12 September 2013

Matheson Lang

Tall and good-looking Matheson Lang (1879-1948) was a Canadian-born stage and film actor and playwright in the early 20th century. He is best known for his Shakespearean roles in British productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet and for his role as Mr. Wu. He was one of the first major stars of the British theatre who acted in a silent film and during the 1920s, he became a popular film star in Great Britain.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Rotary, no. 1212 F. Photo: Rita Martin.

Imposing Presence

Matheson Alexander Lang was born in Montreal, Canada, the son of Rev. Gavin Lang of Inverness, Scotland in 1879. He was educated at Inverness College and the University of St Andrews.

He began his career as a Shakespearean actor in 1897 in Wolverton, first played in London in 1900, and acted Benedick to the Beatrice of Ellen Terry in 1903.

He became known for his imposing presence, commanding features, and fine voice in plays by William Shakespeare such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. He also appeared in plays by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Davidson Bros., London / New York, no. 3948. Sent by mail in 1908. Photo: D.B. Publicity still for the play Romeo and Juliet (1908).

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Rotary Photo E.C., no. 1212 R. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield. Matheson Lang as "Pete".

Mr. Wu

Matheson Lang first toured to America in 1902-1903 with Lillie Langtry. In 1903 he married actress Nellie Hutin Britton in London. In 1906 he played Tristram in Joseph Comyns Carr's play Tristram and Iseult at the Adelphi Theatre, with Lily Brayton as Iseult and Oscar Asche as King Mark; Lang's wife played Arganthael.

Lang and his wife subsequently formed their own company, which toured India, South Africa, and Australia from 1910 till 1913 performing Shakespeare. In 1913, Lang returned to England and created one of his most memorable roles, the title character in Mr. Wu. Wu is a Chinese merchant who reluctantly kills his beloved but dishonoured daughter, with the girl's consent. Revengefully, he then kidnaps her seducer, and demands his mother in exchange.

He reprised this part in the silent film Mr. Wu (Maurice Elvey, 1919), which was a big hit. Lang became so identified with the role that he titled his 1940 memoirs Mr. Wu Looks Back. In 1914-1915, he and Ben Greet were the first directors of the Old Vic Theatre in its premiere season. Land and Hutin Britton successfully directed The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet that season.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London, no. 293H.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Rotary, no. 1212C. Photo: Ellis & Walery. Publicity still for the play The Devil's Disciple (1907).


In 1916, Matheson Lang became one of the first major theatre stars to act in a silent film. He played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (Walter West, 1916), with his wife as Portia. The film was made by the company Broadwest, which hired the complete stage cast of the play and filmed at Walthamstow Studios using largely natural light.

Next he appeared in The Ware Case (Walter West, 1917) and The House Opposite (Walter West, Frank Wilson, 1917), in both co-starring with Violet Hopson and Ivy Close.

Lang went on to appear in over 30 films and also wrote the plays Carnival (1919) and The Purple Mask (1920), both of which were produced on Broadway. Carnival was also filmed twice. During a production of Shakespeare's Othello in Venice, an Italian actor suspects his wife of having an affair and plans to murder her on stage. Lang played the lead role in the silent version, Carnival (Harley Knoles, 1921), co-starring Ivor Novello, and again in the sound remake Carnival (Herbert Wilcox, 1931), co-starring Joseph Schildkraut.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Rotary, no. 2391 P. Photo: Foulsham and Banfield. Publicity still for the play The Taming of the Shrew.

Matheson Lang
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, no. 87A. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Britain's Leading Screen Actor

Among his other memorable roles were Guy Fawkes (Maurice Elvey, 1923), Matthias in The Wandering Jew (Maurice Elvey, 1923) and Henry IV in Henry, King of Navarre (Maurice Elvey, 1924). By the mid-1920s Matheson Lang was Britain's leading screen actor but he was then eclipsed by Ivor Novello.

His final film was the historical drama The Cardinal (Sinclair Hill, 1936). Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “Set in 15th-century Italy, The Cardinal stars Matheson Lang as one Cardinal de Medici. Bound by the rules of the confessional, the cardinal is unable to disclose the multitude of sins revealed to him by one of his most influential parishioners. De Medici's dilemma is compounded by the fact that the confessor has committed a murder for which the Cardinal's brother has been arrested. The basic plot gimmick was good for another go-round in the 1953 Hitchcock flick I Confess.”

In 1940 the Langs were staying with their old friend Dornford Yates and his wife at their house near Pau in France when France surrendered and they had to escape from the advancing Germans through Spain to Portugal. In 1948, Matheson Lang died in Bridgetown, Barbados, at age 68.

Matheson Lang
British postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons (Real Photograph), no. 166. Photo: Gaumont-British.

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Encyclopaedia Britannica, British Pictures, AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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