The Magazine

Victorian Triangle

The drama wasn’t always onstage.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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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