Ellen Terry was the youngest daughter of two touring players, and began her own stage career at the age of six. Ten years later, she married a painter three times her age; they separated within ten months. Three years after that, she took up with the architect Edward William Godwin. They did not marry, but had a daughter and son together, and the expense of their upkeep drove her back to the stage. Her performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice drew her to the attention of Henry Irving, an emerging actor-manager who fired his current Ophelia and cast Terry in her place. From then on, in Britain and increasingly in North America, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry became the undisputed first couple of the British stage. After Irving’s star waned, and even more after his death in 1905, Terry extended her range, not least into the work of her correspondent Bernard Shaw. She died, a national treasure, in 1928.
The succeeding generation followed their parents into the business, though inevitably they were overshadowed. Laurence and Harry Irving were both actors (the former was a playwright as well). Terry’s daughter, Edith (Edy) Craig, had a career as a designer, director and producer of feminist plays; her brother, Edward Gordon Craig, acted with Irving, but became disillusioned with the English theatre and, like other maverick theatre visionaries since, moved to the Continent, where his (rare) productions and extensive theoretical writings are said to have revolutionised theatre design.
No shortage, then, of performers and performances. But there is another performer involved in this, and indeed any biography – its author. As Gordon Craig transformed theatre design, so Michael Holroyd in 1967 revolutionised the writing of biography with Lytton Strachey, which extended the biographer’s reach from the public to the private, from the work to the man, from the study to the bedroom. In doing so, he breached the border between the documented and the speculative, and blurred the distinction between fictional and factual writing, or as he makes the distinction, between creation and re-creation. Aware that one of the features of the contemporary novel (and a lot of contemporary factual writing) is the visibility of the author, since completing his biography of Shaw in 1992 Holroyd has written two family memoirs.
Now that he has returned to biography, it appears that the trend Holroyd started has moved on and in a sense overtaken him. On his characters’ private lives, he now seems almost pedantically equivocal, marshalling the evidence for and against there having been a sexual liaison between Terry and Irving, and concluding that it could go either way. Formally, too, he errs on the side of prudence. Unlike Peter Ackroyd, Holroyd doesn’t insert fictional passages; nor does he emulate Edmund Morris’s insertion of himself – as a schoolboy – into a life of Ronald Reagan. But he’s there nonetheless.
It’s been possible to detect Holroyd’s presence in his narratives before: no one who read the third volume of his Shaw biography could miss his growing irritation with the playwright’s perverse attachment to dictatorial regimes and their brutal methods – an irritation exacerbated by the perception that, in other ways, Shaw grew up as he grew old. But in A Strange Eventful History, Holroyd’s take on his subjects is both more pervasive and more diffuse. In essence, he has adopted the novelistic device of free indirect style, inhabiting rather than reporting the inner life of his characters (‘It was curiously satisfying work,’ thinks Holroyd as Gordon Craig, ‘this disembowelling of a writer’s text’) and expanding it to embrace the worlds through which – and, often, against which – those characters move. So, when the 15-year-old Ellen Terry enters the artistic colony in which George Frederic Watts is to paint and later to marry her, the narrative voice becomes a prissy, late Victorian chorus: ‘The atmosphere was curiously liberal. Surely it was not quite fitting that the guests, whatever their rank, should be treated as models for Watts’s paintbrush.’ Holroyd clearly enjoys dressing up as the neighbours. When Irving and Terry share a house in Winchelsea, ‘such disapproval as there was quickly vanished once their dogs became better known.’
For much of the book, this technique affords rich entertainment, allowing Holroyd’s various personae to offer dry commentary on the eccentricities, inadequacies and delusions of most of his characters. His most striking achievement is to rescue Irving’s reputation. From today’s perspective, Irving did almost everything wrong. As an actor, he started with outward characteristics and worked inward: he was obsessed with the look of the part, and developed a repertoire of tricks and mannerisms that were ‘almost caricatures, some of them, of his natural self’, rather than expressions of the character he was playing. He was, in short, a ham, and a self-centred one at that. (When Ellen Terry suggested that she might defy convention and wear black rather than white in Ophelia’s mad scene, it was pointed out to her that only one character wore black in Hamlet, and it wasn’t Ophelia.) As a manager, he was dictatorial in rehearsals, favoured state censorship but excoriated the idea of subsidy, increased the size of his auditorium (thereby reducing the quality of the audience’s experience) to raise the box-office take, showed little interest in contemporary plays, butchered and stitched up the classics, and used the time saved by cuts to make lumbering scene changes between pointlessly authentic sets, decorated by equally authentic costumes (the dye for a cardinal’s robe was sent to Rome to confirm it was the right shade). He put his work before his family whenever they conflicted. He baulked at the training costs of his sons’ chosen professions (the diplomatic service and the law); his elder son, Harry, thought his letters read like meteorological reports. Hearing that his younger son, Laurence, had shot himself, he went on to perform Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Learning that the suicide attempt had failed, he didn’t see Laurence for nearly a year.
From the point of view of the time, however, Irving looks more impressive. The son of an impoverished Somerset salesman, he was initially inspired by strolling players, but had to overcome a nondescript appearance and a stammer in order to transform himself into an actor (to an extent, his mannerisms made a virtue of his impediments). Determined to raise the social status of his profession, he married above him, but left his wife when, on the triumphant first night of The Bells, she asked: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ His performance in The Bells as the impoverished innkeeper Mathias, who murders a rich traveller and builds a distinguished career on the proceeds, raised a French potboiler ‘to the status of a dramatic masterpiece’, changing the character from a stock stage villain into ‘any one of us, an innocent man who, of a sudden, gives in to temptation’. Similarly, Irving was the first actor to give a sympathetic rendering of Shylock, drawing on the memory of a dignified but irascible Levantine merchant he’d seen on a Mediterranean cruise, whose demeanour led Irving (as his biographer grandson was to write) to ‘a new conception of Shylock as a symbol of a persecuted race, a Jewish merchant in some ways more of a gentleman than anyone else in the play’. Although Irving’s butchery of Shakespeare’s texts is reprehensible, it’s not unknown today: Peter Brook is not the only contemporary director to follow Irving in cutting Fortinbras from Hamlet. And his critique of the emergent naturalism of the early 20th century has contemporary echoes too. As Holroyd-as-Irving puts it: ‘This new style of acting, now the fashion apparently, reduced the audience to mere onlookers at something that was going on next door,’ with ‘no operatic value, no ballast or rhetoric; in short, nothing that the dramatic poet created for the skills of the performing actor’. Well, no one in today’s British theatre is likely to stand up for ballast or rhetoric, but the whole thrust both of contemporary theatre production and architecture is away from the audience as onlooker, and towards a theatre which celebrates its performative nature.
Holroyd’s gentle empathy lets him paint a surprisingly engaging and rounded portrait of Irving (who did eventually win the social approbation of a knighthood, despite initial cabinet opposition), but he is less successful in the last quarter of the book, when the centre of gravity shifts from the parents to the children. In the introduction, he insists that ‘despite alterations in the law, in accepted social and moral habits, and in our methods of recording history, the configurations of family life today still echo and reflect the concealed lives of a hundred years or more ago. It is a matter of human nature.’ But while Holroyd balances Irving’s lack of parental or indeed marital skills with the repeated acknowledgement of his talent, when it comes to Terry’s children, he is unable to summon the same enthusiasm.
Edward Gordon Craig fathered 13 children with eight different women, including Isadora Duncan. (When his and Isadora’s daughter, Deirdre, drowned in the Seine after a motoring accident, Craig failed to attend the funeral.) Like a number of his contemporaries, he welcomed the rise of Mussolini and Hitler (‘Exit humbug – enter men who are serious’), as well as the Russian Communists who hosted him so royally. During the Second World War, which he spent (after a short period of incarceration) in reasonable comfort in Paris, he remarked that ‘the most & best I can do is to mind my own business.’ These blemishes are not, for Holroyd, completely obliterated by Craig’s defining influence on the 20th-century stage. Indeed, Holroyd clamps ironic quotes around his own description of that influence: ‘His words were read as a revelation. Illumined by a divine, vibrating light, he appeared to stand like a companion spirit to … William Blake.’ In Craig’s persona, Holroyd is petulant and selfish – ‘He needed to recruit new enthusiasts, but how could he be certain they would not make off with his ideas?’ – and adds Brechtian commentary to his empathetic descriptions of Craig’s state of mind: ‘It was good to escape from Florence where Anna Lark, his young secretary, had given birth to a son (his son).’ It isn’t hard to see his point.
His treatment of Craig’s sister, Edith, is less fair. Edy ‘braced up’ her scaredy-cat younger brother when they were children by bashing him on the head and exhorting him to ‘be a woman!’ She was a loyal daughter, who lived with her mother and cared for her in her declining years. In collaboration with the feminist Christabel Marshall – who wrote under the name Christopher Marie St John – Edy designed and produced a huge number of suffragist and antiwar plays. Holroyd lists these achievements, but fails to suppress a light if persistent drumbeat of condescension. Edy was ‘a natural suffragist’ in that ‘she did not have to think very deeply about it.’ In her production of the Pageant of Great Women, an ‘ambitious presentation’, the part of Prejudice ‘was usually played by a man’. Fundraising dinners for Edy’s company were ‘advertised in the fashionable pages of newspapers and magazines’ and involved fancy dress. The Pioneer Players’ antiwar plays (bravely produced during the conflict) ‘seldom failed to warn audiences that “we are not going to enjoy ourselves”’ (a quotation from Virginia Woolf). Entering Edy’s head, Holroyd finds that it was difficult for her ‘not to blame the National Trust’ for the Second World War. She and Christopher St John were ‘trouts’ and the latter had a ‘huge posterior’. Nonetheless, as Holroyd acknowledges, during a period in which Edy staged 150 plays, her brilliant and influential brother staged none.
These reservations – in the book and about the book – melt away whenever Holroyd deals with his central character. After a failed debut performance as the ‘Spirit of the Mustard-Pot’, Ellen Terry is reported as she clearly was, a woman of talent, honesty, intelligence, joie de vivre and courage. As a teenager acting in a French melodrama, she ‘discovered the exact way a woman with a snake round her neck should scream’; more important, she spoke Shakespeare’s lines as if she’d heard someone say them at breakfast. Her idea of playing the mad Ophelia in mourning is appropriate to the story (Ophelia has just lost her father) and would be a coup de théâtre today. She discovered that Sarah Siddons had seen Lady Macbeth not as a bloodthirsty harridan but as ‘feminine … even fragile’, but that she hadn’t played her that way; Terry decided to do so, and thus premiered what became one of the prevailing late 20th-century readings of the role. Her voluminous notebooks – and the lectures on Shakespeare she wrote and delivered later in life – demonstrate that she continued to devote both emotional and intellectual intelligence to her preparation. She supported Oscar Wilde (as did Henry Irving) while Irving’s son was following popular opinion by describing Wilde’s nemesis Lord Queensberry as ‘a brick’. Holroyd quotes her as saying that ‘language was given me to conceal rather than reveal,’ and, horror of horrors, her memoirs knock a year off her age. But the fact that her public image ‘conflicted dramatically with the facts of her life’ doesn’t seem to have been her fault or, particularly, her desire. Unlike any of her lovers, and at least one of her children, she seems to have avoided self-delusion, and to have been herself. She gave performances, but she wasn’t one.
For that reason, Holroyd doesn’t feel the need to play her, merely to show her. One of the best later chapters is about the complicated negotiations which led to the publication of the often passionate correspondence between Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw, on which Holroyd drew for his Shaw biography. Now, in a book which quotes many extravagant and deluded protestations of affection, he has written a love letter to Terry himself.