Ellen Terry, the child-bride and muse of G.F. Watts.
It is an unfortunate truth that good people who live circumspect, decent lives, where they make correct choices, and go on comfortably while not doing injury to others, make dull subjects for biographies. But the opposite number, who do wild things, have tempestuous relationships, and make mistakes--while they certainly provide a writer with much more material, they can also become, during the length of a book, well, annoying.
And annoyed I became while reading Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History. This is primarily a joint-biography of the Victorian actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, but it also covers the lives of their many children and associates. Almost everyone involved lives quite a long time (particularly those from the Terry side), which means there is plenty of opportunity to feel exasperated by these people.
Many people think actor Henry Irving was the model for his friend Bram Stoker's Dracula. No, not because he actually drank blood, but because he sucked in and drained everyone around him.
I won't even try to summarize the lives of many people described in this book. Well, I'll try to give you a little bit (a very little; I am feeling so uninspired today). Henry Irving was born in 1838 to a family of modest means. Although not blessed with many of the physical attributes of a conventional Victorian leading man--an impressive physique, a booming voice--he worked hard to transform himself into an actor who was able to work his way up the theater ladder until he was considered one of the greatest actor of his age. The productions he put on at the Lyceum Theatre in London were grand affairs--giant sets and lavish costumes for period pieces, with impeccably rendered details. Irving commissioned scores for many of his plays, and filled the stage with extras and walk-ons. He had a taste for popular melodramas, mysteries and romances. He had no use for the more innovative playwrights of the age, such as Ibsen and Strindberg. He revered Shakespeare, and it was his performances in these plays that really made him famous--which was no wonder, in a way. Irving would typically take one of Shakespeare's plays and edit it to highlight his own chosen character, and to eliminate themes and scenes that he thought were unpleasant (for example, he cut out the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, thinking audiences didn't want to see that kind of thing). He put a great deal of effort into his conception of his roles--sometimes too much; although he heavily edited Lear, the production initially ran about thirty minutes longer than expected because of all the sighing and groaning he put into his performance (he eventually cut down on this).
By today's standards, Irving's style would seem dreadfully old-fashioned, but in his time he was exciting and different. He worked on humanizing his characters. He tried to make them real people, and cut out much of the declaiming that was typical of acting at that time. He's thought to be one of the first actors to make Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" a sympathetic character rather than a villainous cartoon. His management of the Lyceum (aided by his constant helper, Bram Stoker--who in that time period would ever have imagined that Stoker would now be the more famous of the two) and willingness to tour England and America made high-level, professional theater readily available to the middle classes.
When he was young and just starting out, Irving married a woman who was not right for him. Social climbing and respectable, Florence Irving had little patience with the hardscrabble life of actors and hoped Irving would give up and do something else. They separated before Irving achieved most of his success and Florence felt bitter towards him for the rest of her life. Although Irving had little to do with his two children by Florence when they were young, they both followed him into the theater. The lives of these two sons, Harry and Laurence, also become part of Holroyd's extended biography, although a rather small part (in brief, Harry basically took up his father's mantle, touring in stolid Shakespearean productions; Laurence, the more theatrically innovative of the two, died in the Empress of Ireland sea disaster while returning from a tour of Canada).
By far the larger part of the book is taken up by the Terry side of things. Ellen Terry was born to a family of traveling actors, and made her own debut when she was nine. Her older sister Kate (the grandmother of John Gielgud) was initially considered the more promising of the two, but she retired from the stage after making a respectable marriage. Ellen, while perhaps not as accomplished as Kate, seems to have been born with the kind of star quality that lit up the stage even when she was a small child; unabashed theater lover, the Reverend Charles Dodgson, was enchanted from his first glimpse of Terry in her debut and remained a lifelong fan (although he personally disapproved of many of her offstage exploits).
(btw, I am going to refer to her as Ellen, because since Terry is also a first name, it just feels weird to me to call her Terry; plus the eternally girlish Ellen would probably dislike it.)
Sixteen year old Ellen Terry during her brief, unhappy marriage to Watts.
But Ellen wasn't convinced a theater life was for her and when she received, at age fifteen, a proposal of marriage from the much, much older Pre-Raphaelite painter G.F. Watts, she and her family thought it was a good idea for her to accept it. In the happy part of her marriage, Ellen was Watts's muse, posing for his paintings; in the unhappy part, she struggled to fit into the adult world of his friends and artistic circle. Her childish behavior particularly irritated Watts's wealthy patroness, and everyone was unhappy. Finally the pair separated and the marriage was dissolved. With not much else before her, Ellen returned to the stage, but only briefly. She fell madly in love with Edward Godwin, a sometime architect and artist, who seems to have been one of those people with many talents, but not really the talent to put them to any effective use. Ellen ran off and lived with Godwin, had two children with him, and then he left her. Again she returned to the stage. This time, though, she stayed, mostly because Henry Irving brought her to his theater and the two became the leading onstage pair of the age.
An 1879 print of Terry and Irving as Ophelia and Hamlet.
How much of a pair they were offstage is a matter of some debate. Ellen and other family members insisted that she and Irving, while in love (for a while at least) never became lovers. Many people found that hard to believe though, and it does seem unlikely. Nevertheless, their names were joined together for the duration of the Victorian age, as they put on Irving's grand plays in London and on tour (they both loved America and American audiences). She was Ophelia to his Hamlet, his Juliet to his Romeo, and so on. While Irving was all darkness, solitude, and intensity, Ellen was light, joy, and laughter, a perfect complement to him (when he let her--there was never any doubt that the plays were selected for the parts Irving wanted, whether there was a good role for Ellen or not). Their onstage personas were not unlike their offstage ones, and eventually they drifted apart personally, although they remained a box office draw professionally.
John Singer Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.
With Godwin long out of the picture, Irving became the closest thing to a father Ellen's children, Edith and Edward (Edy and Ted), knew. They both adopted the surname Craig after a rock called Ailsa Craig that they saw while in Scotland, drifted into the theater, like Irving's children (and there was sometimes resentment from both camps about whose career Irving was helping more, his own children or Ellen's children). They started out acting, but Edy eventually became known as a competent costumer and organizer (though even into old age, she performed in bit parts, including a few films), while Ted became increasingly interested in the idea of reinventing stage design.
Ellen kept Edy close to her, and seemed unable to manage without her. Edy was distant and bossy, and able to do what no one else seemed to be able to do: throw together costumes out of nothing, put on a controversial play without money, win the respect of people who had trouble imagining a woman as a director (this, by the way, was the time period when the idea of a director as an artist or visionary rather than a stage manager or organizer was coming to the fore). Edy's story in the book takes a dramatic turn when one of Ellen's admirers, a young woman named Christabel Marshall, falls hard for her.
A temperamental, passionate, and perpetually furious woman with some literary aspirations, Marshall changed her name to Christopher St. John, and became a member of the Terry set for the rest of her life. Committed suffragist, Christ and Edy lived in a cottage on a property owned by Ellen, eventually bringing in another woman, known as Tony to balance out their tempestuous relationship. They put on experimental theater productions and became the center of an artistic, bohemian set that featured a number of the famous lesbians of the day, such as Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West (Chris fell hard for her). Chris becomes an obtrusive, demanding presence in the story, overshadowing Edy mainly because Chris wrote, and Edy didn't. Later in life, Chris wrote speeches for Ellen that made her out to seem more of a feminist than she was; Ellen didn't seem to be that interested in the world outside her theater.
Ted, known professionally as Edward Gordon Craig, married young, had four children with his wife May, divorced her and rarely ever saw those children again. Ellen, always supportive, probably too supportive, of Ted, provided May and the children with money for as long as she could (Ellen's constant generosity and willingness to clean up Ted's messes, and lend Edy money for all of her projects, meant that she struggled financially as she aged, leaving her to look for work onstage long after she was too frail for it). Ted fell for another girl, Elena, had two children with her, then had an affair with another woman, Jess, had a child with her, and--well, to be honest, I lost count of how many children he had. There were a number of secretaries, each of whom started out working for him, became his mistress, had his child, and then was pushed aside. There were servant girl whose names don't even make it into the book. Then there was an affair with Isadora Duncan that resulted in a child.
In all these cases, Ted threw the women away (except for the long-suffering Elena, who was kept in the dark about some, but not all the other women and children) not so much because he was bored with them, or even simply because he felt they were encumbrances. More than that, he seemed to feel like they were plotting to deliberately ruin him. At first, his love for Isadora seemed deep and for real, but then he turned on it. Ted somehow seemed to feel as if love got in the way of his art. Okay, that's one thing, but rather than leave it at that, he would twist this into an idea that the women he loved were trying to injure him, and that was why he had to get away from them. It wasn't enough to say, "I can't handle this," it had to become "Look what you're doing to me!!" Even though he and Isadora had a successful artistic venture, he convinced himself that she was ruining his career, eventually leaving her pregnant and puzzled. Ted had no use for women professionally--he seemed to feel that women had prevented the father he hardly knew from achieving success. When he spoke of starting a theater school, he did not intend to allow women students (and we're well into the 20th century by this point). One woman, Dorothea Lees, worked as his secretary for years, almost singlehandedly putting out a theater magazine that bore his name. She had his child and he left her. A few years later, she wrote to him asking him to write to or visit their son, but Ted just sent back the letter marked up with his editorial commentary about how badly it was written. When his and Isadora's daughter died in a horrific accident, Ted didn't go to the funeral, and his condolences to the distraught Isadora didn't seem particularly meaningful.
Yet they both remained devoted to him, as do almost all the women in his life, especially his mother; it was a constant sore spot for Edy that as hard as she worked and as devoted as she was to Ellen, Ted still seemed the favorite, despite not bothering to visit Ellen for years (he had reasons for staying away from England, such as avoiding paying his ex-wife money she was owed by him). Cad doesn't seem a strong enough word for Ted, because of the anger and contempt he seemed to direct towards the women who loved him. Reading about him, it is hard to imagine what they saw in him; if I had had a friend who started dating him, I would send her off on a round-the-world trip.
Ted, however, is now recognized as an important figure in theatrical history. He was one of the first set designers who broke away from the idea of creating realistic, copied down to the tiniest detail sets, choosing to evoke mood and emotion with simple colored flats and drops. He thought of set design in terms of movement and space, rather than overstuffed replicas. He developed the idea of using overhead and varied lighting to create different effects rather than just the plain footlights of Henry Irving's era. Ted loved and admired Irving, but was one of the main players in the change from old-fashioned Victorian theater to theater as we know it today.
One of Edward Gordon Craig's sketches for a production of Hamlet.
But even in his work, Ted was frustrating--when he was offered work, he often pondered it for months and then turned it down; he really wrote and drew more about his ideas for theater than he actually produced. He became angry and paranoid if he did do something and felt that someone else was even earning a bit of credit. He was so obsessed with his theory of design as the primary component of the stage that he became convinced that the perfect theater was marionette theater, one in which those annoying actors were eliminated and all that would be left would be the puppets, whose strings he could control. All in all, Ted comes across as a thoroughly dislikeable person.
Which brings us back (finally!) to what I said at the beginning. It's hard to like any of the people in this book, even the cheerful Ellen, whose blitheness and semi-responsibility I even found grating after a while. Part of the problem is that the book is dominated by the people who wrote the most and left their versions of the story behind, and these are the most difficult people in the book--Ellen, Chris, and most of all, Ted, who is quoted from so much that the book feels almost unbalanced in some way, tilting too much towards his story (though it may just feel that way because he comes across as such a thorough jerk). It's not that you always have to love the subjects of biographies or histories, but I think when they are kind of rotten, I wish I felt something from the author--glee, horror, exasperation, just something. Holroyd is a fine , professional biographer. The book seems to be very thorough. It is surely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in theater history. However...while the book is rarely outright boring, well, I wasn't even on page two hundred when I found myself thinking how heartily sick I was of everyone in the book, and how suffocated I felt by Holroyd's elegance, reserve, and that thoroughness, if that makes any sense. I understand the value of a biographer remaining objective and distant from his or her subject, , but I almost in a way would have liked Holdroyd to abandon his evenhandedness and carefully constructed sentences to shout out, "MY GOD, THESE PEOPLE ARE AWFUL!!" And I would have sighed with relief and agreed.