Ellen Terry: Too human to be called divine

Having been bowled over by Eileen Page’s performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Tara Theatre last year, I would have moved hell and high water to see her play Ellen Terry, in ‘Too Human to be Called Divine’.

Luckily, I didn’t have to go to those lengths, the journey from Islington to Earlsfield involving a short walk, a tube ride and a brief overground journey: barely enough time to read five chapters of the psychological thriller that is currently gripping me: Amy Lloyd’s ‘The Innocent Wife’.

I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight. I’m passionate about theatre: have been since I was a child, thanks to parents who loved books and plays and a wonderful English literature teacher who took our class to theatrical productions all over the country: Corin Redgrave in ‘Enemy of the People’ at the Young Vic remains a particular highlight.

Ellen Terry, there’s no doubt, was a trailblazer for her time. Before the performance began, Eileen Page shimmied on to the stage, exquisite in a floor length mauve dress, to introduce us to this play and to explain why she feels such a connection to the legendary actress. And there is, mark my words, an extraordinary connection – and I don’t just mean that both women are incredible actresses.

Pages’s father, Ben, was born at the beginning of the 19th century (this wonderful actress is, remember, 93 years old) and was, as a child, as boisterous and fun-loving as most boys are. One day, chasing a ball across a local street, he veered directly into the path of a carriage – and, for several moments, was dragged down said street, entangled in the horse’s reins.

A bumped and bruised Ben was returned to his family’s home – where he was later visited by an exceedingly glamorous couple, bearing a Fortnum & Mason’s hamper and bunches of violets. Eileen’s father had collided with Sir Henry Irving’s carriage: the legendary actor wasn’t in it at the time, but with his leading lady, Ellen Terry, came to visit little Ben.

What an incredible story. Page would tell us, after her performance, how as a “very, very old actress” (her words, not mine), how it saddens her that young actors have no knowledge of Ellen Terry, widely considered our greatest ever Shakespearean actress.

It’s a strange thing, growing older, isn’t it? I’m loath to describe Eileen Page as looking good for her age or being someone I aspire to be like when I’m older; both statements sound patronising and I’m well aware that Page has experienced life-changing events that I’ve never had to contend with: being widowed at the age of 25 with two young children to support, for one. And yet, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the wisdom and knowledge of the generations who precede us.

Ellen Terry’s destiny, we learned tonight, was foretold from a young age. Aged nine, she was performing on stage for the princely sum of 15 shillings per week, taking deportment classes at the same time. Neither she, nor her sister Kate, ever went to school – and soon, they were touring the country.

Who needs school, though, when you have the kind of eclectic and exciting life that Ellen experienced? As the play progressed we learned of Ellen’s love of Shakespeare, instilled in her by Ben, Sir Henry Irving and the architect Edward Godwin, who Ellen met when he was 28 and living in a Georgian mansion filled with art, books and Persian rugs. Accustomed to living in “dingy theatrical lodgings” this was, Ellen would later recall, the first time she began to appreciate beauty.

It was around this time that Ellen met the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, who painted both Ellen and Kate. In an act that would raise more than a few eyebrows these days, “well-meaning friends” arranged a marriage between Watts, 47, and Ellen – aged just 16. Not altogether surprisingly, their marriage lasted a mere ten months.

Persuaded back into the theatre, Ellen met Godwin again – now, a widower. Together, they eloped to the countryside where they lived, unmarried (this was the Victorian era, remember), for six years. Blissfully contented, Ellen learned how to garden and cook, and the couple had two children. This is one of the most moving scenes in the play, with Page lighting up the stage as she describes Ellen’s happiness with “the one man she truly loved”.

Contentment, however, doesn’t keep the wolf from the door and the couple’s debts mounted up. One day, with the bailiffs looming, Ellen bumped into Charles Keane, a prominent man of the theatre. Her request for £40 per week to return to the stage was, she tells us, “a joke” – but Keane agreed with alacrity and, before she knew, it Ellen was performing again and being described as “simply wonderful” by Lewis Carroll.

Ellen and Godwin’s financial troubles continued, with pressure being put on Ellen by her parents and friends to leave her partner. Then, she was offered the role of Portia at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

In the end, it was Godwin who left Ellen, and their children. For the rest of her life, Eileen Page told a tearful audience, Ellen spoke of her love for the man that she was never to marry. On the rebound, Ellen married another actor, Charles Kelly – from whom she would separate fewer than four years later.

Life really is stranger than fiction, isn’t it? In 1878, Ellen received a letter from Sir Henry Irving, the new manager of the Lyceum Theatre, announcing he was coming to visit her. The greatest partnership in the history of British theatre was about to begin.

Finally, Ellen Terry would receive the recognition and financial rewards that she deserved; never again would she know poverty. In a string of unmatchable achievements she played Portia over 1,000 times, played Ophelia to Irving’s Hamlet and was described as “mesmerising” by Oscar Wilde, who wrote five sonnets for his favourite actress. She and Irving toured America many times, and she grew to have a “great affection” for the country that became like a second home.

Her venture into producing plays, with her son Teddy, was “a disaster”, but her audience’s adoration of her remained undimmed; they loved her “passionately and affectionately”.

Ellen Terry would outlive her contemporaries, Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan, and spend her final years in Kent where she died, in July 1928 on a “gloriously sunny” day – the yellow rose named after her blooming to perfection in her garden.

What joy this phenomenal actress and feminist brought through her work – and what a joy it was to behold Eileen Page bring her to life and share Ellen Terry’s hopes and dreams with us. She is part of our theatrical heritage – as is John Gielgud who, would you believe, turns out to have been Ellen Terry’s great nephew. You really do learn something every day.

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