Lions of Victorian theatre

A sweeping saga of an era’s stage deities

By Richard Eder
July 5, 2009
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He has written at least three biographical masterpieces: of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, and of himself and his parents. So Michael Holroyd must have found it tempting to tackle in “A Strange Eventful History’’ those most colorful deities of Victorian theater: the much-worshiped Ellen Terry and her formidable actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving, along with each one’s two children.

A slam-dunk, as George Tenet enthused to President Bush about the prospective Iraq invasion. A quagmire, as it turns out. This despite Holroyd’s agile intuitiveness that twins sympathy and irony; also despite the immense research he put into his 600-page project.

Or perhaps on account of the research. If the biographer’s endemic worry is of turning up no more than a hard-won trickle of material, the nightmare must belong to Holroyd: such a flood of material as to amount to a tsunami. Just for Gordon Craig, the theater designer and visionary who was Terry’s son, there are some 100 far-flung archives. Holroyd plaintively admits “the foolhardiness of embarking on such a wide-ranging and complex group biography.’’

His problem is the reader’s. The mass of details is overwhelming; worse, they blur the two central figures, Neither, though energetically drawn, is rendered so as to convey much force or focus.

It is a difficulty with actors’ biographies: Their achievement is not what they live or write or paint, but what they fleetingly represent. It’s not enough to sustain a study this massive. Biographical detail is the foothills around a Himalayan peak. Here the foothills are elaborate and endless; the mountain indistinct and not especially large.

Terry, born of a rough-touring theatrical family, initially preferred the world of art. She married a languidly effete painter whose pre-Raphaelite portraits did much to fix her romantic image for Victorian audiences: seductive but safe.

Effortless charm was her mode; Irving, by contrast, had to work hard to transcend his awkwardness and refine it into a fierce dark power that, along with Terry’s ravishment, made his Lyceum company the undisputed summit of late 19th-century British theater. His productions were lavish and spectacular; Holroyd calls him a forerunner to Cecil B. DeMille. He made a vast fortune, largely through American tours.

For a long time the relations between the two were close; whether they were briefly lovers seems to be in doubt. In any case the personal links frayed (her spontaneity began to wear on his ponderous solemnities), they separated professionally, and the glory days at the Lyceum faded. They remained national idols, nonetheless. The British cherish their monuments and went on garlanding them until they died, Irving in 1905 and Terry in 1928.

Even while their popularity was at its height, critics began to relegate their style to a fustian past. Shaw was particularly critical of the failure to perform such contemporaries as Ibsen and himself (though he carried on a long epistolary romance with Terry and gave her some shrewd stage advice).

Holroyd devotes much detail to Terry’s three marriages and a love affair or two, but generally fails to make her very present in any of them. Perhaps her scattery character is the reason; the best description came from Virginia Woolf: “There is something in her that she did not understand. . . . She cannot sustain emotion.’’

The book’s cloudiness grows when Holroyd deals with Irving’s children. His endless particulars of Harry and Laurence, both in theater and neither memorable, amount to forced feeding. Why should we know that Laurence ate eight chocolate bars a day?

Matters improve with Terry’s daughter, Edy. Independent, talented, commanding, and the center of a circle of lesbian artists and writers, she feuded repeatedly with her mother while devotedly helping her. Her portrait is considerably more distinct than those of Terry and Irving.

By far the best sections deal with Gordon Craig. A modernist prophet of what the theater should be - pure motion and design and never mind script, actors, or anything else - he was enormously influential through the ’20s and ’30s, was revered by Stanislavski, Max Reinhardt, and Yeats, and became an indirect artistic influence on Peter Brook. Yet he allowed almost none of his work to be produced.

Too perfectionist, too arrogant, too scared - who knows? Charming, it seems, and horrifying as well. He could hardly see a woman, from Isadora Duncan to his Danish au pair, without bestowing a baby on her. A woman who devotedly assisted him for 30 years was brutally abandoned; her reward, the acolyte’s thrill and the baby. In Paris during World War II he sold much of his vast archive to the Nazis, lived in great comfort, and afterward got most of it back.

Holroyd’s account of this celebrated figure - he makes Narcissus himself seem like a penitent - glitters through the book’s mists. The biographer is restored to his powers.

Richard Eder writes reviews for several publications.

A STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families
By Michael Holroyd
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 620 pp., illustrated, $40

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