Lest anyone think that the culture of celebrity is a recent invention, Michael Holroyd’s generally engrossing account of the lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and their numerous children and romantic partners contains many examples of just how enthusiastically their contemporaries loved and idolized these icons of the British stage. Their every movement was front-page news for journalists catering to the public’s desire to know the most trivial details of their lives, and, in this fishbowl atmosphere, relationships with their children, lovers, and professional associates were subject to the kind of intense scrutiny that can either harden or unbalance its recipients. Although Terry and Irving were by temperament and training able to stand up to this constant attention, their children and friends often reacted to it in much more negative ways. As a consequence, A Strange Eventful History for the most part more than lives up to its title, as it reveals in compelling detail how life on the public stage could result in severely troubled private lives.
Ellen Terry was born into the world of the theater in 1847, although at a much lower level than that she would eventually achieve. Her father was a competent supporting actor. Her mother took theatrical odd jobs between pregnancies, and most of the family’s nine children would go on to have some sort of theatrical career. The family’s life was one of frequent travel from one provincial playhouse to another, punctuated by periodic unemployment and occasional longer runs in successful productions, and from her earliest days Terry was fascinated by the atmosphere of the stage. In 1856, she made her London debut in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623) at the age of nine. Despite a series of both professional and personal ups and downsincluding an abortive early marriage and a nonmarital relationship that resulted in the birth of two childrenby her early thirties, she had become the brightest star on the London stage.
Terry’s eventual partner in celebrity, Henry Irving, came from a much different background. His father was so unsuccessful as a travelling salesman that Irving (born John Henry Broadribb) was at the age of four sent to live with an aunt in Cornwall, a region at the time connected to the rest of England only by steamboat. Living in a remote mining village where entertainments were few and far between, he was enthralled by the touring theatrical companies that occasionally visited the area. At a Christmas party, he was scared out of his wits when a boy wearing a terrifying mask burst into a darkened room. He always remembered this incident as proof of the power of acting and, when reunited with his family in London at the age of eleven, insisted on following a theatrical career. He progressed slowly but steadily to the point that, by the early 1870’s, he had changed his name to Henry Irving and become one of England’s leading actors.
Irving and Terry first acted together in 1867, but his performance was panned by the critics and there seems to have been no romantic interest between them at the time. Irving married in 1869 after a whirlwind romance, but the following year he and his wife began a series of separations and reconciliations, during which two children were born. Meanwhile, Irving’s increasing professional success seemed to drive him further from his wife. Forced to chose between his family and his career, he made it clear that he loved the theater more than he did his family. Devoting himself to a hectic acting schedule while also assuming managerial responsibility for one...
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of London’s largest theaters, Irving rapidly became one of the people to reckon with in his chosen profession.
As Irving began to partner with Terry more frequently on the stage, an offstage relationship developed between them that has somewhat puzzled previous biographers. Given that both were married to people from whom they were separated, and given the legal barriers to divorce at the time, the two could not marry. As a result, they had to be somewhat discreet. The two actors traveled as a couple when touring, and Irving purchased a secluded suburban villa where they could be together in private. However, it was necessary for the sake of appearances to preserve the fiction that they were simply working professionals who happened to act in many of the same productions. Their ability to maintain this illusion of respectability has led some commentators to question whether they ever were in fact lovers, but Holroyd’s analysis of the historical evidence establishes with little doubt that their relationship was a long-lasting one, if subject to variations in interest and intensityon Irving’s part in particular.
Although the two never had a child together, the fate of their various children occupies a substantial portion of A Strange Eventful History, and it is in following these diverse biographical strands that the book begins to lose some of its coherence. Their four children followed very different paths that, except in one case, are of no great intrinsic interest. In attempting to keep their separate stories in play simultaneously, Holroyd necessarily alternates back and forth between somewhat pedestrian narratives in a not entirely successful effort to keep readers’ attention.
The one exceptional tale is provided by Edward Gordon Craig, the flamboyant son of Terry and her lover Edward William Godwin. Craig’s innovations in theatrical design brought him the admiration of luminaries such as Isadora Duncan, Max Reinhardt, and Konstantin Stanislavski. His life was a chaotic one, though, not least because of his penchant for siring children with many of the women who crossed his path and whom he typically exploited as unpaid secretarial help before abandoning them for the next pretty face that caught his fancy. His thoroughgoing selfishness and unwillingness to take responsibility for any of his actions make it hard to care much about him, but Holroyd’s evocative descriptions of Craig’s often stunning theatrical designs establish his importance to the era’s stagecraft.
The same cannot between be said of his sister Edith Craig, who had difficulty freeing herself from her mother’s well-meant but nonetheless smothering influence. Much of the substantial portion of A Strange Eventful History devoted to Edith is monopolized by the idiosyncrasies of the companion of her later years, a woman who chose to socially transgender herself by adopting the name Christopher Marie St. John. Although the text’s resulting glimpses of the rather genteel and necessarily circumspect lesbianism of the period offer some counterpoint to the actively heterosexual lives of Terry and Irving, Holroyd does not succeed in enlivening what seems to have been a long, loyal, and on the whole rather dull relationship.
Irving’s children Laurence and Henry, who died relatively youngat the ages of forty-two and forty-nine, respectivelyfollowed in their father’s footsteps, enjoying successful theatrical careers. They do not play significant parts in the book’s narrative scheme, however. Given the comparative brevity of their lives and the similarity of their professional accomplishments to those of their father, one can understand why Holroyd chose to downplay their roles. However, Holroyd falls instead into repetitive accounts of Edward Gordon Craig’s series of affairs and descriptions of minor conflicts in Edith Craig’s menage. Readers may therefore wish that he had paid more attention to the literally dramatic and less to the private melodramas of Edith Terry’s children.
Holroyd’s most recent biographies have dealt with larger-than-life individuals such as Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and George Bernard Shaw, whose stories needed no embellishment from relatives, lovers, or friends. Here, however, the somewhat elusive personalities of Terry and Irving, neither of whom seems to have had an inner life that matched the charismatic drama of their public performances, has led Holroyd to surround them with a supporting cast that tends to obscure rather than reveal his subjects. In addition to casting about for extraneous material to enliven his narrative, Holroyd several times resorts to a structural device that one associates with the most primitive forms of melodrama: Ending a chapter with the person he has been talking about in mortal danger, he then leaves readers hanging as he switches to another subject entirely. Although one’s curiosity will eventually be satisfied in a later chapter, this cheap chronological trick has no place in what purports to be a serious treatment of its material.
Fortunately, the main thread of A Strange Eventful History is the exciting and compelling story of Terry, Irving, and the collective and individual achievements of their time on the stage. That story’s appeal is strong enough to keep one persevering through the book’s less gripping sections. Even though the concluding years of their careers were marked by health problems that might have forced less dedicated actors to retire, Terry and Irving fought their way through these difficulties and found ways to compensate for the decline in their physical abilities. Accounts of their performances during this period often refer to a new maturity and subtlety in their acting that impressed audiences anew with their mastery of their art. Although Holroyd spends too much time on other figures in their lives, those lives themselves are worth documenting and compellingly documented in this biography.