Wednesday, April 30, 2014

That Little Something Extra

I continue to find new old treasures in the trove of books that reappeared last summer when I was reunited with my books, languishing those fifteen years in storage.

My current (re)read is a marvelous biography, Love or Nothing, of Miss Ellen Terry, pre-eminent English-language stage actress of the second half of the nineteenth century (and active well into the last one), an inspiration to creative spirits including Watts (whom she inspired to the point that he married her), the architect Edward Godwin (whom she inspired enough that he stole her away from Watts into a period of then-scandalous unwedded bliss), Sargent (who painted her as Lady Macbeth; she's seen here in a rather more demure mode in a portrait by D.F Robinson), the actor and impresario Henry Irving (her stage and business partner for decades), and Shaw - in some ways our ideal of the Shavian heroine is very much about the offstage Ellen Terry.

For as imperious, tempestuous, and bewitching as she could be onstage, the private Terry was a remarkably level-headed, if at times mercurial and highly self-willed, person.  She was genial, not given to diva's airs, and had an endearing fondness for cottages, which it seems she collected as we lesser mortals do teapots.  "Ellen, unlike many movie stars-to-be in the twentieth century," writes her biographer, Tom Prideaux, "or some of her own tribe such as Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, had no craving for stately mansions or marble bathtubs.  If Bernhardt had asked her to flop seductively onto her polar-bear rug, Ellen would have obliged; but she would have giggled.  All she needed was solid comfort and willing minions."

"Solid comfort and willing minions."  Really, who could ask for anything more?

Terry also stands out from so many of her coevals in that her looks still resonate:  she is, in her daguerreotypes and oil paintings and even in the scratchy bits of surviving film, striking and deeply attractive; not, perhaps, classically beautiful, but arresting in a Redgrave sort of way.  In too many of her images, Bernhardt looks like a caricature, a proto-vamp; Langtry is a square-jawed matron of unnerving solidity; even in her youth she looks like a rather more than usually convincing member of the Hasty Pudding Club.  Not Terry - we can see how she could bewitch generations of theatre-goers as Portia, Beatrice, and the other great roles in lesser plays that took her from her home base at the West End's Lyceum to theatres all across the English-speaking world (she toured Australia during the First War).

There may be ways that we're still seeing dim echoes of her influence on stage today; she was a formative influence on Lynne Fontanne, as well as Great Aunt of John Gielgud, and perhaps in their style - distinct but not dissimilar amalgams of charm and self-confident assertiveness - there's a touch of Terry.  Perhaps that's what defines the quality recalled by James Mason - or Norman Maine - when he quotes her in A Star is Born.  Star quality, she said, is that little something extra - as simple as that.  It's a little something in sadly short supply at the moment, so it's refreshing to spend some time with its source...


  1. I've always been curious about her since hearing that quote in Star. I'm going to try hunting the bio down, or rather have my library try and hunt it down. Thanks for the tip.
    She does have a warm, friendly look in that lovely portrait.

  2. While always wanting to look her best, she made sure that her costumes would fit into the whole stage picture and express the character. As Ophelia in Hamlet in 1878 she recorded the decisions behind each costume:

    ‘First scene: pinkish ‘It’s all rose-coloured with her. Her father and brother love her. The prince loves her - and so she wears pink... Nunnery scene: a pale, gold, amber dress, the most beautiful colour. The material is a church brocade. It will tone down the colour of my hair. Last scene: a transparent black dress.’ However, Irving insisted that Hamlet should be the only black figure in the play, and the completed black dress was jettisoned for one in white. ‘So instead of the crepe de Chine and miniver... I had for the white dress Bolton sheeting and rabbit, and I believe it looked better.’

    A marvellously camp character, indeed. Jx

  3. My next blog is going to be entitled "Solid comfort and willing minions"

    1. Excellent idea! I'm sure it will have that little something extra...