19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor

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Public Domain Books

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
John Singer Sargent – American painter
Tate Gallery, London
Oil on canvas
221 x 114.3 cm

[In the autumn of 1883, during Henry Irving’s fist engagement in New York, Ellen Terry played a round of characters as his leading lady. In the Tribune, Mr. William Winter said: “Miss Ellen Terry’s Portia is delicious. Her voice is perfect music. Her clear, bell-like elocution is more than a refreshment, it is a luxury. Her simple manner, always large and adequate, is a great beauty of the art which it so deftly conceals. Her embodiment of a woman’s loveliness, such as, in Portia, should he at once stately and fascinating and inspire at once respect and passion, was felicitous beyond the reach of descriptive phrases.” Then, on her appearance in “Much Ado About Nothing:” “She permeates the raillery of Beatrice with an indescribable charm of mischievous sweetness. The silver arrows of her pungent wit have no barb, for evidently she does not mean that they shall really wound. Her appearance and carriage are beautiful, and her tones melt into music. There is no hint of the virago here, and even the tone of sarcasm is superficial. It is archness playing over kindness that is presented here.” On her Ophelia, Mr. Winter remarks: “Ophelia is an image, or personification of innocent, delirious, feminine youth and beauty, and she passes before us in the two stages of sanity and delirium. The embodiment is fully within Miss Terry’s reach, and is one of the few unmistakably perfect creations with which dramatic art has illumined literature and adorned the stage.”

By permission the following pages have been taken from “Ellen Terry’s Memoirs,” copyright by the S. S. McClure Company, 1908. All rights reserved. ED.)

Hamlet–Irving’s Greatest Part

When I went with Coghlan to see Henry Irving’s Philip I was no stranger to his acting. I had been present with Tom Taylor, then dramatic critic of the Times, at the famous first night at the Lyceum, in 1874, when Henry put his fortune–counted, not in gold, but in years of scorned delights and laborious days, years of constant study and reflection, of Spartan self-denial and deep melancholy–when he put it all to the touch “to win or lose it all.” This is no exaggeration. Hamlet was by far the greatest part that he had ever played or ever was to play. If he had failed–but why pursue it? He could not fail.

Yet, the success on the first night at the Lyceum, in 1874, was not of that electrical, almost hysterical splendour which has greeted the momentous achievements of some actors. The first two acts were received with indifference. The people could not see how packed they were with superb acting–perhaps because the new Hamlet was so simple, so quiet, so free from the exhibition of actors’ artifices which used to bring down the house in “Louis XI” and in “Richelieu,” but which were really the easy things in acting, and in “Richelieu” (in my opinion) not especially well done. In “Hamlet” Henry Irving did not go to the audience; he made them come to him. Slowly, but surely, attention gave place to admiration, admiration to enthusiasm, enthusiasm to triumphant acclaim.

I have seen many Hamlets,–Fechter, Charles Kean, Rossi, Friedrich Haase, Forbes-Robertson, and my own son, Gordon Craig, among them,–but they were not in the same hemisphere! I refuse to go and see Hamlets now. I want to keep Henry Irving’s fresh and clear in my memory until I die.

The Birmingham Night

When he engaged me to play Ophelia in 1878, he asked me to go down to Birmingham to see the play, and that night I saw what I shall always consider the perfection of acting. It had been wonderful in 1874; in 1878 it was far more wonderful. It has been said that when he had the “advantage” of my Ophelia his Hamlet “improved.” I don’t think so; he was always quite independent of the people with whom he acted.

The Birmingham night he knew I was there. He played–I say it without vanity–for me. We players are not above that weakness, if it be a weakness. If ever anything inspires us to do our best, it is the presence in the audience of some fellow-artist who must, in the nature of things, know more completely than any one what we intend, what we do, what we feel. The response from such a member of the audience flies across the footlights to us like a flame. I felt it once when I played Olivia before Eleonora Duse. I felt that she felt it once when she played Marguerite Gautier for me.

When I read “Hamlet” now, everything that Henry did in it seems to me more absolutely right even than I thought at the time. I would give much to be able to record it all in detail, but–it may be my fault–writing is not the medium in which this can be done. Sometimes I have thought of giving readings of “Hamlet,” for I can remember every tone of Henry’s voice, every emphasis, every shade of meaning that he saw in the lines and made manifest to the discerning. Yes, I think I could give some pale idea of what his Hamlet was if I read the play!

“Words, words, words!” What is it to say, for instance, that the cardinal qualities of his Prince of Denmark were strength, delicacy, distinction? There was never a touch of commonness. Whatever he did or said, blood and breeding pervaded it.

The Entrance Scene in “Hamlet”

His “make-up” was very pale, and this made his face beautiful when one was close to him, but at a distance it gave him a haggard look. Some said he looked twice his age.

He kept three things going at the same time–the antic madness, the sanity, the sense of the theatre. The last was to all that he imagined and thought what, in the New Testament, charity is said to be to all other virtues.

He was never cross or moody–only melancholy. His melancholy was as simple as it was profound. It was touching, too, rather than defiant. You never thought that he was wantonly sad and enjoying his own misery.

He neglected no coup de theatre [theatrical artifice] to assist him, but who notices the servants when the host is present?

For instance, his first entrance as Hamlet was what we call, in theatrical parlance, very much “worked up.” He was always a tremendous believer in processions, and rightly. It is through such means that royalty keeps its hold on the feeling of the public and makes its mark as a figure and a symbol. Henry Irving understood this. Therefore, to music so apt that it was not remarkable in itself, but a contribution to the general excited anticipation, the court of Denmark came on to the stage. I understood later on, at the Lyceum, what days of patient work had gone to the making of that procession.

At its tail, when the excitement was at fever-heat, came the solitary figure of Hamlet, looking extraordinarily tall and thin, The lights were turned down–another stage trick–to help the effect that the figure was spirit rather than man.

He was weary; his cloak trailed on the ground. He did not wear the miniature of his father obtrusively round his neck! His attitude was one which I have seen in a common little illustration to the “Reciter,” compiled by Dr. Pinch, Henry Irving’s old schoolmaster. Yet, how right to have taken it, to have been indifferent to its humble origin! Nothing could have been better when translated into life by Irving’s genius.

The hair looked blue-black, like the plumage of a crow; the eyes burning–two fires veiled, as yet, by melancholy. But the appearance of the man was not single, straight, or obvious, as it is when I describe it, any more than his passions throughout the play were. I only remember one moment when his intensity concentrated itself in a straightforward unmistakable emotion, without side-current or back water. It was when he said:

The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King

and, as the curtain came down, was seen to be writing madly on his tablets against one of the pillars.

“0 God, that I were a writer!” I paraphrase Beatrice with all my heart. Surely a writer could not string words together about Henry Irving’s Hamlet and say nothing, nothing.

“We must start this play a living thing,” he used to say at rehearsals, and he worked until the skin grew tight over his face, until he became livid with fatigue, yet still beautiful, to get the opening lines said with individuality, suggestiveness, speed, and power:

Bernardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the king!
Francisco: Bernardo?
Bernardo: He.
Francisco: You come most carefully upon your hour.
Bernardo: ’Tis now struck twelve: get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco: For this relief much thanks: ’t is bitter cold.

And all that he tried to make others do with these lines he himself did with every line of his own part. Every word lived.

Some said: “Oh, Irving only makes ’Hamlet’ a love poem!” They said that, I suppose, because in the nunnery scene with Ophelia he was the lover above the prince and the poet. With what passionate longing his hands hovered over Ophelia at her words, “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind!”

The Scene With the Players

His advice to the players was not advice. He did not speak it as an actor. Nearly all Hamlets in that scene give away the fact that they are actors and not dilettanti of royal blood. Henry defined the way he would have the players speak as an order, an instruction of the merit of which he was regally sure. There was no patronising flavour in his acting here, not a touch of “I’11 teach you how to do it.” He was swift, swift and simple–pausing for the right word now and again, as in the phrase “to hold as ’t were the mirror up to nature.” His slight pause and eloquent gesture, as the all embracing word “nature" came in answer to his call, were exactly repeated unconsciously, years later, by the Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). She was telling us the story of a play that she had written. The words rushed out swiftly, but occasionally she would wait for the one that expressed her meaning most comprehensively and exactly, and, as she got it, up went her hand in triumph over her head–"Like yours in Hamlet,” I told Henry at the time.

Irving Engages Me On Trust

The first letter that I ever received from Henry Irving was written on the 20th of July, 1878, from 15A Grafton Street, the house in which he lived during the entire period of his Lyceum management.

DEAR MISS TERRY: I look forward to the pleasure of calling upon you on Tuesday next at two o’clock,

With every good wish, believe me, Yours sincerely,


The call was in reference to my engagement as Ophelia. Strangely characteristic I see it now to have been of Henry that he was content to take my powers as an actress more or less on trust. A mutual friend, Lady Pollock, had told him that I was the very person for him; that “All London” (a vile but convenient phrase) was talking of my Olivia; that I had acted well in Shakespeare with the Bancrofts; that I should bring to the Lyceum Theatre what players call “a personal following.” Henry chose his friends as carefully as he chose his company and his staff. He believed in Lady Pollock implicitly, and he did not–it is possible that he could not–come and see my Olivia for himself.

I was living in Longridge Road when Henry Irving came to see me. Not a word of our conversation about the engagement can I remember. I did notice, however, the great change that had taken place in the man since I had last met him in 1867. Then he was really very ordinary-looking–with a moustache, an unwrinkled face, and a sloping forehead. The only wonderful thing about him was his melancholy. When I was playing the piano, once, in the green room at the Queen’s Theatre, he came in and listened. I remember being made aware of his presence by his sigh–the deepest, profoundest, sincerest sigh I ever heard from any human being. He asked me if I would not play the piece again. The incident impressed itself on my mind, inseparably associated with a picture of him as he looked at thirty–a picture by no means pleasing. He looked conceited, and almost savagely proud of the isolation in which he lived. There was a touch of exaggeration in his appearance, a dash of Werther, with a few flourishes of Jingle! Nervously sensitive to ridicule, self-conscious, suffering deeply from his inability to express himself through his art, Henry Irving in 1867 was a very different person from the Henry Irving who called on me at Longridge Road in 1878. In ten years he had found himself, and so lost himself–lost, I mean, much of that stiff, ugly self-consciousness which had encased him as the shell encases the lobster. His forehead had become more massive, and the very outline of his features had altered. He was a man of the world, whose strenuous fighting now was to be done as a general–not, as hitherto, in the ranks. His manner was very quiet and gentle. “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength,” says the psalmist. That was always like Henry Irving.

And here, perhaps, is the place to say that I, of all people, can perhaps appreciate Henry Irving least justly, although I was his associate on the stage for a quarter of a century, and was on terms of the closest friendship with him for almost as long a time. He had precisely the qualities that I never find likable.

Irving’s Egotism

He was an egotist, an egotist of the great type, never “a mean egotist,” as he was once slanderously described; and all his faults sprang from egotism, which is, after all, only another name for greatness. So much absorbed was he in his own achievement that he was unable or unwilling to appreciate the achievements of others. I never heard him speak in high terms of the great foreign actors and actresses who from time to time visited England. It would be easy to attribute this to jealousy, but the easy explanation is not the true one. He simply would not give himself up to appreciation. Perhaps appreciation is a wasting though a generous quality of the mind and heart, and best left to lookers-on who have plenty of time to develop it.

I was with him when he saw Sarah Bernhardt act for the first time. The play was “Ruy Blas,” and it was one of Sarah’s bad days. She was walking through the part listlessly, and I was angry that there should be any ground for Henry’s indifference. The same thing happened years later when I took him to see Eleonora Duse. The play was “Locandiera,” to which she was eminently unsuited, I think. He was surprised at my enthusiasm. There was an element of justice in his attitude toward the performance which infuriated me, but I doubt if he would have shown more enthusiasm if he had seen her at her best.

As the years went on he grew very much attached to Sarah Bernhardt, and admired her as a colleague whose managerial work in the theatre was as dignified as his own; but of her superb powers as an actress I don’t believe he ever had a glimmering notion!

Perhaps it is not true, but, as I believe it to be true, I may as well state it: It was never any pleasure to him to see the acting of other actors and actresses. Salvini’s Othello I know he thought magnificent, but he would not speak of it.

Irving’s Simplicity of Character

How dangerous it is to write things that may not be understood! What I have written I have written merely to indicate the qualities in Henry Irving’s nature which were unintelligible to me, perhaps because I have always been more woman than artist. He always put the theatre first. He lived in it, he died in it. He had none of my bourgeois qualities–the love of being in love, the love of a home, the dislike of solitude. I have always thought it hard to find my inferiors. He was sure of his high place. In some ways he was far simpler than I. He would talk, for instance, in such an ignorant way to painters and musicians that I blushed for him. But was not my blush far more unworthy than his freedom from all pretentiousness in matters of art?

He never pretended. One of his biographers had said that he posed as being a French scholar. Such a thing, and all things like it, were impossible to his nature. If it were necessary, in one of his plays, to say a few French words, he took infinite pains to learn them, and said them beautifully.

Henry once told me that in the early part of his career, before I knew him, he had been hooted because of his thin legs. The first service I did him was to tell him that they were beautiful, and to make him give up padding them.

“What do you want with fat, podgy, prize-fighter legs!” I expostulated.

I brought help, too, in pictorial matters. Henry Irving had had little training in such matters; I had had a great deal. Judgment about colours, clothes, and lighting must be trained. I had learned from Mr. Watts, from Mr. Goodwin, and from other artists, until a sense of decorative effect had become second nature to me.

Praise to some people at certain stages of their career is more developing than blame. I admired the very things in Henry for which other people criticised him. I hope this helped him a little.


Preface  •  Joseph Jefferson  •  Edwin Booth  •  Charlotte Cushman  •  Clara Morris  •  Sir Henry Irving  •  Henry Brodribb Irving  •  Ellen Terry  •  Richard Mansfield  •  Tommaso Salvini  •  Adelaide Ristori

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