A Strange Eventful History

I’ve been reading A Strange Eventful History, Michael Holroyd’s recent biography of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and their families. I read Ellen Terry’s autobiography many, many years ago, and I’ve read chunks of Laurence Irving’s biography of Henry Irving, so I’m familiar with the broad outlines, but I guess I must have forgotten a lot of the particulars, especially as Terry’s autobiography, at least, must have been a major source. Maybe it’s time for a reread of both the other two books.

The emphasis is more on personal matters than professional ones, which is often less interesting to me — I’m interested to learn about Irving’s unhappy marriage, for example, but I tend to skim more quickly through the details of who moved out when and who complained to whom about what. I’d have been interested in as much detail as one could get about the Lyceum productions, on the other hand, but Mr. Holroyd has much less about that than, say, the Laurence Irving book. I suppose his interest was in the personal matters where mine is in learning about the theater of the period.

So we don’t get, for example, the often-told description of how Irving made a powerful theatrical moment out of the act of quietly lacing up his boots in The Bells. On the other hand, there are some wonderful anecdotes like this:

To avoid extra worries at the last minute, Ellen got on with her dresses and had them all finished early: a pink one for her first scene, one of pale gold and amber for the nunnery scene, and for the mad scene, one of midnight black. Irving solemnly asked her to put on these dresses. He was, she found, “very diplomatic when he meant to have his own way”. His eyes hardly flickered when he was the black dress. Later he called out to one of the old stagers, Walter Lacy, who was helping out with the production, and asked Ellen to describe her dresses to him . “Pink. Yellow. Black.” At the word black Lacy gave a gasp and began to expostulate. But Irving interrupted him. “Ophelias generally wear white, he explained. “I believe so,” Ellen answered. “But black is more interesting.”

“I should have thought you would look much better in white,” Irving persisted. Then he dropped the subject and walked away.

Next day Walter Lacy came up to Ellen. “You didn’t really mean that you are going to wear black in the mad scene?”

“Yes, I did. Why not?”

“Why not! My God! Madam, there must be only one black figure in this play, and that’s Hamlet!”

So she changed to a white costume, though later remarking: “I could have gone mad much more comfortably in black.”

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