A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families
By Michael Holroyd
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 620 pp., $40.00, hardcover.
Reviewed by Penny Farfan
The title of Michael Holroyd’s group biography of the intertwined families of the nineteenth-century actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving is drawn from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Although Terry and Irving never actually performed the play during the long, golden days of their work together in magnificently staged productions of Shakespeare at the Lyceum Theatre, the title is apt. Over a time-span that begins with Terry’s birth in 1847 and traverses more than a hundred years, the “dramatic lives” of Irving and his sons Harry and Laurence, and Terry and her children Edith and Edward Gordon Craig intersect with those of such notable literary and artistic figures as Lewis Carroll, George Frederic Watts, Edward Godwin, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Konstantin Stanislavski, Eleonora Duse, and Vita Sackville-West. In tracing the lives of Irving, Terry, and their “remarkable families,” Holroyd encapsulates the social and cultural transition from Victorianism to modernism.
Of his extraordinary cast of characters, Holroyd seems most drawn to Irving (1838-1905). The actor-manager dominated the British stage from the time of his breakthrough performance as Mathias in the melodrama The Bells in 1871 until the turn of the twentieth century when, staggered by the costs of his sumptuous productions and outmoded by his lack of interest in new directions in theater, his fortunes fell and his reputation went into decline. For Holroyd, Irving was a lonely genius, saddled with a sour wife who was half-mad with contempt for her actor-husband and who dedicated her life to infecting their two sons with her bitterness.
Thwarted in his offstage emotional life, Irving, in Holroyd’s view, expressed his true self most fully on stage. Thus, Holroyd asks, “when telling Shylock’s story was he not also telling an actor’s story, his own lonely tale and the injuries and humiliations that had attended his early years as the member of a despised profession?” Of Irving’s performance in Twelfth Night, Holroyd similarly observes,
It was as if he saw in Malvolio’s ambition to better himself, for all its absurdity, some reflection of his own career, as if he heard in the ridicule filling Olivia’s house an echo of his wife’s contempt as well as those awful cat-calls which mockingly rang through his early career.
And Irving’s approach to Coriolanus as “a tragedy of filial love” reflected “his own incompatibilities with his mother, his service in the theatre providing a parallel to Coriolanus’s duty to Rome.”
Holroyd’s portrait of Terry is considerably less admiring, particularly in comparison with Nina Auerbach’s feminist reading in her entranced 1987 biography Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time—or, for that matter, in comparison with the image that George Bernard Shaw—or “Pshaw,” as Irving called him—sketched out in his preface to Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence (1931). Holroyd notes that everyone from Lewis Carroll to Irving to Shaw “cast Ellen Terry as part of his or her private world” and that “[t]his tendency was to be passed on to her biographers, for whom she became a paragon of the theatre, a feminist icon, a queen of romance.” Casting himself as a realist among such fantasy-spinners, Holroyd observes in Terry’s character “a strange moral obliquity” and writes of her acting,
She was a radiant figure, but she cast no shadow. Something was missing. Her pathos was the pathos of a child, touching but transient—and the public treated her as a child, indulging her tricks, spoiling her with injudicious petting of her limitations. Sometimes her inappropriate sweetness, her sheer playfulness, suggested that she was more concerned with her dresses than with Shakespeare’s lines. No one complained about her technical faults: how she fell out of a play occasionally by failing to listen to others when not prominently placed on stage; how she allowed her mind to wander and broke the metre of the verse when memory failed her. … Her brisk and sunny presence blinded people to a fatal shallowness. Nothing better was expected of her.
Regardless of Terry’s purported failings, she was in many respects an ideal stage partner for Irving, with whom she likely also had an offstage “affaire,” as Holroyd calls it. Born into a theatrical family and virtually raised on the stage, Terry had a light, more naturalistic style, whereas Irving, a self-taught outsider, favored “heroic acting.” Consequently, although Irving had been successful in comic roles and Terry’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth had been a high point of her career, his death was regarded as that “of a tragedian” and was “marked by public grief,” whereas “[h]ers was seen as the passing of a comedian, an occasion for celebrating a life of brilliance and gaiety.”
These famous parents entailed a burden for their respective children. Poisoned by their mother’s hatred of their father, Harry and Laurence Irving referred to Terry as “the Wench” and appeared to draw more satisfaction from the news of Oscar Wilde’s conviction on charges of gross indecency than from Henry Irving’s knighthood, which was announced on the same day. Despite this hostility, the not-especially-likable brothers eventually reconciled with their father and were, perhaps inevitably, drawn to the stage. Harry (1870 – 1919) became an actor-manager who seemed to channel Irving’s spirit in his interpretation of Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1910; Laurence (1871 – 1914) became an actor and playwright with an interest in new trends in dramatic literature. Both brothers died in middle age, without ever having fully succeeded in establishing identities distinct from that of their famous father.
Holroyd describes Edith Craig (1869 – 1947), the first of Ellen Terry’s two children with her brilliant lover Edward Godwin, as “a shadowy figure” in her early years, excelling at behind-the-scenes work rather than at center stage or on the page like her mother and younger brother. Craig remains shadowy throughout Holroyd’s biography—and, for that matter, in scholar Katharine Cockin’s 1998 study Edith Craig: Dramatic Lives, which reconstructs in detail Craig’s largely forgotten, yet productive if not profitable career as a costume designer and director in the suffrage theatre, little theatre, and community theatre movements.
Following two heterosexual loves that her mother, perhaps selfishly, deemed unsuitable, Edy, as she was known, settled into a lifelong companionship with Christopher St. John (originally Christabel Marshall). The two were later joined by a third woman, the painter Clare Atwood, whom they called Tony. Edy Craig can perhaps be glimpsed in the figure of Miss La Trobe, the lesbian theater artist who directs the community pageant in Virginia Woolf’s final novel Between the Acts (1941); her elusive character is also suggested by her dogged determination to establish a memorial to her mother at her farmhouse in Smallhythe, Kent, now a National Trust property, and by the passion she aroused in Chris St. John—though Craig’s own preference was apparently for friendship rather than a sexual relationship.
In contrast to Craig, St. John, the author of such plays as How the Vote Was Won (with Cicely Hamilton, 1909) and The First Actress (1911), as well as a roman à clef, Hungerheart (1915), and various extant letters and notebooks, emerges in surprisingly sharp if somewhat depressing detail. Holroyd recounts her suicidally unhappy early years, her distress at Edy’s ultimately aborted romance with Martin Shaw, her disappointment following what turned out to be no more than a one-night stand with the glamorous Vita Sackville-West, and her lonely final years following Edy’s death in 1947 until her own in 1960.
The beauty and charm of Terry’s second child, Teddy—Edward Gordon Craig, as he came to be known—is evident in the fact that he fathered thirteen children with eight different women and inspired the continued devotion of many of these conquests, despite his careless treatment of them and his lack of interest in or support for his many scattered offspring. Craig himself acknowledged that he “remained young for a very long time.” His extraordinary self-absorption, apparent in virtually every paragraph that Holroyd devotes to him, is frequently off-putting and appears at times to have bordered on derangement, as, for example, when he returned a letter from Dorothy Nevile Lees, his tireless collaborator on the journal The Mask and the mother of one of his children, “scored with editorial comments showing that there were far too many words in it. She had forgotten his instructions to ‘leave out all & any feminine feeling.’” However inspirational Craig’s (largely unrealized) vision of theater aesthetics may have been for subsequent directors and designers, his sense of himself as the single-handed savior of theater—or, rather, as “THE THEATRE” itself—seems hysterical and ludicrous.
Holroyd’s biography ends abruptly with Edward Gordon Craig’s death, offering no summary conclusions about the collective impact and significance of Terry, Irving, and their children within a broader historical context of social and cultural transition. The biography also neglects to include citations: referring to his recent battle with cancer, Holroyd explains in a note, “I have not attempted to replace the bulky academic apparatus which disappeared between the operations and anaesthetics that interrupted my work.” In any case, he adds, “Such pedagogic business in books will…soon be made redundant, I am told, by the Internet” and, moreover, “It was unknown to most of my predecessors and the participants in this history who, well versed in Shakespeare, would have considered it ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess.’” These rationales aside, Holroyd’s strategies for incorporating unattributed quotations—for example, “one of them described…”; “It was said…”; “one of them wrote…”—and other citational lapses will frustrate the curiosity of general readers and scholars alike. Still, the subjects of his “strange eventful history” are endlessly interesting, and Holroyd recounts their interlinked lives with verve and humor in an informative biography that is eminently readable.
Penny Farfan is professor of Drama and English at the University of Calgary in Canada. She is the author of Women, Modernism, and Performance (2004) and is currently completing a book on performing queer modernism.