Ellen Terry.

The Story of My Life Recollections and Reflections online

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and, as usual, the streets looked dirty, and all the people muddy and
black as we came away. Please not to answer this stuff.

"Ever yours affectionately,


" - I wish that Cardinal could have been made Pope, and sat with his foot
on the Earl of Surrey's neck. Also I wish to be a Cardinal; but then I
sometimes want to be a pirate. We can't have all we want.

"Your boy was very kind - I thought the race of young men who are polite
and attentive to old fading ones had passed away with antique
pageants - but it isn't so."

When the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire gave the famous fancy dress
ball at Devonshire House, Henry attended it in the robes which had
appealed so strongly to Burne-Jones's imaginative eye. I was told by one
who was present at this ball that as the Cardinal swept up the
staircase, his long train held magnificently over his arm, a sudden wave
of reality seemed to sweep upstairs with him, and reduce to the
prettiest make-believe all the aristocratic masquerade that surrounded

I renewed my acquaintance with "Henry VIII." in 1902, when I played
Queen Katherine for Mr. Benson during the Shakespeare Memorial
performances in April. I was pretty miserable at the time - the Lyceum
reign was dying, and taking an unconscionably long time about it, which
made the position all the more difficult. Henry Irving was reviving
"Faust" - a wise step, as it had been his biggest "money-maker" - and it
was impossible that I could play Margaret. There are some young parts
that the actress can still play when she is no longer young: Beatrice,
Portia, and many others come to mind. But I think that when the
character is that of a young girl the betrayal of whose innocence is the
main theme of the play, no amount of skill on the part of the actress
can make up for the loss of youth.

Suggestions were thrown out to me (not by Henry Irving, but by others
concerned) that although I was too old for Margaret, I might play
_Martha_! Well! well! I didn't quite see _that_. So I redeemed a promise
given in jest at the Lyceum to Frank Benson twenty years earlier, and
went off to Stratford-upon-Avon to play in Henry VIII.

Mr. Benson was wonderful to work with. "I am proud to think," he wrote
me just before our few rehearsals began, "that I have trained my folk
(as I was taught by my elders and betters at the Lyceum) to be pretty
quick at adapting themselves to anything that may be required of them,
so that you need not be uneasy as to their not fitting in with your

"My folk," as Mr. Benson called them, were excellent, especially Surrey
(Harcourt Williams), Norfolk (Matheson Lang), Caperius (Fitzgerald), and
Griffith (Nicholson). "Harcourt Williams," I wrote in my diary on the
day of the dress-rehearsal, "will be heard of very shortly. He played
Edgar in 'Lear' much better than Terriss, although not so good an actor

I played Katherine on Shakespeare's Birthday - such a lovely day, bright
and sunny and warm. The performance went finely - and I made a little
speech afterwards which was quite a success. I was presented publicly on
the stage with the Certificate of Governorship of the Memorial Theater.

During these pleasant days at Stratford, I went about in between the
performances of "Henry VIII." - which was, I think, given three times a
week for three weeks - seeing the lovely country and lovely friends who
live there. A visit to Broadway and to beautiful Madame de Navarro (Mary
Anderson) was particularly delightful. To see her looking so handsome,
robust and fresh - so happy in her beautiful home, gave me the keenest
pleasure. I also went to Stanways - the Elchos' home - a fascinating
place. Lady Elcho showed me all over it, and she was not the least
lovely thing in it.

In Stratford I was rebuked by the permanent inhabitants for being kind
to a little boy in professionally ragged clothing who made me, as he has
made hundreds of others, listen to a long, made-up history of
Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar
and other things - the most hopeless mix! The inhabitants assured me that
the boy was a little rascal, who begged and extorted money from visitors
by worrying them with his recitation until they paid him to leave them

Long before I knew that the child was such a reprobate I had given him a
pass to the gallery and a Temple Shakespeare! I derived such pleasure
from his version of the "Mercy" speech from "The Merchant of Venice"
that I still think he was ill-paid!

"The quality of mercy is not strange
It droppeth as _the_ gentle rain from 'Eaven
Upon _the_ place beneath; it is twicet bless.
It blesseth in that gives and in that takes
It is in the mightiest - in the mightiest
It becomes the throned monuk better than its crownd.

It's an appribute to God inself
It is in the thorny 'earts of kings
But not in the fit and dread of kings."

I asked the boy what he meant to be when he was a man. He answered with
decision: "A reciterer."

I also asked him what he liked best in the play ("Henry VIII.").

"When the blind went up and down and you smiled," he replied - surely a
naïve compliment to my way of "taking a call"! Further pressed, he
volunteered: "When you lay on the bed and died to please the angels."



I had exactly ten years more with Henry Irving after "Henry VIII."
During that time we did "King Lear," "Becket," "King Arthur,"
"Cymbeline," "Madame Sans-Gêne," "Peter the Great" and "The Medicine
Man." I feel too near to these productions to write about them. The
first night of "Cymbeline" I felt almost dead. Nothing seemed right.
"Everything is so slow, so slow," I wrote in my diary. "I don't feel a
bit inspired, only dull and hide-bound." Yet Imogen was, I think, the
_only_ inspired performance of these later years. On the first night of
"Sans-Gêne" I acted _courageously_ and fairly well. Every one seemed to
be delighted. The old Duke of Cambridge patted, or rather _thumped_, me
on the shoulder and said kindly: "Ah, my dear, _you_ can act!" Henry
quite effaced me in his wonderful sketch of Napoleon. "It seems to me
some nights," I wrote in my diary at the time, "as if I were watching
Napoleon trying to imitate H.I., and I find myself immensely interested
and amused in the watchings."

"The Medicine Man" was, in my opinion, our only _quite_ unworthy

_From my Diary._ - "Poor Taber has such an awful part in the play,
and mine is even worse. It is short enough, yet I feel I can't cut
too much of it.... The gem of the whole play is my hair! Not waved
at all, and very filmy and pale. Henry, I admit, is splendid; but
oh, it is all such rubbish!... If 'Manfred' and a few such plays
are to succeed this, I simply must do something else."

But I did not! I stayed on, as every one knows, when the Lyceum as a
personal enterprise of Henry's was no more - when the farcical Lyceum
Syndicate took over the theater. I played a wretched part in
"Robespierre," and refused £12,000 to go to America with Henry in

In these days Henry was a changed man. He became more republican and
less despotic as a producer. He left things to other people. As an actor
he worked as faithfully as ever. Henley's stoical lines might have been
written of him as he was in these last days:

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.

"In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud:
Beneath the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed."

Henry Irving did not treat me badly. I hope I did not treat him badly.
He revived "Faust" and produced "Dante." I would have liked to stay with
him to the end of the chapter, but there was nothing for me to act in
either of these plays. But we never quarreled. Our long partnership
dissolved naturally. It was all very sad, but it could not be helped.

It has always been a reproach against Henry Irving in some mouths that
he neglected the modern English playwright; and of course the reproach
included me to a certain extent. I was glad, then, to show
that I _could_ act in the new plays when Mr. Barrie wrote
"Alice-sit-by-the-Fire" for me, and after some years' delay I was able
to play in Mr. Bernard Shaw's "Captain Brassbound's Conversion." Of
course I could not have played in "little" plays of this school at the
Lyceum with Henry Irving, even if I had wanted to! They are essentially
plays for small theaters.

In Mr. Shaw's "A Man of Destiny" there were two good parts, and Henry,
at my request, considered it, although it was always difficult to fit a
one-act play into the Lyceum bill. For reasons of his own Henry never
produced Mr. Shaw's play and there was a good deal of fuss made about it
at the time (1897). But ten years ago Mr. Shaw was not so well known as
he is now, and the so-called "rejection" was probably of use to him as
an advertisement!

"A Man of Destiny" has been produced since, but without any great
success. I wonder if Henry and I could have done more with it?

At this time Mr. Shaw and I frequently corresponded. It began by my
writing to ask him, as musical critic of the _Saturday Review_, to tell
me frankly what he thought of the chances of a composer-singer friend of
mine. He answered "characteristically," and we developed a perfect fury
for writing to each other! Sometimes the letters were on business,
sometimes they were not, but always his were entertaining, and mine
were, I suppose, "good copy," as he drew the character of Lady Cecily
Waynflete in "Brassbound" entirely from my letters. He never met me
until after the play was written. In 1902 he sent me this ultimatum:

"_April 3, 1902._

"Mr. Bernard Shaw's compliments to Miss Ellen Terry.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw has been approached by Mrs. Langtry with a view to the
immediate and splendid production of 'Captain Brassbound's Conversion.'

"Mr. Bernard Shaw, with the last flash of a trampled-out love, has
repulsed Mrs. Langtry with a petulance bordering on brutality.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw has been actuated in this ungentlemanly and
unbusinesslike course by an angry desire to seize Miss Ellen Terry by
the hair and make her play Lady Cicely.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw would be glad to know whether Miss Ellen Terry wishes
to play Martha at the Lyceum instead.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw will go to the length of keeping a minor part open for
Sir Henry Irving when 'Faust' fails, if Miss Ellen Terry desires it.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw lives in daily fear of Mrs. Langtry's recovering
sufficiently from her natural resentment of his ill manners to reopen
the subject.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw begs Miss Ellen Terry to answer this letter.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw is looking for a new cottage or house in the country,
and wants advice on the subject.

"Mr. Bernard Shaw craves for the sight of Miss Ellen Terry's once
familiar handwriting."

The first time he came to my house I was not present, but a young
American lady who had long adored him from the other side of the
Atlantic took my place as hostess (I was at the theater as usual); and I
took great pains to have everything looking nice! I spent a long time
putting out my best blue china, and ordered a splendid dinner, quite
forgetting the honored guest generally dined off a Plasmon biscuit and a

Mr. Shaw read "Arms and the Man" to my young American friend (Miss Satty
Fairchild) without even going into the dining-room where the blue china
was spread out to delight his eye. My daughter Edy was present at the
reading, and appeared so much absorbed in some embroidery, and paid the
reader so few compliments about his play, that he expressed the opinion
that she behaved as if she had been married to him for twenty years!

The first time I ever saw Mr. Shaw in the flesh - I hope he will pardon
me such an anti-vegetarian expression - was when he took his call after
the first production of "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" by the Stage
Society. He was quite unlike what I had imagined from his letters.

When at last I was able to play in "Captain Brassbound's Conversion," I
found Bernard Shaw wonderfully patient at rehearsal. I look upon him as
a good, kind, gentle creature whose "brain-storms" are just due to the
Irishman's love of a fight; they never spring from malice or anger. It
doesn't answer to take Bernard Shaw seriously. He is not a man of
convictions. That is one of the charms of his plays - to me at least. One
never knows how the cat is really jumping. But it _jumps_. Bernard Shaw
is alive, with nine lives, like that cat!

On Whit Monday, 1902, I received a telegram from Mr. Tree saying that he
was coming down to Winchelsea to see me on "an important matter of
business." I was at the time suffering from considerable depression
about the future.

The Stratford-on-Avon visit had inspired me with the feeling that there
was life in the old 'un yet and had distracted my mind from the
strangeness of no longer being at the Lyceum permanently with Henry
Irving. But there seemed to be nothing ahead, except two matinées a
week with him at the Lyceum, to be followed by a provincial tour in
which I was only to play twice a week, as Henry's chief attraction was
to be "Faust." This sort of "dowager" engagement did not tempt me.
Besides, I hated the idea of drawing a large salary and doing next to no

So when Mr. Tree proposed that I should play Mrs. Page (Mrs. Kendal
being Mrs. Ford) in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at His Majesty's, it
was only natural that I should accept the offer joyfully. I telegraphed
to Henry Irving, asking him if he had any objection to my playing at His
Majesty's. He answered: "Quite willing if proposed arrangements about
matinées are adhered to."

I have thought it worth while to give the facts about this engagement,
because so many people seemed at the time, and afterwards, to think that
I had treated Henry Irving badly by going to play in another theater,
and that theater one where a certain rivalry with the Lyceum as regards
Shakespearean productions had grown up. There was absolutely no
foundation for the rumors that my "desertion" caused further
estrangement between Henry Irving and me.

"Heaven give you many, many merry days and nights," he telegraphed to me
on the first night; and after that first night (the jolliest that I ever
saw), he wrote delighting in my success.

It _was_ a success - there was no doubt about it! Some people accused the
Merry Wives of rollicking and "mafficking" overmuch - but these were the
people who forgot that we were acting in a farce, and that farce is
farce, even when Shakespeare is the author.

All the summer I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It was all such _good
fun_ - Mrs. Kendal was so clever and delightful to play with, Mr. Tree so
indefatigable in discovering new funny "business."

After the dress-rehearsal I wrote in my diary: "Edy has real genius for
dresses for the stage." My dress for Mrs. Page was such a _real_
thing - it helped me enormously - and I was never more grateful for my
daughter's gift than when I played Mrs. Page.

It was an admirable all-round cast - almost a "star" cast: Oscar Asche as
Ford, poor Henry Kemble (since dead) as Dr. Caius, Courtice Pounds as
Sir Hugh Evans, and Mrs. Tree as sweet Anne Page all rowed in the boat
with precisely the right swing. There were no "passengers" in the cast.
The audience at first used to seem rather amazed! This thwacking
rough-and-tumble, Rabelaisian horse-play - Shakespeare! Impossible! But
as the evening went on we used to capture even the most civilized, and
force them to return to a simple Elizabethan frame of mind.

In my later career I think I have had no success like this! Letters
rained on me - yes, even love-letters, as if, to quote Mrs. Page, I were
still in "the holiday-time of my beauty." As I would always rather make
an audience laugh than see them weep, it may be guessed how much I
enjoyed the hearty laughter at His Majesty's during the run of the
madcap absurdity of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

All the time I was at His Majesty's I continued to play in matinées of
"Charles I." and "The Merchant of Venice" at the Lyceum with Henry
Irving. We went on negotiating, too, about the possibility of my
appearing in "Dante," which Sardou had written specially for Irving, and
on which he was relying for his next tour in America.

On the 19th of July, 1902, I acted at the Lyceum for the very last time,
although I did not know it then. These last Lyceum days were very sad.
The reception given by Henry to the Indian Princes, who were in England
for the Coronation, was the last flash of the splendid hospitality which
had for so many years been one of the glories of the theater.

During my provincial tour with Henry Irving in the autumn of this year I
thought long and anxiously over the proposition that I should play in
"Dante." I heard the play read, and saw no possible part for me in it. I
refused a large sum of money to go to America with Henry Irving because
I could not consent to play a part even worse than the one that I had
played in "Robespierre." As things turned out, although "Dante" did
fairly well at Drury Lane, the Americans would have none of it and Henry
had to fall back upon his répertoire.

Having made the decision against "Dante," I began to wonder what I
should do. My partnership with Henry Irving was definitely broken, most
inevitably and naturally "dissolved." There were many roads open to me.
I chose one which was, from a financial point of view, _madness_.

Instead of going to America, and earning £12,000, I decided to take a
theater with my son, and produce plays in conjunction with him.

I had several plays in view - an English translation of a French play
about the patient Griselda, and a comedy by Miss Clo Graves among them.
Finally, I settled upon Ibsen's "Vikings."

We read it aloud on Christmas Day, and it seemed _tremendous_. Not in my
most wildly optimistic moments did I think Hiordis, the chief female
character - a primitive, fighting, free, open-air person - suited to me,
but I saw a way of playing her more _brilliantly_ and less _weightily_
than the text suggested, and anyhow I was not thinking so much of the
play for me as for my son. He had just produced Mr. Laurence Houseman's
Biblical play "Bethlehem" in the hall of the Imperial Institute, and
every one had spoken highly of the beauty of his work. He had previously
applied the same principles to the mounting of operas by Handel and

It had been a great grief to me when I lost my son as an actor. I have
never known any one with so much natural gift for the stage.
Unconsciously he did everything right - I mean all the technical things
over which some of us have to labor for years. The first part that he
played at the Lyceum, Arthur St. Valery in "The Dead Heart," was good,
and he went on steadily improving. The last part that he played at the
Lyceum - Edward IV. in "Richard III." - was, maternal prejudice quite
apart, a most remarkable performance.

His record for 1891, when he was still a mere boy, was: Claudio (in
"Much Ado about Nothing"), Mercutio, Modus, Charles Surface, Alexander
Oldworthy, Moses (in "Olivia"), Lorenzo, Malcolm, Beauchamp; Meynard,
and the Second Grave-Digger!

Later on he played Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo on a small provincial
tour. His future as an actor seemed assured, but it wasn't! One day when
he was with William Nicholson, the clever artist and one of the
Beggarstaff Brothers of poster fame, he began chipping at a woodblock in
imitation of Nicholson, and produced in a few hours an admirable
wood-cut of Walt Whitman, then and always his particular hero. From that
moment he had the "black and white" fever badly. Acting for a time
seemed hardly to interest him at all. When his interest in the theater
revived, it was not as an actor but as a stage director that he wanted
to work.

What more natural than that his mother should give him the chance of
exploiting his ideas in London? Ideas he had in plenty - "unpractical"
ideas people called them; but what else should _ideas_ be?

At the Imperial Theater, where I spent my financially unfortunate season
in April 1903, I gave my son a free hand. I hope it will be remembered,
when I am spoken of by the youngest critics after my death as a
"Victorian" actress, lacking in enterprise, an actress belonging to the
"old school," that I produced a spectacular play of Ibsen's in a manner
which possibly anticipated the scenic ideas of the future by a century,
of which at any rate the orthodox theater managers of the present age
would not have dreamed.

Naturally I am not inclined to criticize my son's methods. I think there
is a great deal to be said for the views that he has expressed in his
pamphlet on "The Art of the Theater," and when I worked with him I found
him far from unpractical. It was the modern theater which was
unpractical when he was in it! It was wrongly designed, wrongly built.
We had to disembowel the Imperial behind scenes before he could even
start, and then the great height of the proscenium made his lighting
lose all its value. He always considered the pictorial side of the scene
before its dramatic significance, arguing that this significance lay in
the picture and in movement - the drama having originated not with the
poet but with the dancer.

When his idea of dramatic significance clashed with Ibsen's, strange
things would happen.

Mr. Bernard Shaw, though impressed by my son's work and the beauty that
he brought on to the stage of the Imperial, wrote to me that the
symbolism of the first act according to Ibsen should be Dawn, youth
rising with the morning sun, reconciliation, rich gifts, brightness,
lightness, pleasant feelings, peace. On to this sunlit scene stalks
Hiordis, a figure of gloom, revenge, of feud eternal, of relentless
hatred and uncompromising unforgetfulness of wrong. At the Imperial,
said Mr. Shaw, the curtain rose on profound gloom. When you _could_ see
anything you saw eld and severity - old men with white hair impersonating
the gallant young sons of Ornulf - everywhere murky cliffs and shadowy
spears, melancholy - darkness!

Into this symbolic night enter, in a blaze of limelight, a fair figure
robed in complete fluffy white fur, a gay and bright Hiordis with a
timid manner and hesitating utterance.

The last items in the topsy-turviness of my son's practical significance
were entirely my fault! Mr. Shaw was again moved to compliments when I
revived "Much Ado about Nothing" under my son's direction at the
Imperial. "The dance was delightful, but I would suggest the
substitution of trained dancers for untrained athletes," he wrote.

I singed my wings a good deal in the Imperial limelight, which, although
our audience complained of the darkness on the stage, was the most
serious drain on my purse. But a few provincial tours did something
towards restoring some of the money that I had lost in management.

On one of these tours I produced "The Good Hope," a play by the Dutch
dramatist, Heijermans, dealing with life in a fishing village. Done into
simple and vigorous English by Christopher St. John, the play proved a
great success in the provinces. This was almost as new a departure for
me as my season at the Imperial. The play was essentially modern in
construction and development - full of action, but the action of incident
rather than the action of stage situation. It had no "star" parts, but
every part was good, and the gloom of the story was made bearable by the
beauty of the atmosphere - of the _sea_, which played a bigger part in it
than any of the visible characters.

For the first time I played an old woman, a very homely old peasant
woman too. It was not a big part, but it was interesting, and in the
last act I had a little scene in which I was able to make the same kind
of effect that I had made years before in the last act of
"Ravenswood" - an effect of _quiet_ and stillness.

I flattered myself that I was able to assume a certain roughness and
solidity of the peasantry in "The Good Hope," but although I stumbled
about heavily in large sabots, I was told by the critics that I walked
like a fairy and was far too graceful for a Dutch fisherwoman! It is a
case of "Give a dog a bad name and hang him" - the bad name in my case
being "a womanly woman"! What this means I scarcely apprehend, but I
fancy it is intended to signify (in an actress) something sweet, pretty,
soft, appealing, gentle and _underdone_. Is it possible that I convey

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Online LibraryEllen TerryThe Story of My Life Recollections and Reflections → online text (page 23 of 28)