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Unsacred Monsters

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

By Michael Holroyd

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 620 pp., $40)

Ben and Sarah Terry, parents of the more famous Ellen, were jobbing actors. Six of their nine children had stage careers. Ellen Terry was to become the most celebrated of Victorian actresses, but her sister Kate was also considerably admired, and at least two more siblings had something of a name in their time. Ellen lived for some years with E.W. Godwin, an architect of originality, who also turned his hand to stage design. Their daughter Edith Craig was engaged in various theatrical activities and ran a rather unsuccessful progressive company for a while; their son, Edward Gordon Craig, was to acquire a grand if elusive reputation as a designer and theorist of the stage. Kate Terry was to become the grandmother of John Gielgud. Ellen enjoyed a long partnership with Henry Irving, the most famous of Victorian actors, at the Lyceum in London, and it is likely that for a while they were lovers. Irving’s two sons, by his estranged wife Florence, both went on the stage and had respectable careers, cut short by premature death, Laurence drowning with his wife when a liner went down off Quebec, and Harry perishing in middle life of anaemia.

One can see the immediate attraction of putting together “the dramatic lives of two remarkable families,” as the subtitle of Michael Holroyd’s group biography puts it. On second thought, one might ask whether the subject has any natural coherence. There are not very many novels that carry across the generations, but at least the novelist has the power of invention. The biographer is the prisoner of reality. The danger is that the story will become desultory, without clear shape and direction, and it is a danger that Holroyd does not wholly escape. He does not, in fact, explore the whole family. He says very little about Ellen Terry’s brother and sisters; Ellen herself dominates the greater part of the book, until Edward Gordon Craig takes over the lead; Edith Craig, Henry Irving’s sons and, more surprisingly, Henry Irving himself play prominent but clearly secondary roles.

Holroyd is an accomplished accumulator of facts and anecdotes; and he writes easily and fluently, sometimes with a wry humor. His book is all foreground: he tells us a great deal about the principal figures in his story, but little about their social and cultural context. He can be touching: Ellen Terry’s decline and death are finely told. Much of his material, though, is the higher gossip, exhaustively recounting the pretty ordinary events of people’s lives and careers. Readers who appreciate this sort of thing—and there seem to be plenty of them—are likely to enjoy the book, but for all the elegance of Holroyd’s prose I found long tracts of it just boring. When he tells us that Ellen Terry took the bus to get from Camden Town to the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, or details the engagements in the younger Irvings’ unimportant careers, or lists the forgotten plays performed by Edith Craig’s failing company, one begins to wonder, what’s the point? And for all the length of the book, the impression it leaves is oddly muffled: it is as though we are watching the performers from the back of the orchestra, and through gauze. Of course, no one can recreate the magic of Irving or Ellen Terry on stage, but her personality at least comes out vividly in her letters, exuberant, passionate, imperfectly literate, sometimes half inarticulate, with masses of exclamation marks, capital letters and multiple underlinings—like Queen Victoria on acid. But Holroyd’s book gives no sense of their character. It is very odd.

Edward Gordon Craig would have suited the pen of one of Holroyd’s earlier subjects, Lytton Strachey. After trying, unsuccessfully, to make his way as an actor, he turned to stage design and production. His early works created a sensation though the radical simplification of their settings and a new subtlety in the use of light and shadow. He then went to the continent, and was to spend the rest of his life abroad, settling after some Wanderjahre in Italy, and later in France, uttering vatic thoughts about the theater but designing (apparently) very little. The less he did, the more his reputation rose.

He was a charming and handsome man, who always attracted respect—admirers, lovers, and disciples. He was horrible. He had children by at least eight different women, whom he treated abominably. The devoted Dorothy Lees, who slaved on his behalf for years, was abandoned in poverty. Her successor was required to take dictation naked, and then to work for him unpaid. In 1911 his admirers organized an eight-course dinner in his honour at the Cafe Royal; Ellen Terry was among the one-hundred and eighty guests, tears of pride in her son rolling down her cheeks. Was Craig grateful? “They gave me a high tea,” he wrote, “and then they all went home, feeling they had done their bit.” When his daughter by Isadora Duncan drowned in a car accident, he did not bother to come to the funeral. He also skipped the jubilee celebrations for his mother’s fifty years on the stage, though he did attend her funeral, remarking loudly that “we must have more occasions like this.” He seems to have taken next to no interest in his children. A second son drowned (what a lot of drowning there is in this story), but what would have been an appalling blow to most parents seems not to have affected him at all.

The First World War was arranged without any consideration for Craig’s feelings. “I never dreamt,” he wrote, “that a little war could add so to the numerous disturbances that one’s work already had before it was begun.” Later he thought highly of Mussolini and Hitler, and noted approvingly that with the Nazis in power Max Reinhardt was being “driven from the German theatre, as its Jews are not much wanted.” It was rotten luck, after this, that while living in Paris in 1940 he was arrested and interned as an enemy alien. But he was soon released, sold part of his archive to the German government for a good sum, and saw out the rest of the war in France and in comfort.

After the war, he was indignant that the British government did not grant him a civil list pension. He had never had “a scrap of help from England,” he grumbled, “what a swindling world it is.” (The Nazis had been more thoughtful.) When he grew frail, one of his daughters was summoned from England to look after him, and found that she was not only required to skivvy for him (she was to draw the curtains at twenty to eight before serving him the first of his daily meals and run errands for the rest of the day) but also to spend her small savings to keep him in his accustomed style of life: he needed good restaurants, holidays in good hotels, and taxis to wait for him all day. In his old age he looked sweet and beautiful, and he died peacefully at the age of ninety-four, demonstrating to the end the advantages of ruthless and resolute selfishness.

There is a black fascination in reading about such easy, triumphant nastiness, though after a while it becomes monotonous. The interesting issue is whether he mattered, and if so, in what way. Was Edward Gordon Craig important? What did he do? That last question, in its most literal sense, goes unanswered in Holroyd’s book. During all those years in Italy, it is unclear what he lived on, or how he was spending most of his time. There was no family money (Ellen Terry herself felt the pinch in her old age) and yet Craig was recurrently able to refuse work, turning down offers from London, Paris, and La Scala after negotiations broke down.

In 1911 he published On the Art of the Theatre, a book that Holroyd says “was to become a seminal work throughout Europe and America during the twentieth century”; but he tells us nothing of its argument, contenting himself with a few mutterings about “poetic mystery” and “prophetic prose.” As for importance, Craig himself was in no doubt. “I am the man who can save the theater and shall do so unaided,” he told his mother. Isadora Duncan was one of the few people whom he could praise: “the only one whose Genius was akin to mine.” Scorn was his more usual coin: Shakespeare was unactable, Wagner hated the theater, and more sweepingly, “It is not only the writer whose work is useless in the theater. It is the musician’s work which is useless there, and it is the painter’s work which is useless there.” That might at least seem to spare the performers, but no: “I believe in the time when we shall be able to create works of art in the Theatre without the use of the written play, without the use of actors.” This is portentous nonsense. Was there not more to him than that? I think we should be told.

And indeed there is an interesting story to be told of change and continuity across the generations. Ellen Terry’s life reveals the surprising fluidity of much of Victorian society. Despite her modest birth, before she was twenty she was friendly with Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and other literary figures famous in their time, and had married the painter George Frederick Watts. Watts himself straddled various worlds. His grand, often mythological canvases were too cloudy and symbolic for him to rank with the classical painters, and too portentous for him to belong with the aesthetic movement; but he had something in common with both tendencies. Watts was more than two and a half times the age of his bride, and the marriage foundered within a few months.

Ellen’s life with Godwin took her into yet another artistic milieu. Godwin made his name as a young architect with a confident high-Victorian Gothic town hall for the Midlands city of Northampton, but others of his rather few buildings showed an almost modernist simplification of form. They included the famous house in Chelsea that he designed for Whistler, which might almost pass for an early work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In their own house in Bloomsbury, Ellen Terry would dress in Grecian robes or a kimono. The walls were white, the curtains and cushions gray-blue; in the center stood a cast of the Venus de Milo, before which was a censer issuing wisps of curling, bluish smoke. This was an early and a chastened style of aestheticism, without the floridity and posturing that one associates with, say, Oscar Wilde.

Godwin also turned to stage design. For the actor-manager Squire Bancroft he did The Merchant of Venice, with sets said to have looked like old Italian pictures and unlike anything seen on the stage before. Max Beerbohm thought it the first production of a classic “in which the modern spirit of stage management asserted itself.” Godwin also produced Helena in Troas, a piece of Greek pastiche by the obscure John Todhunter; Wilde thought the play poor but the production “the most perfect exhibition of a Greek dramatic performance that has yet been seen in this country.” In this light, Edward Gordon Craig can be seen as the heir of both his parents: from his mother he got the sense of theater, from his father the aesthetic of simplification.

Irving and Ellen Terry at the Lyceum represent a profession in transition. Despite the irregularity of his life—his estrangement from his wife was unconcealed—the pressure for him to be knighted grew irresistible and in 1895 he became the first actor to receive this honor. Ellen Terry’s life was more irregular still: she had lived openly with a man to whom she was not married and had two children by him, and she was to marry twice more, both times to unsuccessful actors, and those unions were not successes either. All this was for a long time a bar to honors, but in the end she died a Dame and a national treasure.

Artistically, the question is where the Lyceum belongs in the history of the stage. Was this the last grand fling of Victorian theater? Or did it look forward to the future? Craig, not a man lavish with his praise, revered Irving, both as an actor and for his staging. Irving’s repertoire fell almost entirely into two categories: Shakespeare and dross. None of the modern plays that he performed has lasted; he rebuffed the suggestion that he might try Ibsen, and his most famous part, outside Shakespeare, was in a now forgotten melodrama called The Bells.

Still, he was also thought to have brought a new and modern quality to his roles. It was noted that he made Shylock sympathetic; it seems obvious to us that Shylock must be, at least in part, and if this was really Irving’s innovation, it was an important one. In The Bells he was said to have made the anti-hero understandable in his ordinariness. In a similar vein, Ellen Terry brought her famous charm to Lady Macbeth. Whereas Mrs. Siddons, in the eighteenth century, had given this part a terrifyingly evil grandeur, Ellen Terry made her womanly and affectionate. Her acting, a swooning critic wrote, was “redolent and pungent with the odeur de femme. Look how she rushes into her husband’s arms, clinging, kissing, coaxing.” This makes the trophy-wife idea of the part in the recent West End and Broadway Macbeth seem quite prim in comparison.

The difficulty with any history of actors before the twentieth century is that the performances are irretrievably lost. The accounts of Irving’s acting are puzzling and conflicting. He did record a bit of Richard III on a wax cylinder in the late 1890s, and Holroyd reports that “the thick r’s and his rubato are very marked.” Holroyd also tells us that in 1911 Ellen Terry recorded some speeches and scenes from Shakespeare, of which five survive. It is not clear whether he has heard these; he tells us nothing about them. It seems a curious thing to say about the author of a multi-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw, but Holroyd does not seem all that interested in the theater. What he likes is the narrative of people’s lives. The world’s longest running soap opera, The Archers, which has been on BBC radio for about sixty years, is billed as “an everyday story of country folk.” Those who are curious about English theater or Victorian society are likely to be disappointed by Holroyd’s book, but those who want The Terrys and the Irvings, an everyday story of theatrical folk, will find it just the thing.

Richard Jenkyns is Professor of the Classical Tradition at the University of Oxford. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.