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Book Review: 'A Strange Eventful History,' by Michael Holroyd

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 12, 2009

A STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY

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

This Story

By Michael Holroyd

Farrar Straus Giroux. 620 pp. $40

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Henry Irving (1838-1905) and Ellen Terry (1847-1928) reigned as the king and queen of the English stage.

Terry, said Irving's longtime manager, "moved through the world of the theatre like embodied sunshine." As a young woman, she was painted by such Victorian eminences as Whistler, John Singer Sargent and the once equally celebrated G.F. Watts (to whom she was briefly married, albeit without any of what that hypersensitive painter euphemistically called "violent love"). As Mrs. Watts, she visited the poet Tennyson, at whose house, Farringford, she was immortalized by Julia Margaret Cameron in what has been called one of the "most beautiful and remarkable pictures in the history of photography." Playwright George Bernard Shaw professed his undying passion for her -- but preferred to conduct their love affair entirely by letter. They didn't meet for years. So great was her fame and beauty that young men would say to their sweethearts: "As there's no chance of Ellen Terry marrying me, will you?"

As for Irving: He was absolutely electrifying on the stage, a dark, magnetic presence that drew all eyes, whether he was Hamlet or Shylock, Mephistopheles or Thomas à Becket. He even served as the partial model for the charismatic protagonist of an 1897 "shocker" written by that above-mentioned stage manager, one Bram Stoker: It was called "Dracula." Known as "the Chief" to his well-paid staff and company at the Lyceum Theatre, Irving became the first actor ever to be knighted.

In this group biography of Terry, Irving and their families, Michael Holroyd -- well known for his lives of Lytton Strachey and Shaw -- 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.

Terry came from an acting family. Her parents were roving showmen, and nearly all the children were expected to tread the boards. Ellen's older sister Kate was the first "Terry of the age" but gave up her career to marry. At her last, thunderously acclaimed performance as Juliet, the specially commissioned "Kate Terry Valse" was played at the command of the Prince of Wales. In her dressing room afterward her wealthy fiance presented her with a wide gold bracelet. "On the outside was engraved: 'To Kate Terry on her retirement from the stage, from him for whom she leaves it'; and on the inside, in tiny letters, were the titles of a hundred plays in which she had appeared." She was all of 23.

But this was nothing compared with the eventual fame of Ellen. At the Grand Jubilee for her 50 years onstage -- held at the Drury Lane Theatre on June 12, 1906 -- the guests included many of the most famous performers of the era: the immortal Eleonora Duse, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Réjane (the rival of Ellen's friend Sarah Bernhardt), Coquelin of the Comédie Française, the notorious Lillie Langtry, the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (for whom Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle) and Enrico Caruso. That night 22 members of the Terry family appeared onstage, including Ellen's brother Fred, who gained world renown playing Sir Percy Blakeney, better known as "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Alas, Holroyd doesn't say if sister Kate's 2-year-old grandson was there, a young fellow by the name of John Gielgud.

While Ellen Terry grew up in the theater, Irving, by contrast, spent his childhood in a mining village in Cornwall. But John Brodribb was determined to become an actor, so he changed his name, then spent an arduous decade taking any part he could wangle with provincial acting companies. For years he was mocked for his accent, his occasional stammer, his shortsightedness and his odd "dragging gait." But the young man was indomitable. As Holroyd writes: "His apprenticeship, and then his career, became an unending struggle to master his faults in diction, to manipulate the mobile features that were evolving from a rather ordinary face and, in short, to gain perfection. By the time this apprenticeship was over and he established himself in London, he had played more than 700 characters."

Irving -- prey to melancholy and anxiety when not working -- lived for the limelight. One evening, when he was just starting his London career, the shrew he had impetuously married suddenly asked: "Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?" Irving immediately stopped the carriage in which they were riding, got out and walked off into the night. Though they never divorced, he never saw his wife again. Even Terry -- his leading lady and probably his lover -- once told him flat out "that if she suddenly dropped dead, his first emotion would be grief and his first question would be about the preparedness of her understudy -- and he did not disagree."

While Henry Irving worked hard to develop his skills, Terry was a natural, full of fun and flirtatious -- "an April kind of woman." After her annulment, she ran off with an aesthete by whom she had two illegitimate children; at the age of 60 she impetuously married a man half her age. She had little or no financial sense, and exhausted much of her fortune bailing out her two children, Edy and Ted.

These two, along with Irving's sons Harry and Laurence, form the focus of the second half of "A Strange and Eventful History." All four managed to break free of their parents and make names for themselves in the theater. Harry created the role of the radical butler in J.M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton." His wife, Dolly, played the original Trilby in the drama that gave us that hypnotic villain Svengali. (In later life she took the part of Mrs. Darling in a kind of children's fairy tale that no one thought would last: "Peter Pan.") Laurence, with his wife, Mabel, toured the world playing in Shaw's "Captain Brassbound's Conversion." He also once wrote a play called "Godefroi and Yolande," which deserves immortality if only for the scene direction: "Enter a chorus of lepers."

But Irving's sons died in middle age, while Ellen's children, who adopted the last name Craig, lived into the middle of the past century. When not running errands and nursing her mother, Edith Craig designed costumes, worked hard for suffragism and was a member of a lesbian circle that included the novelists Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West. Her brother, Edward Gordon Craig, grew up to become a visionary stage designer. Having inherited his mother's attractiveness and his godfather Henry Irving's charisma, Gordon Craig used them to wangle financial support from hapless patrons, charm the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski and seduce the famous dancer Isadora Duncan, by whom he had a daughter. Before his death at 94, this feckless Svengali fathered at least 13 children by eight different women. Holroyd paints him, with devastating irony, as a sacred monster, undeniably talented but wholly self-centered.

As the years and pages go by in "A Strange Eventful History," this long biography starts to feel increasingly Proustian: Here is the flow of life, as one generation passes into the next, as men and women struggle for fame and achievement, then surprisingly find that they have grown old. Henry Irving, who wanted to go "like that," returned one night to his hotel after a performance, slumped down in a chair and died. Ellen lingered into her 80s: "The days are so short -- I wake in the morning -- I meet a little misery -- I meet a little happiness -- I fight with one -- I greet the other -- the day is gone." And toward his end, Gordon Craig told visitors, "I was very honoured when our Queen made me . . . whatever it was." Enough. "A Strange Eventful History" is a wonderful book, deserving applause, bouquets and a rave review in this morning's paper.

Michael Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com-- appears each Thursday in Style. Visit his online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


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