Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

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Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

Alice Ellen Terry was born in Coventry on 18th March, 1847. She was the youngest of four daughters born to prominent provincial actors Benjamin Terry and his wife Sarah Ballard (real name Yarrett), all of whom became actresses. Her three brothers would also earn their livings from the stage, one as an actor and two in management. Their grandparents too had been actors and Ellen and her siblings would cement their family name as one of the greatest theatrical dynasties in English history. Ellen's parents were popular and accompliished performers and her father was a keen instructor of the theatrical arts who primed his children well to follow in their parents footsteps. His was the only schooling that Ellen ever knew.

Ellen first appeared on stage at the tender age of eight as 'Mammilius' in a production of the Shakespearean classic "The Winter's Tale" at the Prince's Theatre in London on 28th April, 1856. It was an auspicious opening to what would become a great career for in the audience were no less than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves. It may not have seemed so at the time however, for she tripped on stage and landed flat on her back. In her next part at the same theatre she played the boys role of 'Prince Arthur' in "King John". In that peice she was scolded by the theatre manager Charles Keane for not crying heartily enough, so in her next performance she set up such a wailing as to shake the rafters and caused the critics to acclaim her performance. She next played 'Puck' in "A Midsummer Nights Dream" and subsequently appeared in various roles in her fathers stage company at the Theatre Royal, Ryde, Isle of Wight.

By the time she was twelve she had already built up an impressive resumee, acting in farce and pantomime as well as adding 'Fleance' in "Macbeth" and 'Karl' in "Faust and Marguerite" (among others) to her straight dramatic roles. She then went on tour with her elder sister Kate from mid 1859 through 1860 playing 'Hector Melrose' in "Home for the Holidays" and appearing in no less than five roles in a quick change sketch entitled "Distant Relations". In the Autumn of 1861, still only fourteen years of age, she joined the formidable company at The Royalty in London where she would perform in mainly 'straight' roles alongside such notaries as W.H. Kendal, Marge Robertson (Mrs Kendal), Charles Coghlan and Charles Wyndham. The following year she joined the company at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, where her sister Kate had recently been engaged as leading lady, playing there in farce, burlesque and melodrama.

At Bath, in 1863, she played 'Tatiana' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and next returned to London to join the great E. A. Sothern at the Haymarket. There she appeared in more Shakespearean roles including 'Hero' in "Much Ado Abouth Nothing" and 'Desdemona' in "Othello". Around this time, still only sixteen years old, she was photographed by Lewis Carroll and may well have been the inspiration for the Alice (her first given name) of 'Alice in Wonderland' which would be published two years later. Then, as a pretty seventeen year-old, her stage career almost ended before it had really begun when she retired from the stage in order to marry the reknowned artist George Frederick Watts, whom she had met in Bristol two years earlier when she had posed with her sister Kate for his painting 'The Sisters'. Her last role prior to that retirement had been as 'Mary Meredith' in "Our American Cousin", which Sothern next took to the USA and presented the following year at Fords Theatre in Washington on one of the most infamous days in American history. Had she remained with Sothern's company, she might have been present at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln!

As it was her marriage to Watts, thirty years her senior, was unsuccessful. They separated only a year later, although they were not divorced until 1877. Ellen's desire to continue her career was part of the reason for the break, and she subsequently returned to the stage after an absence of only a year. She made her comeback as 'Helen' in "The Hunchback" at the Olympic Theatre in London on 20th June, 1866. More and better parts followed as her experience and reputation grew. In September through October 1867 she accompanied her sister Kate on her farewell tour (her retirement having been announced due to her own upcoming marriage) playing 'Hero' in to her sisters 'Beatrice' in "Much Ado About Nothing" and several other roles. At the time of her retirement, which lasted thity years, Kate had come to be widely regarded as the finest emotional actress of her time. It was now up to Ellen to take her place, and this she duly did playing many of the same great roles with equal or even greater success.

In December 1867 she appeared with the great Henry Irving for the first time as 'Katherine' to his 'Petruchio' in the "Taming of the Shrew", and he was so taken with her performance that he promised to make her his leading lady if he ever went into management on his own account. The following year she disappeared from the stage however, to set up home in the country with Edward Godwin, a well known architect. At this time she did not even tell her relatives where she was going, so that when a body was found in the river near her former home and matching her description everyone thought it was her. When news of her 'death' reached her in her country retreat, Ellen raced back to London to reassure her family she was still alive. Ellen and Godwin were never married since Ellen was not yet divorced from George Watts, a thoroughly scandalous situation at the time. Never-the-less, with Godwin she bore two children, Edith (Edie) in 1869, and Edward (Teddy) in 1872. Both children would later adopt the surname 'Craig' to escape the stigma of being born out of wedlock. Financial difficulties culminating in the seizure of their home subsequently stretched the relationship beyond breaking point however, and Ellen parted from Godwin to resume her stage career after an absence of six years.

Her second comeback performance was as 'Phillipa Chester' in "The Wandering Heir" at The Queen's Theatre from February 1874 and subsequently on tour. None of her acting skill had left her and she soon re-established herself as one of the leading players of her time, particularly in Shakespearean roles. In April 1875, she played 'Portia' in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Prince of Wales theatre, and gave a performance which came to be regarded as the very pinnacle of her career. As often as she repeated the role in later years, the performances she gave on that occasion were long remembered as her very best. She appeared in numerous dramatic roles over the next few years, including "The Lady of Lyons" with Charles Coghlan and as 'Lady Teazle' in "The School for Scandal".

In 1877 she was divorced from her husband, George Watts, and shortly afterwards was remarried to the actor Charles Kelly. After touring with her new husband in 1878, she became leading lady at the Lyceum Theatre in London when Henry Irving, having taken over the lease there, made good on his promise made ten years previously. This heralded a golden period in her career, and her partnership with Irving would dominate English theatre for the next twenty years. She first appeared at the Lyceum as 'Ophelia' in Hamlet wherein she gave another masterful performance, being acclaimed as one of the most tender and emotional portrayals of the role ever seen. Her two children, Edith and Edward aged eight and six repectively, both made their stage debuts during the run of that play, and would would regularly appear on stage with their mother from then on. Subsequent years would see Ellen play in many great dramatic roles. In 1879, a production of the "Merchant of Venice" ran for a magnificent 250 nights. Then, in 1880, she played the role of 'Beatrice' in "Much Ado About Nothing" for the first time whilst on tour at Leeds. This was the role in which her sister Kate had been so acclaimed, Ellen repeating her sisters success. But whilst she herself played most of the great Shakespearean heroines it would always be as 'Portia' that Ellen herself was best remembered. Her one failure in such roles was 'Lady Macbeth' whom she played for the first time in 1888. Her portrayal aroused some controvery and even Ellen herself admitted that she simply could not visualise what drove such a character.

In her years with Irving, they were the pre-eminent leading players of their day and made the Lyceum one of leading theatres in London with success following upon success. Many of those successes were repeated on tour both in England and the USA. Nor was their repertoire limited to Shakespeare alone. Ellen was superb as 'Rosamund' in Tennyson's play "Becket", as 'Queen Henrietta Maria' in "Charles I" (by Miss Mitford), 'Marguerite' in W.G. Wills interpretation of Goethe's "Faust", and 'Clarisse' in Sardou's drama "Robespierre" to name but a few. In October 1883 she appeared in the USA for the first time, making her American debut at the Star Theatre, New York in "Charles I". On 26th April, 1889, she appeared by Royal Command at Sandringham before their majesties Queen Victoria and Edward Prince of Wales in scenes from "The Merchant of Venice". Four years later she appeared at Windsor Castle in another command performance, in "Beckett".

Irving's tenure at the Lyceum ended in 1902, and Ellen's last performance there was fittingly as 'Portia' on July 19th, 1902. She played her last engagement under Irving's management at Bristol later that year before entering into management on her own account. From April 1903 she took over control of the Imperial Theatre with the aid of her son Edward, the first play she produced there being Henrik Ibsen's "The Vikings". Her daughter Edith also joined her there for a time. She appeared with Irving one last time in July 1903, playing her old role of 'Portia' in an all-star benefit performance of "The Merchant of Venice" for the Actors Benevolent Fund. Her tenure at the Imperial was short lived and Ellen was totally devasted when Irving died two years later (at his hotel shortly after completing what would be his final stage appearance). Ellen took a long break from the stage at this juncture, and even considered ending her career.

She reappeared in April 1906 however, to play 'Lady Cecily Wayneflete' in Shaw's "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" at The Court Theatre. Her stage career had now spanned fifty years since her earliest performance as a raw eight-year-old child. At the Drury Lane theatre on June 12th, many famous players joined her in a pastiche of scenes marking her jubilee. Ellen played 'Beatrice' in a scene from "Much Ado About Nothing", W.S. Gilbert personally directed a scene from "Trial by Jury", and even the great Caruso came to sing for her. A testimonial fund was begun for her which raised the amazing sum (in those days) of around twelve thousand pounds, enough to ensure a comfortable retirement. The proceeds were presented to her at a banquet at the Hotel Cecil where Winston Churchill read an address.

She then appeared with great success as 'Hermione' in Beerbohm Tree's revival of "A Winter's Tale" at His Majesty's, and the following year undertook a successful tour of America under the direction of Charles Frohman - her daughter travelling with her in the capacity of stage-manager. During that tour, in Pittsburgh on 22nd March 1907, she was married for the third an final time to the American actor James Carew who had been a cast member of "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" with Ellen at The Court in London. It was a reversal of her first marriage, Ellen being almost thirty years the senior of her new husband who was in fact younger than either of her own children. On her return to England her stage career continued unabated, most notably in the years that followed appearing as 'Elizabeth of York' in "Henry of Lancaster" and 'Mistress Page' in "The Merry Wives of Windsor".

Her new marriage broke up after only two years, seemingly in amicable circumstances as they appeared on stage together after the break-up and continued to share the same registered address. In 1910 she embarked on another visit to the USA, successfully touring delivering a series of lectures on Shakespeare's heroines, a subject with which she was so intimately familiar. She appeared across the country on this occasion from east coast to west, and was wonderfully received everywhere she appeared. On her return to England, she continued to present these lectures between regular stage appearances over the next few years. In 1914 she undertook a lecturing tour of Australia, returning by way of the USA where she gave more lectures as well as readings and recitations from her best known roles. Whilst in the USA she admitted herself to hospital for an operation for the removal of cataracts from both eyes, an operation which was only marginally successful.

In August 1916, Ellen made her only cinematic appearance as 'Julia Lovelace' in "Her Greatest Performance", and shortly thereafter appeared on the variety stage for the first time playing in an excerpt from the "Merry Wives of Windsor" at the Coliseum and on tour. She last played her in her most loved stage role of 'Portia' in the trial scene from "Merchant of Venice" as part of a variety production at the Coliseum in February 1918. Her last full stage role was as 'the Nurse' in in "Romeo and Juliet" at the Lyric from April 1919, and she was last seen on stage delivering the prologue to an old English nativity play at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead in December 1920. She then retired from a remarkably long and successful acting career to her London home at Burleigh Mansions on Charing Cross Road.

In 1925 she was honoured by King George in being made a Dame, Grand Cross, of the Order of the British Empire. Sadly, the last few years of her life were blighted by increasingly blindness and senility until she passed away on 21st July, 1928. Her stage career had spanned an incredible sixty-four years and made her one of the most loved and best remembered English actresses of all time. After her death, the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum was founded in rememberance of her at Smallhythe Place near Tenterden in Kent. Her daughter, Edie, worked tirelessly to raise funds to keep the museum open until it was taken over by the National Trust in 1939. Both of her children went on to enjoy highly successful careers primarily off-stage; Edith as a costume designed, stage-director and manager; Edward as scenery and effects designer and illustrator.

Although she was never a great beauty in the conventional sense, Ellen had an innate charm of manner, voice and facial expression which quickly endeared her to all who knew her. In the words of drama critic Dutton Cook she was "an artist of real distinction. With all the charms of aspect and graces of manner ..... gifted with a voice of silvery and sympathetic tone, while her elocutionary method should prized by her fellow actors". A glowing tribute which was issued before he association with Irving, whilst the best performances of her career were yet to come. Few other women ever contributed so much to the stage as Ellen Terry or, probably, ever will again.


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