The Magazine

Victorian Triangle

The drama wasn’t always onstage.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
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A Strange Eventful History

Victorian Triangle

Photo Credit: Corbis

The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families
by Michael Holroyd
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 620 pp., $40

For 24 years, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving conducted one of the most beloved and successful partnerships the theater has ever known—an impressive run by any measure, though it was too long for Bernard Shaw, who felt Terry had wasted her talent by working with an actor who sentimentalized Shakespeare and preferred melodrama to Ibsen. Considering “the originality and modernity” of Terry’s talent, Shaw was certain “that it would have been better for us 25 years ago to have tied [Irving] up in a sack with every existing copy of the works of Shakespeare, and dropped him into the crater of the nearest volcano.”

As Michael Holroyd shows in this joint biography of the Irving and Terry families, Shaw objected not only to the actor-manager in Irving: He also resented the man. Irving never mounted any of Shaw’s plays, and Shaw, despite reams of witty love letters, never budged Terry from her devotion to the aloof, imperious, driven man whom his colleagues called “the Guv’nor.” 

The groundwork for the Irving/Terry partnership was laid in 1871 when the then-manager of the Lyceum, Hezekiah Bateman of Baltimore, hired Irving to play the lead beside his actress daughters, a last throw of the dice for a stage father on the brink of bankruptcy. It was only after Irving persuaded him to mount The Bells, which proved a huge success, that Bateman escaped ruin. In 1874 Irving followed with a production of Hamlet, which secured his reputation as England’s foremost actor. As The Times noted, Irving’s Hamlet owed little to Macready or Kean: He was “a prince and gentleman who failed to do the great things demanded of him, not so much from weakness of will as from excess of tenderness.” In 1878, to crown his success, Irving took over the management of the Lyceum and hired Terry as his leading lady, with whom he would work until 1902. Together they mounted spectacular productions of The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, as well as such romantic melodramas as Olivia (based on Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield) and The Lady of Lyons

Henry Irving, whose real name was John Brodribb, was brought up by his aunt in Cornwall, a wild place in the 19th century reachable only by steamboat. Seeing itinerant players enacting blood-curdling melodramas in the Cornish hills inspired Irving to become a player himself. When reunited with his parents at age 11, he developed a severe stammer, made worse by his mother’s insistence that he become a Methodist preacher. Before appearing on the London stage, he put in a punishing 700 performances in the provinces, where he was often hissed at for his crab-like gait and odd verbal tics. He was the antithesis of an overnight success.

Irving’s decision to go on the stage so scandalized his Methodist mother that she disowned him. Later, when Irving married Florence O’Callaghan, the daughter of an Irish surgeon-general in the India service, she, too, disapproved of his acting. Riding with her husband in a hansom cab one evening, she demanded that he stop making a fool of himself and quit the stage. Irving calmly got out of the cab and never saw her again. For the sake of his social standing, however, he never divorced her. Florence, for her part, never missed Irving’s first nights, though she brought up her sons to regard their father as a bounder and to refer to his leading lady as “the wench.”

Ellen Terry was born into a famous theatrical family and had her London debut at the age of nine playing the prince Mamillius in Kean’s production of The Winter’s Tale. By the time she was a teenager, she was an accomplished comedienne. Even more striking than her perennial youthfulness was her voice, “that most sweet voice,” as Holroyd describes it, “half-whisper and half sigh, which enchanted everyone: a soft, veiled, husky, intimate, thrilling sound, mysterious in its power.” Irving was fond of saying that Terry was fatal to criticism because she turned her critics into lovers, but it was not only critics who fell in love with her. In 1864, when she was 16, the 46-year-old Pre-Raphaelite painter G. F. Watts became so infatuated with her that he married her. Tennyson, Disraeli, Browning, and Wilde all flocked to Little Holland House to call upon the enrapturing child bride. Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the most dashing of the Edwardian actor-managers, had a crush on Terry from the moment he set eyes on her. Bram Stoker, Irving’s major domo and the author of Dracula (which was based on Irving), recalled Terry moving “through the world of the theatre like embodied sunshine.” Even Gladstone, who learned some of his oratorical tricks from Irving, found Terry irresistible. 

In 1868, after her separation from Watts, Edward Godwin, the architect and interior designer, whom Max Beerbohm called “the greatest aesthete of them all,” fell in love with Terry while she was on tour. Within months, they ran away to Hertfordshire and had two children, Gordon (called Ted) and Edy, both of whom took the surname Craig. Their strange and eventful histories dominate the second half of this book. How the children of the famous come to grief does not always make for riveting reading. Still, Holroyd treats the children of both his primary subjects with admirable sympathy. Moreover, their failure casts an interesting light on the success of their parents. Terry never deceived herself on this score: “What fools we are in bringing up our children!” 

Holroyd describes Godwin as “a man with a visionary future but no actual present,” which could also describe his talented, undisciplined son. Terry’s love for Godwin was never entirely reciprocated: As Holroyd observes, Godwin “was a romantic, living off his nerves, seeing in her beauty an image of what he passionately desired, but never losing for long his mysterious discontent.” In Holroyd’s biography, it is not so much love as love thwarted that binds together his different subjects. 

Irving was in many respects a cold, cruel, egomaniacal man who delighted in making others suffer the same denial of love that he had suffered at the hands of his mother. He took no interest in his sons when they were growing up and hardly noticed when Laurence, his younger son, tried to kill himself. Harry, the older son, complained to his mother: “I wonder why Irving avoids writing to us. .  .  . Of course we have heard nothing from our affectionate father. .  .  . It would be a good thing if we could make the old cab-horse take a little trouble.” Irving also kept Terry at a distance: “He knew only one way out of his isolation,” Holroyd observed, “and that was by turning it to some use, even to grim enjoyment upon the stage.” Nevertheless, despite his personal limitations, Terry loved Irving. As Holroyd remarks, she “loved his unpainted face, that splendid face he wished to hide.” One reason Terry was drawn to Irving’s isolation was that it was so different from her own blithe gregariousness.

Throughout her later years, Terry agonized over her son’s fecklessness. “Talk—and not do,” she wrote him in one gently remonstrating letter: “It’s bad in a woman but terrible in a man.” Despite the extravagant claims Holroyd makes for his influence on set design and film lighting, Craig was an unsavory pseud, whose delusions of grandeur drew him to Mussolini and Hitler. “Gordon Craig has made himself the most famous producer in Europe,” Shaw quipped, “by dint of never producing anything, while Edith Craig remains the most obscure by dint of producing everything.” Edy’s career both as a costumier and a director was far more productive than her brother’s, though her personal life was blighted by her mother’s overprotectiveness. One revelation here is that England’s sweetheart was no model mother.

In 1905, after Irving died, Terry married an American actor 30 years her junior. Edy found his youth ludicrous—he was younger than she was—while Ted welcomed him, convinced that he would shed ten years off his own life. “How wonderful,” he wrote his mother after hearing of the nuptials: “We are a queer family.” This was putting it mildly. Terry might have kept her relations with Irving carefully veiled but Ted would go on to have 13 children with eight women and Edy established a lesbian colony in Kent that even Vita Sackville-West found outré.

When Shaw looked back at Irving and Terry’s long run at the Lyceum, he saw “twenty years’ steady cultivation of the actor as a personal force, and [the] utter neglect of the drama.” Shaw could have pointed to Irving’s passing over not only his own work but that of Ibsen, Wilde, Barrie, Pinero, and Henry Arthur Jones. It was not until after Irving’s death that the balance between actor and drama was realigned—though this was achieved by a generation of actors, directors, and playwrights who prized Irving and Terry, seeing them as the bridge between David Garrick and Sarah Siddons and Gielgud and Olivier.

That he should be the first actor in England to be knighted amused Irving. Max Beerbohm, seeing him on his way to the station on the day he was honored at Windsor Castle, recalled:

His hat was tilted at more than his usual angle and his long cigar seemed longer than ever, and on his face was a look of such ruminant sly fun as I have never seen equaled. I had a moment’s glimpse of him; but that was enough to show me the soul of a comedian revelling in the part he was about to play. I was sure that when he alighted on the platform of Paddington his bearing would be more than ever grave and stately with even the usual touch of bohemianism obliterated.

In his biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and Shaw, Michael Holroyd gave bohemianism center stage. Here he explores something far stranger than bohemia, and that is family life, about which he writes with considerable eloquence.

Irving’s instinct, so alert in theatrical affairs, was blind to the nuances of personal relationships. He simply did not know what Florence was thinking or feeling and could not pick up signs from how she looked or clues from her tone of voice. She was again pregnant, but her husband’s time and energy were devoted to his work. The truth was inescapable: Irving loved the theater far more than her, their son, and their unborn child. He placed a world of bright lights above the needs of his family. She had come to realize that there was something fundamentally wrong with him and, with surprise and consternation, Florence found that she could not change him, could not penetrate the solitude he carried within himself or match his single passion for the stage. As she waited outside the Lyceum in her brougham after the first performance of The Bells, waited in mounting irritation for him to detach himself from the braying crowds within, and heard the chorus of fatuous adulation spilling out on to the streets, her anger rose. Tired almost beyond endurance, anxious to get home, convinced that her husband had forgotten her pregnancy, she was nevertheless obliged to go on to a celebratory supper and hear him praised by people who had no knowledge of the real Irving. No one else knew what he was like. The boredom, injustice, and mockery of it were too much for her.

Here, Holroyd proves his mastery anew by heeding what Henry James called “the ever-importunate murmur, ‘Dramatize it, dramatize it!’ ” That James also happened to be Irving’s most relentless critic, finding his productions blatant and crude, is another story.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.

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