Henry Irving made a habit of commissioning appropriate artists to design historical plays which he staged at the Lyceum Theatre. Ford Madox Brown was responsible for King Lear (1892), Alma-Tadema tackled Cymbeline (1896) and Coriolanus (1901), and Burne-Jones was the obvious choice for Comyns Carr's King Arthur. Carr and Burne-Jones knew each other well since Carr, in addition to being a critic and playwright, was a director of the New Gallery in Regent Street where Burne-Jones was the star exhibitor.
Burne-Jones made drawings for the sets and costumes in the autumn of 1894, adopting the mannered late style that also characterises The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon, the enormous swan-song of a picture that he was painting at the same time (see lots 134-5).
The play opened at the Lyceum on 12 January 1895, ran for a hundred performances and was then taken to America. King Arthur was played by Irving himself. Queen Guinevere by his leading lady, Ellen Terry, and Sir Lancelot by Johnston Forbes Robertson. Genevieve Ward was Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's half-sister and nemesis.
Sir Arthur Sullivan provided incidental music, and according to Mrs Comyns Carr's Reminiscences, 'the settings created a very real sensation, for nothing like them had ever been seen before'. Burne-Jones himself was less enthusiastic, admitting that the subject was too personal for him to appreciate its performance on the stage.
Mrs Carr records that the costume for Morgan le Fay was the subject of the only dispute that occurred during rehearsals between Burne-Jones and Irving, 'a tremendous autocrat' who would 'spare no one' in his pursuit of perfection. 'Genevieve Ward, as Morgan le Fay, was crossing the stage in the heavy robes and truly magnificent head-dress which had seemed to me to accord well with her Eastern type, when Henry suddenly shouted "Moses and Aaron rolled into one! Take the thing off!" The remark was so queer that both Burne-Jones and I had to laugh, in spite of the fact that it meant a hurried designing of another head-dress'.