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Actress and Critic

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence. Edited by Christopher St. John. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $5.00.

This correspondence between Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw covers a period of thirty years, with long pauses towards its end. His first letter to her is dated June 24,1892, and her last letter to him May 6, 1922. The letters are edited by Miss Christopher St. John, a friend of Ellen Terry, and the closest friend of Miss Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig. Shaw’s preface is a sympathetic and charming introduction to the most famous, as well as wisest and best, English actress of her time. His letters, though at times un-Shavian, add less to our knowledge and image of him than Ellen Terry’s letters add to our conception of what must have been the most appealing figure of any stage then or now. “She was not in the least,” says Mr. Shaw, “what is called a grande amoureuse. In the ordering of her life there was nothing of the infatuations and extravagances, the reckless expenditure, the fantastic equipment, the debts, the jewels, the caprices, the menagerie of strange pet animals and reptiles, and all the other affectations and fictions by which actresses’ press agents advertise their mostly sober, honest, industrious, economical and monogamous principals. Ellen Terry did not know what an actress’s press agent was. And she was no fool: she lived and died within her means. She was certainly, no skinflint: she would have run through her money too generously if she had not given it to businesslike friends to keep for her; but she died solvent, an honest woman with no vices. . . . One may say that her marriages were adventures and her friendships enduring. And all these friendships have the character of innocent love affairs: her friends were her lovers in every sense except the technical one; and she was incapable of returning their regard coolly; she felt either warmly or not at all. And yet she was critical, and never lost her head when it was necessary to keep it.” She appears, moreover, to have possessed the distinction of a truly kind heart.

These letters, begun when Ellen Terry was forty-four, with her position unrivalled among stage celebrities, and Shaw thirty-six and an obscure music critic on the Saturday Review, are completely consistent with Shaw’s introductory portrait. Ellen Terry, first wrote to Shaw to ask his opinion “of a composer-singer friend” of hers, Elvira Gam-bogi. And Shaw, not impressed by Miss Gambogi’s talent, but only by “her drawingroom beauty and charm,” wrote, at amazing length, a very thorough exposition of his opinion to Miss Terry. The letters, beginning with “Mr. Shaw” and “Miss Terry,” graduate through “Dear and Esteemed Lady” to “Bernie” and “Ellenest.” And Mr. Shaw in his preface rather quaintly explains that the correspondence must not be judged “according to the code of manners which regulate polite letter writing in cathedral country towns”— an explanation which reminds us of his generation, and of the rightness of Ellen Terry, who had always “a sure touch with men,” in refusing to regard him as “a half-starved Mephistopheles.” She never accepted the Shavian legend which later prevailed, but regarded her correspondent always with an affectionate indulgence. And a few days after her death Edith Craig found a paper labelled “My Friends.” It bore a recent date, and directly under the name of Charles Reade, who headed the list, was the name of Bernard Shaw.

During its early years this correspondence remained a paper flirtation, completely light-hearted and beguiling. Neither letter-writer seriously wanted to meet the other. Shaw, with the proper amount of gallantry, occasionally urged a meeting, but one cannot help feeling that he was secretly grateful to Ellen Terry for refusing him. He, like nearly all men of his day, commonplace and distinguished, adored Ellen Terry on the stage, and she, the most modest of actresses, insisted that an offstage meeting would bring disenchantment. They never, in fact, met more than once or twice, and towards the end of their correspondence.

Aside from the insight these letters give us into two of the most brilliant personalities of their day, carefree and at play, sufficiently secure with one another to be either silly or sad, in the relaxed moments of the high-pressure, top-speed lives that both were living, the most vital parts of them tell the story of the celebrated Irving-Terry partnership at the old Lyceum Theatre in London. The birth of the English theatre that we know today is here presented, with Mr. Shaw in the role of mother, writhing, far more than Miss Terry, in labour pains. He is infuriated with Sir Henry Irving, whose distinction he does not dispute, but whose claim to brains or to any interest in the stage except as a background for his own personality he absolutely denies, for using Ellen Terry, “a pure mother’s milk professional,” merely as an adjunct to the Irving prestige; to exploit her great name for his honour and glory, rather than give to her immense talent, beauty, and charm its rightful space and air in which to expand. The continual Shakespearean repertoire of the Irving-Terry, regime at the Lyceum was excessively annoying to Shaw, and he was eager to interrupt and thwart it with Ibsen, or with Shaw himself. The only contemporary dramatic literature of which Sir Henry was aware were one or two plays by Tennyson. So he was obdurate, and Ellen Terry, for a combination of reasons, felt compelled to support Irving, whom she liked and admired.

The part of Lady Cicely, in “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion,” was not only written for Ellen Terry, but was wholly inspired by her. It was a part directly opposed to Shaw’s Cleopatra, who won her victories through her sex; a part in which Shaw accomplished what only a few other writers have, the portrayal of a lovely woman who conquered through her own essential fineness and superiority, never needing to use her sex. The play, Shaw believed, was an antidote to the feverish admiration of Bismarck, Kitchener, and others like them which was fast sweeping Europe into imperialism and war mania. But it was not until after Sir Henry Irving’s death, and his burial in Westminster Abbey —which Shaw declined to attend, declaring, in a bland ignoring of Shakespeare, that Literature had no place there — that Ellen Terry, to Shaw’s infinite joy, materialized as Lady Cicely on the London stage. At rehearsals Ellen Terry and Shaw, who had met only once before, met several times.

The letters, however, waned, when business entered them. Indeed, before that time, Shaw’s marriage had lessened their frequency, and Ellen Terry’s last marriage to a young American actor, James Carew, had affected the correspondence far more than Shaw’s marriage. Neither business nor marrying, however, destroyed the feeling which existed between them, since each was unique in the life of the other. It was an affection whose expression was limited to paper, in letters and in Shaw’s tributes to the actress in the Saturday Review. But, says Mr. Shaw, of a lady who died three years ago at the age of eighty: “She never was old to me. Let those who may complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.”


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