Ellen Terry, 1848-1928
DURING the past week I have read about a score of biographies and reminiscences and impressions of Ellen Terry. If I had not seen her, would any of them have conveyed more than a " faint intellectual image " of her presence ? Can you describe a voice ? Hazlitt and Lamb and Leigh Hunt, with others of those old actor enthusiasts, were fond of putting the question and of answering it with a paralysing " No." But one must try.
The Terry voice, as people used to call it, was tuned to express a richness of womanly sympathy. In Ellen's, especially, there were no harsh and fierce notes ; nothing that threatened, nothing declamatory : she was no ranter. She " spoke fn tenderness," always ; even when she ought to have been speaking with tragic force. She spoke in character—her own. The voice had in it a " break " which she did not care to discipline into a consistent strain of prolonged rhetoric. It won the hearer and held him. It could not startle and terrify.
It was therefore the voice of the comic, not of the tragic, muse ; but of comedy capable, at any moment, of bursting into tears ; and of pathos ready, under swift consolation, to begin laughing again : or, often, the two might be incongruously mingled in flights of caprice, like those of a child teasing the graver grown-ups.
Was she in earnest ? Did she mean it ? Or was she merely " playing at acting " ? The limitations of that voice, as of correspondent gentle gesture, and clinging form, and womanly attitude, made one ask such pies. tions, as one saw her in parts, not perhaps really beyond her powers, but outside her sympathies—parts which she could not take seriously, though we were required, by long custom, to do so. Her Lady Macbeth—to get rid of the worst—was indeed almost comically pathetic. Here was no iron-willed creature spurring a slower resolution to great deeds ; here, exquisitely beautiful as ever, was Ellen Terry trying to be stern, and seeming, all the while, to whisper : " As if anybody could be so cruel ! " Her Volumnia in Coriolanus it would be unfair to criticize too closely : when she played the part her memory was failing, and the voice, breaking irrelevantly, was apt to be drowned by the willing voices of many concealed prompters. But the stamp of her foot as she tried to affect the noble Roman matron—one remembers that ! It was delicately, disarmingly, pettish.
Her Juliet I never saw—unless I may count as Juliet that excerpt from the potion scene she gave in Nance Oldfield, a beautiful parody of the grand manner. Queen Katharine came nearer to her nature, and I remember her defiance of the Cardinals as superb : Ellen Terry roused, indignant, in defence of all injured women, Her pale, sweet Cordelia too—this was one of the loveliest of her milder tragic efforts, if only one could have enjoyed it apart from the mumbling Lear of Henry Irving. And, as tantalizing lost visions of feminine loveliness, those once familiar Window and Grove photographs, in faded albums, will show you her Henrietta Maria, her Lucy Ashton (Ravenswood), her tormented " revolutionary " face in The Dead Heart, the other Heart (of Amber) her Marguerite in Faust, her white-robed Ophelia.
The comic masks in the old album bring Ellen Terry's triumphs, and hardly any of her failures, into memory. They show her as Viola, as Hermione, as Beatrice, as Portia—these last two perhaps the most completely successful of all her Shakespearean performances. She was not young enough for Beatrice when I saw her in the part. But, even in later days, she cast over it an airy enchantment, stripping it of the tiresome Elizabethan sauciness in a supposed wit which consists in saying such rude things as " nobody marks you ! " to a gallant who needs snubbing. Her Portia is still probably the best remembered of these heroines. It had a brave dignity and a steadiness not always visible in much of her seemingly instinctive acting ; not noticeable, for example, later, in her Imogen—essentially, divinely an Ellen Terry part. She did delicious things as Imogen, but disappointingly did not seem to grasp the character as a whole. She romped, in those days : she " larked " too much. One of the actors, in that revival of Cymbeline, told me that she slipped an egg into his hand one night, so that he had to play the rest of the scene with a clenched fist. It is an old stage jest, and readers of Histoire Comique may remember that Anatole France recalls it in that poignant piece of satire.
None of the recent biographies and criticisms of Ellen Terry has, I think, mentioned Ada Rehan in connexion with her. Yet the contrast, the comparison, between the two is illuminating.
Ada Rehan had far more vigour and ardour ; she spoke verse magnificently, without " breaks " and hesita- tions, as no Shakespearean actress I have ever heard has spoken it. And she seemed to have that power of composition which was denied to Ellen Terry's capricious temperament, which passed swiftly from point to point, from speech to speech ; rarely able to harmonize inspiration. But this impression of mine may be cor- rected by older playgoers ; and it needs to be confronted by the really acute intelligence revealed in her Story of My Life, one of the few theatrical books that are not an insignificant collection of idiotic anecdotes. In it she pays Ada Rehan a tribute of noble praise. Re- member, too, when it is said that the famous Lyceum management did little or nothing for the modern stage, that, once free, Ellen Terry had the motherly pride and courage to give Gordon Craig his one chance in our slow-moving country. Self-sacrificingly, " instead of going to America and making £12,000," she took the Imperial Theatre and produced Ibsen's Vikings, with his magnificent designs. That was in 1903. Since then, all Europe (except England) has borrowed, without much acknowledgment, from Ellen Terry's son. No : she did not lack understanding ! But feeling was the chief ingredient in her acting, as I remember it. If I could refer to it again, as to a book half-forgotten, for what part would I recall her ? Certainly, for her Olivia in Wills's adaptation of The Vicar of Wakefield. Here pathos and comedy were blended to perfection, and she has herself said that Olivia, more than any part, touched her to the heart. I can see her still, standing under the tree in the first act, looking doubtfully at Thornhill ; afraid, yet longing to believe in him. " As you stand there, whipping your boot, you look the very picture of vain indifference ! " Then came the beau- tifully played passage of farewell with Irving; and then that most celebrated scene, where, in reproachful scorn, she turned upon Thornhill with sudden horrified recog- nition of him as he was, and struck him in an unforgettable chance gesture of anger and despair. This was Ellen Terry's supreme moment in drama. If one could see it again I But you cannot " look up " the stage classic, to renew your first delight in it. The book is lost ; the masterpiece has vanished from circulation. And it can