Swans Commentary » swans.com September 21, 2009  



Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, & Co.


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Holroyd, Michael: A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families, Farrar Straus & Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0-374-270800-3, 620 Pages.


(Swans - September 21, 2009)   There haven't been too many theatrical dynasties in America. In the l9th century, we had the Booths -- Junius Brutus, Edwin, and John Wilkes. In the 20th century, the Barrymores -- John, Lionel, and Ethel. In England (by adoption) the Redgraves -- Michael, Lynn, and Vanessa. But the most long-lived, and in many ways the most influential, were the offspring of Henry Irving -- Lawrence and Harry. As it grew, that dynasty included Ellen Terry and arguably, Gordon Craig as well, although strictly speaking his father was Edward Godwin his primary paternal influence was Henry Irving.

In his voluminous A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families, Michael Holroyd has taken on the daunting task of delineating the ways in which the Irving-Terry partnership peopled the late 19th and early 20th centuries with some of the most colorful characters during that period in which Modernism began to remove the gilt from the Gilded Age and usher in what can only be described as a New World.

The book begins with the enchanting fusion of Henry Irving, the leading actor of the age and the first to become knighted, and his charismatic partner Ellen Terry, a "superstar" before that opprobrious term was ever invented and yet one that suits her more than it does the tinseled celebrities who are now hyped into that luminous category. Terry was not simply admired, she was beloved, and in a way that contemporary stage actresses can never be. We may appreciate the Glenda Jacksons and Vanessa Redgraves but we do not exult them, or involve them in our dream lives. But Terry's charisma was such that her admirers felt a sense of public ownership. They had experienced her as Ophelia, Portia, Imogen, and Lady Macbeth and lived through her exploits and tragedies for over three decades. At some point in their partnership, Ellen and Irving became lovers. Although the union was never publicly revealed, the signs of it were clearly visible in their Lyceum productions. Both had married unwisely -- three times in Ellen's case; once, disastrously, in Irving's. When Irving died, the actor, accustomed to top billing, was enshrined in Westminster Abbey close beside a monument of William Shakespeare. When Terry died, she got second billing. Her remains were placed into a wall at St. Paul's Covent Garden so that her memory would be available to her legion of fans.

In describing the range and consistency of Irving's triumphs at the Lyceum in London, Holroyd rehashes the success of the man who was considered the most outstanding actor of his age, but he doesn't sufficiently acknowledge the fact that Irving's achievements drew as much adverse criticism as they did praise. He does quote British critic John Gross's criticism that Irving's success represented "the triumph of personal magnetism over plot-line," which is itself an inference drawn from George Bernard Shaw's more brutal description of Irving's shortcomings: "The truth," wrote Shaw, "is that [Irving] never in his life conceived or interpreted the characters of any author except himself. He is really as incapable of acting another man's play as Wagner was of setting another man's libretto; and he should, like Wagner, have written his plays for himself. But as he did not find himself out until it was too late for him to learn that supplementary trade, he was compelled to use other men's plays as the framework of his own creations." Which jibes more closely with the negative view of Irving expressed by Henry James and a verdict that was widespread, particularly after Irving's death. These differences of opinion are similar to those describing the talents of the more subdued and subtle Eleanora Duse as opposed to the obstreperous muscularity of Sarah Bernhardt. Clusters of fans who admire one tend to disdain the other, and which evaluation is closer to the truth can never be conclusively proven.

The book resembles a heavyweight 3-act play with three leading players; Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Gordon Craig -- each a towering star in his or her own right, but it is the charismatic presence of Ellen Terry that proves to be the most ubiquitous. However, as the separate histories weave themselves into a mosaic, we recognize that all three of these characters typify the Victorian and Edwardian eras and a theatrical world that was rapidly changing as their lives separated from one another. The theatrical world in which Irving reigned supreme was a world of exaggeration, artifice, and melodrama. Towards the end of this period, theatre was shaken by the surge towards naturalism and directors such as André Antoine, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and the Duke of Saxe-Meinengen, playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, were ushering in an era of psychological realism which was totally alien to the tantalizing fustian that enraptured l9th century audiences. It is no wonder that towards the turn of the century, both Irving and Terry were somewhat flabbergasted by what the dramatic art was dishing out. Because Terry outlasted Irving by some twenty-eight years, she was better able to assimilate the changes that began to take shape hard upon Irving's demise. She looms as a more crucial transitional figure with one leg in the theatricalist tradition of Irving and his potboilers and the other with the new vogue playwrights Shaw, Barrie, Galsworthy, Granville-Barker, etc.

Gordon Craig emerges from A Strange Eventful History as the figure having the most "strange and eventful history" of all. He was, in a sense, the last of the Great Bohemians; a dreamer, a rake fathering bastards hither and yon, projecting esthetic theories about theatre that managed to be simultaneously challenging and crackpot. His most notorious theory banishes both live actors and language per se and replaces them with an übermarionet that will convey the action of the play -- directed by an all-powerful director-designer (i.e., himself). Often touted as the most avant of the avant-gardists, in retrospect his theories appear to be the offpsring of a fascinating but unbalanced sensibility. His natural strengths were with art and stage design but his ego was so monumental he insisted in taking charge of the entire production -- including the actors. This alienated him in collaborations with Duse, Appia, and Stanislavsky. Although he demonstrated a modicum of acting talent inherited from Ellen Terry, he never felt at home on the stage and was as wayward and other-worldly in theatre as Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in literature.

Holroyd's book, it has to be said, is a biographical masterpiece second only to the same author's 3-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Holroyd steers his tri-partite narrative like an inspired sea captain maneuvering a wobbly craft through turbulent waters and dangerous straits. Accumulating hordes of reference material is, in some sense, the easiest part of writing a biography; blending all those facts into a coherent narrative is what distinguishes the artist from the academic. Holroyd, like the expert juggler he is, manages to keep three clubs in the air for over 600 pages without ever missing a beat.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow147.html
Published September 21, 2009