The Greatest Actress of Her Age

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Tate Gallery, London
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth; portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1889, from Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History

With a fitting touch of drama, even melodrama, Michael Holroyd opens his composite biography with the death by suicide, at the age of twenty-one, of one of its two most important characters. One night in 1868, after the London theaters had closed, the actress Ellen Terry’s family found in her bedroom a portrait of her estranged husband, the artist G.F. Watts—known (to some) as “England’s Michelangelo”—to which she had pinned a note reading “Found Drowned,” the title of one of Watts’s paintings. Her parents instituted a search and reported Ellen’s disappearance to the police. A few days later her father identified the body of a girl who had drowned in the river Thames as that of his daughter.

He was wrong, of course. In fact Ellen had gone to live with the widower Edward Charles Godwin, an architect-artist, with whom she was to have two illegitimate children. She was also to become the greatest English actress of her age as well as the partner on stage and in real life of its greatest actor-manager, Henry Irving. Together they were not only to dominate the English stage during the later part of the nineteenth century and beyond, but also to make a number of lengthy and triumphal tours of the United States.

After Irving died Ellen was to return to America, for which she had great affection, both as an actress and to tour with her popular series of lecture recitals on Shakespeare. While there in 1911, at the age of sixty-three, she recorded ten extracts from Shakespeare plays. Some were destroyed, but others, including Portia’s “mercy” speech, Ophelia’s mad scenes, and the potion scene from Romeo and Juliet, can still be heard on CD. The voice is wide-ranging, with plangent chest tones and a silvery high register. Vowels are pure and elongated and there is a vivid sense of actorly presence. Though Portia’s speech is delivered somewhat ponderously, the others are not just recitations but genuine and impressive performances that help us to understand why she was so greatly admired.

Ellen’s two children were to achieve differing degrees of distinction: her daughter, Edith (or Edy), in a relatively low-key way as an indefatigable and multitalented social activist woman of the theater; and her son, Edward Gordon Craig, as a wayward, eccentric, but visionary designer, artist, and theorist who saw himself as the savior of the theater. He was to spend most of his long life working in various countries of Europe, forming liaisons and begetting children in many of them. Irving’s two sons, Henry and Laurence, though somewhat overshadowed by their father’s fame, also had successful careers as actors and men of the theater.

These six people’s joint lives, spanning well over a century, were intertwined with those of many of the most …

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