A Strange Eventful History
A Strange Eventful History
The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374270803, 640pp.
Publication Date: March 3, 2009
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-voicedmerchant’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 stormin 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.
“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.” —Paul Taylor, New Statesman
“Holroyd has a wonderful eye for detail, often almost obsessive, but never redundant . . . He also has a dramatist’s ear for dialogue and for making all the minor characters interesting. Add to this a nose for a good story and a wit that often undermines his subjects’ seriousness without ever capsizing it, and you have an entirely captivating biography which ranks alongside his Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form.” —Richard Eyre, The Guardian
“A fabulous cavalcade of a book, written with infectious verve and deep imaginative sympathy.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)
“A collective biography that doesn’t disintegrate into something less than the sum of its parts . . . The miracle of this book . . . is that it manages to engage and maintain the reader’s interest through a rapidly evolving, scene-changing narrative, presented with a range of eye-catching effects . . . Holroyd evokes the mysterious world of the Victorian and Edwardian theatre, the hiss of the gas footlights, the coloured lights and smoke, with all the attention to detail of the star-struck fan seated in the front stalls.” —Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday
“[A] delightful narrative . . . Captivating.” —The Economist
“A Strange Eventful History, [Holroyd’s] first biography for fifteen years, has all the tumbling narrative, spicy detail and easy empathy that determine his Midas touch. But it has something else, too: a rich, playful style more typically associated with lyric forms . . . which shows Holroyd yet again pushing the biographer’s art to new imaginative planes.” —Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times
“Holroyd has once again triumphed over a seemingly impossible subject . . . Like all his biographies, [A Strange Eventful History] avoids neat explanations and simplistic pieties . . . It is also deftly plotted, with an infectious verve that springs from his delight in the waywardness of human nature.”—Frances Spalding, The Independent