Henry Irving was easily the most famous Victorian actor (although it would be more accurate to call him a Late Victorian – he didn’t achieve stardom until the 1870s). Ellen Terry, his stage partner for some 25 years, was the undisputed queen of the British theatre as only Mrs Siddons had been before her, and as no one has been since.
There are inevitably many books about them. But in A Strange Eventful History Michael Holroyd has undertaken something new. The first joint biography of the pair, it also extends the story to the next generation, and gives a full account of their children – both Ellen’s son and daughter and Irving’s two sons.
The result is a portrait that is far more spacious than most theatrical biographies, and one that puts as much emphasis on personal and family relationships as it does on public careers. All six central characters were involved in theatrical work of one kind or another, but it is their off-stage lives that we are mostly left thinking about.
This is even truer of Ellen Terry than of Irving – partly, paradoxically, because she was such a creature of the theatre. Both her parents were actors; so were three of her sisters and her brother, while she herself first appeared on stage as a small child. She also enjoyed the advantages of golden-haired good looks, easy humour and a light, graceful manner. There was never any problem about her choice of profession: reading about her, we pretty much take it for granted.
At the same time, her career was subjected, early on, to two major interruptions. At the age of 17 she misguidedly married the painter G.F. Watts, a gloomy figure well over twice her age. Then, after they had split up, she went to live in the country with a man she was passionately in love with, the architect and stage designer Edwin Godwin. (It was Godwin who was the father of her children.) They, too, eventually separated, but by this time she had taken up acting again.
Irving’s start in life was very different. A poor boy, he spent much of his childhood in a remote Cornish village. A few fleeting contacts with the stage once he had moved to London made him set his heart on becoming an actor, but the odds seemed heavily against him. His chapel-going parents utterly disapproved, he had no money, and he suffered from a stammer that took him years to conquer.
He was also thin and ungainly. Even at the height of his fame he was to remain notorious for his dragging gait: the critic William Archer once said that when he walked across the stage he looked as though he was trying to run across a ploughed field.
He was undeterred, however. He gave up his job as a clerk and got what theatrical work he could, most of it in the provinces. A few judges (George Eliot, for example) responded to his intensity and took the measure of his talent early on, but most playgoers were initially more aware of his oddities – not only the awkward movements but also his jerky delivery and elongated vowels, which were probably a relic of his stammer. It was not until he was well into his 30s that he had his popular breakthrough.
Holroyd’s account of this slow ascent has the requisite heroic feel, and the book is equally good at conveying Irving’s essential ruthlessness once he was established as an actor-manager – a polite ruthlessness, for the most part, although he was not above punching or slapping members of his company when they got things wrong in rehearsal. As for the wider world, he was determined that his profession should achieve the respectability that had up to then been denied it. It seems entirely appropriate that he should have been the first actor to be knighted. And yet amid all his success, he remained curiously detached and lonely. Max Beerbohm called him “the Knight from Nowhere”.
A Strange Eventful History is a long book, and one that justifies its length. Packed with arresting detail, it displays the same shrewd judgment and relish for idiosyncrasy that mark Holroyd’s other biographies. It also features an exceptional supporting cast. Scores of notable personalities play a part in the story.
Of the second generation of leading characters, Ellen’s children – they adopted the surname Craig – make a stronger impression than Irving’s. The Irving boys, Harry and Laurence, had a difficult childhood. Brought up by a mother who raged against the husband who had deserted her, they did their best to be loyal to her but couldn’t help falling under their father’s spell. Both of them became successful but not especially remarkable actors (although Laurence had his explosive side); both of them died in their forties. Edith Craig and Edward Gordon Craig lived much longer – in Gordon’s case until 1966. They were also far more colourful.
Edith was a critical, independent-minded child who grew up to be an actress, a gifted stage costumier, the enterprising director of a fringe theatre company and an ardent suffragette. She was also a lesbian, who teamed up with one of her mother’s youthful admirers – Christabel Marshall, who evolved into Christopher St John, but was generally known as Chris. The story of their ménage makes a fascinating study in itself. It is also a warning, like much else in the book, against forming too settled a judgment of human beings. Chris, for example, is touching when she first appears, insufferable when she mounts a campaign against Ellen – who was then 60 – for marrying a man of 30, and a rather endearing if somewhat alarming old trout (James Lees-Milne’s phrase for her) in her later years.
With Gordon Craig we are in a different league. His bold, semi-abstract theatre designs and his theoretical writings about the theatre made him a European figure, the colleague of such men as Stanislavski and Count Kessler, the celebrated German patron of the arts. Holroyd dutifully tells us about his experiments with moveable screens and all the rest of it, but the focus is mainly on the sublime selfishness of his private life – especially the ease with which he took up with women (most famously, Isadora Duncan) and fathered children. Although Ellen always took pride in him, he couldn’t find time to come to London – unlike Eleonora Duse and Enrico Caruso, among others – for the jubilee celebrating her 50 years on the stage. But then he didn’t show up either for the funeral of the small daughter he had had with Isadora Duncan, after she had drowned in an accident.
In the end, gripping though the last chapters are, it is Ellen Terry and Irving who dominate the book. One question remains unanswered: just how good were they as actors? Ellen clearly relied heavily on charm, Irving – who had limitations of taste as well eccentricities – on personal magnetism. But then charm and magnetism are not just optional extras but an essential part of a great actor’s equipment. And for the rest, when we get away from the mysteries of the theatre, Holroyd gives us the best, most deeply considered portraits of the famous pair that we have.