A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families
By Michael Holroyd
A soap opera from earlier times
Aug 28th 2008
From The Economist print edition
SIR MICHAEL HOLROYD, the doyen of British biographers, is like a great landscape painter who works on a large, unwieldy canvas. This book began as a modest biography of Dame Ellen Terry, an enchanting Victorian actress whom the Times called “the uncrowned Queen of England”. Then the author’s plot got out of hand and embraced the most eminent of all actor-managers, Sir Henry Irving, together with four children, two from Irving’s failed marriage and two from Terry’s infatuation with Edward Godwin, an architect who dabbled in the theatre. The author confesses that his choice of such a broad canvas was “foolhardy” but his rambling tale of theatre people is captivating.
In Ellen Terry’s lifetime, from 1847 to 1928, leading actors were simultaneously celebrities and social outcasts, but she simply ignored Victorian prejudices. George Bernard Shaw, a great admirer, wrote: “She walked through them as if they were not there, as indeed for her they were not.”
Irving, with whom she acted the great Shakespearean roles at the Lyceum Theatre in London, was more calculating and eventually became the first British actor to be knighted—an honour that was delayed because of the scandal created by the romance between the two. Both families thought they had not been lovers but Sir Michael leaves us in little doubt. It would have been rash to confess at the time, but when Irving was dead, Terry said that of course they had been.
Before and after her passion for Godwin, she married three times. Her first husband was an artist, G.F. Watts; the last was an American actor half her age. Irving was no Victorian role model either, having left his wife as they drove home from his greatest triumph, a melodrama called “The Bells”. “Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?” she asked. He stopped the brougham at Hyde Park Corner, alighted and never saw her again.
The lives of Irving’s children, Henry and Laurence, are a tragic strand in the story. Despite the opposition of their mother, both of them were enthralled by the theatre and became fairly successful actor-managers. But Laurence drowned when he was 43 (a ship bringing him home sank after a collision in the St Lawrence river) and Henry was only six years older when he died of anaemia in 1919.
Ellen Terry’s children provide the comedy, though the author reminds us of Thomas Hardy’s dictum: “All comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.” Her daughter Edy joined her in the theatre, principally as a costume designer, but her preoccupations were feminism and the quarrelsome lesbian circle with whom she grew old in the Terry household. The only character in the second generation to rival the actress’s flamboyance was her son, who became celebrated himself as Edward Gordon Craig, a theatrical visionary who achieved little but talked well enough to be awarded the Companion of Honour by the queen in 1958, when he was 86.
Craig had a vision that the future of the theatre lay in lights, sounds, shadows and screens at the expense of “the dry words of dramatic poets, the fancy games of foolish actors and the vain calculations of producers”. He wrote a controversial manifesto “On the Art of the Theatre”. But what is truly memorable about him in Sir Michael’s account is his performance as a serial seducer. He married twice and had six children by his wives, but there were another six from six lovers, three of whom conveniently doubled as his secretary.
Konstantin Stanislavski, a legendary Russian director, thought Craig was a genius, and so did Craig himself—a conviction that receives little encouragement from the author. So incorrigible was Craig that he was forgiven for his dalliance with fascism (in 1941 he was released from a prison camp in Besançon in France by an admirer from Hitler’s headquarters staff). His death in 1966 ends Sir Michael’s delightful narrative—he has given up footnotes—which reads like a series of compelling scripts for an extravagant soap opera, perhaps titled “WestEnders”.