Today is the birthday of the great English actress Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928). A professional for almost seven decades, her life interacted with almost everyone of consequence in the English-speaking theatre during her time.
A second generation thespian, she began appearing in the Shakespearean productions of Charles Kean at age eight, an association that ended with his retirement in 1859. In 1863, while appearing as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream she was first painted by the prominent artist George Frederic Watts. The two married in 1864, raising Terry’s profile among London’s cultured elite, but the 30 year age difference proved a sticking point and the two were separated in less than a year. Still technically married to Watts, she began an extra-marital relationship with architect Edward William Godwin. The affair produced two out-of-wedlock children, Edith and Edward Gordon Craig, both of whom were to become distinguished and influential theatre professionals in their own right. The scandal compelled Terry to retire for several years. In 1874, she and Godwin parted ways and she returned to the theatre.
In 1878 she began her most famous and lasting association as Sir Henry Irving’s leading lady at the Lyceum Theatre, where she played “all the great roles” over the next two-plus decades. It was during this period that she conducted her famous (entertaining, coy, flirtatious) correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. This finally bore fruit in 1903 when Terry took over management of the Imperial Theatre, concentrating on the works of Shaw and Ibsen.That venture was a bust, however, and she returned to being a jobbing actress. In 1918, she began to act in films as well, appearing in seven movies over a period of four years. Her last performance was in The Bohemian Girl with Ivor Novello.
Prepare to be amazed! Her voice and visage have been preserved! You can hear her and see her move, she, who acted with Charles Kean in 1856!
To learn more about show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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