It's not surprising that Ellen Terry became an actress, nor that she was, for an era or two, the best loved actress in the English-speaking world. Born into a loving family of successful British actors, headed by popular performers Benjamin and Sarah (Ballard) Terry, Ellen — second surviving daughter of 11 children — was destined for stardom.
Home-schooled, Ellen's earliest memories were of the serious instruction she and her siblings received in elocution — what her father called "the importance of clear articulation"— as well as a thorough study of the plays of Shakespeare. She made her first professional stage appearance at the age of 9, when she was hired by Charles Kean (son of actor Edmund Kean and husband of actress Ellen Tree) to play Mamillius in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale which opened at the Princesses Theatre April 28, 1856. She performed her role flawlessly, and without an understudy, every night of a 102-night run. Playing other juvenile roles, including Prince Arthur in King John and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ellen remained with the Keans until Charles Kean retired in 1859
When she was 15, Ellen joined her actress sister Kate (already a popular performer) in a stock company in Bristol, where she met designer Edward Godwin — associate of William Morris and close friend of Whistler — who introduced her to the fine arts and artists of the time, and influenced her appreciation of the wide artistic world outside the theater.
In 1864, George Frederick Watts, an artist with a studio near Hyde Park, invited Ellen to pose for him. By the time the painting was complete, Watts was totally smitten with the young actress and proposed marriage. Assuming that her aging parents would want to see her firmly settled, she accepted. Their age difference (she was 16, he 46) should have signaled potential disaster; they separated 10 months after they were married.
Soon thereafter, Ellen encountered her old friend Edward Godwin, and this time they fell deeply in love. Still legally married to Watts, Ellen ran away with Godwin to his country home in 1868. Their daughter, Edith, was born in 1869, their son, Teddy, in 1872. Parenthood agreed with them, but by the mid-1870s, their love began to unravel as financial problems went unsolved. In an effort to defray some of their expenses, and restart her career, Ellen returned to London and the stage, but Godwin turned his back on the relationship, leaving Ellen and their children.
After giving a star-building performance as Portia in the 1875 production of The Merchant of Venice at the Prince of Wales Theatre, a string of good roles came her way. And in an effort to give her children respectability, she married in 1877, this time to Charles Clavering Wardell Kelly, an actor/journalist, but they separated sometime before his death in 1885.
In 1878, the 30-year-old actress received a message that changed her life: an invitation from the much honored actor, Sir Henry Irving, to join him as leading lady in his company at the newly acquired Lyceum Theatre, beginning with Ophelia opposite Irving's Hamlet. When she eagerly accepted, that was the start of a 24-year, totally compatible partnership — on stage and off. This is not to say they were or weren't lovers. But in every way, they appeared joined at the hip, fully trusting and completely in sync with one another.
Together, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving breathed new life into classical theater in England, and when their American tours began in 1883, huge advance sales led to nightly sold-out performances of The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Charles Reade's The Lyons Mail, W. G. Willis's Faust, Macbeth, Henry VIII, Alfred Tennyson's Becket, King Arthur, Cymbelline, and the list goes on.
Ellen and Sir Henry reigned as Britain's leading interpreters of Shakespeare throughout their 24-year partnership. In 1902, Sir Henry's health began to fail, and he and Ellen gave up the Lyceum, and officially brought to an end a quarter century of superb classical theater. They remained close friends and confidants until Sir Henry died in 1905.
You well may think that Dame Ellen Terry, world-famous actress, would slow down, retire to her home in Smallhythe, Kent, write her memoirs, hug her children and grandchildren, and bask in the glory of a life well spent. But here's how it really went down:
1903 - 1905: She and her son took over management of the Imperial Theatre. Here she had complete artistic control and could choose which roles she would play. (Obviously, she had learned well from her longtime partner!) This new venture focused on the plays of Henrik Ibsen, J. M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw. For at least 20 years, she and Shaw carried on a much publicized correspondence, which has been published and often referred to as a "paper courtship."
1906: Upset by Irving's death in 1905, Ellen went into brief retirement, returning to the stage in April 1906 in the role of Lady Cecily Wayneflete in Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion, then touring successfully in that role throughout England and America.
1907: She toured the U.S. under the direction of Charles Frohman, during which she married American actor James Carew, with whom she had worked at the Court Theatre. He was 30 years her junior. Their marriage was over in under two years.
1909: Ellen played Nance Oldfield in A Pageant of Famous Women, written in 1909 by C. Hamilton and her daughter, Edith.
1910: She toured America once more, to great success.
1911: Returning to England, she played Nell Gwynne in The First Actress by Christopher St. John. Also that year she recorded scenes from five Shakespearean roles for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
1914: Ellen toured Australia and the U.S. again, reciting and lecturing on Shakespeare's heroines. While in the states, she underwent surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes, but the operation was only partially successful.
1916: She performed the role of Darling in Barrie's The Admirable Crichton.
1917 - 1922: Her busy schedule included performing in many WW1 benefits, and she continued to perform on stage while establishing a respectable motion picture career. She retired from the stage in 1920, and from films in 1922.
1925: Actress Ellen Terry became Dame Alice Ellen Terry when she was awarded a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.
In the last few years of her life, Dame Ellen gradually lost her eyesight, and showed signs of senility. She died at her home in Smallhythe, Kent. She was 81. Her ashes are inurned at the actors' church, St. Paul's, Covent Garden, London.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/