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Who is Ellen Terry?

Ellen Terry was a towering figure in Victorian theatre, renowned for her captivating performances and profound impact on the dramatic arts. Her legacy endures, inspiring actors and audiences alike. As we explore her life's work, we uncover the essence of her enduring charm. What might we learn from her storied career that resonates with us today? Join us as we uncover her tale.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Ellen Terry was one of the most renowned English actresses during the turn of the 20th century. Known mostly for her Shakespearean roles, she began her stage career at the age of seven. In her later years, she became a theater manager and famously corresponded with playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Ellen Terry was born on 27 February 1847 in Coventry, England. Both of her parents were actors, and four of her ten siblings would later take on the craft as well. Two of her brothers who did not act had careers in theater management.

Ellen Terry acted in many Shakespearean roles during her stage career.
Ellen Terry acted in many Shakespearean roles during her stage career.

As a child, Ellen Terry studied acting under Shakespearean actor Charles Kean and performed in his Princess Theatre in London, following in the footsteps of her older sister Kate. Ellen Terry first appeared as the Duke of York in Richard III at the age of seven, followed by the role of Mamilius in A Winter's Tale at the age of nine. When Charles Kean and his wife Ellen retired in 1859, Kate and Ellen Terry toured for two years with their parents.

Ellen Terry worked at London's Royalty Theatre for two years before pairing with Kate again in 1962, this time in Bristol under manager J. H. Chute. She added burlesque to her repertoire, but continued to play Shakespearean roles. When Chute opened a new theatre in 1863 in Bath, Ellen Terry appeared as Titania in the opening production of A Midsummer's Night Dream.

While working at London's Haymarket Theatre later that year, Ellen Terry met her first husband, George Frederick Watts, who painted a portrait of her and Kate. The marriage took place in February of 1864. Watts was 30 years her senior and Ellen Terry felt stifled in the marriage, during which she put her acting career on hold. Both had affairs, and they broke up after ten months.

In 1867, after accompanying Kate on her farewell tour, Ellen Terry starred in her first role opposite actor Henry Irving, with whom she would later form a profitable acting duo. The following year, however, she again halted her career to begin a relationship with architect Edward William Godwin, with whom she had two children, Edith and Edward. After the affair ended in 1874, Ellen Terry once again devoted herself to the stage.

Henry Irving invited Ellen Terry to be the leading lady at his Lyceum Theatre in London in 1873, and the two dominated English theater for over twenty years. Ellen Terry's children also appeared onstage with her from time to time during this era. Ellen Terry remarried, to actor Charles Clavering Wardell, in 1877.

In 1903, Ellen Terry divorced her husband and turned her attention to theatre management with the help of her two children. She engaged in a long correspondence with George Bernard Shaw and was largely responsible for popularizing his works on the English stage, as well as those of Henrik Ibsen. Ellen Terry began acting again in 1906 and would continue appearing onstage to great acclaim in England and the United States until 1920. She also appeared in a film, Her Greatest Performance (1916), and wrote an autobiography, The Story of My Life.

In 1925, Ellen Terry was made Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in honor of her impressive and influential stage career. She died on 21 July 1928 remembered as one of the best English actresses of all time. Her children were also involved in theater in different capacities throughout their lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Ellen Terry and why is she significant in the history of theatre?

Ellen Terry was a renowned English actress who became one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born on February 27, 1847, she embarked on her acting career at a young age and achieved fame for her portrayals of strong and enchanting characters. Her significance lies in her contribution to the development of acting techniques and her influence on the theatrical arts during the Victorian era. Terry's partnership with the actor-manager Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre was particularly notable, as it elevated the standards of production and performance of the time.

What were some of Ellen Terry's most famous roles?

Ellen Terry is best remembered for her performances in Shakespearean plays. Some of her most famous roles included Portia in "The Merchant of Venice," Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth," and Ophelia in "Hamlet." Her portrayal of Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" was also highly acclaimed. Terry's ability to bring depth and nuance to these characters made her a favorite among audiences and critics alike, and her interpretations are still studied by actors and scholars today.

How did Ellen Terry influence the acting style of her time?

Ellen Terry was known for her naturalistic acting style, which was a departure from the melodramatic conventions that dominated the stage during much of the 19th century. She emphasized realism and emotional authenticity in her performances, which resonated with audiences and influenced her peers. Her approach helped pave the way for modern acting techniques, and she was often described as having an intuitive understanding of the characters she played, bringing a sense of immediacy and truth to her performances.

Did Ellen Terry receive any awards or honors for her work in theatre?

While formal acting awards were not as prevalent during Ellen Terry's time as they are today, she received numerous accolades and honors for her contributions to the theatre. In 1925, she was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) for her services to drama. This recognition was akin to the highest honors in the field of arts and reflected her status as one of the most distinguished actresses of her era.

Can you tell me about Ellen Terry's personal life and legacy?

Ellen Terry's personal life was as eventful as her stage career. She was married three times and had famous relationships, including a significant but tumultuous partnership with the architect Edward William Godwin. Terry had two children, Edith Craig and Edward Gordon Craig, who both made their own contributions to the arts. Her legacy endures through her influence on acting techniques, her numerous writings on the craft of acting, and the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum at her former home, Smallhythe Place in Kent. Her autobiography, "The Story of My Life," provides insights into her personal experiences and the theatrical world of her time.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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    • Ellen Terry acted in many Shakespearean roles during her stage career.
      By: Claudio Divizia
      Ellen Terry acted in many Shakespearean roles during her stage career.