Shaw--Terry--Irving: Woman Between
By Margot Peters
(The Lyceum stage. Medieval-looking props, including King Arthur’s large and Guinevere’s smaller thrones. Props shift or change, but thrones stay throughout. Bernard Shaw is off stage in a suggested box until his invitation to the Lyceum.
Irving and Shaw must be contrasted in every way. Irving is every inch the actor: long dark hair; pale face with deep-set dark eyes; long, expressive hands. He should wear black in the opening scene, dark cloaks or clothes thereafter. His speech is eccentric: slow, ironic, punctuated by “mmms” and “ahs” -- an actor must suggest this, though not exaggerate. He has exquisitely fine manners, yet is remote and mysterious. Terry calls him “the most secretive man I know.” He is 57 but looks younger because of a build “of sinew and steel.” Bernard Shaw’s red hair and beard announce an aggressive and aspiring playwright and drama critic to whom Irving’s out-moded romanticism is anathema. He is determined to lay down the law of Ibsenite New Drama to the backslider Irving.
Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady, should wear loose, romantic, medieval gowns. Her fair hair is a sunlit cloud. She is a tall, large woman, yet she seems to glide rather than walk. Her gestures are at once spontaneous and graceful. She is not beautiful but her face is so distinctive that she makes merely pretty women look common-place. Though she is 47, she has the young, wistful expression of a child waiting to be entranced. In contrast with the theatrical Irving, she has a breath of English countryside about her. She lights the dark stage.
The action encompasses about three years, but events flow together without chronological marking.
A bearded and rather heavy man in formal dress enters and approaches the footlights.)
STOKER: Good evening. My name is Bram Stoker. Today I’m remembered as the author of a novel called Dracula. No, forgive me. I am forgotten; it is Dracula who won’t die. In my day I was assistant to the greatest actor in the English-speaking world. I refer, of course, to Henry Irving and his magnificent theatre, the Lyceum. (As Stoker continues speaking, the sound of applause grows steadily louder.) Let me introduce you. It is 1895, the play is King Arthur and Mr. Irving and Miss Ellen Terry are coming forward to take their bows. A triumph, as usual. Alas, however, like many kings, Mr. Irving is only beginning to realize there is a traitor threatening his throne. Miss Terry is quite aware; I believe she may even be encouraging the traitor. In fact, there have been letters. But here they are --
(Stoker withdraws applauding fervently as Henry Irving and Ellen Terry come forward smiling and bowing. Applause rises to frantic crescendo. Irving turns, raises her hand, and kisses it. She makes him a deep curtsey. They smile and bow during the following exchange.)
TERRY: You’ve swept them away, my Chief. Listen to them call you! They refuse to go home!
IRVING: All I hear is “Terry! Terry!”
TERRY: Silly! They’re coaxing me to keep you out front for one more call!
IRVING: Enough! (A change of lighting indicates that the curtain has fallen for the last time. Irving lifts off his crown with relief and tosses it upon King Arthur’s throne, center-stage.) Tell me, what do you think of my new business in the last act? The bit where my sword sticks and I’m forced to wrestle it out of its sheath. Symbolic, you know, of my reluctance to wreak vengeance upon my enemies. Rather a fine touch, eh.
TERRY: Clever. Of course your stuck sword killed my line. (She moves about the stage lightly, touching the sword in question, picking up a chalice and setting it down, reliving her performance)
IRVING: Not a particularly good line, was it.
TERRY: Still, I’d become fond of it.
IRVING: “Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart”! (Bram Stoker enters, bows deferentially, hands Irving a newspaper, retires) Ah!
TERRY: (Casually.) The latest Saturday Review?
IRVING: (Striking the paper with the back of his hand.) Unbelievable, the depths to which the press can sink! I’ve always had my critics but this --
TERRY: (Quickly.) You know I never read reviews --
IRVING: (Thrusts the paper at her.) You had better read this --
(As he hands her the review light springs up on a man in a stage box. Bernard Shaw is 39, tall and thin, with an intellectual vitality that is fierce and dangerous. His beard is red; the peaks of his red hair, parted in the center, duplicate the Mephistophelian peaks of his eyebrows. He has flaunted formal theatre dress for a Norfolk jacket, shoft shirt, knickerbockers, wool stockings, and stout shoes. He is writing rapidly in a notebook, pen spluttering. Unlike Irving’s, his speech is forceful, lucid, argumentative, endlessly fluent: unstoppable.)
SHAW: (Declaiming his own review with great relish, his words riding over Irving’s) I sometimes wonder where Mr. Irving will go to when he dies -- whether he will dare to claim, as a master artist, to walk where he may any day meet Shakespeare whom he has mutilated, Goethe whom he has travestied, and the nameless creator of the hero-king Arthur out of whose mouth he has uttered verses that are the purest trash --
TERRY: (Reading, then looking up with an air of conscious guilt that the agitated Irving doesn’t see.) Darling Henry: “words, words, mere words.” Why take a journalist’s ravings seriously?
IRVING: Because overnight this -- terrorist -- has become the most influential drama critic in London. Read on, Nelly: he hasn’t spared you --
SHAW: (Still lecturing, but now with a note of affection) As to Miss Ellen Terry as Guinevere, it was the old story -- a born actress of real women’s parts condemned to figure as a mere artist’s model in costume plays which, from the woman’s point of view, are foolish flatteries written by gentlemen for gentlemen. What a theatre for a woman of genius to be attached to! Obsolete tomfooleries like Robert Macaire, schoolgirl charades like Nance Oldfield, with intervals of hashed Shakespeare. And all the time a stream of splendid women’s parts pouring from the Ibsen volcano and being snapped up by rising actresses --
(Blackout on stage box.)
IRVING: (Wadding the paper and tossing it across the stage.) You see his scheme!
TERRY: Scheme? I hear a man of decided convictions. They may not be ours.
IRVING: Damn the man! He’s trying to divide us. He’s trying to take you from me.
TERRY: What a story!
IRVING: (Quietly, but with great intensity.) He is trying to destroy my theatre. He is trying to destroy my Lyceum.
TERRY: (Running to him, wholly sincere.)Let him try his damndest! He shall not succeed!
IRVING: You admit he’s trying.
TERRY: Darling, he’s showing off. He wants to be the avantest of the avant guard. No tradition sacred -- down with the old, up with the new -- the more corpses the merrier. He’s pen-proud.
IRVING: You seem to know a great deal about the wretch. (With fresh bitterness.) He’s wooing you, don’t you see? He’s courting you through his perfidious columns in the Saturday Review.
TERRY: But I never read --
IRVING: He doesn’t know that. I know, your (he takes both her hands) . . . friend of fifteen years.
TERRY: (Sadly.) Nearly twenty.
IRVING: A lifetime. Together we have created what may, please God, be remembered as a great English theatre.
TERRY: (Withdrawing her hands. During the following exchange she moves restlessly about the stage.) You give me too much credit, Henry. The Lyceum belongs to you, after all. I’ve been very good at playing that instrument called the second fiddle. Sometimes I feel my major role is looking on at your triumphs.
IRVING: (Hurt to the quick.) Ellen Terry, an onlooker? Please remember that in Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado, I played second fiddle to you. In The Merchant of Venice and Charles the First your parts were equal to mine. The best proof of my . . . love for you is that I’m not jealous of you. You are the highest paid woman in all England after the Queen. They call you “Our Lady of the Lyceum,” they come nightly to worship at your shrine. Can Victoria boast as much?
TERRY: Queen Victoria has power. (Not letting the subject drop.) What did he call Nance Oldfield? A schoolgirl charade? Wicked, but clever.
IRVING: (Recoiling.) Nance Oldfield is one of your greatest triumphs.
TERRY: Good old Nance. But she’s not a good play, you know.
IRVING: (Pained.) You never complained before. Well, well: I see it’s too late. The traitor is within the gates.
TERRY: Nonsense. I’m only remembering, dearest Henry, that you’ve made me play some rather wretched parts. Rosamund, for instance. I don’t think dear Tennyson ever knew very much about women, but if he did, in Beckett he forgot it. She wasn’t a woman at all!
IRVING: (Wounded, drawing himself up.) You forget Beatrice, you forget Cordelia.
TERRY: (Warmly, conciliating.) I forget nothing, dear Chief, except from time to time my lines.
IRVING: (Still brooding about the review, seating himself upon Arthur’s throne.) Does this agitator know what he’s attacking? Twenty-four years ago I first stepped onto the stage of the Lyceum as Mathias in The Bells. The evening was a sensation, the audience so shattered by the horror of my death scene that at first they could not applaud. But when they did -- how the thunder roared from wall to wall. I didn’t count the curtain calls, I only knew, at last, my power. Afterwards, in the carriage, my wife turned to me and said: “Are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?” (Rising from the throne, pacing.) We were crossing Hyde Park Corner; it was sluicing rain. I ordered the driver to stop and jumped out of the cab. I never returned home and never spoke to Florence again. (With quiet pride.) Since that night my work has been my life -- no, more than my life. I have vowed myself to it in a pact as awful as Faust’s with Mephistopheles.
TERRY: (Moved, humbly.) I know that, Henry, do you know how? Because I have the most intimate acquaintance with a melancholy figure that was Hamlet. Because I know in my bones a slender dark Romeo with burning eyes, more Italian than any real Italian could be. Because I see into the heart of the crafy old cardinal that was your Wolsey. These characters I know better than I know myself. And I hardly know the real Henry Irving at all. You are the consummate stage magician. (Sincerely, proudly.) There are only two classes of actors, you know: Henry Irving and all the rest.
IRVING: And an upstart Irishman is determined to destroy the class of one.
TERRY: (Goes to him, pushes him gently down onto the throne. He doesn’t resist.) Why, you’re shivering, you’re cold as ice. Here. (In an extraordinary gesture, at once motherly and sensual, she removes his boots, then, seating herself at the foot of the throne, she tucks his feet into her gown and cuddles them against her stomach.) Listen to a story, dear Chief. Once upon a time when I was quite a young thing and abandoned by my husband, I lived alone deep in the country. One night I was returning alone through a wood. It was a dark night, I was ill and nervous -- the snapping of a twig made me jump, the hoot of an owl turned my blood to ice. Suddenly in the middle of the wood I saw a shining object in the path. I lowered my lantern and found myself looking into the bulging eyes of a large frog. Then I saw that behind him was another, and another. I turned and saw that I was surrounded by a circle of frogs swarming over the path. I dropped my lantern, which immediately went out, leaving me in pitch darkness. (Irving makes a gesture as if to speak; she puts her finger to her lips.) What to do! If I stepped forward -- no, that did not bear thinking about. If I stepped backward -- well, that choice was equally dire. What I finally did was feel about gingerly for a clear space. Then I sat down and waited through the long hours til dawn. When the light at last began to steal through the forest I could see the path. The party had broken up. The frogs were gone.
IRVING: (Extricating his feet, pulling on his boots.) My poor little Nelly. But I don’t see --
TERRY: Let this George Bernard Shaw croak away to his heart’s content. One morning you’ll wake and -- poof -- he’ll have vanished!
(Blackout on Irving and Terry, light up on Shaw, who is blotting a letter. He reads it over, evidently satisfied with his effort.)
SHAW: Will nothing convince Irving that Shakespeare is dead, not even Ibsen’s Peer Gynt? And how beautiful you would be as Solveig! Million millions! Is H.I. blind? Is he deaf? I utterly refuse to concern myself with your Beatrices and Portias and the like. Anybody can play Shakespeare: you are wanted for greater things. Nothing will persuade me that Shakespeare carries a modern woman with him right through: even Duse could do nothing with Cleopatra. By the way, if you will let Shakespeare steal you to decorate his plays with, why not play Hermione? Leontes is a magnificent part, worth fifty Othellos (Shakespeare knew nothing about jealousy when he wrote Othello), as modern as Ibsen, and full of wonderful music -- ”I have tremor cordis on me” and so on. (As he is speaking, light on Ellen Terry onstage, seated on Guinevere’s throne. She is reading Shaw’s letter; his voice continues.)Yet to my great exasperation I hear that you are going to play Madame Sans-Gêne. Wretch! perverse, aluminium hearted wretch! I do not know any other way of expressing the lightness, the hardness, the radiance of that centre of your being. And I have just finished a beautiful little one act play for Napoleon and a strange lady -- a strange lady who will be murdered by some other actress whilst you are nonsensically pretending to play a washer-woman. (Shaw’s and Terry’s voices merge; she speaks the last line of his letter.)
TERRY: “Will your tomb at Westminster Abbey have nothing but reproaches for an epitaph?” (She throws down the letter, picks up a mirror, stares hard into it, drops it, touches the letter again and addresses Shaw.) I didn’t like you when you first wrote me. I thought you unkind, and exceedingly stiff and prim. Now I beg your pardon most heartily. Although of course it matters no jot to you what I think, I must yet ask you to take my bestest thanks for your long last splendid letter. If you give Napoleon and that Strange Lady (Lord, how attractively tingling it sounds!) to anyone but me I’ll -- write to you every day! (I always feel inclined that way.) Ah, but be kind, and let me know that “lady.”
(Blackout. When lights come up, Terry is absorbed in a manuscript bound in red covers. Irving enters from the wings, brandishing an identical copy. Terry quickly thrusts her manuscript behind her)
IRVING: Extraordinary! The mad Irishman who is straining every nerve to wreck me and my theatre is seriously asking me to produce a play of his!
TERRY: Mad! (Casually) What’s it about?
IRVING: He calls it The Man of Destiny. Naturally he means himself.
TERRY: (Preserving her air of innocence with difficulty) Surely the play isn’t about George Bernard Shaw!
IRVING: Ostensibly it’s about Napoleon.
TERRY: What a role for you, darling! Except you’re too tall.
IRVING: (Pained) Tall, short, fat, thin. It’s all in the mind. You seem to forget I’m playing Napoleon to your Madame Sans Gene. Which, by the way, I’m staging only for you.
TERRY: (Curtsies with mock humility. Then, irrepressibly) This Man of Destiny. Does it have a part for me?
IRVING: No one can credit this Shaw with subtlety. His Strange Lady is “a tall, fair creature of about thirty, full of figure, with a hauntingly lovely, wistful face.” Who else but Ellen Terry. Base flatterer.
TERRY: I’m hardly thirty. . . . I suppose it’s a bad play? Read me a bit, do!
IRVING: If I must. (Paging through the manuscript) Let’s see. The Strange Lady is dressed like a man -- I suppose he thinks he’s shockingly modern when he’s only stealing from Shakespeare. Here: Napoleon and the Lady are finally alone. (In spite of himself, throwing himself into the part) : “I see you don’t know me, madam, or you would save yourself the trouble of pretending to cry. The papers if you please.”
TERRY: (Unable to stop herself) “Oh, how unkindly you are speaking to me. You frighten me -- ”
IRVING: (Baffled surprise turning to certainty) You have his play, you’ve had it all along. (Terry contritely produces the manuscript) Frailty, thy name is Ellen Terry! You tricked me into this charade. You have gone over to the side of those -- initials.
TERRY: You’re furious.
IRVING: (Recovering) No. I’m pained at the childish subterfuge of my partner and leading lady.
TERRY: (Unrepentant) But Shaw’s play -- what do you think of it?
IRVING: Flagrantly obvious stage tricks. (Reluctantly) I suppose it has some merit. But it’s impossible to fit a one-act into the Lyceum bill --
TERRY: You’re fitting a Pinero into the bill this May.
IRVING: Pinero is our leading dramatist.
TERRY: Shaw might be. Think of it, Henry: a play acted by you can make any dramatist’s name. Be generous. For my sake.
IRVING: (Controlling his anger) I can’t accept this play. It’s a bribe.
IRVING: “Produce my Man of Destiny and I call off my hounds.”
TERRY: (Distressed, then thoughtful) Oh, I don’t think so, Henry. I don’t think he’s dishonorable, just ambitious like any young man. (Laying her hand on his sleeve. She is in a difficult position: she can’t plead too much, or too little) Promise me you’ll not reject The Man of Destiny out of hand?
IRVING: Mmm. I may make him an offer.
TERRY: To produce it!
IRVING: (With an ambiguous smile) At any rate, an offer. (He exits, manuscript under his arm)
TERRY: (Speaking to Shaw) Henry has now read your Man of Destiny. He quite loves it and will do it finely. And I quite love your Strange Lady and will do her finely, or as best I can. Ah, but I’m a fool and perhaps can’t play your bold New Woman as triumphantly as you would like. May I add that I hear rumors, perfidious sir, that she is already in the hands of the enchanting Mrs. Patrick Campbell? Which reminds me of something I wanted to ask: If you despise Henry as thoroughly as you say you do, why do you want him to do your play?(Light up on Shaw, who is reading Terry’s letter. He flings it down with a triumphant laugh)
SHAW: The weather has frowned; but Fortune has smiled. Ten splendid things have happened. To wit: 1, a letter from Ellen Terry. 2, a check for my Chicago royalties from Arms and the Man. 3, a letter from Ellen Terry. 4, the rolling away of the clouds from the difficult second act of my new play, leaving the view clear and triumphant right on to the curtain. 5, a letter from Ellen Terry. (Enumerates on his fingers) 6, a beautiful sunset bicycle ride over the hills and far away, thinking of Ellen Terry. 8, a letter from Ellen Terry. 9, a letter from Ellen Terry. 10, a letter from Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Eleanor Ellenest Terry. Irving will produce my play? And yet I suspect him. He would buy me in the market like a rabbit, wrap me up in brown paper and put me on his shelf if I offered myself for sale. Will you therefore let me know seriously whether he wishes me to hold the play for him. Of course its production by him would be quite the best thing that could happen to it. And then, think of the bliss, the gratification of teaching you and Irving how to act, and to see you, my Ellenest Eleanora, every day for ever so long. But note: he will not produce it for your sake: no man ever does anything for a woman’s sake: from our birth to our death we are women’s babies, always wanting something from them, never giving them anything except to keep for us. But it is all nonsense: you are only playing with me. I shall go to that beautiful Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who won my heart long ago by her piano playing in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, and make her head twirl like a chimney cowl with my blarney. She shall play the Strange Lady -- yes it shall be so.
(Lights up on Irving onstage. He is in dark street clothes and wearing the broad-brimmed felt hat he sports at rehearsals when he’s in a bad mood. He is seated on the Arthur throne, chin in hand, listening to a terrified young actor recite.)
YOUNG ACTOR: (Striking a pose) “There was a sound of revelry by night,/And Belgium’s capital had gathered then/Her Beauty and her Chivalry and bright/The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men -- ”
IRVING: (Holding up a hand) Stop, please. What did you say?
YOUNG ACTOR(Clearing his throat) You wish me to begin again, sir? (Restrikes pose) “There was a sound of revelry by night -- ”
IRVING: Ah! Tell me, pray, what is revulry?
YOUNG ACTOR: (Perplexed) Why, rev’lry, sir. You know, laughing, singing, drinking -- goings on.
IRVING: My young friend, there is no such word. Listen. (An impressive pause) “There was a sound of re-vel-ry by night.” (On Irving’s lips the word “revelry” dances and glitters, the word “night” falls like a shroud) Try it.
YOUNG ACTOR: “There was a sound of re-ver-y by night. Er, rev-ler-y -- ”
IRVING: For Lord Byron’s sake I regret that on this particular night in Brussels the sound of revelry was not heard.
(Ellen Terry enters from the wings as the young actor slinks out)
TERRY: Poor lamb! Henry, have you utterly crushed him?
TERRY: (Glancing over her shoulder) He was rather handsome -- in an obvious way.
IRVING: Handsome is as handsome enunciates.
TERRY: You can be cruel, Gov’nor.
IRVING: Never cruel, Nelly. Only fastidious.
TERRY: (Holding out a letter) Look, no more charades. From Bernard Shaw. He declares he’s in heaven. Read it.(Irving takes the letter with an expression of deep mistrust as Shaw speaks)
SHAW: Will you therefore befriend me, my dear Ellen, to the extent of letting me know seriously whether H.I. wishes me to hold the play for him? If so, there is one thing that he ought to know. As long as I remain a dramatic critic I can neither sell plays nor take advances --
IRVING: (With a sardonic smile) Ah, the unsullied hero, the Galahad of critics. He has upped the ante.
TERRY: What do you mean?
IRVING: His latest diatribe in The Saturday Review.
TERRY: You know I never --
IRVING: (Sighing and shaking out the paper) So I must read it twice. He titles his latest “Mr. Irving Takes Paragoric,” by which he implies that since I am so naturally solid and dignified in my private character, I have ”the grotesque necessity” to relieve myself onstage via the laxative of playing the fool.
TERRY: (Clapping her hands over her mouth, whether in horror or amusement it is hard to say) Ah!
SHAW: (Cutting in over Irving) His Richard the third is impish buffoonery, his Mephistopheles a travesty, and his Don Quixote an exercise in sheer clownishness. As for his latest venture, Conan Doyle’s Story of Waterloo, anyone who consults recent visitors to the Lyceum will learn that the piece is a trifle raised into importance by the marvellous acting of Mr. Irving as Gorporal Gregory Brewster. As a matter of fact, the entire effect is contrived by the author, and is due to him alone. There is absolutely no acting in it -- none whatever --
TERRY: (Torn between admiration of Shaw’s audacity and sympathy for Irving) Oh, my darling!
IRVING: Back in 1860, when I was a very young man, Mr. Toole sent for me to play a six weeks engagement at the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin. I got to Dublin all right and was ready with my part, but to my amazement the moment I stepped onstage I was greeted with howls of execration from the pit and gallery. There I was, standing aghast, and in front of me a raging Irish audience -- roaring, shaking its fist, cursing me. I was thunderstruck with the warmth of my reception.
TERRY: But what set them off? What had you done?
IRVING: Nothing, except replace a favorite Dublin actor who had been sacked for drunkenness. But nobody bothered to explain that to me. For six weeks I played my part to groans, hoots, hisses, and catcalls in complete ignorance of what I had done to offend. (Raps newspaper) Now this nightmare seizes me again, and again I’m ignorant of the cause of my offense. Your GBS reminds me of a cruel boy who delights in pulling the wings off a fly.
TERRY: Then take no more notice of him than if he were a boy. Sometimes I think of him privately as Little Bernie. How furious he’d be if he knew! That’s it: we’ll pretend he’s our son, our naughty boy who delights in tormenting his poor parents for the sheer joy of making mischief.
IRVING: (Fervently) You harbor in your heart a parricide clearly intent on killing his father and marrying his mother? Had that impious wretch been born son of mine I would have driven a stake through his ankles and abandoned him at the crossroads to be torn to pieces by wild animals -- (A discreet cough from the wings and Bram Stoker enters with two letters. A certain solemnity in Stoker’s manner arrests Irving; he seizes the letters and turns them over with an air of suppressed excitement. He has gone very pale.)
TERRY: My dear! Not bad news, I trust?
IRVING: (Seizing a prop dagger, slitting both envelopes, reading, then laying them carefully down.) The first is from Lord Rosebery. The Queen is conferring on me a knighthood in personal recognition of my services to art. The second is from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales congratulating me on the honor.
(Stoker pumps Irving’s hand, Irving receiving the congratulations with a natural majesty)
(Flying to Irving, flinging off Stoker as she wildly embraces him)
TERRY: Oh, my dearest, dearest Henry! The first knighthood ever granted to an actor. Your genius has carried our profession beyond the stars. Sir Henry Irving. How supremely deserved!
(She whirls him about in a little waltz. Stoker seizes The Saturday Review, shreds it to confetti and flings the pieces into the air; they fall on the revolving actors.)
(Blackout. Lights up on the Lyceum stage. It is 1896, more than a year later, but since the topic is the same -- whether Irving will stage Shaw’s Man of Destiny -- the passage of time is irrelevant.)
TERRY: (Writing to Shaw) Still a muddle about this little play of yours! I wish you’d just give it to Henry to do what he likes with. He’ll play it quick enough, never fear, but I see what he’s thinking, the silly old cautious thing. He is such a dear Donkey! Darling fellow. Stupid ass! And now Sir Henry on top of it all! Oh, I can’t bother about him any more. You ought to have come long ago and read your new play Candida to me. Of course you were busy, but never mind. Now my holiday is over and I’m back in town and must stick at work, rehearsing Cymbeline every day and every evening for a whole cussed month. (Picking up a copy of the play and continuing, to herself) I still can’t stick Imogen in my head. The words! Panic will possess me first thing each morning until I know those words . . . Dear gentleman, I fear you must stop calling me Ellen. We haven’t met, and with Cymbeline you are likely to be so cruel.
SHAW: (Speaking directly to Ellen from his box) By far the most sensible thing to do about the Strange Lady is stop worrying H.I. about it. As long as negotiations consist in my writing letters to you and getting answers, I am quite willing to negotiate; but that’s not much fun for Irving. What will happen is that Richard Mansfield will come over from America and play both my Arms and the Man and Man of Destiny here in London. And that will be the end of all our dreams about the Strange Lady. Poor Strange Lady! I too have been on holiday, with my old Fabian gang. This time we were joined by an Irish millionairess. She has cleverness and character enough to decline to be a good catch for a man and we incorporated her into our Fabian family with great success. I refreshed my heart, sorely battered by the incomparable Ellen, by falling in love with her. I love falling in love -- but mind, only with her; so someone else must marry her if she can stand him after me. Did you holiday with H.I.? I have seen you out driving with him, like two children in a gigantic perambulator, and have longed to seize him, throw him out, take his place, and calmly tell the coachman to proceed. At the same time, mark you, I am not jealous. I grew up in a ménage à trois consisting of my formidable mother, my futilely drunk father, and my mother’s music teacher, Vandaleur Lee. I have always felt most comfortable as the third leg of a triangle. Farewell then until after Cymbeline, oh divine quintessential Ellen of the wise heart. Of course you can’t remember Imogen. Who could? And that is because Shakespeare is as dead dramatically as a doornail. Your only chance of learning him is to learn him by ear, for his music is unfailing. Get someone to read you your part, urge it on you, hurl it at you. And when you have finished with Imogen, finish with Shakespeare. Must I really give up calling you Ellen after a hundred years? Impossible: Ellen Terry is the most beautiful name in the world: it rings like a chime through the last quarter of the 19th century. It has a lovely rhythm in it. Not like Jorj, so horribly ugly and difficult that I abandoned it years ago. I am, and ever shall be, simply -- Shaw.
(Light up on Terry during the last part of Shaw’s speech. At the words “finish with Shakespeare” she flings her copy of Cymbeline away in despair. She hears his lyricisms upon the name Ellen Terry with a wistful smile, says the words “Simply -- Shaw.” Irving enters from the wings.)
IRVING: Your lines. They’re coming?
TERRY: My son Teddy shouts them at me day and night. It seems to be working.
IRVING: Trust Shakespeare. His dramatic genius will carry you through. (Biting his forefinger) I’ve done something I hope I won’t live to regret. I’ve invited Shaw round to discuss his play.
TERRY: (Genuinely surprised) How extraordinary, I mean, how fine! You’ve always seen the value of his play. I never doubted it.
IRVING: (Moodily) Mansfield has scored a huge hit in America with the fellow’s Arms and the Man. Cyril Maude is producing him at the Haymarket. Not that I guarantee to play this Man of Destiny.
TERRY: But you’ll be open, Henry, won’t you? Open to talent like the genius you are? When is he coming?
IRVING: Saturday morning. (Pause) What’s the matter?
TERRY: He writes his review of Cymbeline Friday night. Surely he’ll consider the Saturday meeting a bribe!
IRVING: You tell me he’s incorruptible.
TERRY: I don’t care about him, Henry, I care about you! I can’t bear he should think you’re afraid of him.
IRVING: (With measured emphasis, going toward the wings) I am not afraid of him. You know I welcome true criticism. When a man is sincere with me, I am sincere with him. But this G.B.S. doesn’t play fair. (Looks out toward the stalls where drama critics sit) I want to see what manner of man it is who has chosen to be my enemy.
(Terry gazes after him, then picks up Guinevere’s mirror. She studies the face reflected there ironically, trying to discover what kind of woman it is who can see both sides of a quarrel.)
TERRY: Henry may not be afraid of you, G.B.S., but I am -- a little. (She picks up a letter from the heap) Ah, but you are kind to send me such excellent advice about playing Imogen --
SHAW: I really don’t know what to say about this silly old Cymbeline. Imogen is a paradox: a real woman divined by Shakespeare and at the same time a cliché produced by his views of what a woman ought to be. There are four good lines in the part. (Terry speaks all four) First: “How far it is/To this same blessed Milford.” You will do the whole scene beautifully. Second, the exit speech: “Such a foe! Good heavens!” Third: “I’ll hide my master from the flies.” Fourth, the only good line of pure rhetoric in Mrs. Siddons’s style: “Fear not: I’m empty of all things but grief.” Only that ass Shakespeare spoils it by adding, “Thy master is not there, who was indeed, the riches of it.” Do not speak these words. If anyone complains you left them out you can retort, “I did not speak them; but I did not leave them out.”(Terry acts out the following scene, with the Young Actor, wrapped in a cloak, as the body of Cloten.)
TERRY: Gods! How you seem to feel with one! Yet, dear gentleman, don’t you realize that only Henry Irving makes cuts at the Lyceum? In spite of all your goodness to me I shall do nothing tonight. Not because I’ve left my effects to chance. I’ve settled what I want to try for but I’m all earth instantly I get on the stage. Tight, mechanical, hide-bound. I feel nothing. I can’t care, can’t think, can’t feel. CAN NOT. Henry finds fault with everyone, and rehearses and rehearses until they drop. Then when our scenes come on he says, “Oh, we’ll skip them.” But he will be wonderful and look his best. I want to act a modern part. Oh, I am so ill, and stiff, and dull. Am I to read Candida? I think I’d rather never meet you -- in the flesh. You are such a Great Dear as you are!
SHAW: Very well, you shan’t meet me in the flesh if you’d rather not. There is something deeply touching in that. Did you never meet a man who could bear meeting and knowing? Perhaps you’re right: Oscar Wilde said of me: “An excellent man: he has no enemies and none of his friends like him.” You simply can’t read Candida. The first scene would bore you to death and you would never take it up again. However, I can read it to you without disillusion. Blindfold yourself, get behind a screen, then I enter and read away. I promise not to utter a single word outside the play, and not to peep around the screen. Your Sir Henry summons me to a conference this Saturday at midday. I shall see him with my Saturday Review article buried to the hilt in his heart. Inspiration or no inspiration, to-night or never Imogen must be created. Next week is nothing to me or to posterity. One week later Napoleon might have won the battle of Waterloo. Your only business to-night is to carry the flag to victory. Doesn’t matter whether you’re tired, frightened, hurt, miserable; doesn’t matter if you haven’t slept for a week and are heartbroken and desperate. Tonight will never come again. You call me a Great Dear. You are mistaken. Tonight I, your enemy -- his enemy -- will be there in the stalls; and woe betide the Lyceum if you do for Cymbeline what he did for Lear. Hitherto, you have only coaxed me. Tonight you must CONQUER me. I shall fight to the last, but oh, with such a longing to be conquered. A thousand successes tonight! You will break my heart if you are anything less than PERFECT.
(Blackout. Lights up on Irving seated on Arthur’s throne. Stoker enters, announces “Mr. Bernard Shaw.” Irving rises. Light on Shaw, who leaps triumphantly from side box onto the stage. A meeting of titans, certainly one of the strangest in theatrical history.
IRVING: (Rising slowly . Enormous dignity) Mr. Shaw.
SHAW: (Striding across the stage) Sir Henry. (They shake hands, Irving warily, Shaw matter-of-factly. No sign of The Saturday Review article lying about, but of course Irving has read it)
IRVING: Cigar? Glass of madeira. The excellent Stoker (nods to Stoker) keeps a decanter primed with a decent vintage.
SHAW: (Genially) No, thank you. I neither smoke nor drink. Nor have I fed upon the corpses of dead animals these past fifteen years.
IRVING: (Elegantly lighting a cigar) I congratulate you. Stoker, cancel Mr. Shaw’s invitation to my next dinner in the Beefsteak Room. I invite those who love the stage. Forgive me, Mr. Shaw, but do you love the stage? You are trying to write for it, but do you love it? Is the stage in your blood and bones? Forgive me if I have doubts about the matter.
SHAW: (Taking a seat and crossing a stockinged leg) As a lonely child, building toy theatres was my happiest occupation. As a boy in Dublin I thrilled to the acting of Ristori, Salvini, Sullivan --
IRVING: The old school of ranters. I believe an actor must think before he opens his mouth.
SHAW: In Dublin in 1871, I saw you as Digby Grant in The Two Roses. (Irving makes a gesture of surprise) You did not clash with my high estimate of Sullivan, for you two were not up the same street. Henry Irving in Shakespeare was as unthinkable for me as Sullivan out of him --
IRVING: (Quietly) Yet I made my reputation as Hamlet.
SHAW: (Ignoring him in pursuit of his tale) When I came to London penniless in 1878 I haunted the theatres and the music halls, though forced to trim the cuffs of my coat with a scissors and wore a hat so limp that the brim doubled up when I removed it.
IRVING: So you have blood in your veins?
SHAW: Sir Henry: don’t fall into the common trap of supposing that because certain people are blessed with brains they must lack heart.
IRVING: There’s damned little heart in your Man of Destiny, Mr. Shaw.
SHAW: There’s better. There’s wit and sense and truth instead of the pack of lies most playwrights sling you. And a splendid part for an actor of your calibre.
IRVING: (Acknowledging the compliment with a sardonic smile) What did you say in this morning’s Saturday? Yes, I’ve read it. That the worse the playwright the better my performance since a bad playwright leaves me entirely free to play my usual character -- myself.
SHAW: I hope you recognize the compliment I intended.
IRVING: (Leaning forward) Then when you say your Napoleon is a splendid character for an actor of my calibre, you’re admitting you are a bad playwright.
SHAW: I am the coming playwright. In giving you my play I grant your Napoleon will not be my Napoleon at all. Your Napoleon will be only that curious personality known as Henry Irving.
IRVING: (Stalking the stage) You sent me your play for one reason. Your play is for Miss Terry and the chief weapon in your relentless campaign to lure her from the Lyceum.
SHAW: You, Sir Henry, are to play Napolon.
IRVING: You understand me. Miss Terry is England’s most beloved actress. She and I have established the best theatre in London -- I dare say in the world. Then one unlucky day you, Mr. Shaw, the Complete Outsider, decide to train your guns on my leading lady. Letters arrive -- eight pages, ten pages. Only madmen, Mr. Shaw, write letters of ten pages. And how soon it is that I discover that Miss Terry is dissatisfied -- with her roles, with the plays I offer her. Dissatisfied with me. I will buy your Man of Destiny, Mr. Shaw, with the understanding that your dishonourable courtship of Miss Terry stops.
SHAW: (Rising, tall, as tall as Irving) You sound like an Adelphi melodrama, Sir Henry. I deny carrying on a courtship with Miss Terry, dishonourable or otherwise, but if I were, you can no more stop two consenting adults from writing letters than you can stop the moon and the tide.
IRVING: (Raising a hand) Letters are the least of it. You are shamelessly seducing Ellen Terry in your weekly review. Everything I stand for you tear down while you exalt Miss Terry and insist she’s wasting her talents with me. If that isn’t dishonorable courtship I don’t know what is. Ellen Terry belongs to the Lyceum. She would be lost without it.
SHAW: (Unmoved) Rubbish! Though I’m touched to find your concern is less for yourself than for her. It gives your blackmail a touch of nobility. To the point. Either take my Man of Destiny or leave it. I refuse to let you buy it for your shelf.
IRVING: (Equally unmoved) Stoker will offer you the standard contract. For the sum of fifty pounds I will take your play under consideration. Said fifty pounds to be paid again one year from today if the play hasn’t been produced in that time. On production, a set sum to be agreed upon between playwright and this management. (Quenching his cigar with finality) Not even Pinero asks for more.
SHAW: (Taking up his hat and coat, still genial) You really think you can buy my silence for fifty pounds a year?
IRVING: Mr. Shaw, you’ll be a happier man if you’re produced at the Lyceum. I’m offering a simple business proposition. Take it or leave it. Stoker! (Stoker enters with a contract)
SHAW: (Highly tempted but waving Stoker away) You can’t stop the New Drama, you know. We’re not knocking at the door -- we’ve bashed it in. Feel the blast of air through your castle. Choke on your dusty curtains, gasp your flickering gaslight.
IRVING: (Slowly, defensively, searching for words. He is scarcely Shaw’s equal in argument and feels the disadvantage keenly) Your New Drama is nothing but propaganda, thinly disguised. The public comes to the theatre not for haranguing but to transcend the harshness of life through illusion.(As he’s been speaking, Ellen Terry has slipped onto the stage from the wings and hidden herself in a fold of curtain. She is highly agitated, torn between her desire to meet her correspondent and fear of shattering both their illusions. She hesitates, not daring to peer around the curtain)
SHAW: Stuff! The public comes to the theatre to be liberated by truth. My Widower’s Houses reveals that the most pernicious slum landlord in London is the Church of England. My Philanderer shows the grotesque sexual compacts forced upon men and women by our marriage laws. My Mrs. Warren’s Profession lays bare the fact that to provide for herself a woman must prostitute herself to some man who can be good to her. These are the realities your theatre denies under the guise of romantic ideals --
IRVING: (Containing himself with difficulty, wishing he had his cigar) Your plays are popular, Mr. Shaw? Mrs Warren’s Profession has been produced to great acclaim?
SHAW: (Proudly) No manager in London dares touch it.
IRVING: Widowers’ Houses . . . ?
SHAW: It ran two nights. It made better than a success, it produced an uproar.
IRVING: (With pride) My Merchant of Venice ran two hundred and fifty performances, my Faust three hundred. (Feeling himself on more solid ground) You see, Mr. Shaw, your New Drama has one fatal flaw. No actor can make an impression in it. And it’s the actor, after all, that the public comes to see. The audiences that pack the Lyceum don’t give a damn about Shakespeare. They come to see what Henry Irving will make of Romeo, Macbeth, Shylock. Madame Sans-Gêne is a bit of clap-trap by Sardou. They don’t care: they come to watch the incomparable Ellen Terry work her stage magic. The actor is king in the theatre, Mr. Shaw, not the playwright.
SHAW: (Increasingly impatient but always keeping his temper. If he is able to “demagnetize Irving,” as he later claims, it is his maddening evenness of temper that does it) And so you take whatever liberties you like with your author -- pad your part, cut a dozen others, mutilate his lines, drag out a scene interminably because you fancy some bit of business you’ve invented. Ah, but the actor-manager’s day is dying, Sir Henry, and the day of the playwright of ideas has dawned. Feel the Shavian oxygen burning your lungs! You’re a dead race though you don’t know it. Keep my Man of Destiny. Play it for your spiritual salvation. If you don’t, it will be performed sooner or later -- my way.
IRVING: (Coldly) Permit me to doubt it.
SHAW: Doubt away. (Bows civilly, offers his hand. Irving takes it briefly) . My regards to Miss Terry. No, don’t see me out. Good day!
(Consternation in the fold of curtain. Terry hears Shaw approaching and panics. As he nears she winds herself more deeply in the curtain and he passes unaware. Irving stares into the wings after Shaw, then seating himself on Arthur’s throne, bows his head in thought. Blackout.)
(Bram Stoker enters with a fresh supply of cigars, fills Irving’s cigar case, fiddles with a prop or two, then turns to the audience. )
STOKER: I’ll let you in on a secret. The Guv’nor hasn’t the slightest intention of doing Shaw’s play. Miss Terry doesn’t know it, the Guv’nor doesn’t know it, but I know it. Why did he invite him to the Lyceum then? Because he’s afraid to refuse the damned thing outright. Odd for the Chief to be afraid. Never seen it before. Generally people are afraid of him. He can be a tyrant, you know -- a terrible tyrant. Of course if he demands your life blood -- and he does -- he gives his own in return -- (Stoker breaks off at the sound of footsteps. Ellen Terry enters. He bows, murmurs a greeting, retires)
TERRY: (Pulling a letter to Shaw out of her pocket) Oh, the famous “Conference.” What will you say if I tell you I was also at the Lyceum this morning! I intended sailing right on to the stage, then heard your voice and wound myself up in a curtain instead. I couldn’t come in. All of a sudden it came to me that under the circumstances I should not be responsible for my impulses. When I saw you, I might have thrown my arms round your neck and hugged you! I might have been struck shy. The Lord knows what I might or might not have done, and I think Henry might not have seen the joke! What’s the fate of your Man of Destiny? Henry is mum on the subject and I daren’t try to pry it out of him. He is the most secretive man I know! And aren’t you going to send me Candida? I won’t steal it, but I want to know her. I hear whispers of all your love affairs. Can a man really have so many? Oh ain’t it a dark day, sweetheart.
SHAW: (In his stage box again) Your Henry wants and does not want The Man of Destiny. Never mind whether he takes it or not, it will be played some day. No, you cannot read Candida. Wild horses shall not tear that script from me, especially after your atrocious conduct in being at the Lyceum on Saturday and not coming in. There was no danger of your kissing me: no woman, however audacious and abandoned, would dare take such a liberty with a man of my majestic presence. I liked Henry, though Henry did not like me, I suppose because I quite unintentionally demagnetized him and made him uncomfortable. He is without exception absolutely the stupidest man I ever met. Simply no brains -- nothing but character and temperament. Curious, how little use mere brains are! I have a very fine set; yet I learnt more from the first stupid woman who fell in love with me than ever brains taught me. As for all the love affairs you suspect me of. Miss Florence Farr, an amiable young woman who might act if she put her mind to it, is just perishing. Then there is my Irish lady with the light green eyes and the million of money, whom I have got to like so much that it would be superfluous to fall in love with her. Then there is Janet Achurch, who, on hearing of the Irish rival, first demanded whether I still loved her, and then, on receiving the necessary assurance, informed me that she had been faithless to me with her husband to the extent of making Candida impossible because she expects to become a mother again. And then there are others whom I cannot recollect just at present, or whom you don’t know anything about. And finally there is Ellen, to whom I vow that I will try hard not to spoil my high regard, my worthy respect, my deep tenderness, by any of those philandering follies which make me so ridiculous, so troublesome, so vulgar with women. I swear it. I won’t WON’T WON’T WON’T let you read Candida. I must read it to you, if I have to do it through the keyhole. But I, too, fear to break the spell by materialising this beautiful friendship of ours at a meeting. You were quite right not to come in on Saturday: all would have been lost. In some lonely place, by starlight -- stop. I am getting idiotic. Miss Terry: your servant!
TERRY: Oh, why do I go on insisting to Shaw that I’m the mother-woman to play his Candida! I’m the mother-woman, yes -- but I’m also a woman plain and simple. And he has his Mrs. Pat Campbells and his Janets and a dozen others, not to mention the green-eyed Irish millionairess. And Henry, my old Henry, grows cold . . . . (To Shaw) Darling, I only want to know whether they think you would, if we met, have a horrible dislike of me when you found me such an old thing, and so different to the Ellen you’ve seen on the stage. I’m so pale when I’m off the stage, and rouge becomes me, and I know I shall have to take to it if I consent to let you see me. And it would be so pathetic, for not even rouge would make you admire me away from the stage. Oh, what a curse it is to be an actress! Won’t you send me Candida one day next week like a good boy as a reward for my not writing to you until the end of the week and for not knocking on your door as I’ve been tempted mightily to do. Yes, I’ve taken a turn once or twice around your Fitzroy Square on purpose, I confess it. Send me Candida just for entertainment, no other purpose. (She mimes blowing Shaw a kiss) With a kiss on the middle of the inside of your hand I leave you --
(Enter Henry Irving in a black cloak. It becomes apparent during their conversation that something indefinable has cooled between them. His interview with Shaw, of which he has not spoken and which Terry cannot make herself mention, hangs like a pall.)
IRVING: You’re no worse, I hope. I couldn’t help noticing last night that your “bloody man” speech was giving you trouble.
TERRY: I intend to act tonight, Henry, if that’s what you mean.
IRVING: (Moodily, pacing) I may as well tell you that I’ve finally decided what will follow Cymbeline. Under the circumstances (he avoids looking at her) I think the best plan is to revive Richard the Third.
TERRY: Richard! But Lady Anne has only one good scene and the rest of the women’s parts are nothing.
IRVING: Lady Anne is unworthy of you. I would never ask you to play her.
TERRY: (Understanding) So I’m not to act at all!
IRVING: (Seating himself upon the throne) You’re ill, you’ve told me so again and again. I urge you to take a long rest, my dear. Go to the Continent -- Paris, Vienna, Monte Carlo. I’ll play Richard for four or five months and you’ll come back refreshed for Madame Sans Gêne next April.
TERRY: (Picking up a dagger, running her thumb down the blade) You think I can afford it? Five months without a salary --
IRVING: (Reproachfully) You tell me you’ve never had a moment’s worry about money since joining the Lyceum.
TERRY: I lied. (Laying down the dagger) Confess, Henry, my health doesn’t worry you. You’re doing Richard because the sets are built and because you won’t have to pay me. I’m not a complete idiot, you know. I’m aware of your extravagances. I hear Stoker groaning over the books. I know how money flows through your hands like water.
IRVING: (Stiffly) I spend unsparingly on my productions to bring them as near perfection as possible. I do not spend recklessly.
TERRY: (Flinging herself into Guinevere’s smaller throne) Oh, what a fib! When you’ve served a chop that pleases you, you send the cook five pounds. You tip a waiter in gold sovereigns --
IRVING: (Meaningfully) I have always felt obliged to reward good service --
TERRY: Every opening and closing night you feast six hundred people on the stage after the performance. Who was it said “Never consort with Royalty -- they’ll bankrupt you’? You dine royalty in your Beefsteak Room on the choicest food and drink in the world. You feed Fussy terrapin off gold plates --
IRVING: A calumny. Fussy dines off plain china.
TERRY: And meanwhile your friends scheme to save enough of your money to pay for your funeral!
IRVING: I have hundreds of valued friends. My only recreation is entertaining them.
TERRY: Henry -- it’s vulgar.
TERRY: Yes. It’s vulgar to go tossing money about like a prince in a pantomime -- Bram Stoker enters carrying letters. Terry intercepts him, seizes them, drops one in her hurry to bundle them out of the way. Irving kneels to retrieve it. He stiffens.
IRVING: (Coldly) Your post. (He turns to follow Stoker toward the wings) (Nervously, hiding the letter behind her back like a schoolgirl caught passing a note) You will think about economizing, won’t you, dear Henry? You will stop flinging away golden sovereigns in the Strand?
IRVING: (Quietly) You might make some sexual economies of your own, eh? (Exits)
SHAW: I hereby testify that I, G.B.S., having this day inspected the photograph of Miss E.T. that she sent me, have felt all my nerves spring and my heart glow with the strongest impulse to have that lady in my arms, proving that my regard for her is a complete one, spiritual, intellectual, and physical, on all planes, at all times, under all circumstances, and for ever. Well, and shall I marry Miss Charlotte Payne-Townsend, my Irish millionairess? She believes in freedom, not marriage, but I think I could prevail on her; and then I should have ever so many hundreds a month for nothing. Would you ever in your secret soul forgive me, even though I am really fond of her and she of me? No, you wouldn’t -- The Lyceum hasn’t invited me to your Sans-Gêne opening tomorrow. I quote: “Miss Terry’s strict orders, and Mr. Bernard Shaw is not to be admitted.” To Stoker I have offered a choice of two methods of admitting me -- one my usual critic’s stall, the other a hatchet and revolver plied by myself. Or if you don’t want me to be there I’ll go away to the country if you’ll come too. There must be an understudy available. I am growing impatient of the stage: it keeps a row of footlights between us. Don’t tell me you’re tired: you are not half so tired as I am, nor so lonely nor so sore. Don’t go to the Lyceum tonight: stay at home and write to me: what does a first night matter? What is their silly curiosity to my heart’s need. No: I shall only bore you. Success attend you, heaped up and overflowing, whatever you play, whatever you do. You may chop off all my fingers and toes for a necklace, and have my heart as a locket if you will only say that you like them better than diamonds.
(Terry has listened to Shaw’s lovemaking with a mixture of sadness and irony. As Shaw is speaking, Irving enters. He is in undefinable ways older than when last seen, worn down not only by an accident to his knee the first night of Richard the Third but by Terry’s all too obvious dissatisfaction with her part during the rehearsals and first weeks of Madame Sans-Gêne.
TERRY: I’ve got them at last, those dreadful lines in the third act that simply would not come.
IRVING: (Drily) How the audience would have appreciated your having had them on opening night.
TERRY: (With a charming grimace) I almost did, but then away they flew like swallows.
IRVING: You know what they’re saying about my Napoleon: Irving’s too tall and the part’s too short. Madame Sans-Gêne is your play, yet you’ve been out of temper with it from the beginning. I don’t have to be a genius to guess why.
TERRY: (Flushing, defensive) I ordered Stoker not to admit him the first night. My orders were ignored.
IRVING: Yet you have nothing to fear from him as a critic. (Pulls a letter from his breast pocket) I’ve had a letter from the man this morning. (Terry reaches out spontaneously but quickly withdraws her hand) “Dear Sir Henry Irving. The murder is out. They tell me you believe my criticism of Richard the Third implied about you what it said about Kean. I reply flatly that it didn’t” --
TERRY: I don’t understand --
IRVING: The man observed that when Edmund Kean played Richard he slumped on a sofa when he was too drunk to keep his feet in the final scenes. He then singled out what he called “my odd slips” and my exhaustion in the fight scene. The comparison was obvious.
TERRY: (Distressed but also thoroughly exasperated) Why must two grown men scrap like little boys behind the barn!
IRVING: I’m appalled that you compare my behavior to his! For years I’ve borne his attacks in silence. No more. This is the end of The Man of Destiny at the Lyceum.
TERRY: Oh, what are you saying! Don’t put him off, I beg you. I long for you to play a real Napoleon -- and Shaw’s is real. Don’t be a fool, Henry.
IRVING: (Pacing) Dear Mr. Shaw: Have no compunction about letting “the cat out of the bag” in your insinuating review of Richard. I myself have not read it. In fact I have never read a criticism of yours in my life. I have read lots of droll, amusing, irrelevant and impertinent pages, but criticism containing judgment and sympathy I have never seen by your pen. Your callousness to the feelings of others surpasses anything in my experience. Stoker returns The Man of Destiny by this post. In future I would be deeply, unqualifiedly grateful if you will please let -- me -- alone. \
TERRY: Oh, what a damn fool it is! I’m sorry.
SHAW: Oh, my dear, dear, dearest Ellen, I’m beaten. Forgive me! but your Henry is not a hero off the stage. I have tried to make the best of him; but there is no best. I have suddenly given him up; and now it’s all over. Your career has been sacrificed to the egotism of a fool: he has warmed his wretched hands callously at the embers of nearly twenty of your priceless years; and now they will flame up, scorch his eyes, burn off his rum-bathed hair and, finally, consume him. Vengeance I leave to Destiny. You must not take his part now. I declare him unworthy of my Ellen.
TERRY: (With barely concealed impatience) Well, I know all about it. Henry’s told me everything. Better if all these years I hadn’t spoiled him, but I was born meek. (Ugh!) I do assure you it is I all along who wished so hard for the play. He never wishes for anything much outside his own individual effort. I admire him for it and I hate him for it -- that he appreciates NOTHING and NOBODY. But he’s worth every trouble, for when once he takes up a thing there’s no one like him in mastering the whole affair. Oh, he wants a good slapping, but you must not do that, and I won’t. I’m tired and too indifferent now. As for you, I’d like to say “I hate you and detest you” but then I’d remember that too. You should have given in and said, “Do the play when you can. You’ll do it better than anyone else, and nurse it better than anyone else.” But don’t pity Henry. He thinks he’s quite got the best of it. The fact is he don’t think The Man of Destiny matters much. I do, and I’m angry with you. What I cared for more than for you or Henry was THE PLAY -- and NOW -- well, go your ways -- I suppose the mere fact that Henry has rejected your play will be of great use to you as an advertisement. Oh, my darling, you are the horridest old -- How is your obscure little Irish millionairess?
(Blackout. Lights up, and a sinister red flickering glow, which will intensify, then die as Irving describes the catastrophe. He enters, older again than when we last saw him, his hair more iron-grey, his walk a little slower. Terry is seated on Guinevere’s throne with a script.
TERRY: Can’t we please go over our scenes! I love your son’s play, but I’m just nowhere with Queen Catherine.
IRVING: (Sinking down onto Arthur’s throne) You’ve not heard the news.
TERRY: (Turning to him, alert) None that matters.
IRVING: You know I store the Lyceum scenery and property under two arches --
TERRY: -- In the warehouse under the Chatham and Dover railway at Southwark.
IRVING: This morning at five o’clock Stoker received a message from the police that the stores were on fire. (Terry drops her script, hands flying to her mouth) By the time he arrived the arches were an inferno.
TERRY: (Hands clasped, in tears) Oh, my darling!
IRVING: The sets for forty plays are ashes.
TERRY: (Deeply horrified) The work of the greatest scenic artists of our day --
IRVING: Those sets were insurance for my old age. In the coming years I was planning to revive the old favorites that could still draw.
TERRY: (Rising in agitation) Everything was insured?
IRVING: For ten thousand pounds because Stoker thought the risk so small. A few months ago I cut that sum to six thousand in an attempt to economize.
TERRY: (The word economize strikes her painfully. She approaches him timidly, laying her hand on his sleeve. Before the Shaw controversy, she would have flung her arms around him) Henry, take heart. If worse comes to worst, we don’t need a theatre. With only the magic book of Shakespeare in our hands we can tour the world, honest players, and people will come -- they will come.
IRVING: Not hearing) They say calamities come in threes. I’ve never really recovered since the first night of Richard the Third when I smashed my knee --
TERRY: And I had to rush back from Monte Carlo to play Olivia --
IRVING: Then dear old Fussy --
TERRY: My dog before he abandoned me for you --
IRVING: (Head in hands) And now the fire. Everything in ruin . . .
TERRY: Nonsense! If calamities do come in threes, they’re behind you now. You have the Lyceum, you have your audience, you have your devoted staff, you have your friends. You still have your old Ellen. (Holding out her hands) Come, let’s have a little supper after the theatre like old times. I’ll get my cook to fix your favorite chop --
IRVING: (Taking her hands briefly, then disengaging himself and moving toward the wings) Thank you kindly, Nell, but I happen to be engaged.
TERRY: (Disappointed) I suppose Bram will keep you up talking til sunrise as usual.
IRVING: No, not Stoker. Mrs. Aria has invited me to supper.
TERRY: (Alert) Mrs. Aria --
IRVING: A widow who was kind enough to thank me in the name of the Jewish race for my Shylock. She has been a great . . . comfort.
TERRY: (Finally furious) And I -- your whore of twenty years. I , who London still brands a fallen woman and hisses behind my back. Have I not been a great comfort? Irving crooks his arm over his face as though warding off her words, and exits. Terry paces the stage in agitation.
TERRY: Darling G.B.S.! You’ve heard about the arches? I can hardly bear it for Henry, cannot in fact talk of it, my heart is too sore. By the way, who is Mrs. Aria? I only know she’s a journalist and now a friend of H.I.’s, but I’ve never set eyes on her. (This is fun and would be better fun if I knew something about her.)Henry has been so nice to me lately I’m convinced he has a new flame. He’s always nicer then, which I think is to his credit. (Hugging her arms and shivering) O god, I’m as cold as vegetable marrow. If only I could be in love. I can’t go on acting like this. The last three nights I’ve felt like frozen leather. Loneliness mixed up with jealousy -- ugh, how I hate it! Sometimes when my children are full of their own lives and Henry is full of his work, I feel as if I’d like to go to one who would be full of me, if it only lasted five minutes. Sometimes I’d just like to stop work and marry a man, rich and old, then I’d butter the steps and wear a widow’s cap next day! How I have longed to hear from you, though you wrote last, I know. I’m fifty in a few days and don’t feel a day older than 200. Do I hear that your Miss P.T. is in Rome? Best for you maybe if she is --
(Lights up on Shaw. His foot, swathed in bandages, is propped on a chair, a pair of crutches are within reach.
SHAW: My dear Ellen, such is the fate of mere mortal man. One morning last week I merely tied my boot lace too tight, and presto, found myself lying helpless and disabled, nailed by one foot to the floor like a doomed Strasburg goose. And I must hobble to the theatre this evening as usual. So no more, my dearest Ellen. I am writing Frank Harris directly to tell him I must hand over my Saturday Review duties to Max Beerbohm at the end of the season. I can no more. It’s not only the fact that I am currently a cripple but that I am having published this month six of my plays -- and the first copy I send to you “From the author to Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Terry, Easter 1898.” Besides, I’m working at white heat on the new Caesar and Cleopatra. I can no longer be both a critic and a playwright, with conscience. The arches, the arches. I expect there was some kind of artistic justice at work. Plays should not be stifled with so much scenery. Yes, I know Mrs. Aria. She’s a clever woman with a direct manner and a dry wit. Her husband, whose first words upon leaving the altar were, “I wonder what has won the Lincoln handicap?” decamped for South Africa five years later, much to the lady’s satisfaction. A good sort, Mrs. Aria. Henry could do worse -- by far, by far, by far --
TERRY: You have hurt you foot. Oh, my sweetheart, I’m sorry. Do tell Miss P.T. to come back and look after it, or somebody. Your mother probably would be best of all. Do you know we were both at the theatre tonight? I was in a box just above dear you; kept back and out of sight until, just at the end of the 3rd act, I leaned over for a moment. A few of my pit admirers, catching sight of me, began to make noises, so I bobbed back again, but I did see you, DUCK! Now don’t neglect that foot. Goodbye, you pathetic old thing. I am your sweetheart, Ellen --
SHAW: Patient much worse, in consequence of repeated and bitter disappointments after each postal delivery. Fatal results expected if nothing arrives tomorrow. Fitzroy Square full of pretty bonnets, tears, flowers and fruit. “But what are vernal joys to me? /Where thou art not, no spring can be” --
TERRY: Fitzroy Square full of bonnets is enough to kill any man, but of course you survive for, as I knew all along, you never were a man. Dearest silly-billy, I shall not add to the tears you get, nor to the fruit and flower. I’ll write you a few lines if you promise to give me nothing back. Exert yourself to write to the other nine hundred --
SHAW: (He hesitates before speaking, for a moment at least genuinely concerned with the impact he expects his words will have) My dear Ellen, Charlotte has come back from Rome and, appalled to find me at death’s door, has done the honorable thing by a suffering bachelor in declaring she must marry me so she can take care of me properly. The poor woman had to go out and find a registrar’s office, where her statement that she wanted to get married was greeted with shrieks of laughter; then, as a final humiliation, she had to hunt up a West End jeweler’s and buy her own ring. Tomorrow at eleven-thirty I shall meet her at the West Strand Registry Office, with my old Fabian friends Graham Wallas and Henry Salt as witnesses. Since I in my rags and crutches shall look like the inevitable beggar who completes all wedding processions, and since Wallas is imposingly handsome and will be impeccably dressed, perhaps at the last moment Charlotte will marry him.
(Terry listens to this revelation with her head turned away. After an inner struggle, she reaches for pen and paper)
TERRY:How splendid! What intrepidity to make such a courageous bid for happiness. Into it you both go! Eyes wide open! An example to the world, and may all the gods have you in their keeping. (Pause, then with finality, signing) Ellen Terry.
Blackout, then a change of lighting signals the finale of the play. Henry Irving in black steps into the spotlight to address the audience.
IRVING: My son Laurence’s play, Peter the Great, was withdrawn after thirty-eight performances. Then came The Medicine Man which the public found preposterous. Twenty-four performances and a loss of six thousand pounds on the season. A tour of the provinces followed, always good for filling the coffers. But Miss Terry was wrong about three disasters being the last. There was a fourth. One night in Glasgow Stoker found me in my dressing room gasping for breath. “There must be something wrong with me,” I managed to say. “Every breath is like a sword-stab.” For seven long weeks I lay ill with pneumonia, knowing that every one of those weeks I was losing a thousand pounds. After that my health was never the same. I suffered shortness of breath, so that I had to be careful how I exerted myself. I had little energy for anything but work, and life lost some of its charm for me. I returned to the Lyceum to act in Robespierre. Regretfully, Miss Terry’s part was again not large, but to tell the truth, she had reached the age when actresses find the parts they can play with any conviction sadly few. During the run she brought me Shaw’s new play. Her audacity astonished me. After all that had happened, after all I had suffered at the hands of that man, here she was, urging me to play his Caesar and Cleopatra . I refused the play and refused to give my reasons for refusing it. Was there a living soul who could doubt what those reasons were? As I told my sons, I would gladly have paid Shaw’s funeral expenses at any time. Robespierre had for the last time all the glamour, glitter, and breathless excitement of a Lyceum premiere; but though the Lyceum company made a handsome profit, I lost four thousand pounds. It was during the American tour of 1900 that Miss Terry and I discussed for the first time the prospect of ending our professional partnership. I was still her faithful friend, but time and -- certain disagreements -- had sadly undermined our working relationship. And I was a sick man and could no longer manage for both of us. For the last time, at a matinee of The Merchant of Venice on July 19, 1902, I led her forward to bow to a Lyceum audience. I knew then the Lyceum must perish and I thought, as the waves of applause broke over us, that it was best my beloved theatre should not survive our parting of the ways. She knew it too. “I shall never be in this theatre again,” she said after our last call. “I can feel it . . . I know it.” That same year the Lyceum went bankrupt and the house lights went out forever. Then the “farewell” tours through the English provinces. By now I coughed so constantly that I went through 500 pocket handkerchiefs a week. My heart was weak: I had to have strychnine injections and drink burnt brandy between acts so I could go on. Because of the strenuous death scene, I was warned never to play Mathias in The Bells again, but Mathias always packed the house and I desperately needed a profit. In February 1905 I collapsed completely. Miss Terry came from London to see me. I’m afraid at first we both felt rather shy. Certainly I noticed how much she had aged. Yet she kept on like the trouper she was; we both kept on. She asked me how I would like the end to come. “How would I like it to come?” I said. (He snaps his fingers) “Like that!” Then Mrs. Aria came and took me away to convalesce with her in Torquay. During these years she was my most faithful companion. Marriage we never discussed: it was enough that we were first in each other’s hearts. I recovered for a fall tour. There was a feeling of valediction about it, however, as though I and my audiences were saying goodbye. I remember a most affecting evening in Swansea. When the curtain calls were taken, the Welsh audience still sat in their places and then, seemingly with one impulse, they began to sing. The strains of Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light” filled the theatre, followed by their own national song, “Land of my Fathers.” When I reached my dressing room my cheeks were wet with tears. On October 13, I was acting Becket at the Theatre Royal in Bradford. The last lines I speak in that play are, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, into Thy hands.” I said them that night with strange conviction. After the performance an odd thing happened: I clasped Stoker’s hand hard. Normally we were too intimate for such formalities. “Muffle up your throat, old chap,” I said. “It’s a bitterly cold night. God bless you.” Then my faithful dresser, Walter Collinson, escorted me to my cab. I was too spent to say a word during the ride to the Midland Hotel. As I entered the lobby a wave of dizziness washed over me. Collinson caught me. “That chair!” I gasped. I hardly remember slipping from it, unconscious, to the floor and Collinson holding me in his arms as he wept quietly over me. (Pause) I was sixty-seven years old and had been on the stage forty-nine years. (Pause) I do not remember that my mother ever loved me. Certainly she never forgave me for going on the stage. We were strangers to each other and to the day of her death she believed I had given my soul into eternal damnation. As a lonely boy in Somerset, Shakespeare and the Bible were my best teachers; they remained my teachers all my life. “How strange,” I once said to Miss Terry, “that I should have made my reputation with nothing to help me -- with no encouragement and no equipment. My legs, my voice -- everything has been against me. For an actor who can’t walk, can’t talk, and has no face to speak of, I’ve done pretty well.” She used to ask me whether I thought I might ever be buried in Westminster Abbey. “I should like them to do their duty by me,” I replied, “and they will -- they will.” They did. Though I died penniless, my public had not forgotten me. They carried me in a coffin crowned with laurel wreaths into the dim vastness of that great sanctuary thronged with mourners and laid me to rest next to Garrick at the foot of the statue of my beloved Shakespeare. They knew I had done my duty to them, to God, and to my talent. No man can hope to do more. I lived a wonderful life -- of work.
(Irving retreats and Ellen Terry steps into the spotlight.
TERRY: For all Shaw’s attacks on the Lyceum, The Medicine Man was, in my opinion, our only quite unworthy production. Never before had I felt more dissatisfied with Henry and with my roles, but I stayed on, even for that wretched nothing of a part in Robespierre. But I want to make this clear: Henry did not treat me badly, and I hope I did not treat him badly. I would have stayed with him to the end, but finally there was nothing for me to do, and we went our separate ways. Oh, let me drop this feminine charity! He was the complete autocrat, always. It was his theatre, never mine. I went to him at Wolverhampton when news of his illness reached London and immediately went to a florist to buy him the bright flowers he loved. I found some daffodils and I remembered how, when my mother died, Henry filled my room at the Lyceum with them “To make it look like sunshine.” I found him sitting up in bed drinking coffee and looking like some beautiful grey tree I’d seen in Savannah. “Two queens have been kind to me this morning,” he said. “Queen Alexandra telegraphed to say how sorry she is I’m ill, and now you -- ” I said I hoped he remembered what the doctor had said about his heart. “Fiddle! It’s not my heart at all, it’s my breath!” Oh, the ignorance of great men about themselves. He recovered a little and went on. That October I was touring in Barrie’s Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire. One morning in Birmingham my maid came in with my breakfast tray and told me that Sir Henry Irving was dead. I don’t know how I spent the day but I was quite composed when I walked onstage that evening. I even think I acted well, until the last scene when I came to the lines “It’s summer done, autumn begun. . . . I had a beautiful husband once . . . black as raven was his hair.” Then I broke down and sobbed while they lowered the curtain and the audience filed out in respectful silence. Yet Henry had not been my “husband” for many years. There was Mrs. Aria. At his funeral service in Westminster Abbey I could almost hear him muttering “Good, good!” in the parts that would have pleased him and in the parts that dragged saying, “Get on, get on!” We used to talk about celebrating our fifty years in the theatre together. Henry missed his Diamond Jubilee by less than a year. On June 12, 1906, my Jubilee was held at Drury Lane and everybody said there had been nothing like it ever seen in London. I missed Henry that day. Afterwards I had to dash to the Royal Court for a performance of Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. The man had teased me for years with his plays and here I was finally playing Lady Cicely Wayneflete whom he’d written specially for me but who, confidentially, was only a caricature of Ellen Terry, not the real number. And it was too late: my memory had gone. I pinned slips of paper with my lines all over the furniture and acted from chair to chair and even then never once said the lines Shaw wrote. But, oh my dears, he impossible to please! Why had we never met until that play? I wasn’t shy! I daresay had we met in the flesh we might have tumbled into bed -- if I ever could have got him to stop talking. Yet who can say that the reality would have been as enchanting as his words. (Pause) One good thing about Captain Brassbound was the actor James Carew. We Terrys have always been a passionate lot. When I saw Jim Carew I sailed across the stage and took him captive in a trice. He was in his thirties, I in my late fifties -- shame on me, but I’ve always been attracted to physical beauty, and then I was lonely, deserted by both Henry and Shaw. We married in Pittsburgh in 1907. Captain Brassbound was our meal ticket, but lord, how we came to hate that play! Sadly this marriage ended like the others. (Pause) It’s strange, but all my friends have become lovers and all my lovers friends. A woman could do worse. When I was seventy-eight I was awarded Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King George the Fifth. People were outraged I hadn’t received the honor long ago, but I knew that my two illegitimate children had stood in my way. (Merrily) Afterward I forgot to bow out of the King’s presence and turned my common back upon my Sovereign. I think I was forgiven. People, bless their loving hearts, have always forgiven me. As I grew frail and confused everyone thought they knew what was best for me. But I insisted on staying at my beloved farm in Kent, where sometimes at night I could escape into the garden and feel the wet grass under my feet. When I had my stroke Edy was with me, and my beloved Teddy came in time to hold my hand before I died on -- let me see -- the twenty-first of July, 1928. My ashes were placed in a casket in a niche in the actor’s church, St. Paul’s. Not Westminster Abbey, but I hear the footfalls of many who come to pay their respects, and I know I’m not forgotten. (Pause) I hope my children don’t blame me for loving the work I was born to, which was not work at all but where I belonged. I never felt shy on the stage, or of sharing myself with an audience. I could cry in front of a full house at Henry’s death because I knew the people out there understood me like a lover. They were my lover. Yet the stage was never all my life, as it was Henry’s. I was too much in love with the world to be blinded by footlights -- in love with the sun and the moon and deep country lanes and old stone walls and starlit nights -- and, oh, with every beautiful living thing.
(Terry retreats and Shaw strides into the spotlight. He punctuates his remarks with a walking stick and a forefinger, more an actor than either Irving or Terry.
SHAW: I have usually managed to have the last word. (Looks round at the empty stage) I see I have it now. Stella Campbell once said, “Joey” -- she called me Joey after the clown in the pantomime -- “when you were quite a small boy someone should have told you to hush.” I never could, any more than I could help falling in love with women and they, heaven help it, with me. Did I love Ellen Terry? Of course I loved her. What were my Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellen Ellens but orgasmic rushes of passion I could not control -- so long as she was safely out of reach. Why, you may ask, if I so desperately wanted her to act in my plays, did I not give her Candida immediately -- for she was Candida as I well knew. All that business about reading the play to her through keyholes -- sheer nonsense, of course. The reason is simple: she had no theatre and Irving would produce no play in which he could not star. And why did Ellen and I avoid meeting for so many years? Simple again. We lived within twenty minutes of each other’s doorsteps, yet we lived in different worlds. We were both too busy to have personal traffic except with people we were working with. And so we carried on a paper courtship, which is the pleasantest, as it is the most enduring. I tried to make up for Candida with Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. When she agreed to play it, we had to of course meet. I had to brace myself for our encounters; for though I was forty-nine and she fifty-seven, I discovered she still had such power to enthrall me that I had the strangest sensation we were really a youthful G.B.S. and Ellen making violent love, while an artificial G.B.S. was forced to go through the business of rehearsals with an equally artificial Miss Terry. But Destiny had other plans and I watched as she put the young actor James Carew in her pocket. There but for Charlotte might have gone I. Incidentally, she was beyond my teaching her the part. In the end she did exactly what she liked and simply was Lady Cicely, that is Ellen Terry who, I am loathe to admit, audiences came to see instead of the play. In after years I saw Ellen seldom, once on a summer day near Elstree where she was acting in a film. She was always a little shy in speaking to me, for talking is awkward after the perfect freedom of writing between people who can write. She asked me why I didn’t give her some work in the theatre. “I’m quite willing to play a charwoman, I should like to play a charwoman.” I asked her what would happen to my play when audiences forgot the heroine and could think of nothing but what wonderful things the charwoman was going to say and do. The question was unanswerable, and we both, I think, felt rather inclined to cry. (Pause) Irving had genius. His performance as Mathias persuaded me early on that here was the one actor capable of lifting the theatre out of its old rut. If ever there were two artists marked out by Nature to create a new stage they were Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. And what did Irving do? Swept her off to the Lyceum where he established himself as dictator and dredged up the old repertory of mutilated Shakespeare and stale Sardou. I never forgave his betrayal or her complicity in it. I adored Irving’s genius, I loathed the use to which he put it -- and so I annihilated him. He never understood that I was the Word, he the Shadow. Bah, I have no patience with fools! (Pause to signal change of mood) I never knew love when I was a child. My mother was so disappointed in my father that she centered all her care on my sister Agnes and left me to fend for myself. If I’d never returned home on any day I don’t think they would have missed me. Does my mother’s lack of love explain my gratuitous meddling in other people’s lives, my compulsion to give everyone the benefit of my criticism? I treat all people as malefactors in the same way doctors treat all people as invalids -- especially if they live better and seem happier than I. (Pause) In my old age women still pursued me: at eighty-nine I was forced to repulse Molly Tompkins --
(Ellen Terry, followed by Irving, rushes onto the stage. She is laughing but in earnest.)
TERRY: Dear G.B.S., dear silly-billy -- HUSH!
SHAW: (He turns and sees Ellen. With genuine feeling) Ellen Terry, fairest Ellen, whose name rings like a bell through the years and in my heart. Ah, (searching a pocket and bringing out a rose) one of Charlotte’s favorite red roses!
(He throws it gallantly to Ellen. It lands at her feet. Irving stoops and retrieves it. Terry laughs, takes it from him, and tucks it into his buttonhole. He raises her hand to his lips. She turns, her other hand outstretched to Shaw, he grasps it. Stoker enters and to his applause the three come forward for their bow to immortality.)