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.”

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