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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