Biographer and memoirist Holroyd (Mosaic, 2004, etc.) re-creates the separate and shared histories of two theater immortals.
The author begins with a fetching chronicle of actress Ellen Terry’s interrupted rise to fame among an itinerant family of actors in Victorian England, following the path trod by her immensely popular older sister Kate. Freed from an older husband, never quite compromised by an effervescent, affectionate nature that kept her on the threshold of scandal, Terry eventually formed a celebrated alliance with actor-manager Henry Irving, whose story then occupies center stage until the spotlight widens to their common history and eventually the stories of their gifted, troubled offspring. The pair that began it all were a study in contrasts. Terry was the enchanting, intuitively gifted beauty, Irving the scrupulously disciplined arch-professional. She was Ophelia to his Hamlet, his partner in the great success they enjoyed at London’s Lyceum Theatre and during a spectacularly popular American tour. Their respective children followed them into artistic circles. Henry’s two sons achieved reasonable success as actors, though nothing like their father’s renown. Terry’s daughter Edy Craig lived on the outskirts of England’s emerging lesbian culture. Her handsome brother Gordon Craig, an infamously waspish actor turned stage designer, virtually invented abstract scene design, when not fathering babies with an alarming number of smitten women. The acting gene re-emerged with brilliance in Terry’s great-nephew John Gielgud, whom Holroyd depicts as an incisive critic and superlative thespian. In addition to his replete portrayals of Terry and Irving, Holroyd offers a plethora of anecdotal and analytical information about acting technique and theater lore. Readers will relish such tidbits as the fact that Irving’s embattled business manager was Bram Stoker.
A crowded, thoroughly captivating canvas of cultural history.