- Category : Actress
- Type : ME
- Profile : 3/5 - Martyr / Heretic
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Planning 1
Dame Ellen Terry, GBE (27 February 1847 – 21 July 1928) was an English stage actress who became the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain.
Born into a family of actors, Terry began acting as a child in Shakespeare plays and continued as a teen, in London and on tour. At sixteen she married the much older artist George Frederic Watts, but they separated within a year. She briefly returned to acting but then began a relationship with the architect Edward William Godwin and retired from the stage for six years. She returned to acting in 1874 and was immediately acclaimed for her portrayal of roles in Shakespeare and other classics.
In 1878 she joined Henry Irving's company as his leading lady, and for more than the next two decades she was considered the leading Shakespearean and comic actress in Britain. Two of her most famous roles were Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She and Irving also toured with great success in America and Britain.
In 1903 Terry took over management of London's Imperial Theatre, focusing on the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. The venture was a financial failure, however, and Terry then toured and later also lectured. She continued to find acting success until 1920, while also appearing in films until 1922. Her career lasted nearly seven decades.
Early life and career
Alice Ellen Terry (she reversed her given names by the time of her first marriage) was born in Coventry, England, the third surviving child born into a theatrical family. Her parents, Benjamin (1818–96), of Irish descent, and Sarah (née Ballard, 1819–92), of Scottish ancestry, were comic actors in a touring company based in Portsmouth, (where Sarah's father was a Wesleyan minister) and had eleven children. At least five of them became actors: Kate, Ellen, Marion, Florence and Fred. Two other children, George and Charles, were connected with theatre management. Terry's sister Kate was a very successful actress until her marriage and retirement from the stage in 1867. Marion, over a long career, played leading roles in over 125 plays.
Terry's first appearance on stage came at the age of eight, when she appeared opposite Charles Kean as Mamillius in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at London's Princess's Theatre in 1856. She also played the roles of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1856), Prince Arthur in King John (1858) and Fleance in Macbeth (1859), continuing at the Princess's Theatre until the Keans' retirement in 1859. While the theatre was closed in the summers, Terry's father presented drawing-room entertainments at the Royal Colosseum, Regent's Park, London, and then on tour. In 1859, she appeared in the comedy Nine Points of the Law, by Tom Taylor, at the Olympic Theatre. For the next two years, Terry and her sister Kate toured in sketches and plays, accompanied by their parents and a musician.
Between 1861 and 1862, Terry was engaged by the Royalty Theatre in London, managed by Madame Albina de Rhona, where she acted with W. H. Kendal, Charles Wyndham and other famous actors. In 1862, she joined her sister Kate in J. H. Chute's stock company at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, where she played a wide variety of parts, including burlesque roles requiring singing and dancing, as well as roles in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. In 1863, Chute opened the Theatre Royal, Bath, where Terry, now aged 15, appeared at the opening as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream and then returned to London to join J. B. Buckstone's company at the Haymarket Theatre in Shakespearean roles as well as Sheridan and modern comedies.
Watts, Godwin, Portia
Terry married three times and was involved in numerous relationships. In London, during her engagement at the Haymarket Theatre, she and her sister Kate had their portraits painted by the eminent artist George Frederic Watts. His famous portraits of Terry include Choosing, in which she must select between earthly vanities, symbolised by showy but scent-less camellias, and nobler values symbolised by humble-looking but fragrant violets. His other famous portraits of her include Ophelia and Watchman, and, together with her sister Kate, The Sisters. Watts soon proposed marriage to Terry. She was impressed with Watts's art and elegant lifestyle and wished to please her parents by making an advantageous marriage. She left the stage during the run of Our American Cousin, a hit comedy by Tom Taylor at the Haymarket, in which she played Mary Meredith. She and Watts married on 20 February 1864 at St Barnabas, Kensington, seven days before her 17th birthday, when Watts was 46. She was uncomfortable in the role of child bride, and Watts's circle of admirers, including Mrs. Prinsep, were not welcoming. Terry and Watts separated after only ten months of marriage. Nevertheless, during the marriage Terry made the acquaintance of a number of cultured and important and talented people, among them Browning, Tennyson, Gladstone, Disraeli and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Because of Watts's paintings of her and her association with him, she "became a cult figure for poets and painters of the later Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements, including Oscar Wilde".
She returned to acting by 1866. In 1867 Terry performed in several pieces by Tom Taylor, including A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing at the Adelphi Theatre, The Antipodes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Still Waters Run Deep at the Queen's Theatre, Long Acre. There, later that year, she first played opposite Henry Irving in the title roles of Katherine and Petruchio, David Garrick's one-act version of The Taming of the Shrew. In 1868, over the objection of her parents, Terry began a relationship with the progressive architect-designer and essayist Edward William Godwin, another man whose taste she admired, whom she had met some years before. With him she retreated to a house, Pigeonwick, in Harpenden, retiring for six years from acting. They could not marry, as Terry was still married to Watts and did not finalise a divorce until 1877 – then a scandalous situation. With Godwin she had a daughter, Edith Ailsa Geraldine Craig, in 1869 and a son, Edward Gordon Craig, in 1872. The surname Craig was chosen to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy.
The relationship with Godwin cooled in 1874 amid his preoccupation with his architectural practice and financial difficulties, and Terry returned to her acting career, separating from Godwin in 1875. Even after their separation, however, Godwin continued to design costumes for Terry. In 1874, Terry played in a number of Charles Reade's works, including as Philippa Chester in The Wandering Heir, Susan Merton in It's Never Too Late to Mend, and Helen Rolleston in Our Seamen. The same year, she performed at the Crystal Palace with Charles Wyndham as Volante in The Honeymoon by John Tobin and as Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.
Shakespeare, Irving, Lyceum
In 1875, Terry gave an acclaimed performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, produced by the Bancrofts. Oscar Wilde wrote a sonnet, upon seeing her in this role: "No woman Veronese looked upon / Was half so fair as thou whom I behold." She recreated this role many times in her career until her last appearance as Portia at London's Old Vic Theatre in 1917. In 1876, she appeared as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, Blanche Haye in a revival of T. W. Robertson's Ours, and the title role in Olivia by William Gorman Wills at the Court Theatre (an adaptation of The Vicar of Wakefield), where she joined the company of John Hare. Terry married again, in November 1877, to Charles Clavering Wardell Kelly (1839–1885), an actor/journalist whom she had met while appearing in Reade's plays, but Kelly and Terry separated in 1881. After this, Terry was finally reconciled with her parents, whom she had not seen since she began to live out of wedlock with Godwin.
In 1878, the 30 year old Terry joined Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre as its leading lady, at a generous salary, beginning with Ophelia opposite Irving's Hamlet. Soon, Terry was regarded as the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain, and in partnership with Irving, reigned as such for over 20 years until they left the Lyceum in 1902. Their 1879 production of The Merchant of Venice ran for an unusual 250 nights, and success followed success in the Shakespeare canon as well as in Tennyson, Bulwer-Lytton, Reade, Sardou, and plays by other contemporary playwrights, such as W. G. Wills, and other major plays. In 1879, The Times said of Terry's acting in All is Vanity, or the Cynic's Defeat by Paul Terrier, "Miss Terry's Iris was a performance of inimitable charm, full of movement, ease, and laughter... the most exquisite harmony and natural grace... such an Iris might well have turned the head of Diogenes himself." In 1880, at the Lyceum, she played the title role in an adaptation of King René's Daughter called Iolanthe. The Era wrote: "Nothing more winning and enchanting than the grace, and simplicity, and girlish sweetness of the blind Iolanthe as shown by Miss Ellen Terry has within our memory been seen upon the stage. The assumption was delightfully perfect. ... Exquisite ... exercise of the peculiarly fascinating powers of Miss Ellen Terry, who achieved an undoubted triumph ... and was cheered again and again".
Among her most celebrated roles with Irving were Ophelia, Pauline in The Lady of Lyons by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1878), Portia (1879), Queen Henrietta Maria in William Gorman Wills's drama Charles I (1879), Desdemona in Othello (1881), Camma in Tennyson's short tragedy The Cup (1881), Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, another of her signature roles (1882 and often thereafter), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1882), Jeanette in The Lyons Mail by Charles Reade (1883), the title part in Reade's romantic comedy Nance Oldfield (1883), Viola in Twelfth Night (1884), Margaret in the long-running adaptation of Faust by Wills (1885), the title role in Olivia (1885, which she had played earlier at the Court Theatre), Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1888, with incidental music by Arthur Sullivan), Queen Katherine in Henry VIII (1892), Cordelia in King Lear (1892), Rosamund de Clifford in Becket by Alfred Tennyson (1893), Guinevere in King Arthur by J. Comyns Carr, with incidental music by Sullivan (1895), Imogen in Cymbeline (1896), the title character in Victorien Sardou and Émile Moreau's play Madame Sans-Gêne (1897) and Volumnia in Coriolanus (1901).
Terry made her American debut in 1883, playing Queen Henrietta opposite Irving in Charles I. Among the other roles she essayed on this and six subsequent North American tours with Irving were Jeanette, Ophelia, Beatrice, Viola, and her most famous role, Portia. Her last role at the Lyceum was Portia, in 1902, after which she toured in the British provinces with Irving and his company in the autumn of that year. Whether Irving's relationship with Terry was romantic as well as professional has been the subject of much speculation. According to Michael Holroyd's book about Irving and Terry, A Strange Eventful History, after Irving's death, Terry stated that she and Irving had been lovers and that: "We were terribly in love for a while". Irving was separated, but not divorced from his wife. Terry was separated from Wardell in 1881, and Irving was godfather to both her children. The two travelled on holiday together, and Irving wrote tender letters to Terry.
In London, Terry lived in Earls Court with her children and pets during the 1880s. She first lived in Longridge Road before moving to Barkston Gardens in 1889, but she kept country homes. In 1900, Terry bought her farmhouse in Small Hythe, Kent, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1889, her son joined the Lyceum company as an actor, appearing with the company until 1897, when he retired from the stage to study drawing and produce woodblock engravings. Her daughter, Edith, also played at the Lyceum for several years beginning in 1887, but she eventually turned to stage direction and costume design, creating costumes for Terry and for Lillie Langtry and others early in the 20th century.
Shaw, Ibsen, Barrie
In 1902, Terry played Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Falstaff and Madge Kendal as Mistress Ford. In the 1890s, Terry had struck up a friendship, and conducted a famous correspondence, with Shaw, who wished to begin a theatrical venture with her. In 1903, Terry formed a new theatrical company, taking over management of the Imperial Theatre with her son, after her business partner, Irving, ended his tenure at the Lyceum in 1902. Here she had complete artistic control and could choose the works in which she would appear, as Irving had done at the Lyceum. The new venture focused on the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, including the latter's The Vikings in 1903, with Terry as the warlike Hiordis, a misjudged role for her. Theatre management turned out to be a financial failure for Terry, who had hoped the venture would showcase the set design and directing talents of her son and the costume designs of her daughter. She then toured England, taking engagements in Nottingham, Liverpool, and Wolverhampton, and created the title role in 1905 in J. M. Barrie's Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire at the Duke of York's Theatre. Irving died in 1905 and, upset by his death, Terry briefly left the stage.
She returned to the theatre again in April 1906, playing Lady Cecily Wayneflete to acclaim in Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion at the Court Theatre and then touring successfully in that role in Britain and America. On 12 June 1906, after 50 years on the stage, a star-studded gala performance was held at the Drury Lane Theatre for Terry's benefit and to celebrate her golden jubilee, at which Enrico Caruso sang, W. S. Gilbert directed a performance of Trial by Jury, Eleonora Duse, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Lillie Langtry, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Nellie Melba, and more than twenty members of Terry's family performed in an act of Much Ado about Nothing with her, among other performances. The benefit raised £6,000 for Terry. She next appeared at His Majesty's Theatre as Hermione in Tree's production of The Winter's Tale. In 1907 she toured America in Captain Brassbound's Conversion under the direction of Charles Frohman. During that tour, on 22 March 1907, she married co-star, American James Carew, who had appeared with her at the Court Theatre. She was thirty years older than Carew. Terry's acting career continued strongly, but her marriage broke up after only two years.
In 1908, she was back at His Majesty's, playing Aunt Imogen in W. Graham Robertson's fairy play Pinkie and the Fairies. She played as Nance Oldfield in a A Pageant of Great Women written in 1909 by Cicely Hamilton and directed by Terry's daughter Edith Craig. In 1910 she toured in the provinces and then in the U.S. with much success, acting, giving recitations and lecturing on the Shakespeare heroines. Returning to England, she played roles such as Nell Gwynne in The First Actress by Christopher St. John (Christabel Marshall; 1911). Also in 1911, she recorded scenes from five Shakespeare roles for the Victor Talking Machine Company, the only known recordings of her voice. In 1914 to 1915, Terry toured Australasia, the U.S. and Britain, again reciting and lecturing on the Shakespeare heroines. While in the U.S., she underwent an operation for the removal of cataracts from both eyes, but the operation was only partly successful. In 1916, she played Darling in Barrie's The Admirable Crichton (1916). During World War I she performed in many war benefits.
Films and last years
In 1916, she appeared in her first film as Julia Lovelace in Her Greatest Performance and continued to act in London and on tour, also making a few more films through 1922, including The Invasion of Britain (1918), Victory and Peace (1918), Pillars of Society (1920), Potter's Clay (1922), and The Bohemian Girl (1922) as Buda the nursemaid, with Ivor Novello and Gladys Cooper. She also continued to lecture on Shakespeare throughout England and North America. She also gave scenes from Shakespeare plays in music halls under the management of Oswald Stoll. Her last fully staged role was as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric Theatre (London) in 1919. In 1920 she retired from the stage and in 1922 from film, although she returned to play Susan Wildersham in Walter de la Mare's fairy play Crossings, in November 1925 at the Lyric Theatre (Hammersmith).
In 1922, the University of St Andrews conferred an honorary LLD upon Terry, and in 1925 she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, only the second actress to be so honoured. In her last years, she gradually lost her eyesight and suffered from senility. Stephen Coleridge anonymously published Terry's second autobiography, The Heart of Ellen Terry in 1928.
Terry died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home at Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, Kent, England, at age 81. She was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex. Her ashes rest in a silver chalice on the right side of the chancel of the actors' church, St Paul's, Covent Garden, London, where a memorial tablet was unveiled by Sir John Martin-Harvey.
After her death, the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum was founded by Edith Craig in her mother's memory at Smallhythe Place, an early 16th century house that she bought at the turn of the 20th century. The museum was taken over by the National Trust in 1939. Also following her death, Terry's correspondence with Shaw was published. Over three thousand letters survive.
Terry's daughter Edith Craig became a theatre director, producer, costume designer, and an early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig, became an actor, scenery and effects designer, illustrator, and director; he also founded the Gordon Craig School for the Art of the Theatre in Florence, Italy, in 1913. Her grandnephew was the actor John Gielgud. The singer Helen Terry and illustrator Helen Craig are also descendants of Terry.