Monthly Archives: May 2020

When Ellen Terry strutted her stuff

Ellen Terry was amongst the group of actors who first proved that William Shakespeare could be wrong, when he wrote that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more”
(Macbeth, Act V, scene v, ll.19-28)

In fact there are a very small number of recordings of Ellen Terry. So, like most of the great actors who followed her, she was indeed heard more. But what did we miss over all those preceding centuries?

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, painted by John Singer Sargent (1889) Amidst all the concern about the continued existence of theatres and even the demise of some due to the virus, the sad and perhaps jejune truth occurred to me that “live” theatre acting is by definition ephemeral. It’s irretrievable: stage performances are here tonight and gone tomorrow. We can re-read plays, novels and poems, view favourite paintings as often as we like and re-assess sculptures from new angles. But that thrill of watching a live performance?

I suppose it can be argued that live ballet and opera can also connect with the same kind of electrical charge as acting. But somehow their exponents’ feats of choreographed physical achievement seem to me not to suffer the same dulling effect when transferred to tape or disc.

Allow me to explain where this has come from. I’d begun reading Virginia Woolf‘s essay1 on Ellen Terry.

“When she spoke it was as if someone drew a bow over a ripe, richly seasoned ‘cello; it grated, it glowed, and it growled”.

Well, we’ll never know whether Woolf quite hit the mark with that description, though in 1911, Ellen Terry recorded scenes from five Shakespeare roles for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which are the only known recordings of her voice. Having listened to some of them on YouTube, for me her genius shines through the hisses and clicks. The tremulousness of her Ophelia in the second of these two recordings is very moving, I must say. These are recordings done by someone who had never been schooled for the very different genre of film: just the raw, unalloyed declamation, but with a sensitivity that would carry its burden to the far reaches of the back stalls.

But my point is that we can never recreate the feeling of the unique “presence” of great actors who are no longer with us. Such performers, like Ellen Terry, took the stage accompanied by their reputation, their aura, their audiences’ memories.

She was a massive star. She joined Henry Irving‘s company in 1878 and over the next two decades or so was regarded as the country’s leading comic and Shakespearian actress. Her career lasted nearly seventy years, as she continued to work in theatre and eventually in film. She was poorly educated but managed to more than hold her own in dealing with what she saw as unfair criticism from George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, Virginia Woolf was impressed by her ability to turn her talents to virtually anything.

“… whatever she took up became in her warm, sensitive grasp a tool. If it was a rolling-pin, she made perfect pastry. If it was a carving knife, perfect slices fell from the leg of mutton. If it were a pen, words peeled off, some broken, some suspended in mid-air, but all far more expressive than the tappings of the professional typewriter”.

Dame Alice Ellen Terry, GBE, was thankful to Shakespeare for the roles he had created for women. “Wonderful women!”, she wrote. “Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of women in these fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines?

Ellen Terry put female acting on the map, and “made it respectable”, as Joanna Lumley OBE explains, having been appointed recently as Patron of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, where Ellen Terry lived.

Noneless, it’s sad but true that, aside from a few sound recordings, the performances are lost forever. For all the clever technological recreations, ’twas ever thus for live theatre – being there – as Virginia Woolf says.

It is the fate of actors to leave only picture postcards behind them. Every night when the curtain goes down the beautiful coloured canvas is rubbed out. What remains is only a wavering, insubstantial phantom – a verbal life on the lips of the living.


1 Collected Essays By Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, The Hogarth Press, 1967, pp 67-75

Image credit: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) – public domain.


At the time of writing, Smallhythe is closed because of the coronavirus epidemic. But for future reference its opening times can be found here.



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Back to the Present as The Machine Stops

E.M. Forster, Alexandria, circa 1917

With all kinds of normal activity suspended around the world – at least for the time being – and citizens in their millions, if not billions, being confined to their homes by the pandemic, this machine we call society seems to be grinding to a halt.

E.M. Forster‘s short sci-fi story The Machine Stops was published in 1909 but in some ways seems spookily prescient of the current situation.

Forster (right) portrays a society in ongoing lockdown, each citizen confined to his or her own underground “cell”. The decor and furnishings are not exactly sumptuous, but okay if you like minimalism …

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.

We are never told precisely why things have arrived at this juncture. It may have been the result of war, of an environmental disaster or indeed the aftermath of a plague. Environmental disaster seems the most likely explanation as we are told that “The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it”.

It becomes clear that the two protagonists – Vashti and her son, Kuno – are in an isolation that is not of their own choosing. That’s not to say that, on the surface at least, they seem frustrated or depressed. Their every need (it appears) is catered for. They have all mod cons at their fingertips, including the automatic administration of medical treatments – and a kind of “home delivery” and other conveniences are just a button-press away.

There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends.

“[The] very first description of the internet in any detail was probably E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops from 1909”, writes Jaron Lanier1, “decades before computers existed: ‘People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.’ It might still be the most accurate description. How Forster did it remains a mystery”.

Things are definitely not as idyllic as they seem. In reality, Vashti is terrified of the idea of leaving her underground cell and experiencing the outside world. She has a horror of direct experience. Self-isolation is in operation big-time. Vashti is never happier than when giving lectures to large groups of followers, as long as it doesn’t mean meeting them in the flesh. She conducts her lectures using a Zoom-like communication system.

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.

Kuno has been to the outside world and wants to tell Vashti some awful truths about it. They can communicate via a Skype-like medium (bear in mind this was published in 1909), which Kuno uses to persuade Vashti to visit him on the other side of the planet, travelling in an “Air-Ship”. He needs desperately to talk to her face-to-face – even though it will involve her travelling half way around the world! Alison George points out why he feels that that is a price worth paying:

“A mother talks to her son by videoconference. She thinks it is ‘good enough’ to be able to communicate with him at all, whereas the son yearns to see her in person, recognising all the nuances that have been lost in the digitally mediated form of communication … Eventually, humans will be able to design technology offering substantive nature-like experiences. But my research tells me that, just as in Forster’s story, these will always be diminished compared with real nature. If this is true, then we should think of technological nature as a bonus, not as a substitute. Otherwise we might come to believe, as we have already to some degree, that ‘good enough’ is ‘good’.2

Forster knew nothing of TV or discussion programmes, radio or phone-ins, the internet or videoconferencing and VR concerts, of course. So it’s truly remarkable that the critique of technology in The Machine Stops has so many resonances with life today – I mean both the ‘old normal’ and our ‘new normal’. Maybe Vashti is right, that some kind of face-to-face communication is better than nothing. But to the extent that it becomes the norm to opt for virtual experiences, either from choice or force of circumstance, then maybe we become increasingly de-humanised and effectively part of Forster’s Machine.

During the visit, Kuno tells her that he is threatened with homelessness for daring to escape to the outside, without a permit. He fears telling her through the Machine, in case he is found out and reported to the Central Committee. Homelessness would mean death. He had emerged into Wessex by climbing up a ventilation shaft with his respirator. What he sees on the surface inspires and terrifies him as the story develops to its gripping conclusion and it becomes apparent that the machine is faltering, breaking down in ways that even the Mending Apparatus can’t handle.

There are many possible readings of the story. Is it a political allegory, Vashti standing for a passive member of the underclass, her son Kuno a rebel, kicking against an authoritarian regime? Is it primarily a call for individuals to think for themselves? Is it, perhaps, a warning that our precious environment will be destroyed if we don’t nurture it and care for it? Or does it seek to show that over-reliance on technology will lead to catastrophe? I’d venture to suggest that it could even be read as a struggle between our deepest thoughts and the need to conform – Id versus Ego, etc.

Forster’s own explanation seems to have been that technology was becoming a malevolent controlling force. The implication is that it would eventually take over completely. With this thought, perhaps he even foreshadows the concept of the technological singularity.

In Science As Nightmare: The Machine Stops, Silvana Caporaletti writes: “‘The Machine Stops’ basically expresses the same ethical and social preoccupations that inform all the other works of Forster, who repeatedly denounces the dangers of a materialistic ethos and of a general conformism imposed by rigid social conventions, exposing the spiritual barrenness and the emotional impoverishment generated by the repression of diversity, spontaneity and creativity”.3

Is Covid-19, then, just the latest symptom of a wider disease that is slowly engulfing humanity? Forster covered a lot of ground in this short tale, inviting us to consider whether growing authoritarianism, man-made environmental degradation, the de-humanising effect of an over-reliance on technology, artificial insemination, rampant materialism, moral and ethical decline and dumbing-down in many spheres are the defining characteristics of what we cheerfully call civilisation.

Or was Forster, writing about technology and one-party politics before two world wars, envisioning only the threats that technology posed, unaware of its potential abilities to combat the often deadly forces of Nature?

What wouldn’t we give for a return to the familiar, boring, predictable, comparatively carefree lifestyles, that most of us have grown up with? I’ve no doubt Forster would ask us to think twice about that. Perhaps we should listen to the words of some of those who have recovered from this horrendous disease and emerged like Kuno to see the world as it really is?

Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth. Air-ships might be necessary, but what was the good of going out for mere curiosity and crawling along for a mile or two in a terrestrial motor? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered. So respirators were abolished, and with them, of course, the terrestrial motors, and except for a few lecturers, who complained that they were debarred access to their subject-matter, the development was accepted quietly. Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote.


1 Jaron Lanier, The suburb that changed the world, New Statesman 140, no. 5066 (August 15th, 2011), np.
2 Peter Kahn in Through a window, darkly …, Alison George, New Scientist 210, no. 2815 (June 4th, 2011), pp 32-33.
3 Silvana Caporaletti, Science as Nightmare: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster, Utopian Studies 8 (1997), no. 2: p 32.

Recommended online reading

Martyn Berry, Escape from the clutches of the Machine, New Scientist, 25th February, 1995

Image credit: plaque – Simon Harriyott from Uckfield, England / CC BY (

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