A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families

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9780099497189: A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families

An epic yet intimate portrait of two theatrical dynasties, which takes us from the Victorian stage to the modern age.

Ellen Terry was a natural actress who filled the theatre with a magical radiance. The Times called her the “uncrowned queen of England,” but behind her public success lay a darker story. The child bride of G.F. Watts, she eloped with a friend of Oscar Wilde’s at the age of twenty-one and gave birth to two illegitimate children.

But her greatest partnership was on stage with Henry Irving. At the Lyceum Theatre in London, the two of them created a grand Cathedral of the Arts. Their intimately involved lives exceeded in plot the Shakespearean dramas they performed on stage — and indeed were curiously affected by them. They also influenced the life and work of their remarkable children, Ellen’s children in particular. Edy Craig founded a feminist theatre group, The Pioneer Players. Her brother, Edward Gordon Craig, the revolutionary stage designer who collaborated with Stanislavski is revealed by this book to be the forgotten man of modernism. He had thirteen children by eight women. He is, perhaps, the most extraordinary man Michael Holroyd has ever written about.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Michael Holroyd has written biographies of Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey as well as two volumes of memoirs; Basil Street Blues and Mosaic. He is the current president of the Royal Society of Literature.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

A Story in a Book

‘The past is now to me like a story in a book’, Ellen Terry wrote almost forty

years later in 1906. It was a fairy story, her life; or perhaps one of those

melodramas she had been playing onstage for as long as her admirers could

remember. That June marked her fiftieth year in the theatre and the event

was celebrated with wild delight in the streets of London. Crowds filled

Drury Lane from midday till six o’clock in the evening – they would have

stayed longer, singing, dancing, growing hoarse from cheering, but their

rejoicings had to give way for Ellen’s evening performance at the Court

Theatre in Sloane Square. She was playing Lady Cicely Waynflete, a

character Bernard Shaw had specially written for her, in Granville-Barker’s

production of  Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.

In the public imagination Ellen Terry had become an enchantress.

Floating serenely across the stage, she was seen as a symbol of pure romance,

virginal, unblemished, still in need of male protection: a ‘wonderful being’,

the American actress Elizabeth Robins described her, ‘with the proportions

of a goddess and the airy lightness of a child’. She ‘encompassed the age’,

wrote the theatre historian Michael Booth, ‘in a way no English actress had

done, before or since’.

Her beauty was not created by paint and lip-salve nor was it the illusory

beauty of theatrical make-believe. She possessed a natural radiance and

‘moved through the world of the theatre’, Bram Stoker recorded, ‘like

embodied sunshine’. The artist Graham Robertson believed her to be ‘the

most beautiful woman of her time’ and many people agreed with him. With

the ‘Hair of Gold’ and ‘Crimson Lips’ celebrated in a sonnet by Oscar Wilde,

and a mysterious smile which perhaps concealed no mystery, she was

recognised as a Pre-Raphaelite ideal. Her reputation was extraordinary: not

only was she a monument to female virtue, but also said to be the highestpaid

woman in Britain. Virginia Woolf was to speculate as to whether the

course of British history might have dramatically changed had she actually

been queen, while Queen Victoria, meeting her at Windsor Castle in 1893,

acknowledged her to be tall, pleasing and ladylike – everything a queen

should be. Describing the scenes at Drury Lane as ‘a riot of enthusiasm, a

torrent of emotion’,  The Times dubbed her ‘the uncrowned Queen of

England’ – though by now she had begun to resemble a Queen Mother.

Every Victorian gentleman who saw her at the Lyceum Theatre performing

opposite the great Sir Henry Irving fell in love with her – and no

Victorian wife objected. Some young men, it was said, would actually

propose marriage to their girlfriends with the words: ‘As there’s no chance of

Ellen Terry marrying me, will you?’ Others, equally dazzled, reacted

differently. ‘I ceased to consider myself engaged to Miss King forthwith’,

wrote H.G. Wells on first seeing Ellen Terry walking one summer’s day,

looking like one of the ladies from Botticelli’s  La Primavera. He remembered

being permitted to ‘punt the goddess about, show her where white

lilies were to be found and get her a wet bunch of forget-me-nots among the

sedges . . .’ She seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, to live beyond

good and evil. In the opinion of Thomas Hardy, her diaphanous beauty

belonged to a different order of being – a ‘sea-anemone without shadow’ or

a miraculous dancing doll like Coppelia, apparently brought to life by the

toymaker’s magic, ‘in which, if you press a spring, all the works fly open’.

Even in her fifties she was still a marvellous child, delicious and fascinating.

Many people had expected her to marry Henry Irving – they were such a

romantic couple onstage. It was rumoured that he secretly loved her – for

how could he not have done so? Yet she was not regarded as a dangerous

woman like the notorious Mrs Patrick Campbell or Edward VII’s mistress

Lillie Langtry. On the contrary she appeared an example of young

motherhood as well as First Lady of the London stage. Her public image was

all the more extraordinary since it conflicted dramatically with the facts of

her life. And if those facts now seemed ‘like a story in a book’, this was partly

because she had recently decided to write a book. She began her memoirs

that year.

‘I never felt so strongly as now’, she said, ‘that language was given me to

conceal rather than to  reveal – I have no words at all to say what is in my heart.’

When the book was published, it appeared to Virginia Woolf like ‘a bundle

of loose leaves upon each of which she has dashed off a sketch . . . Some very

important features are left out. There was a self she did not know . . .’

‘I was born on the 27th February, 1848’, she wrote. After her death, when

these memoirs were being prepared for a new edition, her editors loyally

claimed that ‘we have found Ellen Terry the best authority on Ellen Terry’.

Yet there are potent omissions and genuine confusions in her writings which

cover little more than half her adult life and grow ragged towards the end. As

to the facts, she gives not only the wrong year for her birth but is also

uncertain where it took place.

Alice Ellen Terry was born on 27 February 1847, at 44 Smithford Street,

theatre lodgings above an eating house in Coventry, the city of three spires.

On her birth certificate her father gave his occupation as ‘Comedian’. Her

earliest memory was of being locked in a whitewashed attic of some lodgings

in Glasgow one summer evening while her parents and her elder sister Kate

went off to the theatre. The Terrys were strolling players who travelled the

theatre circuits and were then touring Scotland. But going further back,

Ellen wondered, ‘were we all people of the stage’?

 

2

The Terrys

Her maternal grandfather, Peter Ballard, was by profession a builder who

worked as a master sawyer in the docklands of Portsmouth, a busy seaport

and garrison town threaded with insalubrious cobbled streets and dark alleys

where, like nocturnal animals, beggars, prostitutes and thieves lay in wait.

He was also a Wesleyan preacher who spoke on Sundays in the smarter areas

of the town with their muddle of demure Georgian houses and medieval

churches. He disapproved of the town’s theatre, a barnlike building in the

High Street, which had been temporarily shut down in 1836 for ‘unseemly

and improper conduct’. But his daughter Sarah was to run off at the age of

twenty-one with Ben Terry, the twenty-year-old son of an Irish innkeeper

at the Fortune of War tavern in Portsmouth, a mere boy who had been

picking up a meagre living working the drums in the theatre. In fact both

Ben and Sarah kept their marriage secret from their parents. They were

married on 1 September 1838 in the church where Charles Dickens had

been baptised: St Mary’s in Portsea, an area, near the docks, of taverns,

shops and brothels that catered for the navy.

Their future was full of risk and excitement. They were a striking

couple: he ‘a handsome, fine-looking, brown-haired man’ in peg-top

trousers; she tall and graceful, with a mass of fair hair and exceptional large

blue eyes. Ben seems to have taken it for granted that his wife would

belong to the theatre and that all their children would be ‘Precocious

Prodigies’ like the celebrated juvenile actress Jean Davenport. She had

played at Portsmouth and was to become the original of Dickens’s ‘Infant

Phenomenon’ in  Nicholas Nickleby, giving the theatre there a permanent

place in stage history. The stage was everything to Ben, and Sarah was

quickly caught up by his fervour and enthusiasm. As soon as they were

married, they set off for whatever adventures might await them on the

open road.

Ben had trained himself to be a competent supporting actor. As a teenager

he hung around the stage door of the Theatre Royal where his brother

George played the fiddle and got him casual work shifting scenery, painting

and repairing props, and then playing the drums. He became mesmerised by

what he saw: the frolics, farces and burlesques, the dissolving spectacles and

nautical imitations, the scenarios with songs, the ‘budgets of mirth and

harmony’ and juvenile performances in which the current child genius

would dash round and about and in and out, playing all the roles, sometimes

assisted by a ‘marvellous dog’. When the professional season ended, the

theatre was used for lavish balls and assemblies, or taken over by smart

thoroughbred officers of the garrison and their well-groomed ladies who,

under aristocratic patronage and to the beat of rousing marches from the

regimental band, would put on ostentatious amateur performances, their

playbills beautifully printed on pink silk. From watching rehearsals of

the comedies and melodramas, Ben Terry learnt a good deal about the

technique of acting – how to play the well-recognised roles of Heavy Father,

Low Comedian, Walking Gentleman, Singing Servant, Character, Ingenu

and so on. He was particularly fascinated by the expansive actor-manager of

the stock company there. William Shalders appeared to be everywhere,

doing everything, all the time. ‘He painted the scenery, made the props, ran

the box office’, recorded the biogr...

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