A re-post, in honor of the Bard, whose birthday is today, allegedly.
Ellen Terry, 16 years old
Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families tells the story of 19th century theatre-manager Henry Irving, and his lead actress Ellen Terry.
I have read Ellen Terry’s memoir (my review here), and loved it, but once I read Holroyd’s book I realized how much she left out. The effect of her memoir is that of shifting veils: you get the sense that what she ISN’T revealing may be more interesting than what she IS. Ellen Terry herself wrote:
I never felt so strongly as now that language was given to me to conceal rather than to reveal – I have no words at all to say what is in my heart.
When Terry’s memoir came out, Virginia Woolf, a big fan, wrote in her diary about it:
… a bundle of loose leaves upon each of which she has dashed off a sketch … Some very important features are left out. There was a self she did not know.
But the strength of Terry’s memoir lies in the acting portions of it, her memories of rehearsal processes, how she created this or that role, how she thought about acting, why Irving’s Hamlet was so good … The more “shocking” elements of her life (her failed marriage as a teenager to the painter G.F. Watts, who made her famous, and then living in sin with Edward Godwin which put her beyond the pale of respectable society, the two children she had with Godwin, one of whom grew up to be the famous Gordon Craig – and etc.) are left out of her memoir, or she hints at them, but does not divulge.
Henry Irving, as Shylock
Henry Irving, dedicated somewhat gloomy actor-manager, is someone I knew nothing about, besides what Terry said about him, and besides what people (like Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Shaw) who saw him onstage thought of his performances. There is a tragedy to his personality. Theatre probably saved his life, but there was a lot of wreckage there because of it: a failed marriage, a contentious relationship with his two sons (who despised him and yet who also needed him desperately and used him for his fame), and who knows what was going on in his relationship with Terry.
Holroyd makes the leap that they were lovers, and while there was speculation at the time that that was true (they traveled together, he would visit her house and “sleep over”), the evidence for it is pretty slim. The fact that Ellen Terry, in letters and her memoir, rhapsodizes over his beauty does not necessarily mean that she was in love with him. There is such a thing as artistic appreciation. Actors love one another’s talents. Actors rave about one another’s gifts. They appreciate one another aesthetically. The fact that people were suspicious that Terry and Irving were having an affair is not proof. I don’t think Holroyd proves his case as much as HE seems to think he does.
As with Terry’s memoir, however, Holroyd is great on the acting stuff. He finds, as much as possible, first-person accounts of the performances given at the Lyceum Theatre, Terry’s work, Irving’s work, reports from audience members who saw them in action. These people were 19th-century celebrities. You couldn’t get any more famous than Ellen Terry at her height. Cinema would change that, with its ability to project a person’s image 100s or 1000s of miles away from their locale. One of the things I really liked in Holroyd’s book was how he showed Terry’s growth as an actress. She was a star. She was seen as emblematic of their particular age. This was a good and bad thing. It could limit her. Terry realized her own limits when she played Lady Macbeth (the focus of this essay): Lady Macbeth was a totally different kind of part for her. She could not approach it the way she approached her other roles. Terry was known for her grace and charm and humor, which apparently came naturally to her, and captivated her audiences. Bram Stoker (friend and assistant to Henry Irving at the time) said that Terry “moved through the world of the theatre, like embodied sunshine.”
Terry was not known as a great tragedienne, like Mrs. Sarah Siddons, star of Drury Lane Theatre in the 18th century, whose Lady Macbeth was still being talked about in Terry’s time, even though no one alive could have seen it. Siddons’ Lady Macbeth haunted Terry when she herself set out to play the role. (It’s like any actor who tries to take on Stanley Kowalski. One must deal with the ghost of Brando in order to play that role. Either kill the ghost or accept the ghost, wrestle with the ghost, or lock the ghost in a closet – it doesn’t matter: the ghost must be handled, and acknowledged.) Siddons’ Lady Macbeth hung over the actresses in the 19th century in a similar way.
Here is Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth:
Interesting to compare and contrast that with Terry as Lady Macbeth:
If I could play interpreter for a second, although one is a painting and one is a posed still photograph: Siddons’s Lady Macbeth is an iconic vision of tragedy and doom. It is horrifying, in its own way. It looks like it comes from a ghost story, and, of course, Macbeth is a ghost story. Terry’s Lady Macbeth adds a layer of femininity and grace to it, which is horrifying in ITS own way, considering Lady Macbeth’s actions. It’s perverse.
There are contemporary reports from Siddons’s production of Macbeth that audience members literally fainted at Sarah Siddons’ intensity. There is a great backstage anecdote, one I treasure: Sarah Siddons, to get into the mood for the sleepwalking scene (because, remember, Lady Macbeth is barely onstage in that whole play; you have a LOT of downtime when you play Lady M!) she would go out into the alley behind the theatre, in costume, and chop wood. It got her into the proper frenzy so that she could go on and say “out damn’d spot” and have it be believable. Isn’t that marvelous? You do what you have to do. There are some actors who seem to think that good acting was invented in America in the 1950s, that everything that came before was mannered or not “connected” or whatever. Nonsense.
Ellen Terry was known for her warm and loving quality, a quality far more appropriate to comedies. I loved this comment from Terry after her triumphant performance as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (which pre-dates her Lady M):
It is only in comedy that people seem to know what I am driving at!
She understood her own gifts. She was not universally beloved. Henry James had a problem with her acting (but then, that may have been envy speaking, since he was dying to write plays himself, and felt left out of that world). But still, his cranky comments on her give a really nice glimpse of what exactly it was that she was about. He wrote:
[Terry] is greatly the fashion at present, and she belongs to a period which takes a strong interest in aesthetic furniture, archaeological attire, and blue china.
Henry James’ assessment, which is a criticism, is actually the very thing that Oscar Wilde found so enchanting about her (remember the comment that made Wilde notorious at Oxford, before he became famous for his writing: “I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.”) I am sure Henry James was digging at both Terry and Wilde in his comment.
Elizabeth Robins, an American actress at the time, said that Ellen Terry had “the proportions of a goddess and the airy lightness of a child.”
Now perhaps you can see why Terry playing Lady Macbeth might have been a challenge for her, or not an obvious choice on the face of it. Lady M having the “airy lightness of a child”? Really? Terry herself saying that it is “only in comedy” that people seemed to know what she was “driving at”? How will that type of talent handle the demands of Lady Macbeth’s voracious ambition and eventual madness?
Terry could not out-Siddons Siddons, and she knew it so she didn’t even try.
So what would be her “way in”?
As they began rehearsals for Macbeth, Henry Irving wrote Terry an extraordinary note, which illuminates their special artistic relationship:
To-night, if possible, the last act. I want to get these great multitudinous scenes over and then we can attack our scenes … Your sensitiveness is so acute that you must suffer sometimes. You are not like anybody else – see things with such lightning quickness and unerring instinct that dull fools like myself grow irritable and impatient sometimes. I feel confused when I’m thinking of one thing, and disturbed by another. That’s all. But I do feel very sorry afterwards when I don’t seem to heed what I so much value … I think things are going well, considering the time we’ve been at it, but I see so much that is wanting that it seems almost impossible to get through properly. ‘To-night commence, Mattias. If you sleep, you are lost!’
All of this talk about Macbeth reminds me of the second season of Slings & Arrows, the Canadian TV show I have raved about before. Each season shows the New Burbage Theatre Festival rehearsing a different Shakespeare play, and season 2 is Macbeth. They have hired an actor who has played the part three times before, and he is is cocky, arrogant, and assured that he knows more about Macbeth than anyone. He becomes, almost instantly, un-direct-able. He will not stray from his own interpretation, which has worked so well for him in the past. The director (Geoffrey – played by Paul Gross) wants him to go another way, and the clashes they have in rehearsal are fascinating – a great lesson in script analysis, first of all – and secondly, a great lesson in the importance of interpretation.
The thing about Shakespeare’s work that is so exceptional, I would say, is how adaptable it is. How flexible it is. Change the focus of your lens, and hierarchies of new meaning come into focus. Change the focus again, and you still get brilliant clarity, but you perceive new hierarchies. The work is dizzyingly deep in that respect. You can’t take this too far, the plays won’t take everything. For example, productions that try to turn Taming of the Shew into a feminist manifesto or Merchant of Venice into a play condemning ANTI-Semitism have a rough time. The texts provide challenges that cannot be met – that is if you are determined to make them palatable to modern audiences. Good luck trying to turn Shylock into a victim of anti-Semitism whom we boo-hoo over. Shylock is evil. He gets what he deserves. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the play, but Shylock also embodies every vicious stereotype of a Jew in the book. That’s the reality. Taming of the Shrew has a great role for an actress, but it is not an “I am woman, hear me roar” modernist statement of equality, and if you think it is you are projecting your own views onto something that cannot support it.) So it isn’t that there are no limits to the interpretations, it is that the meaning shifts, subtly, depending on your stance, your lens, your focus. Do you want your “version” of Macbeth to be about destabilizing sexuality and the drive to dominate others? Or do you want it to be about the ravages of war? Do you want your Macbeth to be about the dissolution of personality that accompanies absolute power? It’s all there. Focus in on any one of those things and the play will play along with you, so to speak.
In Slings & Arrows, Geoffrey (the director) wants to focus his production on the fallibility of Macbeth, the humanity of him. The scenes between Macbeth and his wife pulse with sexual feeling and very human anxiety. There is talk of nipples and sucking and sex. Geoffrey wants his Macbeth to be a man driven to murder and carnage through an anxiety about his sexual potency with his wife. This is supportable in the text. Lady Macbeth builds her husband up with one hand (so to speak) and emasculates him with the other, basically saying to him, “Are you a man or not??” A potent combination, and lethal in this case. The actor playing Macbeth in Geoffrey’s production had always played the role as a psychopath dictator whose bloodlust and ambition knows no bounds. You could make a great case for either interpretation, but the actor’s job is to fulfill the director’s interpretation, so in Slings & Arrows there is an ongoing clash between actor and director.
In the first scene between Macbeth and his wife, Geoffrey wants to have Lady Macbeth undress her husband and wash the blood of battle off of his naked body. The actor refuses to do it. HIS Macbeth would never allow it.
Interestingly enough, that is just how the scene was played in Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth that I saw at BAM a while back.
Lady M. did not undress her husband, but she did undulate all over him, kissing him, caressing him, putting her hand between his legs, to relax him, to dominate him. It was made even more disturbing because of the age difference between the two actors (Stewart was, in all honesty, too old for Macbeth), but they made it work: it looked a bit like an older guy whose libido is not what it used to be, trying to keep up with his hot young wife. It made a lot of sense: one of the reasons Macbeth follows through on her commands is not just for his own lust for power, but his own anxiety about losing her and of seeming not like a man to her.
Lady Macbeth says it right out, in her soliloquy after reading his letter to her:
Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
She understands her power over him, calling out to him in her mind:
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.
To her, “milk of human kindness” is weak. She’s a tough customer. She’s the real psychopath. After making their plans to kill Duncan comes the psychologically devastating Act I, scene vii, where you can see what she “does” to her husband. It goes back to the PAIR theory of criminal psychology, the phenomenon of folie a deux. Macbeth may not have been so bold if he had acted alone. Also, knowing Shakespeare’s obsession with twins (it shows up in almost every play), I have to believe it is deliberate: the “twinning” of Macbeth and Lady M. The sense that only together would they be able to do what they do. Alone, they are helpless, together they are lethal.
Act I, Scene vii is upsetting reading on multiple levels. Directly before their scene together, Macbeth has his waffling “if it were done, when tis done, then twere well it were done quickly” soliloquy, where you can feel him getting up the guts. A remnant of conscience. Lady M. bursts in on his reverie, interrupting him. The end of the soliloquy ends with a dash, which tells you the kind of symbiosis and interconnection Shakespeare wanted to create here. Lady M won’t even let her husband finish his damn soliloquy properly. She bursts in on his private moment demanding:
Lady M. He has almost supp’d. Why have you
left the chamber?
Macbeth: Hath he ask’d for me?
Lady M: Know you not he has?
Macbeth: We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor’d me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
[Lady M is not gonna like this.]
Lady M: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem.
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?
[“You coward.” She certainly knows how to push his buttons – which is supported by Macbeth’s next line:]
Macbeth: Prithee peace!
I dare do all that may become a man
Who dares do more is none.
[He could hold onto his humanity/morality if she would just stop badgering him! “Prithee, peace!” A plea like that is blood to the vampire of Lady M. Now comes one of Lady Macbeth’s most revealing and awful speeches.]
Lady M: What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
[A famous passage. With as many interpretations as there are stars in the sky. Eroticism and violence, nurturing and death, mother and lover, it’s all a swirl of associations, creating a double/triple-bind for Macbeth. Equating her husband with the now-apparently-dead baby is manipulation of the highest order. It also goes along with her famous cry early in the play: “Unsex me here.” She begs the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty.” Now, now, this is interesting. Lady Macbeth needs spiritual HELP to be “unsexed”: Even she can’t do it alone. She also knows that she must be “unsexed” in order to then be filled with “direst cruelty”. The softness associated with her gender must be eliminated. The plea to be “unsexed”, however, is a private moment with herself. Her husband is not let in on that struggle. To him, she shows a passionate unwavering commitment, inhuman (and unwomanly) to the extreme. Heady stuff.]
Macbeth: If we should fail?
Lady M: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.
After her big pumping-up speech about how the murder of Duncan is going to go (“don’t worry, dear, I’ve thought of everything, leave it all to me”), Macbeth explains, in a line that makes me wince for him:
Macbeth: Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
I don’t know if Lady Macbeth can no longer have children, or what the deal is, but that’s an intense line, especially following her “tender” image of nursing a baby followed by violence, dashing the baby’s brains out, as it smiles at her. Theirs is an intense relationship, suffocating in a belljar of mirroring images and symbols.
No wonder why people can have such a bad reaction to this play, almost rejecting it. No wonder why superstitious actors through the centuries refuse to even say the word “Macbeth” and refer to it only as “the Scottish play”. There is something truly eerie about it, a dark door that opens on a bottomless pit.
I guess if Macbeth were “just” a psychopath, a kind of Scottish Idi Amin (the “last King of Scotland” indeed), it might be easier to deal with him or explain him away. This is the struggle that goes down in Slings & Arrows, a struggle that encapsulates the centuries of struggle that has usually gone into doing this particular play “effectively”. It’s one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest. There is no moral. Or, what’s the moral: Don’t let a psychopath ruin your country? Macbeth is nihilistic in a way that Shakespeare’s other tragedies are not, with their piercing moments at the end of mercy, revelation, and awareness of all that is lost (Lear’s “never, never, never, never”, and Hamlet’s “the rest is silence” being primary examples of the characters’ sudden tragic understanding of how they and they alone are responsible.) But with Macbeth, he chops his way to the top, he is haunted by the leering Ghost of Banquo, he loses his marbles, and finally loses his own head, and nobody feels bad about it, because he’s already murdered anyone who would give a shit, and then they have a new King now, and all cry “long live the King of Scotland”.
If you think about it, the play, even with its supernatural element, is quite realistic when it comes to power politics. Often, with such murdering psychopathic leaders, there is no moral. It’s like strolling through the wild and coming across a grizzly bear who chases you and claws your face off. The grizzly bear isn’t operating out of malevolence, he is acting according to his own nature (Timothy Treadwell, who thought bears were cuddly and adorable, missed that memo). The only appropriate response if you are being attacked by a wild animal is to find a way to kill it first. The same is true, sorry to say, with leaders like Pol Pot, or Idi Amin, or Stalin. You can try to turn yourself inside out rationalizing their behavior, and saying “they had some good ideas at first, but it all went wrong”. But sometimes, sorry to say, people are just dangerous power-hungry murderers and they need to be put down. Power cannot be trusted in the hands of just anyone, and history is full of the monsters to prove it. Macbeth is about that. Macbeth knows what power does. Macbeth knows what the possibility of power unleashes in those who want it. And so, once the walls are soaked in blood, everyone can sit around and say, “Phew, we got rid of that sonofabitch”, but at what cost? What does it mean? What do we learn from Macbeth? Think before you answer that too readily. There is a mystery at the heart of that play, or, maybe it’s best to say the play has a heart of darkness that actors/directors have been fascinated by/repelled by/drawn to for centuries. Trying to figure it out is one of the main reason to even put on a play at all.
Ellen Terry was fearful about approaching Lady Macbeth. As I mentioned, in the century before Sarah Siddons made such a deep impact with her Lady Macbeth (William Hazlitt called her “tragedy personified”) that Terry was intimidated by it. Siddons’ well-documented interpretation became “the only way” to play Lady Macbeth.
So where did Ellen Terry start? She went back and researched Sarah Siddons, to try to see where Siddons was coming from. Not to imitate, but to get an inkling of her approach. Ellen Terry was a childlike soul (the word comes up again and again): stagehands tell stories of seeing her, a woman in her 40s, climb up a rope backstage into the wings, and then slide down, laughing hysterically. This was who she was, naturally, so Terry’s question was: How could she translate THAT (that which came naturally to her) into Lady Macbeth? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she had to find a way. And it had to be an intelligent and researched approach. She had to justify her choice. For herself, not for others.
Holyroyd describes her approach in his book:
‘Lady Macbeth interests me beyond expression,’ Ellen told Stephen Coleridge, ‘– how much I fear will she will be beyond my expression!’ Of what use would her celebrated charm, her gift for pathos, her natural vivacity, be in depicting the ‘fiendlike queen’?…
But what persuaded Irving to put on Macbeth, and gave Ellen guidance as to how she might find a new interpretation of her character, was an article, published on 12 August 1843, in the Westminster Review, which revealed Mrs. Siddons’s private thoughts about the play.
That essay, by Sarah Siddons, entitled “Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth”, is a fascinating detailed analysis of the play and Lady M’s part in it. I have a copy of it in the indispensable book Actors on Acting: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World’s Great Actors, Told in Thir Own Words, Sarah Siddons analyzes not just the character, but the structure of the play itself, and Ellen Terry found in it many revelations.
Siddons starts with:
In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature; in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect and all the charms and graces of personal beauty. You will probably not agree with me as to the character of that beauty; yet, perhaps, this difference of opinion will be entirely attributable to the difficulty of your imagination disengaging itself from that idea of the person of her representative which you have been so long accustomed to contemplate.
I can almost feel Ellen Terry’s jolt of “a-ha, now THIS is something I understand” in response to that passage Ellen Terry was rather vain. Or, to put it more positively: as an actress, she understood that one of the weapons in her arsenal was her beauty. It was an undeniable fact, and it was a gift, and it served her well. She knew her beauty was important. Audiences responded warmly to her because of it. To consider the possibility that she could incorporate her own beauty into her interpretation of Lady Macbeth, to have her beauty highlighted as much as the “psychopath” part of the role was highlighted … must have given Terry a sense of confidence, that yes, she could do this. She could use what she already had. She didn’t need to “unsex” herself. She could be the full blooming sensual woman that she already was, and how interesting, how new and different, to see a Lady Macbeth who was sexual because then the character’s begging to the spirits to “unsex” her would represent that much more of a challenge. How on earth to “unsex” Ellen Terry? It seemed an impossible task – but that was the the tragedy of Lady Macbeth, as seen by Terry.
Siddons goes on in her essay about the character:
According to my notion, it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex, – fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fragile –
Fair as the forms that, wove in Fancy’s loom,
Float in light visions round the poet’s head.
Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honorable as Macbeth, to seduce him to brave all the dangers of the present and all the terrors of a future world …
Comments like these are why I don’t even need to have seen Siddons’s Lady M to know that she was a hell of an actress. Her analysis here is specific, and not only specific but PLAY-able. You cannot play an abstract, you cannot play an idea.
Here is Siddons on the sleepwalking scene:
Behold her now, with wasted form, with wan and haggard countenance, her starry eyes glazed with the ever-burning fever of remorse, and on their lids the shadows of death. Her ever-restless spirit wanders in troubled dreams about her dismal apartment; and whether waking or asleep, the smell of innocent blood incessantly haunts her imagination…
During this appalling scene, which, to my sense, is the most so of them all, the wretched creature, in imagination, acts over again the accumulated horrors of her whole conduct. These dreadful images, accompanied with the agitations they have induced, have obviously accelerated her untimely end; for in a few moments the tidings of her death are brought to her unhappy husband. It is conjectured that she died by her own hand. Too certain it is, that she dies, and makes no sign. I have now to account you for the weakness which I have, a few lines back, ascribed to Macbeth; and I am not quite without hope that the following observations will bear me out in this opinion. Please to observe, that he (I think pusillanimously, when I compare his conduct to her forebearance) has been continually pouring out his miseries to his wife. His heart has therefore been eased, from time to time, by unloading its weight of woe; while she, on the contrary, has perseveringly endured in silence the uttermost anguish of a wounded spirit.
Wow. Yes. The text supports this. “Unsex me here” is a private moment, and her husband never gets wind of that internal struggle. To him, she is dominating, compelling. He is helpless in the face of her conviction. It is his tragic flaw.
Siddons goes on:
Her feminine nature, her delicate structure, it is too evident, are soon overwhelmed by the enormous pressure of her crimes. yet it will be granted, that she gives proofs of a naturally higher toned mind than that of Macbeth. The different physical powers of the two sexes are finely delineated, in the different effects which their mutual crimes produce. Her frailer frame, and keener feelings, have now sunk under the struggle – his robust and less sensitive constitution has not only resisted it, but bears him on to deeper wickedness, and to experience the fatal fecundity of crime.
That twin thing again. The two parts made whole, in a terrifying way. One could not exist without the other.
Ellen Terry read Sarah Siddons’s essay and got fired up. She knew what to DO now in the role. She had found her “way in”.
Here is Holroyd’s description of that process:
What surprised Ellen as she read this essay was the revelation that Sarah Siddons had apparently seen Lady Macbeth as a ‘fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fraile’ woman … This was very different from the virago she had portrayed onstage where Lady Macbeth’s motivations appeared to spring from a hive of evil seething within her that destroyed her initially virtuous husband. In the theatre, Mrs. Siddons’s Macbeth had been the tragedy of power used as a substitute for love – she overwhelmed Macbeth’s intermittent sense of the emptiness behind his ambitions. But on the page Mrs. Siddons had written of Macbeth as a tragedy that evolved from a flaw in human nature.
Why, then, Ellen asked herself, did Mrs Siddons ‘write down one set of ideas upon the subject and carry out a totally different plan’? The answer must have been that she was a prisoner of her own solemn talent, an actress who, in Leigh Hunt’s words, could ‘overpower, astonish, afflict, but … [whose] majestic presence and commanding features seemed to disregard love, as a trifle to which they cannot descend’. Ellen Terry possessed little of the stately genius of Sarah Siddons that had made her Joshua Reynolds’s ‘the Tragic Muse’, but she had in a unique degree that ‘trifle’ of love and the potent web of charm that Sarah Siddons identified as being Lady Macbeth’s essential qualities. Who would not murder for her husband? Ellen could understand such a question and perhaps achieve something that had eluded the legendary Sarah Siddons. Her Lady Macbeth ‘pricks the sides’ of her husband so that he will better attain his wonderful aspiration. She feels a joy in his presence and subdues everything to his dreams. Irving’s acting version, which replaced the original twenty-nine scenes with nineteen, omitted Lady Macduff, leaving Lady Macbeth a more isolated figure like Macbeth himself. The two of them stand alone – and eventually stand apart from each other. Irving’s Macbeth was ‘a poet with his brain and a villain with his heart’ who clothes his crimes in romantic glamour. His wife is deluded by this glamour until she sits ‘wondering and frightened’ as Ellen recorded, realising that Macbeth has ‘no need of his wife now’.
To ask “why” the characters do what they do is not excuse-making. It is essential for theatrical truth. Asking “why” is not akin to “I ate Twinkies as a kid, and that’s why I shot up my school”. This is looking at something that has daunted scholars for centuries (why? why do they do what they do?) and making a stab at understanding. These are not superhuman creatures sprung from the depths of Xenu’s secret galaxy. They are human beings. Human beings sometimes do terrible things and feel no remorse. This is a FACT. Remorse in Macbeth is even more terrifying because it works on a completely subliminal level. Lady Macbeth experiences remorse only when she is sleepwalking and sees blood on her hands. Other than that, she is blind to the implications of what she has done. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at the dinner, and flips out, not knowing what is real and what is imagined. He is too far beyond the pale now to ask questions. He is too “mad” to consider the depths of his own evil, as his own murders come back to haunt him.
How does Ellen Terry then take the revelation from Sarah Siddons’s words and make it her own?
There is such a thing as an actor’s process, and each actor works differently. I love to know, for example, that Mickey Rourke held ice cubes in his hand during the final confrontation with De Niro in Angel Heart. Rourke explains why he did it, but I’m not as interested in why. I can guess why. I just like to know that that is what he thought he had to do to get into that scene. I love to know that Steve McQueen refused to rehearse, and refused (sometimes) to even visit the set before shooting a scene. He didn’t want to know where the chairs were, where the door was, he wanted to keep his impulses completely free, and not inhibit any of it by former knowledge of the set-up. It helped keep things fresh and spontaneous for him. This worked for McQueen, it wouldn’t work for others.
So once Terry figured out that she knew how to play Lady Macbeth, HOW did she go about doing that? Holroyd writes:
Never before had Ellen prepared for a role so comprehensively… Ellen filled two of the copies [of the play] with her copious notes, trawling through the text for illustrations of Lady Macbeth’s feminine nature and its effect on her husband. ‘I must try to do this: 2 years ago I could not even have tried,’ she scribbled next to one of her speeches. In a letter to the playwright Alfred Calmour she wrote: ‘I have been absorbed by Lady Mac… she is most feminine … I mean to try at a true likeness, as it is within my means.’ On the flyleaves of one copy of the play, she described Lady Macbeth as being ‘full of womanliness’ and ‘capable of affection, adding: ‘she loves her husband… and is half the time afraid whilst urging Macbeth not to be afraid as she loves a man. Women love men.’
Terry zoomed in on the emasculating subtext of Lady M’s speeches, how Lady M consciously preys on Macbeth’s nervousness that he is not enough of a man to satisfy her, his cock isn’t big enough, he doesn’t fuck her hard enough, he is lacking in that department. Ellen understood that on almost a cellular level.
[Irving] had cut the text by approximately 20 per cent. ‘The murder of Baquo, I have cut out as the scene is superfluous,’ he informed the designer Keeley Halswelle. But one important cut from the 1875 production he restored: the speech of the wounded sergeant in Act I, scene ii, which tells of Macbeth’s extraordinary valour in vattle – a valour which forms a juxtaposition to his moral cowardice. As Elen observed in one of her annotations to the play, he was ‘a man of great physical courage frightened at a mouse.’ What this helped to define was the nature of Lady Macbeth’s love for him not simply an admiration for his exploits in the field, but a sense of what he lacked and she could make good.
Ellen Terry was in her 40s. She had been acting since she was 5 or 6 years old. She knew who she was, she knew HOW to work, and here she was, almost for the first time in her career, faced with a challenge. Instead of trying to be what she was not (a scheming malicious evil woman), she instead saw Lady Macbeth as an aspect of her own personality, the one she could understand and access: the loving wife of a husband who was not quite good enough for her, and if she just pushed him, he would be as glorious as he deserved to be, and she would then be able to reflect in that glow. Her cajoling/emasculating, then, is all for his own good. It is done out of love, not contempt (and that is the sickest thing about it).
Ellen Terry knew, in her bones, how to play that.
I love the following anecdote about Henry Irving trying to tell the composer of the score what he wanted. Thank you to whomever took note of that moment, because it is a perfect example of what collaboration means, and also how artists tend to understand the unspoken. Kazan talks about how he never had to “tell” Brando anything. He’d start to say something, Brando would nod curtly, having filled in the rest in his head, and would sometimes walk away, to let it percolate, to then just DO it. Irving telling the composer what he wanted, and the composer “getting” it is a beautiful example of this.
Macbeth opened at the end of 1888. The sonorous and supernatural music had been composed by Arthur Sullivan, who took his cue from Irving’s various hummings and gestures. ‘A drum, a drum, Macbeth will come,’ Irving had suggested, adding that a trumpet too might be useful – anything of a stirring sort. Sullivan got the orchestra to play him what he had written. ‘Will that do?’ he asked. Irving insisted that it was ‘very fine’ – but absolutely useless. Sullivan then asked for further hints, and Irving began swaying his body sideways, beating the air and making inchoate vowel sounds. ‘I think I understand,’ Sullivan said and turned back to his score. Presently the orchestra struck up some passages again and Irving cried out: ‘Splendid! Splendid! That’s all I could have wished for.’ Sullivan completed his score in three days, working through the last night.
Henry Irving and his Lyceum Theatre was known for its overwhelming scenery, with horses and trees and running streams onstage, its realism (when they did Faust, for example, Ellen and Henry had traveled to Germany to research the area and get ideas for the scenery – same thing here, Ellen and Henry had gone to Scotland to get ideas) and they went all out for Macbeth.
The sumptuous scenery, lit by flashes of moonlight that appeared to penetrate the thickest of castle walls, represented the awful depths in which Macbeth was shrouded: wide, desolate Scottish heaths, gloomy court interiors, a mysterious withches’ cavern lit by uncanny radiance, and then the vast battlefield over which, to roars off thunder, Irving manoeuvered his army of actors.
He was fond of magnifying the sense of apprehension by ‘leaving the stage in utter darkness,’ the American actor Arnold Daly observed. Sometimes he would light a set with ‘a solitary lamp or dull fire which may be in a room; while he has directed from the prompt place or the flies, a closely focussed calcium … so that you can only see a lot of spectral figures without expression moving about the scene – and one ghostly face shining out of the darkness.’
Arnold Daly wrote down his impressions of the production:
Macbeth was his most somber production – the sets so extensively gloomy that hen an outdoor scene was played in bright daylight there was a shout of relief from the audience.
Where is my time machine. I resent its absence.
Holroyd describes the sense of anticipation growing in the audience to see this particular production. Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were stars. They had toured America. They had brought their productions around England, Ireland. Macbeth was THE ticket of the season.
Speculation and excitement had been rising in the weeks before the opening night and queues outside the theatre began forming at seven o’clock in the morning.
I think of myself, sleeping in the dirt, LITERALLY, in Central Park, to get a ticket to The Seagull, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Klin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden… Londoners in 1888 felt the same way about the Lyceum’s Macbeth.
After the play opened, Terry wrote in her diary:
It (‘Macbeth’) is a most tremendous success, and the last three days’ advance booking has been greater than ever was known, even at the Lyceum. Yes, it is a success, and I am a success, which amazes me, for never did I think I should be let down so easily. Some people hate me in it; some, Henry among them, think it my best part, and the critics differ, and discuss it hotlly, which in itself is my best success of all! Those who don’t like me in it are those who don’t want, and don’t like to read it fresh from Shakespeare, and who hold by the ‘fiend’ reading of the character … One of the best things ever written on the subject, I think, is the essay of J. Comyns Carr. That is as hotly discussed as the new ‘Lady Mac’ – all the best people agreeing with it. Oh, dear! It is an exciting time!
A “new ‘Lady Mac’? Intriguing. It takes courage to “re-interpret” such a well-known character. It doesn’t always succeed. There have been a couple of instances recently where a performance has made an indelible impression, something that helps people to re-think, in general, the WAY a certain part should be played. There was the Doll’s House a couple years back, with Janet McTeer’s Nora, a performance people are still talking about. Scholars can opine and theorize but very often it is the actor who breaks new ground in interpretation.
The reviews of Terry/Irving’s Macbeth were mixed, but it had an impact on audiences that seemed to grow over time (in a similar way to Sarah Siddons’s Lady Macbeth).
Terry, in her memoir, writes of Irving as Macbeth:
When I think of his “Macbeth”, I remember him most distinctly in the last act after the battle when he looked like a great famished wolf, weak with the weakness of a giant exhausted, spent as one whose exertions have been ten times as great as those of commoner men of rougher fiber and coarser strength.
“Of all men else I have avoided thee.”
Once more he suggested, as only he could suggest, the power of Fate. Destiny seemed to hang over him, and he knew that there was no hope, no mercy.
Irving’s ironic, semi-humourous speeches were peculiarly strong and, in recollection, Ellen Terry’s interpretation of her role more memorable than it promised to be – the audience, as if hypnotised by her disordered figure, the haggard face, the straggling hair, had collectively seemed to hold its breath during the sleepwalking scene. It was not tragic acting but a masterpiece of pathos. ‘There is more of pity than of terror in her end,’ Ellen wrote. ‘… She dies of remorse.’
This interpretation is debatable, but that’s the best thing about it. The interpretation is HERS. And she had earned the right to play it that way, through study and contemplation, rehearsal and trial-and-error. She could stand by her choice. There were those who did not like the new interpretation at all. Where was the evil? Where was the schemer they had all come to expect?
It occurs to me that all of this is reminiscent of my feeling when I saw Natasha Richardson (may she rest in peace) play Sally Bowles at the Roundabout production of Cabaret. I described that in full here, in my memorial piece for Richardson. Are certain roles NOT up for interpretation? Or is it just that the person who originally played it made such an impression that we cannot even imagine it done another way? Richardson literally wiped out the indelible impression made by Liza Minelli in Fosse’s film, and that is no small task because Minelli was brilliant. This isn’t to say Richardson’s was better. It was not. It was completely new, and fresh. She re-interpreted it. That’s the kind of thing I am talking about here. Richardson did not convince everyone, but she sure convinced me. She EARNED that. Best live performance I have ever seen.
Holroyd talks about some of the skepticism at the time about the new spin on Macbeth:
But was Macbeth really ‘an Empire builder led astray by listening to bad advice from a parcel of witches who had lured him from his regimental duty’? Henry Labouchere could not resist poking fun at Ellen’s soft-natured damsel who ‘roars as gently as any sucking dove’. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that ‘such a magnificent show as the new Macbeth has never been seen before.’
Ellen wrote a letter to her daughter about some of the controversy surrounding her “interpretation” and concluded:
Meanwhile, I shall not budge an inch in the reading of it, for that I know is right. Oh, it’s fun, but it’s precious hard work for I by no means make her a ‘gentle lovable woman’ as some of ‘em say … She was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend, and did love her husband.
I believe her.
This love [that Lady M had for her husband] was the ingredient Irving had been seeking to give his production its originality. ‘The great fact about Miss Terry’s Lady Macbeth is its sex,’ wrote a critic in the Star. ‘It is redolent, pungent with the odeur de femme. Look how she rushes into her husband’s arms, clinging, kissing, coaxing, and even her taunts, when his resolution begins to wane, are sugared with a loving smile.’
It’s even more sinister, if you think about it in that way. It’s an extremely daring interpretation. At the time, no other actress could have pulled it off but Ellen Terry. She inspired the next generation of actresses to be bold and yet thoughtful in their approaches to these classic roles. A couple of people who saw the performance when they were young credit it, and it alone, with inspiring them to go into the theatre. One young woman, after seeing Terry’s Lady M., decided, almost on the spot, to be an actress (and she did go on to some success in America).
After I wrote a piece about Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, I got a note from my aunt Regina, who was a successful actress in Broadway and regional theatre for many years. She saw Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst when she was young woman and told me that she could not stop crying after seeing it. She was already studying music and theatre at the Boston Conservatory, but she knew then what acting was all about, what good acting really looked like, and that that was what she wanted to do.
Terry’s Lady M had that kind of impact on a younger generation of actresses.
Since this was, after all, 1888, we have no record of the performance, no film, no recording. We have the responses of audience members who wrote down their impressions. We do have a lot of information, we just can’t see it, or feel it, for ourselves.
There is one image that remains, that seems to capture (in oil) the power of what Terry did onstage.
Terry was very very into her costumes. She felt, often, that without a good costume, a costume that flattered her, a costume with the right texture and colors, she couldn’t play the part.
The dress she wore for Lady Macbeth was designed by Alice Comyns-Carr. It was beautifully executed, with a bold and almost pagan design. Everyone talked about the dress. John Singer Sargent had seen the show on opening night, or a preview performance, and wanted to paint her in that dress. He made her the offer. Ellen Terry hesitated in accepting. It was too early in the run to tell. What if it wasn’t a success? She was cautious about having some glorious painting done of her in a role that might end up being a FLOP for her. (This was before she knew that the play would be a smash hit – it ended up running for 150 performances to sold-out houses the entire time). Once Terry realized that she was in a hit, not a flop, and that her performance was the draw of the year, she accepted Sargent’s offer.
The dress is described thus, by Alice Comyns-Carr in her memoir:
[Mrs. Nettleship] bought the fine yarn for me in Bohemia – a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel … When the straight thirteenth-century dress with sweeping-sleeves was finished it hung beautifully, but we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with the real green beetle-wings, and a narrowborder in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffons were embroidered with flame-colored tinsel … [and] two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.
To get her portrait painted by Sargent, Ellen would put on that magnificent dress at her house and travel by carriage to Sargent’s house. Oscar Wilde, who adored her as an actress, idolized her, and wrote two sonnets for her, saw her rattle by in her carriage once, dressed in her Lady M dress on her way to Sargent’s. Wilde wrote:
The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.
Sargent went back and forth about how he wanted to portray Terry in the dress, and finally decided to isolate her, have her body block out the background entirely.
His portrait is the 19th-century equivalent of a Rolling Stone cover, photographed by Herb Ritts or Annie Liebowitz. It is a star-making portrait. It caused a huge controversy among Victorian art critics who found it distasteful. The Saturday Review called it ‘the best hated picture of the year’.
Looking at the portrait over the abyss of time, across a century-plus, I think it captures some of what Ellen Terry was going for in her interpretation of that part, and how vibrantly she succeeded in it.
Yes, the pose is exquisite, yes, the colors play up the disturbing quality of it all … but for me, it’s the look that Sargent was able to capture in her eyes.
Puts an ice-cube right down my spine, I can tell you that.