning to England.
When the ship was wrecked, Laurence had apparently managed to scramble to safety, but when he realised that Mabel was nowhere to be seen, had dived back into the freezing river to rescue her. One account tells how their bodies were never recovered, and another that it was Benson himself who was asked to identify their corpses on the quayside.
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