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A Strange Eventful History, By Michael Holroyd

Two theatrical Titans, a mysterious disappearance, a possible love affair and a story spanning a century: Michael Holroyd's latest blockbuster is a triumph

Michael Holroyd made his name as a writer with wrist-wrenching, multi-volumed lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and Bernard Shaw. His latest book is the first biography he has produced in 15 years, and by Holroyd's standards it's a comparative lightweight: a single volume condensed into just over 600 pages. In every other way, though, it's possibly the most challenging work that Holroyd has ever attempted. It may also be the most successful.

For a start, the book is a rare example of that unfashionable genre, the collective biography, and, furthermore, a collective biography that doesn't disintegrate into something less than the sum of its parts. Three major lives, of the actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, and of Ellen's son, Edward Gordon Craig, interlock with a host of other middle-sized and minor characters, some gargantuan figures in their own right, such as George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan, others almost now forgotten, such as Ellen's daughter Edy, who set up an avant-garde theatre group and lesbian community at her mother's home at Tenterden in Kent. This intricate family saga covers almost 120 years, from the mid-19th century to the 1960s, not just the Terry line (with John Gielgud as one of its later offshoots), but also Henry Irving's inheritance, embodied in his two sons: Harry, who purchased the lease of the Savoy Theatre and tried to duplicate his father's success as an actor-manager, and Laurence, more experimental in his theatrical taste, both as an interpreter of Ibsen, and in allowing himself and his wife to be upstaged by their dog Lop in a touring play, The Dog Between.

The miracle of this book – a few dour passages about Craig's visionary design schemes apart – is that it manages to engage and maintain the reader's interest through a rapidly evolving, scene-changing narrative, presented with a range of eye-catching effects. A Strange Eventful History opens with a dramatic revelation: the disappearance of the young Ellen Terry from her parents' home in Kentish Town, and the discovery in her bedroom of a photograph of her much older, estranged husband, the artist G F Watts, on to which Ellen had pinned the message "Found Drowned". The sequence of events gets stranger. A girl's body is found floating in the Thames, and is identified by Ellen's distressed father as that of his daughter. The Terrys are already dressing in their mourning clothes when Ellen reappears to reassure her family that she is still alive.

Holroyd evokes the mysterious world of the Victorian and Edwardian theatre, the hiss of the gas footlights, the coloured lights and smoke, with all the attention to detail of the star-struck fan seated in the front stalls. But he is at his best in his delineation of the central character of Ellen Terry and her remarkable professional partnership with Henry Irving ("His Immensity" as Shaw waspishly called him) throughout a quarter of a century at London's Lyceum Theatre. While Holroyd may come no closer than others before him to solving the conundrum of whether Terry and Irving were ever lovers, he transports us back to the magic of their greatest performances. Irving, the first theatrical knight, possessed strange idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, and grunted and groaned through his speeches, but he was an electrifying presence with extraordinary imaginative powers and psychological insight. Terry was almost beyond criticism. Her beauty, grace and irrepressible vitality captured the hearts of the theatre-going public. She filled the stage, according to Virginia Woolf, and "all the other actors were put out, as electric lights are put out."

A Strange Eventful History has a larger purpose too. Before he brings down the curtain on his players, Michael Holroyd allows us to see how the minimalism of Gordon Craig, and of his later admirers such as Peter Brook, was both a reaction against the spectacle of Irving's theatre, and an attempt to achieve a new harmony of all the elements of theatrical make-believe by other means.

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