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A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families Hardcover – Bargain Price, March 3, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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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From The New Yorker

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374270805
  • ASIN: B0046LUIHE
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,300,594 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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When asked what book I was reading I replied, "A dual biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their artistic families I was met with signs of utter bemusement! Who? Most Americans are clueless when it comes to remember these two brilliant novas in the theatrical skies over Victorian and Edwardian England.
This omission can be rectified by reading this new book by Michael Holroyd whose earlier three volume work on George Bernard Shaw won plaudits galore! Holyrod is the spouse of Margaret Drabble the novelist.
Ellen Terry (1847-1924)was not the greatest English actress of all time but she was probably the most bewitchingly beautiful and fetching! She was born to acting parents; wed three times and had two illegitimate children Edy and Edward Gordon Craig (they were the children of her liason with a man of the theatre named Godwin. The children took their name Craig from a land configuration in Scotland. Ellen's first husband of ten months was the much older G.W. Watts who was a distinguished painter. He was too old and ascetic for the earthy and sexy Miss Terry.
Many of her siblings acted including her older sister Kate who became the grandmother of Oscar Winner and Shakespearean star Sir John Gielgud.
Ellen had a sunny, optimistic personality. Fair Ellen was a mecurial person in her moods and loves. She corresponded for years with the besotted George Bernard Shaw. She became a Dame of the British Empire shortly before her death and was beloved of English theatre goers. She acted many of the great Shakespearean heroines including Juliet, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind and Hermione. She was probably intimate with Henry Irving during their seventeen years of work at the Lyceum Theatre in London.
Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was born in Cornwall in dirt poverty.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Moody on August 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

By Michael Holroyd

Daniel Day-Lewis decides to start his own theatre company and hires as his leading lady an actress who combines the allure of Julie Christie, the figure of Nicole Kidman, the lovability of Kate Winslet -- with the talent of all three.

And imagine that these two now hold sway as the cynosure of theatre excellence for fifty years -- as National Treasures -- admired respected, and adored!

Then you might have some idea of the position Henry Irving and Ellen Terry held in the last half of the Nineteenth Century in England -- and in America too, where they toured with great success. Between the two of them they raised the craft of acting to such a point that they became the first English born actors ever to be knighted.

Like Day-Lewis, Irving had a gift for characters of infernal stripe, creatures of shadow, sleath, darkness: Shylock, Richard III, Iago. Whereas Ellen Terry shed a light so endearing, whole theatres would sigh ahhh in joyous relief when she sunnily appeared.

Ellen Terry came from a big old theatre family -- Gielgud is a member of it. Irving came from nothing. Together on the Lyceum stage, they played the commercial and classic successes of their time in expensive productions and to huge audiences. Whole trains were given over to them, their big companies, and the sets they traveled with when they toured. The English-speaking world was fascinated by them. Oscar Wilde wrote sonnets to Ellen Terry. Sargent painted her. Shaw sought to seduce her with his plays.

They produced four remarkable children, although not by one another.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Nick Morgan on July 29, 2013
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The book is best when it covers the lives of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry -- the first 2/3rds of the book. After that, Holroyd attempts to cover the lives of their children, and a number of things go wrong. First of all, the children are simply not as interesting. Second, one of them in particular is a monster, but Holroyd gets most of his information about the monster from the writings of said monster himself. That gives the book a certain weird tone deafness when it comes to the monster's misbehavior. And finally, Holroyd doesn't have much information about the children compared to Ellen and Henry, so we don't get their inner lives in a way that might make them come to life.

But all that said, this is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary couple. If you have any interest in the Victorian period, theatre, or the development of modern arts, this book will hold you in its spell. Holroyd has done admirable research about the two greats of the Victorian stage, and you'll make all sorts of interesting connections as you read. Just one example: Henry Irving's stage manager and factotum, who selflessly and tirelessly took care of all of the great actor's peccadilloes, affairs, and scandals -- and was content to live in his shadow for all of Irving's long life -- wrote a little book in his spare time that you will know. The factotum? Bram Stoker. The book? Dracula.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Elissa Dente on January 1, 2014
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This is a well-written social/theatrical history centering on unusually gifted people who were trained rigorously in lives unusual for their era. Not only a picture of an age, this well-researched History afffectionately looks at partiular individuals who refined their crafts throughout their lives, responding to their historical moment and art form, their audiences and writers, taking emotional, financial and artistic risks. And what of their personal lives? How did these titans' offspring view acting, stagecraft, genius itself? Let alone their parents...
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