A Strange Eventful History, by Michael Holroyd

Their exits and their entrances
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Theatrical productions of the distant past are not easy to resurrect in words. Dingy grey photographs, accompanied by the usual encomiums, do not recreate the tingle and magic. But Michael Holroyd has once again triumphed over a seemingly impossible subject. For so capacious is this tale of two great actors and their descendants that he has written a sweeping social history of theatre in late 19th- and early 20th-century England. Like all his biographies, it avoids neat explanations and simplistic pieties.

In order to weave together the lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, as well as their dynasties, his narrative is necessarily convoluted. But it is also deftly plotted, with an infectious verve that springs from his delight in the waywardness of human nature.

The period he covers is almost coterminous with Terry's life: 1847 to 1928. As her parents were actors, she grew up in the theatre. At nine, she made her debut in London. She later regretted that the stage had denied her a proper education. Yet her lively, warm, spontaneous nature overflowed the rules, ignored conventions. On stage she was often described as "radiant".

She was a few days short of her 17th birthday when the painter, GF Watts, married her to save her from the "temptations" of the stage. Neither could cope. A deed of separation was drawn up within a year. Ellen was to receive an allowance of £300 a year, if she led a chaste life and did not return to the stage. Of course she broke both conditions, though the allowance continued for 12 years.

She moved in with the architect and stage designer William Godwin, and had two children. Disillusion soon set in. Ellen might have forgiven his affair with a 19-year-old, but she resisted his gloom. "He was never happy – he never will be." She returned to respectability with marriage to the actor Charles Wardell. He permitted her illegitimate children to take his name but they preferred that of an island rock. Holidaying in Scotland, Ellen pointed to Ailsa Craig, off the Ayrshire coast, and remarked it would make a good stage name. Both her daughter Edy and son Teddy adopted it.

It was inevitable that, after her success as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, she should be taken to the Lyceum to see Henry Irving in Hamlet. Before long she was his Ophelia and their 25-year professional partnership began. Irving wanted fame but was also intent on raising the status of acting. He introduced a new seriousness, and insisted on lavish sets. One of his first great successes was a French melodrama called The Bells. His wife waited outside the theatre on the first night, irritated by the fatuous adulation. She sat through a celebratory supper. Then, on their way home, she asked: "Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?"

Irving stopped the brough-am, walked off and never returned to Florence and their two sons. But "he had no talent for domesticity". Once partnered with Ellen, the two thespians almost certainly had an affair. But when, after many years, both were free to re-marry, they had begun to drift apart. Throughout this book relationships, ardently begun, falter and collapse. Ellen's sunny presence, Holroyd admits, blinded people to a fatal shallowness. His method is to make us aware of an unavoidable mix, of good and bad, achievement and failure, that makes us all complicit in the human condition.