Supporting cast spoils great leads

When Michael Holroyd takes on a subject, you know his sweep will be wide. This is not to say that he forfeits depth -- far from it -- but rather that he puts things in the fullest possible context. His groundbreaking biography of Lytton Strachey more than 40 years ago not only established him as a first-rate practitioner of the art but also blew the lid off the Bloomsbury group with his revelations of their hitherto discreetly covered-up antics. Indeed, he is both forefather and godfather to the hundreds of works exploring the lives, loves and libidos of that fascinating crowd.

Holroyd was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 "for services to literature," but he has probably done as much for tourism to his native isle, adding Bloomsbury (and its many outposts far from the section of central London that gave the group its name) to Shakespeare's Stratford, the Brontes' Yorkshire, Austen's Bath and Dickens' London as focal points for literary sightseers.

So it is not surprising that "A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families" is not just a life of the great Victorian actress but includes her leading man (and presiding genius, along with Terry and their manager Bram Stoker, of London's landmark Lyceum Theatre) as well as both their families.

Indeed, it seems at times that Terry's two highly eccentric children manage to do the impossible: overshadow the two greatest theatrical personalities of the age. If Terry was the quintessential drama queen (on- and offstage), then her flamboyant theatrical designer son Edward Gordon Craig -- with his many lady loves -- and his equally flamboyant lesbian sister Edith "Edy" Craig -- with a colorful harem of her own -- were the prototypical crown prince and princess on their own turfs.

Holroyd evokes Terry in all her emotive glory, from her early marriage to the much-older Victorian painter G.F. Watts through her many stage triumphs, which led Oscar Wilde to dub her Our Lady of the Lyceum and King George V to invest her with the highest Order of the British Empire.

And Irving gives her a run for her money, in life as well as on the boards, with his saturnine presence and genius for spectacular production as one of the great actor-managers of all time. For all their theatricality -- in their lives as well as their performances -- their emotionally labile temperaments, combined with hard-headed professionalism, make for good copy. In character or out, Terry and Irving are consistently compelling, certainly as rendered here.

But perhaps Holroyd would have done better to stick with their story rather than falling for the siren songs of their descendants. Irving's sons, Harry and Laurence, who followed in their father's footsteps, get a lot of attention, but their lives are not nearly as eventful. And as for Edy, her deeply strange menage a trois (already familiar to those who have read about Vita Sackville-West, who first inflamed and then broke the heart of one of the trio) is finally so pathetic and weird that it cannot really stand comparison to her mother's grands amours.

Edy is certainly a more sympathetic character than her rebarbative brother, with his unwillingness to give minimal comfort to his lover Isadora Duncan when their child drowned. For Edward, an anti-Semite, Holroyd writes, it "was impossible not to welcome the news of Max Reinhardt being 'driven from the German theatre, as its Jews are not much wanted,' he noted in his diary in April 1933. Craig enjoyed the vitality of the Jewish Theatre and of course individual Jews . . . had been generous to him. But collectively, he told his daughter Rosie, they 'only allow their own success to be boomed.' Hence Reinhardt owned many theatres and Craig none. But soon there would be change. 'Thank God, you artists of to-morrow, for the courage of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and the awakening of Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain.' "

Not surprisingly, Edward enjoyed life just fine during the Nazi occupation of Paris and after its liberation, Holroyd writes, was "sad to see the Germans leave." His great fear was that in the "disastrously successful" Allied advance on the French capital, it might be bombarded. As for what had gone on around him in those years of Nazi rule, "the most & best I can do is mind my own business" was his credo. Ugh.

It's a pity then that the story of great theatrical folk like Terry and Irving should be besmirched by that of their progeny. Their lives would have been quite sufficient, but there is the supporting cast from Duncan to John Gielgud and George Bernard Shaw, the subject of Holroyd's last biography nearly two decades ago. Sometimes trawling too wide can lead you astray.


Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

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