Drama kings and queens

<strong>A Strange Eventful History: the Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remark

This is Michael Holroyd's first extended feat of biographical writing since his monumental three-volume life of George Bernard Shaw, completed nearly twenty years ago. A Strange Eventful History is magnificent - not just as a fascinating exercise in group biography, but as a masterpiece of comic writing. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that I think Proust would have been addicted to it, had it been published in time. You would never guess that the author underwent several rounds of surgery for cancer during the book's gestation, there's such joie de vivre in the way he threads together the stories of several related vies that were not always full of joie. And yet, if we can swap foreign languages, he pulls this off without the least Schadenfreude.

The book began as a projected biographical study of Ellen Terry, who surfaces in Holroyd's previous work as an ardent correspondent - though never remotely a co-respondent - with Shaw. Born in a trunk in 1847, she buckled to the family business of performing, making her debut as Mamillius, the little prince who dies as a result of his father's mad jealousy in The Winter's Tale. Given the number of paternally caused problems in the later years of the dynasty, there is a certain grim appropriateness to this casting. Though overshadowed initially by her sister Kate, Terry went on to be the toast of the English theatre - a mixture of Judi Dench, Lady Diana and the Queen Mother.

Terry wrote an airbrushed autobiography and has been the subject of several books, including one by the former ballet dancer Moira Shearer. But Holroyd brings such a fresh eye to his subjects and such a talent for synthesising difficult material of diverse provenance that I am sure any single life of the actress written by him would have been well worth reading. The only trick he misses on the Ellen Terry front is to leave out her friendship with Edward Fitzgerald, the great gre garious loner of Victorian literature, with his crushes on sailors and his wonderful translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Several charming letters from him to her are in print. Holroyd wonderfully structures the material he does include, however.

He begins in fine paradoxical form with a cliffhanger worthy of Wilkie Collins and handed to him on a plate by Terry who, at 20, went missing presumed drowned. Her father even identified a body as belonging to her. But it proved that news of her death had been greatly exaggerated when she emerged to reveal that she was living in a bucolic idyll with an older stage designer and architect.

Rather than keep Terry centre stage for the entire book, Holroyd has decided to disperse his attention among the theatrical dynasty of which she was monarch and give almost equal billing to the actor with whom she had such a fertile and commercially successful partnership - Henry Irving. He tends to be rather a derided figure now in the theatrical history books for his melodramatic style and the fact that he got The Bells badly on the brain. Indeed, in many ways he was no hero. He did nothing to resist stage censorship and even his faithful manager, Bram Stoker, could not deny that there were strange similarities between Henry and Stoker's fictional Count Dracula. But such was his standing that he got the full works of a state funeral when he made his final exit.

You could subtitle the book Six Characters in Search of a Hagiography. Terry's son, the egregious Edward Gordon Craig, was an assiduous self-chronicler. Just as anyone writing about Alfred, Lord Tennyson has to deal with the mass of material assembled about the Tennysons by the Tennysons, so the job of Holroyd the group biographer is complicated - and made more interesting - by the fact that several of his subjects here were myth-smiths and liable to dispute or want altered the public perceptions that rival relatives were creating.

There are one or two classic Oedipal struggles. It's never easy to follow in the footsteps of a great actor father. H B Irving, son of Henry, had it worse than most when, in revivals of his now deceased dad's shows, he found himself upstaged from beyond the grave. One averts one's gaze even as one reads Holroyd's vivid account of the reductio ad absurdum of this scenario. In a dramatisation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the terrifying spectre of the father was summoned on to the stage by the son in the act of transformation: "As Jekyll gave way each night to the diabolical Hyde, it seemed as if the unearthly spirit of Henry Irving had indeed returned from the dead and was devouring his son." HB would have been better off stacking shelves or setting up shop as a mudlark.

Ellen Terry's son, Gordon Craig, is the star of the last stretch of the book, though as anti-hero genius rather crowd-pulling favourite. If Henry Irving represents somewhat literal-minded Victorian gigantism (why represent a bluebell wood on stage if you can afford to instal the real thing?), Craig epitomised new-wave megalomania. He is the first real auteur in the theatre. We all feel we have a touch of Hamlet in us, but Craig had that conviction with a vengeance. The production of this tragedy that he devised for Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre turned it into a phantasmagoric monodrama, with silently sliding screens and subjective mise en scène. There a direct path between this staging and Robert Lepage's recent Elsinore, which graphically converted the play into a solo show with Lepage as the auteur/performer.

In fact, Craig was what Peter Brook would have been, had he lacked stamina and savvy. Most of his projects remained locked in the realm of the fascinatingly hypothetical (though his book On the Art of the Theatre is a classic that repays close attention). This was partly because Craig's talent for going into a cloud-capp'd towering huff was exceptional, partly because life doesn't make a habit of funding mavericks, and partly because he seems - from these riveting pages - not to have had much spine, morally speaking. His weakness for women was matched by their weakness for him. Chekhov's lover Olga Knipper was pleased to see him in Moscow. He and Isadora Duncan deserved each other - and more than once. Given to persecution complex, he was adept at the no-show: he didn't attend his mother's acting jubilee and he did not go to the funeral of a daughter who died very young in an awful motoring cock-up.

The index note for him is blackly comic as it tells in telegraphese the story of the Great Mind that could not make itself up - "impressed then disillusioned by Mussolini, 554, 556"; "tells wife it is all over, 303-4"; "a fourth child (Peter), 304". Famed for exile, he was eventually appointed a Companion of Honour. Again, there is a comparison with Peter Brook, and a contrast. Brook keeps pulling off the marvels he conceives in a career of astonishing fertility.

A Strange Eventful History is written with an exquisite instinct for measured comedy that does not disrespect measureless folly and ambition, yet does not take them on their own terms. Here is a little instance of Holroyd's perfect pitch. He is writing about Ellen Terry's lectures about Shakespeare. In 1903, she had given "a charming talk in Glasgow on what she called 'an unfrequented corner' of Shakespeare's world. 'The Letters in Shakespeare's Plays' was based on the dramatic use to which the playwright had put his characters' correspondence - letters written, read or paraphrased out loud; false, genuine and pseudonymous letters composed in verse or prose . . . These letters were not as familiar as Shakespeare's songs and Ellen surprised some scholars with her calculation that there were thirty-four of them." That last sentence is deliciously funny - particularly the level understatement of "surprised".

It makes one think that there could be a book about the lectures on Shakespeare that famous people have given around the world. And now that Holroyd has the cancer licked, he would be the ideal person to write it. But he's already at work on another project that involves more than one life. All power to his pen.

Paul Taylor is theatre critic of the Independent

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran