Exit Humbug

David Edgar

  • A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 620 pp, £25.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 7011 7987 8

Ellen Terry was the youngest daughter of two touring players, and began her own stage career at the age of six. Ten years later, she married a painter three times her age; they separated within ten months. Three years after that, she took up with the architect Edward William Godwin. They did not marry, but had a daughter and son together, and the expense of their upkeep drove her back to the stage. Her performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice drew her to the attention of Henry Irving, an emerging actor-manager who fired his current Ophelia and cast Terry in her place. From then on, in Britain and increasingly in North America, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry became the undisputed first couple of the British stage. After Irving’s star waned, and even more after his death in 1905, Terry extended her range, not least into the work of her correspondent Bernard Shaw. She died, a national treasure, in 1928.

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