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Strange Eventful History

by Michael Holroyd
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publishing date: 02/03/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780312429492
  • ISBN: 0312429495

Synopsis

In A Strange Eventful History, one of our greatest living biographers turns his attention to a gruop of history's most influential performers, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.
 
Ellen Terry was ther era's most powerful actress.  George Bernard Shaw was so besotted that he wrote her letters almost daily, but could not bear to meet her, lest the spell she cast from the stage be broken.  Henry Irving was a merchant's clerk who by force of will and wit became one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the theater.  Together, Irving and Terry presided over a powerhouse of the arts in London's Lyceum Theatre and revived English theater as a popular art form.
 
Exactingly researched and bursting with charismatic life, this epic story follows Terry and Irving and their brilliant but volatile children--among them Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig, the revolutionary theatrical designer.  A Strange Eventful History is more than an account of the great classical age of London theater; it is a potrait of nineteenth-century society on the precipice of great change.
Knighted for his services to literature, Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey, as well as two memoirs. He is the president of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.
Deemed ?a prodigy among biographers” by The New York Times Book Review, Michael Holroyd transformed biography into an art. Now he turns his keen observation, humane insight, and epic scope on an ensemble cast, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.

Ellen Terry was an ethereal beauty, the child bride of a Pre-Raphaelite painter who made her the face of the age. George Bernard Shaw was so besotted by her gifts that he could not bear to meet her, lest the spell she cast from the stage be broken. Henry Irving was an ambitious, harsh-voiced merchant’s clerk, but once he painted his face and spoke the lines of Shakespeare, his stammer fell away to reveal a magnetic presence. He would become one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the theater. Together, Terry and Irving created a powerhouse of the arts in London’s Lyceum Theatre, with Bram Stoker?who would go on to write Dracula?as manager. Celebrities whose scandalous private lives commanded global attention, they took America by storm in wildly popular national tours.

Their all-consuming professional lives left little room for their brilliant but troubled children. Henry’s boys followed their father into the theater but could not escape the shadow of his fame. Ellen’s feminist daughter, Edy, founded an avant-garde theater and a largely lesbian community at her mother’s country home. But it was Edy’s son, the revolutionary theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig, who possessed the most remarkable gifts and the most perplexing inability to realize them. A now forgotten modernist visionary, he collaborated with the Russian director Stanislavski on a production of Hamlet that forever changed the way theater was staged. Maddeningly self-absorbed, he inherited his mother’s potent charm and fathered thirteen children by eight women, including a daughter with the dancer Isadora Duncan.

An epic story spanning a century of cultural change, A Strange Eventful History finds space for the intimate moments of daily existence as well as the bewitching fantasies played out by its subjects. Bursting with charismatic life, it is an incisive portrait of two families who defied the strictures of their time. It will be swiftly recognized as a classic.
"There have been several excellent books about Irving and Terry individually, including Terry’s own charming, if highly unreliable, memoir, The Story of My Life. What Holroyd adds to the picture is an extended dual focus, as well as lively and entertaining writing?among contemporary biographers he is almost without peer as a stylist?and an unparalleled knowledge of the period. (Who but Holroyd, for example, would know about Irving’s travails in finding a suitable Rozinante for a one-acter about Don Quixote? . . . As the title suggests, Holroyd frames his book almost like a melodrama, and it unspools with great narrative energy . . . Physically, A Strange Eventful History is an exceptionally handsome volume, with pages of color photographs and many of Gordon Craig’s original woodcuts."?Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

"Their personalities, the interactions among them, and their relations with their society form the subject of Michael Holroyd's enthralling new study. One of the themes to emerge from this book is the rise in social status of the theatrical profession during the later nineteenth century . . . Holroyd's preeminence as a biographer of writers and artists working between the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries?Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, Lytton Strachey?rests partly on the thoroughness of his archival research, fully witnessed by the 'Outline of Sources' listed here, and on his mastery of the historical background. He has superb organizational skills, evinced by the unfailingly lucid intertwining of diverse narratives in this book. He possesses to an unusual degree the quality, difficult to define but so welcome when it occurs, of readability. His sentences flow with easy, rhythmical grace. Unlabored stylistic felicities abound, and Holroyd has a novelist's eye for significant detail . . . A Strange Eventful History crowns, but we must hope does not conclude, the career of a great biographer."?Stanley Wells, The New York Review of Books

"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."?The New Yorker

"In this group biography of Terry, Irving and their families, Michael Holroyd?well known for his lives of Lytton Strachey and Shaw?has produced the most completely delicious, the most civilized and the most wickedly entertaining work of nonfiction anyone could ask for. I have no particular interest in theatrical history, but Holroyd's verve?his dramatic sense for the comic and the tragic?is irresistible. The book's chapters are pleasingly short, its prose crisp and fast-moving, and every page is packed with bizarre doings, eccentric characters, surprising factoids and a stream of lively and scandalous anecdotes . . . A Strange Eventful History is a wonderful book, deserving applause, bouquets and a rave review in this morning's paper."?Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

"When Michael Holroyd takes on a subject, you know his sweep will be wide. This is not to say that he forfeits depth?far from it?but rather that he puts things in the fullest possible context. His groundbreaking biography of Lytton Strachey more than 40 years ago not only established him as a first-rate practitioner of the art but also blew the lid off the Bloomsbury group with his revelations of their hitherto discreetly covered-up antics. Indeed, he is both forefather and godfather to the hundreds of works exploring the lives, loves and libidos of that fascinating crowd . . . So it is not surprising that A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families is not just a life of the great Victorian actress but includes her leading man (and presiding genius, along with Terry and their manager Bram Stoker, of London's landmark Lyceum Theatre) as well as both their families."?Martin Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"Michael Holroyd opens A Strange Eventful History like one of those Victorian thrillers known as a penny dreadful. The year is 1868, and a 21-year-old actress leaves a London theater after the curtain has come down, then she vanishes into the city's dark streets. Her parents, with whom she has been living, know that she has been unhappy, and when the body of a golden-haired young girl is discovered floating in the Thames a few days later, the actress's father identifies the corpse as hers. But it is not: Hearing the news of her supposed death, the young woman rushes home. In her memoirs, Mr. Holroyd reports, she will omit mention that she had left this two-word note in her bedroom before disappearing: 'Found Drowned.' As we later learn, the memoir also forgets to note that she had disappeared in the company of a man with whom, to use the vernacular of the time, she had been living in sin. The actress with the dramatic offstage life, Ellen Terry, is the sun around whom the other characters re...


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  • THE THEATRE BIOGRAPHY OF THE DECADE
    From Amazon

    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. All four children went into the theatre, and A Strange Eventful History is the first account not just of their huge careers but also of the influence of their lives on their offspring. What effect parents of this level of glamour and accomplishment have on their children, how do the children avoid it, use, it, live it out, live through it. Their four children all entered the theatre and all became well known in it -- indeed Gordon Craig, Ellen Terry's son, revolutionized modern stage design. But to be such children was no joke. No story of the influence of parents of fame has ever before been told with this degree of insight and depth of information. And the stories of Terry and Irving themselves, seminal stars of the modern theatre, teach us a generous modesty about the work theatre takes, the devotion it needs, and the natural talent it wants. Aside from the pleasure of learning about their spectacular professional and private lives and the fun and riches of the era over which they reigned, A Strange Eventful History is brilliantly written by the superstar of biography Michael Holroyd. As the biographer of Lytton Strachey, August John, and the four-volume biography of Bernard Shaw, Michael Holroyd has just been knighted Everyone who has read these knows what an entertaining teller of serious biography he is - just, balanced, witty, surprising, and fun. (The notes at the end are, as usual, as readable as the text itself.) His handling of the material, his deeply humorous style, his easy command of the vast body of research that went into it, is a treat. Anyone interested in the tradition in which the theatre of today was formed owes himself the education and pleasure of reading this, the theatre biography of the decade.

  • Highly recommended for both theater and general lending libraries alike
    From Amazon

    General lending libraries strong in biography will find powerful A STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY; THE DRAMATIC LIVES OF ELLEN TERRY, HENRY IRVING, AND THEIR REMARKABLE FAMILIES. The threesome formed part of a dynasty that saw the rise of the golden age of theater, but saw it from very different angles. Ellen Terry was a beauty capturing the attention of George Bernard Shaw, Henry Irving was a merchant-turned-actor who brought Shakespeare to life, and the two's theatre ambitions would change their families. A powerful pick, highly recommended for both theater and general lending libraries alike.

  • A Strange Eventful History tells the story of actress Ellen Terry, actor-manager Henry Irving and their families
    From Amazon

    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. Over long years he worked his way up in the theatrical profession. He was crusty and a perfectionist in the acting craft. He separated from his longsuffering wife Florence. His two sons Henry Jr and Laurence became actors. He was moody and a loner. He played such characters as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Faust and Don Quixote. He was the greatest classical actor-manager of the late Victorian age. One of his assistants was Bram Stoker noted for his horror novel Dracula.Irving was the first British actor who was ever knighted. The second half of this long book deals with the fortunes of the children of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Ellen's daughter Edy was a lesbian who spent years working in the theatre. Her son Edward Craig taught theatre producing a famous textbook on the subject. Edward taught acting, designed sets and oversaw productions throughout Europe. He was a rake who sire at least 13 children by 8 women including the famous dancer Isadore Duncan. He was, in my opinion, a spoiled and wretched human being who did contribute artistically to the acting profession. The book will do better in England where the main characters gained their fame. It is, nevertheless, a good book which has been well researched by Holyrod. Anyone interested in the theatre would find it worthy of a read. Terry and Irving loved their Yankee cousins making seven successful tours of the United States.

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