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Holroyd's latest starts as a biography of Ellen Terry, one of the greatest actresses of the late 19th century—until it reaches the beginning of her professional and personal involvement with the even more legendary Henry Irving. The story circles back to recap Irving's life, then moves forward with their collaborations on Shakespeare plays and blood-and-thunder melodramas at London's Lyceum Theater as well as road shows in England and America. Holroyd also delves into the lives of their children (from separate relationships), and it's Ellen's offspring, Edy and Gordon Craig, who dominate the second half of this hefty family history: Edy took up with a longtime companion who originally had a lesbian crush on Ellen and would later become involved with Vita Sackville-West; Gordon was a visionary set designer who treated the women in his life—including Isadora Duncan—abominably. There's even a place in the saga for George Bernard Shaw (the subject of Holroyd's three-volume biography), who conducted a passionate correspondence with Terry for years before they ever met. Holroyd does a masterful job of keeping all the narrative lines flowing smoothly, ensnaring readers in a powerful backstage drama rivaling any modern celebrity exploits. (Mar.)
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Holroyd’s sweeping group biography traces the lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, two stars of the Victorian theatre, and their descendants. Terry was “embodied sunshine,” beloved for her naturalness and grace onstage. In 1878, when she was thirty-one, she began a professional (and perhaps amorous) partnership with Irving, the despotic actor-manager of the Lyceum Theatre, in London, a stutterer “of strange countenance and with crablike gait,” whose power lay in creating an “awful sense of apprehension” in the audience. The pair rose to international fame performing melodramas and Shakespeare abridgments. Both had children who attempted careers in the theatre, and the second half of the book dwells on their struggles amid their parents’ decline. Holroyd proceeds at a furious pace, and, in less expert hands, the detail packed onto the page might bewilder; instead, the effect is of an epic, perfectly balanced by intimacies of setting and character.