Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Two Remarkable Families

Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Two Remarkable Families

by Michael Holroyd

Deemed “a prodigy among biographers” by The New York Times Book Review, Michael Holroyd transformed biography into an art. Now he turns his keen observation, humane insight, and epic scope on an ensemble cast, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.

Ellen Terry was an ethereal beauty, the child bride of a


Deemed “a prodigy among biographers” by The New York Times Book Review, Michael Holroyd transformed biography into an art. Now he turns his keen observation, humane insight, and epic scope on an ensemble cast, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.

Ellen Terry was an ethereal beauty, the child bride of a Pre-Raphaelite painter who made her the face of the age. George Bernard Shaw was so besotted by her gifts that he could not bear to meet her, lest the spell she cast from the stage be broken. Henry Irving was an ambitious, harsh-voicedmerchant’s clerk, but once he painted his face and spoke the lines of Shakespeare, his stammer fell away to reveal a magnetic presence. He would become one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the theater. Together, Terry and Irving created a powerhouse of the arts in London’s Lyceum Theatre, with Bram Stoker—who would go on to write Dracula—as manager. Celebrities whose scandalous private lives commanded global attention, they took America by stormin wildly popular national tours.

Their all-consuming professional lives left little room for their brilliant but troubled children. Henry’s boys followed their father into the theater but could not escape the shadow of his fame. Ellen’s feminist daughter, Edy, founded an avant-garde theater and a largely lesbian community at her mother’s country home. But it was Edy’s son, the revolutionary theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig, who possessed the most remarkable gifts and the most perplexing inability to realize them. A now forgotten modernist visionary, he collaborated with the Russian director Stanislavski on a production of Hamlet that forever changed the way theater was staged. Maddeningly self-absorbed, he inherited his mother’s potent charm and fathered thirteen children by eight women, including a daughter with the dancer Isadora Duncan.

An epic story spanning a century of cultural change, A Strange Eventful History finds space for the intimate moments of daily existence as well as the bewitching fantasies played out by its subjects. Bursting with charismatic life, it is an incisive portrait of two families who defied the strictures of their time. It will be swiftly recognized as a classic.

Editorial Reviews

Charles McGrath
There have been several excellent books about Irving and Terry individually, including Terry's own charming, if highly unreliable, memoir, The Story of My Life. What Holroyd adds to the picture is an extended dual focus, as well as lively and entertaining writing—among contemporary biographers he is almost without peer as a stylist—and an unparalleled knowledge of the period.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
In this group biography of Terry, Irving and their families, Michael Holroyd…has produced the most completely delicious, the most civilized and the most wickedly entertaining work of nonfiction anyone could ask for. I have no particular interest in theatrical history, but Holroyd's verve—his dramatic sense for the comic and the tragic—is irresistible. The book's chapters are pleasingly short, its prose crisp and fast-moving, and every page is packed with bizarre doings, eccentric characters, surprising factoids and a stream of lively and scandalous anecdotes.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Holroyd's latest starts as a biography of Ellen Terry, one of the greatest actresses of the late 19th century-until it reaches the beginning of her professional and personal involvement with the even more legendary Henry Irving. The story circles back to recap Irving's life, then moves forward with their collaborations on Shakespeare plays and "blood-and-thunder melodramas" at London's Lyceum Theater as well as road shows in England and America. Holroyd also delves into the lives of their children (from separate relationships), and it's Ellen's offspring, Edy and Gordon Craig, who dominate the second half of this hefty family history: Edy took up with a longtime companion who originally had a lesbian crush on Ellen and would later become involved with Vita Sackville-West; Gordon was a visionary set designer who treated the women in his life-including Isadora Duncan-abominably. There's even a place in the saga for George Bernard Shaw (the subject of Holroyd's three-volume biography), who conducted a passionate correspondence with Terry for years before they ever met. Holroyd does a masterful job of keeping all the narrative lines flowing smoothly, ensnaring readers in a powerful backstage drama rivaling any modern celebrity exploits. (Mar.)

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Library Journal

Literary biographer Holroyd (Bernard Shaw; Augustus John; Lytton Strachey) admirably interweaves the histories, from the Victorian stage to modern theater, of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and their families. In this engaging social history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Holroyd writes informatively of the theatrical world, highlighting not only the glamour of Irving's and Terry's careers but also the toll the hard work and disappointments of their calling had on their personal lives. He speculates, offering substantiating detail, on the relationship between Irving and Terry, who spent as much time together offstage as they did on. Terry's son Edward Gordon Craig's life as an influential stage designer leads the biographer on a merry chase through his relationships with eight women and his 13 children. His sister Edith Craig's life as a suffragette, her lesbian entourage, and her contributions to the theater have not been well documented, a shortcoming Holroyd corrects. Irving's sons, Laurence and Harry, relatively minor characters in this narrative, followed in their father's footsteps but didn't reach his level of success or inherit his daring, charisma, and creativity. This well-indexed book is highly recommended for all academic libraries and all libraries with theater collections.
—Susan L. Peters

Kirkus Reviews
Biographer and memoirist Holroyd (Mosaic, 2004, etc.) re-creates the separate and shared histories of two theater immortals..The author begins with a fetching chronicle of actress Ellen Terry's interrupted rise to fame among an itinerant family of actors in Victorian England, following the path trod by her immensely popular older sister Kate. Freed from an older husband, never quite compromised by an effervescent, affectionate nature that kept her on the threshold of scandal, Terry eventually formed a celebrated alliance with actor-manager Henry Irving, whose story then occupies center stage until the spotlight widens to their common history and eventually the stories of their gifted, troubled offspring. The pair that began it all were a study in contrasts. Terry was the enchanting, intuitively gifted beauty, Irving the scrupulously disciplined arch-professional. She was Ophelia to his Hamlet, his partner in the great success they enjoyed at London's Lyceum Theatre and during a spectacularly popular American tour. Their respective children followed them into artistic circles. Henry's two sons achieved reasonable success as actors, though nothing like their father's renown. Terry's daughter Edy Craig lived on the outskirts of England's emerging lesbian culture. Her handsome brother Gordon Craig, an infamously waspish actor turned stage designer, virtually invented abstract scene design, when not fathering babies with an alarming number of smitten women. The acting gene re-emerged with brilliance in Terry's great-nephew John Gielgud, whom Holroyd depicts as an incisive critic and superlative thespian. In addition to his replete portrayals of Terry and Irving, Holroyd offers a plethora ofanecdotal and analytical information about acting technique and theater lore. Readers will relish such tidbits as the fact that Irving's embattled business manager was Bram Stoker..A crowded, thoroughly captivating canvas of cultural history.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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A Strange Eventful History

The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

By Michael Holroyd

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Michael Holroyd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-27080-3


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 highest-paid 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'?


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 biographer Joy Melville, 'and even wrote pirated versions of London dramas in which his wife and daughter acted the minor roles, and visiting actors the lead parts.' He strongly influenced Ben Terry, who saw him as someone on whom he might model his own career.

'My sister Kate and I had been trained almost from our birth for the stage', Ellen wrote, '... our parents had no notion of our resting.' Usually she was bundled up and carried off to her mother's dressing-room in whatever town or village they had reached. 'Long before I spoke in a theatre, I slept in one', she remembered.

These days of travelling suited Ben's cheerful and impulsive nature. On him the sun always seemed to shine, though his family remained poor. It was a more worrying time for Sarah. Moving from place to place on carts and wagons, the children often slept on a mattress laid out on the floors of attics and played in the small areas below. To add to their income, Sarah would take on work as Wardrobe Woman or, under the name 'Miss Yerret' (an approximate reversal of Terry), play the role of Walking Woman to swell a crowd or decorate a chorus whenever she was not pregnant or recovering from a miscarriage. 'She worked hard at her profession', Ellen wrote, and she brought up all her children to be 'healthy, happy and wise – theatre-wise, at any rate'.

Six of her nine surviving children were to have careers onstage and Benjamin, who felt he had no dramatic talent, was obliged to work his passage to Australia and later seek employment in India so as to escape the force-field of his family destiny. Sarah, whose mother came from a respectable Scottish family socially superior to most theatre families, saw to it that her children were kept neat, clean and tidy. She was forever sewing, holding things together. The girls, she decided, needed little general education and only the boys were initially sent to school.

Ellen was soon being taught to read, write and speak properly by her parents. Ben was 'a very charming elocutionist', Sarah 'read Shakespeare beautifully' and they 'were unsparing in their corrections'. In the late Victorian and Edwardian theatre Ellen Terry and Johnston Forbes-Robertson were said to be the only actors who 'delivered the language of Shakespeare as if it were their natural idiom, and whose beauty of diction matched the beauty of the words'. In the opinion of her son, Gordon Craig, she 'was very much a daughter of Shakespeare, and when she spoke his prose it was as though she but repeated something she had heard at home – something said that morning'.

Ellen quickly learnt how to walk, breathe and cry onstage: in short, how to behave. She had a genius for pleasing people and even when she mixed up her lines or got caught in a trap-door, fell over onstage or laughed when she should have cried, they applauded her from the stalls and galleries. She was, as one critic called her, 'a perfect little heap of talent'.

Even so, she was not considered quite so talented as her elder sister. Kate Terry began her career at the age of four, dancing a hornpipe in a sailor suit, and was later to display what Charles Dickens called 'the very best piece of womanly tenderness I have ever seen onstage'.

The two little girls were born at a fortunate time in the history of the British stage. In 1843, a year before Kate's birth, a new Theatre Act was passed which finally broke the monopoly held by the Theatres Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden. These had been the only two theatres in the country licensed by the Master of the Revels to perform 'legitimate' drama under letters patent granted in 1662 by Charles II–though these licences had been gradually extended to cities of royal residence and elsewhere through special arrangements. The bawdy, licentious wit of the late seventeenth century had reflected the amiable frivolity of Charles II's court, and would eventually lead to a severe reaction. In 1737, provoked by Henry Fielding's political satires and personal allusions, Robert Walpole took statutory powers to control dramatic performances by appointing an Examiner of Plays. On behalf of the Lord Chamberlain (who took the place of the Master of Revels), this examiner was to license all dramatic works for performance in public places. One consequence of this strict licensing system was that Restoration plays were largely replaced by rowdy entertainments that did not need a licence and that made theatres places of ill-repute: music halls and drinking dens at risk of being devoured by riots and fires, abominable places to which respectable people – people like Ellen's grandfather Peter Ballard – never went. The 1843 Act, which was to spread 'legitimate' theatre through the country, retained the Examiner of Plays, whose job was to encourage the staging of polite drama.

The Terry family belonged to a theatre that became dominated by a procession of famous actor-managers. They produced the great Shakespearean dramas, often in sentimentalised versions and with their parts adapted to suit the type of character-acting at which each excelled – the specialist eccentricities of John Hare, the graceful diction and classical good looks of Forbes-Robertson, the delicious light comedy performances of Charles Wyndham, Beerbohm Tree's luxurious decadence and genius for burlesque, George Alexander's aristocratic charm, the perfect deportment of Martin-Harvey, Gerald du Maurier's easygoing nonchalance. All these and others, following in the steps of Sir Henry Irving, whose speciality lay in exploiting the sinister components of romantic melodrama, were to reflect, with their glittering knighthoods, the genteel revolution that had taken place in the British theatre by the time of Ellen Terry's jubilee.

Though her attempted stage debut as 'the Spirit of the Mustard-Pot' ended in tears, Ellen was to remember her early years of travelling from one theatre town to another as being intensely happy. Like her father she had a naturally impulsive temperament whereas Kate seemed to have inherited her mother's carefulness. In 1852 the actor-manager Charles Kean, hearing of the eight-year-old Kate Terry's remarkable performance as Prince Arthur in King John, invited her to recreate the role at the Princess's Theatre in the West End of London. She went there with her mother and the younger children, and the following year Ellen, who (aged six) had been 'looking after' her father, travelled down with him from Liverpool to join Kean's company.

The morality of employing very young children onstage intermittently agitated the Victorians. There were those who, like Bernard Shaw, were to argue that 'dressing the stage' with enticing seven-and eight-year-olds, soliciting infants to make money for the proprietors of theatres, was an exploitation of impoverished families. How was it possible to justify this parading of prettily dressed boys and girls, who had not even reached their teens and had never been to school, so that adults might enjoy a repertoire of sensational entertainments? Why should theatre managers consider themselves exempt from the regulations that protected young children from being exploited in factories and workshops? Their descriptions of theatres as perfect schools of deportment, where the charges' characters were moulded by masterpieces of English poetry, were pure commercial bluff. But the Revd Charles Dodgson claimed that listening to the words of elevating plays – such as radically cleansed versions of Shakespeare – was an education in itself and kept children away from truly vicious pursuits on the streets. Besides, you had only to see these theatre children themselves to understand how they rejoiced in their work. 'They like it better than any game ever invented for them', Dodgson wrote in a letter to The Theatre. This passion for acting gave children 'a better average for straightness of spine, strength, activity, and the bright happy look that tells of health', he argued. 'The stage child "feels its life in every limb" ... where the Board school child only feels its lessons.'


Excerpted from A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd. Copyright © 2008 Michael Holroyd. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
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Meet the Author

Knighted for his services to literature, Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey, as well as two memoirs. He is the president of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.

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