Part 1 out of 7
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Linda Cantoni and PG Distributed Proofreaders
[Illustration: Ellen Terry
drawn from photographs by Albert Sterner]
THE STORY OF MY LIFE
RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & CO.
_1908, The McClure Company_
1907, 1908, The S.S. McClure Company
1907, 1908, Ellen Terry
I. A CHILD OF THE STAGE, 1848-56
The Charles Keans, 1856
Training in Shakespeare, 1856-59
II. ON THE ROAD, 1859-61
Life in a Stock Company, 1862-63
III. ROSSETTI, BERNHARDT, IRVING, 1865-67
My First Impressions of Henry Irving
IV. A SIX-YEAR VACATION, 1868-74
V. THE ACTRESS AND THE PLAYWRIGHT, 1874.
Tom Taylor and Lavender Sweep
VI. A YEAR WITH THE BANCROFTS
VII. EARLY DAYS AT THE LYCEUM
VIII. WORK AT THE LYCEUM
IX. LYCEUM PRODUCTIONS
X. LYCEUM PRODUCTIONS (_continued_)
XI. AMERICA: THE FIRST OF EIGHT TOURS
What Constitutes Charm
XII. SOME LIKES AND DISLIKES
XIII. THE MACBETH PERIOD
XIV. LAST DAYS AT THE LYCEUM
My Stage Jubilee
The Death of Henry Irving
Alfred Gilbert and others
"Beefsteak" Guests at the Lyceum
Bits From My Diary
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Terry
Charles Kean and Ellen Terry in 1856
Ellen Terry in 1856
Ellen Terry at Sixteen
"The Sisters" (Kate and Ellen Terry)
Ellen Terry at Seventeen
George Frederick Watts, R.A.
Ellen Terry as Helen in "The Hunchback"
Head of a Young Girl (Ellen Terry)
Ellen Terry as Portia
Henry Irving as Matthias in "The Bells"
Henry Irving as Philip of Spain
Henry Irving as Hamlet
William Terriss as Squire Thornhill in "Olivia"
Ellen Terry as Ophelia
Ellen Terry as Beatrice
Sir Henry Irving
Irving as Louis XI
Ellen Terry as Henrietta Maria
Ellen Terry as Camma in "The Cup"
Ellen Terry as Iolanthe
Ellen Terry as Letitia Hardy in "The Belle's Stratagem"
Edwin Thomas Booth
Ellen Terry as Juliet
Two Portraits of Ellen Terry as Beatrice
Ellen Terry's Favourite Photograph as Olivia
Eleanora Duse with Lenbach's Child
Ellen Terry as Margaret in "Faust"
Ellen Terry as Ellaline in "The Amber Heart"
Miss Ellen Terry in 1883
The Bas-relief Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson
Miss Terry and Sir Henry Irving
Sarah Holland, Ellen Terry's Dresser
Miss Rosa Corder
Miss Ellen Terry with her Fox-terriers
Miss Ellen Terry in 1898
Sir Henry Irving
Miss Ellen Terry
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Sir Henry Irving
Ellen Terry as Lucy Ashton in "Ravenswood"
Henry Irving as Cardinal Wolsey in "Henry VIII."
Ellen Terry as Nance Oldfield
Ellen Terry as Kniertje in "The Good Hope"
Ellen Terry as Imogen
Henry Irving as Becket
Sir Henry Irving
Ellen Terry as Rosamund in "Becket"
Ellen Terry as Guinevere in "King Arthur"
Miss Terry's Garden at Winchelsea
Ellen Terry as Hermione in "The Winter's Tale"
"When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life!)
Why even I myself, I often think, know little or nothing of my real
Only a few hints--a few diffused faint clues and indirections
I seek ... to trace out here."
For years I have contemplated telling this story, and for years I have
put off telling it. While I have delayed, my memory has not improved,
and my recollections of the past are more hazy and fragmentary than when
it first occurred to me that one day I might write them down.
My bad memory would matter less if I had some skill in writing--the
practiced writer can see possibilities in the most ordinary events--or
if I had kept a systematic and conscientious record of my life. But
although I was at one time conscientious and diligent enough in keeping
a diary, I kept it for use at the moment, not for future reference. I
kept it with paste-pot and scissors as much as with a pen. My method was
to cut bits out of the newspapers and stick them into my diary day by
day. Before the end of the year was reached Mr. Letts would have been
ashamed to own his diary. It had become a bursting, groaning dust-bin of
information, for the most part useless. The biggest elastic band made
could hardly encircle its bulk, swelled by photographs, letters,
telegrams, dried flowers--the whole making up a confusion in which every
one but the owner would seek in vain to find some sense or meaning.
About six years ago I moved into a smaller house in London, and I burnt
a great many of my earlier diaries as unmovable rubbish. The few
passages which I shall quote in this book from those which escaped
destruction will prove that my bonfire meant no great loss!
Still, when it was suggested to me in the year of my stage jubilee that
I ought to write down my recollections, I longed for those diaries! I
longed for anything which would remind me of the past and make it live
again for me. I was frightened. Something would be expected of me, since
I could not deny that I had had an eventful life packed full of
incident, and that by the road I had met many distinguished and
interesting men and women. I could not deny that I had been fifty years
on the stage, and that this meant enough material for fifty books, if
only the details of every year could be faithfully told. But it is not
given to all of us to see our lives in relief as we look back. Most of
us, I think, see them in perspective, of which our birth is the
vanishing point. Seeing, too, is only half the battle. How few people
can describe what they see!
While I was thinking in this obstructive fashion and wishing that I
could write about my childhood like Tolstoi, about my girlhood like
Marie Bashkirtseff, and about the rest of my days and my work like many
other artists of the pen, who merely, by putting black upon white, have
had the power to bring before their readers not merely themselves "as
they lived," but the most homely and intimate details of their lives,
the friend who had first impressed on me that I ought not to leave my
story untold any longer, said that the beginning was easy enough: "What
is the first thing you remember? Write that down as a start."
But for my friend's practical suggestion it is doubtful if I should ever
have written a line! He relieved my anxiety about my powers of compiling
a stupendous autobiography, and made me forget that writing was a new
art, to me, and that I was rather old to try my hand at a new art. My
memory suddenly began to seem not so bad after all. For weeks I had
hesitated between Othello's "Nothing extenuate, nor write down aught in
malice," and Pilate's "What is truth?" as my guide and my apology. Now I
saw that both were too big for my modest endeavor. I was not leaving a
human document for the benefit of future psychologists and historians,
but telling as much of my story as I could remember to the good, living
public which has been considerate and faithful to me for so many years.
How often it has made allowances for me when I was nervous on first
nights! With what patience it has waited long and uncomfortable hours to
see me! Surely its charity would quickly cover my literary sins.
I gave up the search for a motto which should express my wish to tell
the truth so far as I know it, to describe things as I see them, to be
faithful according to my light, not dreading the abuse of those who
might see in my light nothing but darkness.
I shut up "Othello" and did not try to verify the remark of "jesting"
Pilate. The only instruction that I gave myself was to "begin at the
THE STORY OF MY LIFE
A CHILD OF THE STAGE
This is the first thing I remember.
In the corner of a lean-to whitewashed attic stood a fine, plain, solid
oak bureau. By climbing up on to this bureau I could see from the window
the glories of the sunset. My attic was on a hill in a large and busy
town, and the smoke of a thousand chimneys hung like a gray veil between
me and the fires in the sky. When the sun had set, and the scarlet and
gold, violet and primrose, and all those magic colors that have no
names, had faded into the dark, there were other fires for me to see.
The flaming forges came out, and terrified while they fascinated my
What did it matter to me that I was locked in and that my father and
mother, with my elder sister Kate, were all at the theater? I had the
sunset, the forges, and the oak bureau.
I cannot say how old I was at this time, but I am sure that it wasn't
long after my birth (which I can't remember, although I have often been
asked to decide in which house at Coventry I was born!). At any rate, I
had not then seen a theater, and I took to the stage before many years
had passed over my head.
Putting together what I remembered, and such authentic history as there
is of my parents' movements, I gather that this attic was in theatrical
lodgings in Glasgow. My father was an actor, my mother an actress, and
they were at this time on tour in Scotland. Perhaps this is the place to
say that father was the son of an Irish builder, and that he eloped in a
chaise with mother, who was the daughter of a Scottish minister. I am
afraid I know no details of their romance. As for my less immediate
ancestry, it is "wropt in mystery." Were we all people of the stage?
There was a Daniel Terry who was not only a famous actor in his day, but
a friend of Sir Walter Scott's. There was an Eliza Terry, an actress
whose portrait appears in _The Dramatic Mirror_ in 1847. But so far as I
know I cannot claim kinship with either Eliza or Daniel.
I have a very dim recollection of anything that happened in the attic,
beyond the fact that when my father and mother went to the theater every
night, they used to put me to bed and that directly their backs were
turned and the door locked, I used to jump up and go to the window. My
"bed" consisted of the mattress pulled off their bed and laid on the
floor--on father's side. Both my father and my mother were very kind and
devoted parents (though severe at times, as all good parents are), but
while mother loved all her children too well to make favorites, I was, I
believe, my father's particular pet. I used to sleep all night holding
One night I remember waking up to find a beautiful face bending over me.
Father was holding a candle so that the visitor might see me better, and
gradually I realized that the face belonged to some one in a brown silk
dress--the first silk dress that I had ever seen. This being from
another world had brown eyes and brown hair, which looked to me very
dark, because we were a white lot, very fair indeed. I shall never
forget that beautiful vision of this well-dressed woman with her lovely
complexion and her gold chain round her neck. It was my Aunt Lizzie.
I hold very strongly that a child's earliest impressions mould its
character perhaps more than either heredity or education. I am sure it
is true in my case. What first impressed me? An attic, an oak bureau, a
lovely face, a bed on the floor. Things have come and gone in my life
since then, but they have been powerless to efface those early
impressions. I adore pretty faces. I can't keep away from shops where
they sell good old furniture like my bureau. I like plain rooms with low
ceilings better than any other rooms; and for my afternoon siesta, which
is one of my institutions, I often choose the floor in preference to bed
What we remember in our childhood and what we are told afterwards often
become inextricably confused in our minds, and after the bureau and Aunt
Lizzie, my memory is a blank for some years. I can't even tell you when
it was first decided that I was to go on the stage, but I expect it was
when I was born, for in those days theatrical folk did not imagine that
their children _could_ do anything but follow their parents' profession.
I must depend now on hearsay for certain facts. The first fact is my
birth, which should, perhaps, have been mentioned before anything else.
To speak by the certificate, I was born on the 27th of February, 1848,
at Coventry. Many years afterwards, when people were kind enough to
think that the house in which I was born deserved to be discovered,
there was a dispute as to which house in Market Street could claim me.
The dispute was left unsettled in rather a curious way. On one side of
the narrow street a haberdasher's shop bore the inscription, "Birthplace
of Ellen Terry." On the other, an eating-house declared itself to be
"the original birthplace"! I have never been able to arbitrate in the
matter, my statement that my mother had always said that the house was
"on the right-hand side, coming from the market-place," being apparently
of no use. I have heard lately that one of the birthplaces has retired
from the competition, and that the haberdasher has the field to himself.
I am glad, for the sake of those friends of mine who have bought his
handkerchiefs and ties as souvenirs. There is, however, nothing very
attractive about the house itself. It is better built than a house of
the same size would be built now, and it has a certain old-fashioned
respectability, but that is the end of its praises. Coventry itself
makes up for the deficiency. It is a delightful town, and it was a happy
chance that made me a native of Warwickshire, Shakespeare's own county.
Sarah Kemble married Mr. Siddons at Coventry too--another happy omen.
I have acted twice in my native town in old days, but never in recent
years. In 1904 I planned to act there again, but unfortunately I was
taken ill at Cambridge, and the doctors would not allow me to go to
Coventry. The morning my company left Cambridge without me, I was very
miserable. It is always hateful to disappoint the public, and on this
occasion I was compelled to break faith where I most wished to keep it.
I heard afterwards from my daughter (who played some of my parts
instead of me) that many of the Coventry people thought I had never
meant to come at all. If this should meet their eyes, I hope they will
believe that this was not so. My ambition to play at Coventry again
shall be realized yet.
[Footnote 1: Since I wrote this, I have again visited my native
town--this time to receive its civic congratulations on the occasion of
my jubilee, and as recently as March of the present year I acted at the
new Empire Theater.]
At one time nothing seemed more unlikely than that I should be able to
act in another Warwickshire town, a town whose name is known all over
the world. But time and chance and my own great wish succeeded in
bringing about my appearance at Stratford-on-Avon.
I can well imagine that the children of some strolling players used to
have a hard time of it, but my mother was not one to shirk her duties.
She worked hard at her profession and yet found it possible not to
_drag_ up her children, to live or die as it happened, but to bring them
up to be healthy, happy, and wise--theater-wise, at any rate. When her
babies were too small to be left at the lodgings (which she and my
father took in each town they visited as near to the theater as
possible), she would bundle us up in a shawl and put us to sleep in her
dressing-room. So it was, that long before I spoke in a theater, I slept
Later on, when we were older and mother could leave us at home, there
was a fire one night at our lodgings, and she rushed out of the theater
and up the street in an agony of terror. She got us out of the house all
right, took us to the theater, and went on with the next act as if
nothing had happened. Such fortitude is commoner in our profession, I
think, than in any other. We "go on with the next act" whatever
happens, and if we know our business, no one in the audience will ever
guess that anything is wrong--that since the curtain last went down some
dear friend has died, or our children in the theatrical lodgings up the
street have run the risk of being burnt to death.
My mother had eleven children altogether, but only nine survived their
infancy, and of these nine, my eldest brother, Ben, and my sister
Florence have since died. My sister Kate, who left the stage at an age
when most of the young women of the present day take to it for the first
time, and made an enduring reputation in a few brilliant years, was the
eldest of the family. Then came a sister, who died, and I was the third.
After us came Ben, George, Marion, Flossie, Charles, Tom, and Fred. Six
out of the nine have been on the stage, but only Marion, Fred, and I are
Two or three members of this large family, at the most, were in
existence when I first entered a theater in a professional capacity, so
I will leave them all alone for the present. I had better confess at
once that I don't remember this great event, and my sister Kate is
unkind enough to say that it never happened--to me! The story, she
asserts, was told of her. But without damning proofs she is not going to
make me believe it! Shall I be robbed of the only experience of my first
eight years of life? Never!
During the rehearsals of a pantomime in a Scottish town (Glasgow, I
think. Glasgow has always been an eventful place to me!), a child was
wanted for the Spirit of the Mustard-pot. What more natural than that my
father should offer my services? I had a shock of pale yellow hair, I
was small enough to be put into the property mustard-pot, and the
Glasgow stage manager would easily assume that I had inherited talent.
My father had acted with Macready in the stock seasons both at Edinburgh
and Glasgow, and bore a very high reputation with Scottish audiences.
But the stage manager and father alike reckoned without their actress!
When they tried to put me into the mustard-pot, I yelled lustily and
showed more lung-power than aptitude for the stage.
"Pit your child into the mustard-pot, Mr. Terry," said the stage
"D--n you and your mustard-pot, sir!" said my mortified father. "I won't
frighten my child for you or anyone else!"
But all the same he was bitterly disappointed at my first dramatic
failure, and when we reached home he put me in the corner to chasten me.
"_You'll_ never make an actress!" he said, shaking a reproachful finger
It is _my_ mustard-pot, and why Kate should want it, I can't think! She
hadn't yellow hair, and she couldn't possibly have behaved so badly. I
have often heard my parents say significantly that they had no trouble
with _Kate_! Before she was four, she was dancing a hornpipe in a
sailor's jumper, a rakish little hat, and a diminutive pair of white
ducks! Those ducks, marked "Kate Terry," were kept by mother for years
as a precious relic, and are, I hope, still in the family archives!
I stick to the mustard-pot, but I entirely disclaim the little Duke of
York in Richard III., which some one with a good memory stoutly insists
he saw me play before I made my first appearance as Mamilius. Except
for this abortive attempt at Glasgow, I was never on any stage even for
a rehearsal until 1856, at the Princess's Theater, when I appeared with
Charles Kean in "A Winter's Tale."
The man with the memory may have seen Kate as one of the Princes in the
Tower, but he never saw me with her. Kate was called up to London in
1852 to play Prince Arthur in Charles Kean's production of "King John,"
and after that she acted in all his plays, until he gave up management
in 1859. She had played Arthur during a stock season at Edinburgh, and
so well that some one sang her praises to Kean and advised him to engage
her. My mother took Kate to London, and I was left with my father in the
provinces for two years. I can't recall much about those two years
except sunsets and a great mass of shipping looming up against the sky.
The sunsets followed me about everywhere; the shipping was in Liverpool,
where father was engaged for a considerable time. He never ceased
teaching me to be useful, alert, and quick. Sometimes he hastened my
perceptive powers with a slipper, and always he corrected me if I
pronounced any word in a slipshod fashion. He himself was a beautiful
elocutionist, and if I now speak my language well it is in no small
degree due to my early training.
It was to his elocution that father owed his engagement with Macready,
of whom he always spoke in terms of the most affectionate admiration in
after years, and probably it did him a good turn again with Charles
Kean. An actor who had supported Macready with credit was just the actor
likely to be useful to a manager who was producing a series of plays by
Shakespeare. Kate had been a success at the Princess's, too, in child
parts, and this may have reminded Mr. Kean to send for Kate's father! At
any rate he was sent for towards the end of the year 1853 and left
Liverpool for London. I know I cooked his breakfasts for him in
Liverpool, but I haven't the slightest recollection of the next two
years in London. As I am determined not to fill up the early blanks with
stories of my own invention, I must go straight on to 1856, when
rehearsals were called at the Princess's Theater for Shakespeare's
THE CHARLES KEANS
The Charles Keans from whom I received my first engagement, were both
remarkable people, and at the Princess Theater were doing very
remarkable work. Kean the younger had not the fire and genius of his
wonderful father, Edmund, and but for the inherited splendor of his name
it is not likely that he would ever have attained great eminence as an
actor. His Wolsey and his Richard (the Second, not the Third) were his
best parts, perhaps because in them his beautiful diction had full scope
and his limitations were not noticeable. But it is more as a stage
reformer than as an actor that he will be remembered. The old
happy-go-lucky way of staging plays, with its sublime indifference to
correctness of detail and its utter disregard of archaeology, had
received its first blow from Kemble and Macready, but Charles Kean gave
it much harder knocks and went further than either of them in the good
It is an old story and a true one that when Edmund Kean made his first
great success as Shylock, after a long and miserable struggle as a
strolling player, he came home to his wife and said: "You shall ride in
your carriage," and then, catching up his little son, added, "and
Charley shall go to Eton!" Well, Charley did go to Eton, and if Eton did
not make him a great actor, it opened his eyes to the absurd
anachronisms in costumes and accessories which prevailed on the stage at
that period, and when he undertook the management of the Princess's
Theater, he turned his classical education to account. In addition to
scholarly knowledge, he had a naturally refined taste and the power of
selecting the right man to help him. Planche, the great authority on
historical costumes, was one of his ablest coadjutors, and Mr. Bradshaw
designed all the properties. It has been said lately that I began my
career on an unfurnished stage, when the play was the thing, and
spectacle was considered of small importance. I take this opportunity of
contradicting that statement most emphatically. Neither when I began nor
yet later in my career have I ever played under a management where
infinite pains were not given to every detail. I think that far from
hampering the acting, a beautiful and congruous background and
harmonious costumes, representing accurately the spirit of the time in
which the play is supposed to move, ought to help and inspire the actor.
Such thoughts as these did not trouble my head when I acted with the
Keans, but, child as I was, the beauty of the productions at the
Princess's Theater made a great impression on me, and my memory of them
is quite clear enough, even if there were not plenty of other evidence,
for me to assert that in some respects they were even more elaborate
than those of the present day. I know that the bath-buns of one's
childhood always seem in memory much bigger and better than the buns
sold nowadays, but even allowing for the natural glamor which the years
throw over buns and rooms, places and plays alike, I am quite certain
that Charles Kean's productions of Shakespeare would astonish the modern
critic who regards the period of my first appearance as a sort of
dark-age in the scenic art of the theater.
I have alluded to the beauty of Charles Kean's diction. His voice was
also of a wonderful quality--soft and low, yet distinct and clear as a
bell. When he played Richard II. the magical charm of this organ was
alone enough to keep the house spellbound. His vivid personality made a
strong impression on me. Yet others only remember that he called his
wife "Delly," though she was Nelly, and always spoke as if he had a cold
in his head. How strange! If I did not understand what suggested
impressions so different from my own, they would make me more indignant.
"Now who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive.
Ten who in ears and eyes
Match me; they all surmise,
They this thing, and I that:
Whom shall my soul believe?"
What he owed to Mrs. Kean, he would have been the first to confess. In
many ways she was the leading spirit in the theater; at the least, a
joint ruler, not a queen-consort. During the rehearsals Mr. Kean used
to sit in the stalls with a loud-voiced dinner-bell by his side, and
when anything went wrong on the stage, he would ring it ferociously, and
everything would come to a stop, until Mrs. Kean, who always sat on the
stage, had set right what was wrong. She was more formidable than
beautiful to look at, but her wonderful fire and genius were none the
less impressive because she wore a white handkerchief round her head and
had a very beaky nose! How I admired and loved and feared her! Later on
the fear was replaced by gratitude, for no woman ever gave herself more
trouble to train a young actress than did Mrs. Kean. The love and
admiration, I am glad to say, remained and grew. It is rare that it
falls to the lot of anyone to have such an accomplished teacher. Her
patience and industry were splendid.
It was Mrs. Kean who chose me out of five or six other children to play
my first part. We were all tried in it, and when we had finished, she
said the same thing to us all: "That's very nice! Thank you, my dear.
That will do."
We none of us knew at the time which of us had pleased her most.
At this time we were living in the upper part of a house in the Gower
Street region. That first home in London I remember chiefly by its fine
brass knocker, which mother kept beautifully bright, and by its being
the place to which I was sent my first part! Bound in green American
cloth, it looked to me more marvelous than the most priceless book has
ever looked since! I was so proud and pleased and delighted that I
danced a hornpipe for joy!
Why was I chosen, and not one of the other children, for the part of
Mamilius? some one may ask. It was not mere luck, I think. Perhaps I was
a born actress, but that would have served me little if I had not been
able to _speak_! It must be remembered that both my sister Kate and I
had been trained almost from our birth for the stage, and particularly
in the important branch of clear articulation. Father, as I have already
said, was a very charming elocutionist, and my mother read Shakespeare
beautifully. They were both very fond of us and saw our faults with eyes
of love, though they were unsparing in their corrections. In these early
days they had need of all their patience, for I was a most troublesome,
wayward pupil. However, "the labor we delight in physics pain," and I
hope, too, that my more staid sister made it up to them!
The rehearsals for "A Winter's Tale" were a lesson in fortitude. They
taught me once and for all that an actress's life (even when the actress
is only eight) is not all beer and skittles, or cakes and ale, or fame
and glory. I was cast for the part of Mamilius in the way I have
described, and my heart swelled with pride when I was told what I had to
do, when I realized that I had a real Shakespeare part--a possession
that father had taught me to consider the pride of life!
But many weary hours were to pass before the first night. If a company
has to rehearse four hours a day now, it is considered a great hardship,
and players must lunch and dine like other folk. But this was not Kean's
way! Rehearsals lasted all day, Sundays included, and when there was no
play running at night, until four or five the next morning! I don't
think any actor in those days dreamed of luncheon. (Tennyson, by the
way, told me to say "luncheon"--not "lunch.") How my poor little legs
used to ache! Sometimes I could hardly keep my eyes open when I was on
the stage, and often when my scene was over, I used to creep into the
greenroom and forget my troubles and my art (if you can talk of art in
connection with a child of eight) in a delicious sleep.
At the dress-rehearsals I did not want to sleep. All the members of the
company were allowed to sit and watch the scenes in which they were not
concerned, from the back of the dress-circle. This, by the way, is an
excellent plan, and in theaters where it is followed the young actress
has reason to be grateful. In these days of greater publicity when the
press attend rehearsals, there may be strong reasons against the company
being "in front," but the perfect loyalty of all concerned would dispose
of these reasons. Now, for the first time, the beginner is able to see
the effect of the weeks of thought and labor which have been given to
the production. She can watch from the front the fulfillment of what she
has only seen as intention and promise during the other rehearsals. But
I am afraid that beginners now are not so keen as they used to be. The
first wicked thing I did in a theater sprang from excess of keenness. I
borrowed a knife from a carpenter and made a slit in the canvas to watch
Mrs. Kean as Hermione!
Devoted to her art, conscientious to a degree in mastering the spirit
and details of her part, Mrs. Kean also possessed the personality and
force to chain the attention and indelibly imprint her rendering of a
part on the imagination. When I think of the costume in which she
played Hermione, it seems marvelous to me that she could have produced
the impression that she did. This seems to contradict what I have said
about the magnificence of the production. But not at all! The designs of
the dresses were purely classic; but then, as now, actors and actresses
seemed unable to keep their own period and their own individuality out
of the clothes directly they got them on their backs. In some cases the
original design was quite swamped. No matter what the character that
Mrs. Kean was assuming, she always used to wear her hair drawn flat over
her forehead and twisted tight round her ears in a kind of circular
sweep--such as the old writing-masters used to make when they attempted
an extra grand flourish. And then the amount of petticoats she wore!
Even as Hermione she was always bunched out by layer upon layer of
petticoats, in defiance of the fact that classical parts should not be
dressed in a superfluity of raiment. But if the petticoats were full of
starch, the voice was full of pathos--and the dignity, simplicity, and
womanliness of Mrs. Charles Kean's Hermione could not have been marred
by a far more grotesque costume.
There is something, I suppose, in a woman's nature which always makes
her remember how she was dressed at any specially eventful moment of her
life, and I can see myself, as though it were yesterday, in the little
red-and-silver dress I wore as Mamilius. Mrs. Grieve, the
dresser--"Peter Grieve-us," as we children called her--had pulled me
into my very pink tights (they were by no means _tight_ but very baggy,
according to the pictures of me), and my mother had arranged my hair in
sausage curls on each side of my head in even more perfect order and
regularity than usual. Besides my clothes, I had a beautiful "property"
to be proud of. This was a go-cart, which had been made in the theater
by Mr. Bradshaw, and was an exact copy of a child's toy as depicted on a
Greek vase. It was my duty to drag this little cart about the stage, and
on the first night, when Mr. Kean as Leontes told me to "go play," I
obeyed his instructions with such vigor that I tripped over the handle
and came down on my back! A titter ran through the house, and I felt
that my career as an actress was ruined forever. Even now I remember how
bitterly I wept, and how deeply humiliated I felt. But the little
incident, so mortifying to me, did not spoil my first appearance
altogether. _The Times_ of May 1, 1856, was kind enough to call me
"vivacious and precocious," and "a worthy relative of my sister Kate,"
and my parents were pleased (although they would not show it too much),
and Mrs. Kean gave me a pat on the back. Father and Kate were both in
the cast, too, I ought to have said, and the Queen, Prince Albert, and
the Princess Royal were all in a box on the first night.
To act for the first time in Shakespeare, in a theater where my sister
had already done something for our name, and before royalty, was surely
a good beginning.
From April 28, 1856, I played Mamilius every night for one hundred and
two nights. I was never ill, and my understudy, Clara Denvil, a very
handsome, dark child with flaming eyes, though quite ready and longing
to play my part, never had the chance.
I had now taken the first step, but I had taken it without any notion of
what I was doing. I was innocent of all art, and while I loved the
actual doing of my part, I hated the labor that led up to it. But the
time was soon to come when I was to be fired by a passion for work.
Meanwhile I was unconsciously learning a number of lessons which were to
be most useful to me in my subsequent career.
TRAINING IN SHAKESPEARE
From April 1856 until 1859 I acted constantly at the Princess's Theater
with the Keans, spending the summer holidays in acting at Ryde. My whole
life was the theater, and naturally all my early memories are connected
with it. At breakfast father would begin the day's "coaching." Often I
had to lay down my fork and say my lines. He would conduct these extra
rehearsals anywhere--in the street, the 'bus--we were never safe! I
remember vividly going into a chemist's shop and being stood upon a
stool to say my part to the chemist! Such leisure as I had from my
profession was spent in "minding" the younger children--an occupation in
which I delighted. They all had very pretty hair, and I used to wash it
and comb it out until it looked as fine and bright as floss silk.
It is argued now that stage life is bad for a young child, and children
are not allowed by law to go on the stage until they are ten years
old--quite a mature age in my young days! I cannot discuss the whole
question here, and must content myself with saying that during my three
years at the Princess's I was a very strong, happy, and healthy child. I
was never out of the bill except during the run of "A Midsummer Night's
Dream," when, through an unfortunate accident, I broke my toe. I was
playing Puck, my second part on any stage, and had come up through a
trap at the end of the last act to give the final speech. My sister Kate
was playing Titania that night as understudy to Carlotta Leclercq. Up I
came--but not quite up, for the man shut the trapdoor too soon and
caught my toe. I screamed. Kate rushed to me and banged her foot on the
stage, but the man only closed the trap tighter, mistaking the signal.
"Oh, Katie! Katie!" I cried. "Oh, Nelly! Nelly!" said poor Kate
helplessly. Then Mrs. Kean came rushing on and made them open the trap
and release my poor foot.
"Finish the play, dear," she whispered excitedly, "and I'll double your
salary!" There was Kate holding me up on one side and Mrs. Kean on the
other. Well, I did finish the play in a fashion. The text ran something
"If we shadows have offended (Oh, Katie, Katie!)
Think but this, and all is mended, (Oh, my toe!)
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear. (I can't, I can't!)
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream, (Oh, dear! oh, dear!)
Gentles, do not reprehend; (A big sob)
If you pardon, we will mend. (Oh, Mrs. Kean!)"
How I got through it, I don't know! But my salary was doubled--it had
been fifteen shillings, and it was raised to thirty--and Mr. Skey,
President of Bartholomew's Hospital, who chanced to be in a stall that
very evening, came round behind the scenes and put my toe right. He
remained my friend for life.
I was not chosen for Puck because I had played Mamilius with some
credit. The same examination was gone through, and again I came out
first. During the rehearsals Mrs. Kean taught me to draw my breath in
through my nose and begin a laugh--a very valuable accomplishment! She
was also indefatigable in her lessons in clear enunciation, and I can
hear her now lecturing the ladies of the company on their vowels. "A, E,
I, O, U, my dear," she used to say, "are five distinct vowels, so don't
mix them all up together, as if you were making a pudding. If you want
to say, 'I am going on the river,' say it plainly and don't tell us you
are going on the 'riv_ah_!' You must say _her_, not _har_; it's _God_,
not _Gud_: rem_on_strance, not rem_un_strance," and so forth. No one
ever had a sharper tongue or a kinder heart than Mrs. Kean. Beginning
with her, I have always loved women with a somewhat hard manner! I have
never believed in their hardness, and have proved them tender and
generous in the extreme.
Actor-managers are very proud of their long runs nowadays, but in
Shakespeare, at any rate, they do not often eclipse Charles Kean's two
hundred and fifty nights of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the
Princess's. It was certainly a very fascinating production, and many of
the effects were beautiful. I, by the way, had my share in marring one
of these during the run. When Puck was told to put a girdle round the
earth in forty minutes, I had to fly off the stage as swiftly as I
could, and a dummy Puck was whirled through the air from the point where
I disappeared. One night the dummy, while in full flying action, fell on
the stage, whereupon, in great concern for its safety, I ran on, picked
it up in my arms, and ran off with it amid roars of laughter! Neither of
the Keans was acting in this production, but there was some one in
authority to give me a sound cuff. Yet I had such excellent intentions.
'Tis ever thus!
I reveled in Puck and his impish pranks, and unconsciously realized that
it was a part in which the imagination could run riot. I believe I
played it well, but I did not _look_ well, and I must contradict
emphatically the kind assumption that I must have been a "delightful
little fairy." As Mamilius I was really a sweet little thing, but while
I was playing Puck I grew very gawky--not to say ugly! My hair had been
cut short, and my red cheeks stuck out too much. I was a sight!
The parts we play influence our characters to some extent, and Puck made
me a bit of a romp. I grew vain and rather "cocky," and it was just as
well that during the rehearsals for the Christmas pantomime in 1857 I
was tried for the part of the Fairy Dragonetta and rejected. I believe
that my failure was principally due to the fact that Nature had not
given me flashing eyes and raven hair--without which, as everyone knows,
no bad fairy can hold up her head and respect herself. But at the time I
felt distinctly rebuffed, and only the extreme beauty of my dress as the
maudlin "good fairy" Goldenstar consoled me. Milly Smith (afterwards
Mrs. Thorn) was Dragonetta, and one of her speeches ran like this:
"Ungrateful Simple Simon (darting forward) You thought no doubt to
That to this Royal Christening you did not invite me!
BUT--(Mrs. Kean: "_You must plaster that 'but' on the white wall
at the back of the gallery._")--
But on this puling brat revenged I'll be!
My fiery dragon there shall have her broiled for tea!"
At Ryde during the previous summer my father had taken the theater, and
Kate and I played in several farces which the Keeleys and the great
comedian Robson had made famous in London. My performances as Waddilove
and Jacob Earwig had provoked some one to describe me as "a perfect
little heap of talent!" To fit my Goldenstar, I must borrow that phrase
and describe myself as a perfect little heap of vanity.
It was that dress! It was a long dress, though I was still a baby, and
it was as pink and gold as it was trailing. I used to think I looked
_beautiful_ in it. I wore a trembling star on my forehead, too, which
was enough to upset any girl!
One of the most wearisome, yet essential details of my education is
connected with my first long dress. It introduces, too, Mr. Oscar Byrn,
the dancing-master and director of crowds at the Princess's. One of his
lessons was in the art of walking with a flannel blanket pinned on in
front and trailing six inches on the floor. My success in carrying out
this maneuver with dignity won high praise from Mr. Byrn. The other
children used to kick at the blanket and progress in jumps like young
kangaroos, but somehow I never had any difficulty in moving gracefully.
No wonder then that I impressed Mr. Byrn, who had a theory that "an
actress was no actress unless she learned to dance early." Whenever he
was not actually putting me through my paces, I was busy watching him
teach the others. There was the minuet, to which he used to attach great
importance, and there was "walking the plank." Up and down one of the
long planks, extending the length of the stage, we had to walk first
slowly and then quicker and quicker until we were able at a
considerable pace to walk the whole length of it without deviating an
inch from the straight line. This exercise, Mr. Byrn used to say, and
quite truly, I think, taught us uprightness of carriage and certainty of
"Eyes right! Chest out! Chin tucked in!" I can hear the dear old man
shouting at us as if it were yesterday; and I have learned to see of
what value all his drilling was, not only to deportment, but to clear
utterance. It would not be a bad thing if there were more "old fops"
like Oscar Byrn in the theaters of to-day. That old-fashioned art of
"deportment" is sadly neglected.
The pantomime in which I was the fairy Goldenstar was very frequently
preceded by "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the two parts on one night
must have been fairly heavy work for a child, but I delighted in it.
In the same year (1858) I played Karl in "Faust and Marguerite," a jolly
little part with plenty of points in it, but not nearly as good a part
as Puck. Progress on the stage is often crab-like, and little parts, big
parts, and no parts at all must be accepted as "all in the day's work."
In these days I was cast for many a "dumb" part. I walked on in "The
Merchant of Venice" carrying a basket of doves; in "Richard II." I
climbed up a pole in the street scene; in "Henry VIII." I was "top
angel" in the vision, and I remember that the heat of the gas at that
dizzy height made me sick at the dress-rehearsal! I was a little boy
"cheering" in several other productions. In "King Lear" my sister Kate
played Cordelia. She was only fourteen, and the youngest Cordelia on
record. Years after I played it at the Lyceum when I was over forty!
The production of "Henry VIII." at the Princess's was one of Charles
Kean's best efforts. I always refrain from belittling the present at the
expense of the past, but there were efforts here which I have never seen
surpassed, and about this my memory is not at all dim. At this time I
seem to have been always at the side watching the acting. Mrs. Kean's
Katherine of Aragon was splendid, and Charles Kean's Wolsey, his best
part after, perhaps, his Richard II. Still, the lady who used to stand
ready with a tear-bottle to catch his tears as he came off after his
last scene rather overdid her admiration. My mental criticism at the
time was "What rubbish!" When I say in what parts Charles Kean was
"best," I don't mean to be assertive. How should a mere child be able to
decide? I "think back" and remember in what parts I liked him best, but
I may be quite wide of the mark.
In those days audiences liked plenty for their money, and a Shakespeare
play was not nearly long enough to fill the bill. English playgoers in
the early 'fifties did not emulate the Japanese, who go to the theater
early in the morning and stay there until late at night, still less the
Chinese, whose plays begin one week and end the next, but they thought
nothing of sitting in the theater from seven to twelve. In one of the
extra pieces which these hours necessitated, I played a "tiger," one of
those youthful grooms who are now almost a bygone fashion. The pride
that I had taken in my trembling star in the pantomime was almost
equaled now by my pride in my top-boots! They were too small and caused
me insupportable suffering, but I was so afraid that they would be taken
away if I complained, that every evening I used to put up valorously
with the torture. The piece was called "If the Cap Fits," but my boots
were the fit with which I was most concerned!
Years later the author of the little play, Mr. Edmund Yates, the editor
of _The World_--wrote to me about my performance as the tiger:
"When on June 13, 1859 (to no one else in the world would I breathe
the date!) I saw a very young lady play a tiger in a comedietta of
mine called 'If the Cap Fits,' I had no idea that that precocious
child had in her the germ of such an artist as she has since proved
herself. What I think of her performance of Portia she will see in
In "The Merchant of Venice" though I had no speaking part, I was firmly
convinced that the basket of doves which I carried on my shoulder was
the principal attraction of the scene in which it appeared. The other
little boys and girls in the company regarded those doves with eyes of
bitter envy. One little chorus boy, especially, though he professed a
personal devotion of the tenderest kind for me, could never quite get
over those doves, and his romantic sentiments cooled considerably when I
gained my proud position as dove-bearer. Before, he had shared his
sweets with me, but now he transferred both sweets and affections to
some more fortunate little girl. Envy, after all, is the death of love!
Mr. Harley was the Launcelot Gobbo in "The Merchant of Venice"--an old
gentleman, and almost as great a fop as Mr. Byrn. He was always smiling;
his two large rows of teeth were so _very_ good! And he had pompous,
grandiloquent manners, and wore white gaiters and a long hanging
eye-glass. His appearance I should never have forgotten anyhow, but he
is also connected in my mind with my first experience of terror.
It came to me in the greenroom, the window-seat of which was a favorite
haunt of mine. Curled up in the deep recess I had been asleep one
evening, when I was awakened by a strange noise, and, peeping out, saw
Mr. Harley stretched on the sofa in a fit. One side of his face was
working convulsively, and he was gibbering and mowing the air with his
hand. When he saw me, he called out: "Little Nelly! oh, little Nelly!" I
stood transfixed with horror. He was still dressed as Launcelot Gobbo,
and this made it all the more terrible. A doctor was sent for, and Mr.
Harley was looked after, but he never recovered from his seizure and
died a few days afterwards.
Although so much of my early life is vague and indistinct, I can always
see and hear Mr. Harley as I saw and heard him that night, and I can
always recollect the view from the greenroom window. It looked out on a
great square courtyard, in which the spare scenery, that was not in
immediate use, was stacked. For some reason or other this courtyard was
a favorite playground for a large company of rats. I don't know what the
attraction was for them, except that they may have liked nibbling the
paint off the canvas. Out they used to troop in swarms, and I, from my
perch on the window-seat, would watch and wonder. Once a terrible storm
came on, and years after, at the Lyceum, the Brocken Scene in "Faust"
brought back the scene to my mind--the thunder and lightning and the
creatures crawling on every side, the _grayness_ of the whole thing.
All "calls" were made from the greenroom in those days, and its
atmosphere was, I think, better than that of the dressing-room in which
nowadays actors and actresses spend their time during the waits. The
greenroom at the Princess's was often visited by distinguished people,
among them Planche, the archaeologist, who did so much for Charles
Kean's productions, and Macready. One night, as with my usual
impetuosity I was rushing back to my room to change my dress, I ran
right into the white waistcoat of an old gentleman! Looking up with
alarm, I found that I had nearly knocked over the great Mr. Macready.
"Oh, I _beg_ your pardon!" I exclaimed in eager tones. I had always
heard from father that Macready was the greatest actor of all, and this
was our first meeting. I was utterly abashed, but Mr. Macready, looking
down with a very kindly smile, only answered: "Never mind! You are a
very polite little girl, and you act very earnestly and speak very
I was too much agitated to do anything but continue my headlong course
to my dressing-room, but even in those short moments the strange
attractiveness of his face impressed itself on my imagination. I
remember distinctly his curling hair, his oddly colored eyes full of
fire, and his beautiful, wavy mouth.
When I first described this meeting with Macready, a disagreeable person
wrote to the papers and said that he did not wish to question my
veracity, but that it was utterly impossible that Macready could ever
have brought himself to go to the Princess's at this time, because of
the rivalry between him and Charles Kean. I know that the two actors
were not on speaking terms, but very likely Macready had come to see my
father or Mr. Harley or one of the many members of Kean's company who
had once served under him.
The period when I was as vain as a little peacock had come to an end
before this. I think my part in "Pizarro" saw the last of it. I was a
Worshiper of the Sun, and in a pink feather, pink swathings of muslin,
and black arms, I was again struck by my own beauty. I grew quite
attached to the looking-glass which reflected that feather! Then
suddenly there came a change. _I began to see the whole thing._ My
attentive watching of other people began to bear fruit, and the labor
and perseverance, care and intelligence which had gone to make these
enormous productions dawned on my young mind. _One must see things for
oneself._ Up to this time I had loved acting because it was great fun,
but I had not loved the grind. After I began to rehearse Prince Arthur
in "King John," a part in which my sister Kate had already made a great
success six years earlier, I understood that if I did not work, I could
not act. And I wanted to work. I used to get up in the middle of the
night and watch my gestures in the glass. I used to try my voice and
bring it down and up in the right places. And all vanity fell away from
me. At the first rehearsals of "King John" I could not do anything
right. Mrs. Kean stormed at me, slapped me. I broke down and cried, and
then, with all the mortification and grief in my voice, managed to
express what Mrs. Kean wanted and what she could not teach me by doing
"That's right, that's right!" she cried excitedly, "you've got it! Now
remember what you did with your voice, reproduce it, remember
everything, and do it!"
When the rehearsal was over, she gave me a vigorous kiss. "You've done
very well," she said. "That's what I want. You're a very tired little
girl. Now run home to bed." I shall never forget the relief of those
kind words after so much misery, and the little incident often comes
back to me now when I hear a young actress say, "I can't do it!" If only
she can cry with vexation, I feel sure that she will then be able to
make a good attempt at doing it!
There were oppositions and jealousies in the Keans' camp, as in most
theaters, but they were never brought to my notice until I played Prince
Arthur. Then I saw a great deal of Mr. Ryder, who was the Hubert of the
production, and discovered that there was some soreness between him and
his manager. Ryder was a very pugnacious man--an admirable actor, and in
appearance like an old tree that has been struck by lightning, or a
greenless, barren rock; and he was very strong in his likes and
dislikes, and in his manner of expressing them.
"D'ye suppose he engaged me for my powers as an actor?" he used to say
of Mr. Kean. "Not a bit of it! He engaged me for my d----d
One night during the run of "King John," a notice was put up that no
curtain calls would be allowed at the end of a scene. At the end of my
scene with Hubert there was tremendous applause, and when we did not
appear, the audience began to shout and yell and cheer. I went off to
the greenroom, but even from there I could still hear the voices:
"Hubert! Arthur!" Mr. Kean began the next scene, but it was of no use.
He had to give in and send for us. Meanwhile old Ryder had been striding
up and down the greenroom in a perfect fury. "Never mind, ducky!" he
kept on saying to me; and it was really quite unnecessary, for "ducky"
was just enjoying the noise and thinking it all capital fun. "Never
mind! When other people are rotting in their graves, ducky, you'll be up
there!" (with a terrific gesture indicative of the dizzy heights of
fame). When the message came to the greenroom that we were to take the
call, he strode across the stage to the entrance, I running after him
and quite unable to keep up with his long steps.
In "Macbeth" I was again associated with Ryder, who was the Banquo when
I was Fleance, and I remember that after we had been dismissed by
Macbeth: "Good repose the while," we had to go off up a flight of steps.
I always stayed at the top until the end of the scene, but Mr. Ryder
used to go down the other side rather heavily, and Mr. Kean, who wanted
perfect quiet for the dagger speech, had to keep on saying: "Ssh! ssh!"
all through it.
"Those carpenters at the side are enough to ruin any acting," he said
one night when he came off.
"I'm a heavy man, and I can't help it," said Ryder.
"Oh, I didn't know it was _you_," said Mr. Kean--but I think he did! One
night I was the innocent cause of a far worse disturbance. I dozed at
the top of the steps and rolled from the top to the bottom with a
fearful crash! Another night I got into trouble for not catching Mrs.
Kean when, as Constance, in "King John," she sank down on to the ground.
"Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it!"
I was, for my sins, looking at the audience, and Mrs. Kean went down
with a _run_, and was naturally very angry with me!
In 1860 the Keans gave up the management of the Princess's Theater and
went to America. They traveled in a sailing vessel, and, being delayed
by a calm, had to drink water caught in the sails, the water supply
having given out. I believe that although the receipts were wonderful,
Charles Kean spent much more than he made during his ten years of
management. Indeed, he confessed as much in a public announcement. The
Princess's Theater was not very big, and the seats were low-priced. It
is my opinion, however, that no manager with high artistic aims,
resolute to carry them out in his own way, can ever make a fortune.
Of the other members of the company during my three years at the
Princess's, I remember best Walter Lacy, who was the William Terriss of
the time. He knew Madame Vestris, and had many entertaining stories
about her. Then there were the Leclercqs, two clever sisters, Carlotta
and Rose, who did great things later on. Men, women and children alike
worked hard, and if the language of the actors was more Rabelaisian than
polite, they were good fellows and heart and soul devoted to their
profession. Their salaries were smaller and their lives were simpler
than is the case with actors now.
Kate and I had been hard at work for some years, but our parents had no
notion of our resting. We were now to show what our training had done
for us in "A Drawing-room Entertainment."
ON THE ROAD
From July to September every year the leading theaters in London and the
provincial cities were closed for the summer vacation. This plan is
still adhered to more or less, but in London, at any rate, some theaters
keep their doors open all the year round. During these two months most
actors take their holiday, but when we were with the Keans we were not
in a position to afford such a luxury. Kate and I were earning good
salaries for our age, but the family at home was increasing in size,
and my mother was careful not to let us think that there never could be
any rainy days. I am bound to say that I left questions of thrift, and
what we could afford and what we couldn't entirely to my parents. I
received sixpence a week pocket-money, with which I was more than
content for many years. Poor we may have been at this time, but, owing
to my mother's diligent care and cleverness, we always looked nice and
neat. One of the few early dissipations I can remember was a Christmas
party in Half Moon Street, where our white muslin dresses were equal to
any present. But more love and toil and pride than money had gone to
make them. I have a very clear vision of coming home late from the
theater to our home in Stanhope Street, Regent's Park, and seeing my
dear mother stitching at those pretty frocks by the light of one candle.
It was no uncommon thing to find her sewing at that time, but if she was
tired, she never showed it. She was always bright and tender. With the
callousness of childhood, I scarcely realized the devotion and ceaseless
care that she bestowed on us, and her untiring efforts to bring us up as
beautifully as she could. The knowledge came to me later on when, all
too early in my life, my own responsibilities came on me and quickened
my perceptions. But I was a heartless little thing when I danced off to
that party! I remember that when the great evening came, our hair, which
we still wore down our backs, was done to perfection, and we really
looked fit to dance with a king. As things were, I _did_ dance with the
late Duke of Cambridge! It was the most exciting Christmas Day in my
[Footnote 1: Of course, all salaries are bigger now than they were then.
The "stars" in old days earned large sums--Edmund Kean received two
hundred and fifty pounds for four performances--but the ordinary members
of a company were paid at a very moderate rate. I received fifteen
shillings a week at the Princess's until I played Puck, when my salary
Our summer holidays, as I have said, were spent at Ryde. We stayed at
Rose Cottage (for which I sought in vain when I revisited the place the
other day), and the change was pleasant, even though we were working
hard. One of the pieces father gave at the theater to amuse the summer
visitors was a farce called "To Parents and Guardians." I played the
fat, naughty boy Waddilove, a part which had been associated with the
comedian Robson in London, and I remember that I made the
unsophisticated audience shout with laughter by entering with my hands
covered with jam! Father was capital as the French usher Tourbillon;
and the whole thing went splendidly. Looking back, it seems rather
audacious for such a child to have attempted a grown-up comedian's part,
but it was excellent practice for that child! It was the success of
these little summer ventures at Ryde which made my father think of our
touring in "A Drawing-room Entertainment" when the Keans left the
The entertainment consisted of two little plays "Home for the Holidays"
and "Distant Relations," and they were written, I think, by a Mr.
Courtney. We were engaged to do it first at the Royal Colosseum,
Regent's Park, by Sir Charles Wyndham's father, Mr. Culverwell. Kate and
I played all the parts in each piece, and we did quick changes at the
side worthy of Fregoli! The whole thing was quite a success, and after
playing it at the Colosseum we started on a round of visits.
In "Home for the Holidays," which came first on our little programme,
Kate played Letitia Melrose, a young girl of about seventeen, who is
expecting her young brother "home for the holidays." Letitia, if I
remember right, was discovered soliloquizing somewhat after this
fashion: "Dear little Harry! Left all alone in the world, as we are, I
feel such responsibility about him. Shall I find him changed, I wonder,
after two years' absence? He has not answered my letters lately. I hope
he got the cake and toffee I sent him, but I've not heard a word." At
this point I entered as Harry, but instead of being the innocent little
schoolboy of Letitia's fond imagination, Harry appears in loud peg-top
trousers (peg-top trousers were very fashionable in 1860), with a big
cigar in his mouth, and his hat worn jauntily on one side. His talk is
all of racing, betting, and fighting. Letty is struck dumb with
astonishment at first, but the awful change, which two years have
effected, gradually dawns on her. She implores him to turn from his
idle, foolish ways. Master Harry sinks on his knees by her side, but
just as his sister is about to rejoice and kiss him, he looks up in her
face and bursts into loud laughter. She is much exasperated, and,
threatening to send some one to him who will talk to him in a very
different fashion, she leaves the stage. Master Hopeful thereupon dons
his dressing-gown and smoking cap, and, lying full length upon the sofa,
begins to have a quiet smoke. He is interrupted by the appearance of a
most wonderful and grim old woman in blue spectacles--Mrs. Terrorbody.
This is no other than "Sister Letty," dressed up in order to frighten
the youth out of his wits. She talks and talks, and, after painting
vivid pictures of what will become of him unless he alters his "vile
ways," leaves him, but not before she succeeds in making him shed tears,
half of fright and half of anger. Later on, Sister Letty, looking from
the window, sees a grand fight going on between Master Harry and a
butcher-boy, and then Harry enters with his coat off, his sleeves tucked
up, explaining in a state of blazing excitement that he "_had_ to fight
that butcher-boy, because he had struck a little girl in the street."
Letty sees that the lad has a fine nature in spite of his folly, and
appeals to his heart and the nobility of his nature--this time not in
"Distant Relations" was far more inconsequent, but it served to show our
versatility, at any rate. I was all things by turns, and nothing long!
First I was the page boy who admitted the "relations" (Kate in many
guises). Then I was a relation myself--Giles, a rustic. As Giles, I
suddenly asked if the audience would like to hear me play the drum, and
"obliged" with a drum solo, in which I had spent a great deal of time
perfecting myself. Long before this I remember dimly some rehearsal when
I was put in the orchestra and taken care of by "the gentleman who
played the drum," and how badly I wanted to play it too! I afterwards
took lessons from Mr. Woodhouse, the drummer at the Princess's. Kate
gave an imitation of Mrs. Kean as Constance so beautifully that she used
to bring tears to my eyes, and make the audience weep too.
Both of us, even at this early age, had dreams of playing all Mrs.
Kean's parts. We knew the words, not only of them, but of every female
part in every play in which we had appeared at the Princess's. "Walking
on is so dull," the young actress says sometimes to me now, and I ask
her if she knows all the parts of the play in which she is "walking on."
I hardly ever find that she does. "I have no understudy," is her excuse.
Even if a young woman has not been given an understudy, she ought, if
she has any intention of taking her profession as an actress seriously,
to constitute herself an understudy to every part in the piece! Then she
would not find her time as a "super" hang heavy on her hands.
Some of my readers may be able to remember the "Stalactite Caverns"
which used to form one of the attractions at the Colosseum. It was there
that I first studied the words of Juliet. To me the gloomy horror of the
place was a perfect godsend! Here I could cultivate a creepy, eerie
sensation, and get into a fitting frame of mind for the potion scene.
Down in this least imposing of subterranean abodes I used to tremble
and thrill with passion and terror. Ah, if only in after years, when I
played Juliet at the Lyceum, I could have thrilled an audience to the
After a few weeks at the Colosseum, we began our little tour. It was a
very merry, happy time. We traveled a company of five, although only two
of us were acting. There were my father and mother, Kate and myself, and
Mr. Sydney Naylor, who played the very important part of orchestra. With
a few exceptions we made the journeys in a carriage. Once we tramped
from Bristol to Exeter. Oh, those delightful journeys on the open road!
I tasted the joys of the strolling player's existence, without its
miseries. I saw the country for the first time.... When they asked me
what I was thinking of as we drove along, I remember answering: "Only
that I should like to run wild in a wood for ever!" At night we stayed
in beautiful little inns which were ever so much more cheap and
comfortable than the hotels of to-day. In some of the places we were
asked out to tea and dinner and very much feted. An odd little troupe we
were! Father was what we will call for courtesy's sake "Stage Manager,"
but in reality he set the stage himself, and did the work which
generally falls to the lot of the stage manager and an army of
carpenters combined. My mother used to coach us up in our parts, dress
us, make us go to sleep part of the day so that we might look "fresh" at
night, and look after us generally. Mr. Naylor, who was not very much
more than a boy, though to my childish eyes his years were quite
venerable, besides discoursing eloquent music in the evenings, during
the progress of the "Drawing-room Entertainment," would amuse us--me
most especially--by being very entertaining himself during our journeys
from place to place. How he made us laugh about--well, mostly about
nothing at all.
We traveled in this way for nearly two years, visiting a new place every
day, and making, I think, about ten to fifteen pounds a performance. Our
little pieces were very pretty, but very slight, too; and I can only
suppose that the people thought that "never anything can be amiss when
simpleness and duty tender it," for they received our entertainment very
well. The time had come when my little brothers had to be sent to
school, and our earnings came in useful.
When the tour came to an end in 1861, I went to London with my father to
find an engagement, while Kate joined the stock company at Bristol. We
still gave the "Drawing-room Entertainment" at Ryde in the summer, and
it still drew large audiences.
In London my name was put on an agent's books in the usual way, and
presently he sent me to Madame Albina de Rhona, who had not long taken
over the management of the Royal Soho Theater and changed its name to
the Royalty. The improvement did not stop at the new play. French
workmen had swept and garnished the dusty, dingy place and transformed
it into a theater as dainty and pretty as Madame de Rhona herself.
Dancing was Madame's strong point, but she had been very successful as
an actress too, first in Paris and Petersburg, and then in London at the
St. James's and Drury Lane. What made her go into management on her own
account I don't know. I suppose she was ambitious, and rich enough for
At this time I was "in standing water," as Malvolio says of Viola when
she is dressed as a boy. I was neither child nor woman--a long-legged
girl of about thirteen, still in short skirts, and feeling that I ought
to have long ones. However, when I set out with father to see Madam de
Rhona, I was very smart. I borrowed Kate's new bonnet--pink silk trimmed
with black lace--and thought I looked nice in it. So did father, for he
said on the way to the theater that pink was my color. In fact, I am
sure it was the bonnet that made Madame de Rhona engage me on the spot!
She was the first Frenchwoman I had ever met, and I was tremendously
interested in her. Her neat and expressive ways made me feel very
"small," or rather _big_ and clumsy, even at the first interview. A
quick-tempered, bright, energetic little woman, she nearly frightened me
out of my wits at the first rehearsal by dancing round me on the stage
in a perfect frenzy of anger at what she was pleased to call my
stupidity. Then something I did suddenly pleased her, and she
overwhelmed me with compliments and praise. After a time these became
the order of the day, and she soon won my youthful affections. "Gross
flattery," as a friend of mine says, "is good enough for me!" Madame de
Rhona was, moreover, very kind-hearted and generous. To her generosity I
owed the first piece of jewelery I ever possessed--a pretty little
brooch, which, with characteristic carelessness, I promptly lost!
Besides being flattered by her praise and grateful for her kindness, I
was filled with great admiration for her. She was a wee thing--like a
toy, and her dancing was really exquisite. When I watched the way she
moved her hands and feet, despair entered my soul. It was all so
precise, so "express and admirable." Her limbs were so dainty and
graceful--mine so big and unmanageable! "How long and gaunt I am," I
used to say to myself, "and what a pattern of prim prettiness she is!" I
was so much ashamed of my large hands, during this time at the Royalty,
that I kept them tucked up under my arms! This subjected me to
unmerciful criticism from Madame Albina at rehearsals.
"Take down your hands," she would call out. "_Mon Dieu!_ It is like an
ugly young _poulet_ going to roost!"
In spite of this, I did not lose my elegant habit for many years! I was
only broken of it at last by a friend saying that he supposed I had very
ugly hands, as I never showed them! That did it! Out came the hands to
prove that they were not so _very_ ugly, after all! Vanity often
succeeds where remonstrance fails.
The greenroom at the Royalty was a very pretty little place, and Madame
Albina sometimes had supper-parties there after the play. One night I
could not resist the pangs of curiosity, and I peeped through the
keyhole to see what was going on! I chose a lucky moment! One of
Madame's admirers was drinking champagne out of her slipper! It was even
worth the box on the ear that mother gave me when she caught me. She had
been looking all over the theater for me, to take me home.
My first part at the Royalty was Clementine in "Attar Gull." Of the
play, adapted from a story by Eugene Sue, I have a very hazy
recollection, but I know that I had one very effective scene in it.
Clementine, an ordinary fair-haired ingenue in white muslin, has a great
horror of snakes, and, in order to cure her of her disgust, some one
suggests that a dead snake should be put in her room, and she be taught
how harmless the thing is for which she had such an aversion. An Indian
servant, who, for some reason or other, has a deadly hatred for the
whole family, substitutes a live reptile. Clementine appears at the
window with the venomous creature coiled round her neck, screaming with
wild terror. The spectators on the stage think that the snake is dead,
and that she is only screaming from "nerves," but in reality she is
being slowly strangled. I began screaming in a frantic, heartrending
manner, and continued screaming, each cry surpassing the last in
intensity and agony. At rehearsal I could not get these screams right
for a long time. Madame de Rhona grew more and more impatient and at
last flew at me like a wild-cat and shook me. I cried, just as I had
done when I could not get Prince Arthur's terror right, and then the
wild, agonized scream that Madame de Rhona wanted came to me. I
_reproduced_ it and enlarged it in effect. On the first night the
audience applauded the screaming more than anything in the play. Madame
de Rhona assured me that I had made a sensation, kissed me and said I
was a genius! How sweet and pleasant her flattering words sounded in my
young and inexperienced ears I need hardly say.
Looking back to it now, I know perfectly well why I, a mere child of
thirteen, was able to give such a realistic display of horror. I had the
emotional instinct to start with, no doubt, but if I did it well, it was
because I was able to imagine what would be _real_ in such a situation.
I had never _observed_ such horror, but I had previously _realized_ it,
when, as Arthur, I had imagined the terror of having my eyes put out.
Imagination! imagination! I put it first years ago, when I was asked
what qualities I thought necessary for success upon the stage. And I am
still of the same opinion. Imagination, industry, and intelligence--"the
three I's"--are all indispensable to the actress, but of these three the
greatest is, without any doubt, imagination.
After this "screaming" success, which, however, did not keep "Attar
Gull" in the bill at the Royalty for more than a few nights, I continued
to play under Madame de Rhona's management until February 1862. During
these few months new plays were being constantly put on, for Madame was
somehow not very fortunate in gauging the taste of the public. It was in
the fourth production--"The Governor's Wife," that, as Letty Briggs, I
had my first experience of what is called "stage fright." I had been on
the stage more than five years, and had played at least sixteen parts,
so there was really no excuse for me. I suspect now that I had not taken
enough pains to get word-perfect. I know I had five new parts to study
between November 21 and December 26.
Stage fright is like nothing else in the world. You are standing on the
stage apparently quite well and in your right mind, when suddenly you
feel as if your tongue had been dislocated and was lying powerless in
your mouth. Cold shivers begin to creep downwards from the nape of your
neck and all up you at the same time, until they seem to meet in the
small of your back. About this time you feel as if a centipede, all of
whose feet have been carefully iced, has begun to run about in the roots
of your hair. The next agreeable sensation is the breaking out of a cold
sweat all over. Then you are certain that some one has cut the muscles
at the back of your knees. Your mouth begins to open slowly, without
giving utterance to a single sound, and your eyes seem inclined to jump
out of your head over the footlights. At this point it is as well to get
off the stage as quickly as you can, for you are far beyond human help.
Whether everybody suffers in this way or not I cannot say, but it
exactly describes the torture I went through in "The Governor's Wife." I
had just enough strength and sense to drag myself off the stage and
seize a book, with which, after a few minutes, I reappeared and
ignominiously read my part. Whether Madame de Rhona boxed my ears or
not, I can't remember, but I think it is very likely she did, for she
was very quick-tempered. In later years I have not suffered from the
fearsome malady, but even now, after fifty years of stage-life, I never
play a new part without being overcome by a terrible nervousness and a
torturing dread of forgetting my lines. Every nerve in my body seems to
be dancing an independent jig on its own account.
It was at the Royalty that I first acted with Mr. Kendal. He and I
played together in a comedietta called "A Nice Quiet Day." Soon after,
my engagement came to an end, and I went to Bristol, where I gained the
experience of my life with a stock company.
LIFE IN A STOCK COMPANY
"I think anything, naturally written, ought to be in everybody's way
that pretends to be an actor." This remark of Colley Cibber's long ago
struck me as an excellent motto for beginning on the stage. The
ambitious boy thinks of Hamlet, the ambitious girl of Lady Macbeth or
Rosalind, but where shall we find the young actor and actress whose
heart is set on being useful?
_Usefulness!_ It is not a fascinating word, and the quality is not one
of which the aspiring spirit can dream o' nights, yet on the stage it is
the first thing to aim at. Not until we have learned to be useful can we
afford to do what we like. The tragedian will always be a limited
tragedian if he has not learned how to laugh. The comedian who cannot
weep will never touch the highest levels of mirth.
It was in the stock companies that we learned the great lesson of
usefulness; we played everything--tragedy, comedy, farce, and burlesque.
There was no question of parts "suiting" us; we had to take what we were
The first time I was cast for a part in a burlesque I told the stage
manager I couldn't sing and I couldn't dance. His reply was short and to
the point. "You've got to do it," and so I did it in a way--a very funny
way at first, no doubt. It was admirable training, for it took all the
self-consciousness out of me to start with. To end with, I thought it
capital fun, and enjoyed burlesque as much as Shakespeare.
What was a stock company? I forget that in these days the question may
be asked in all good faith, and that it is necessary to answer it. Well,
then, a stock company was a company of actors and actresses brought
together by the manager of a provincial theater to support a leading
actor or actress--"a star"--from London. When Edmund Kean, the Kembles,
Macready, or Mrs. Siddons visited provincial towns, these companies were
ready to support them in Shakespeare. They were also ready to play
burlesque, farce, and comedy to fill out the bill. Sometimes the "stars"
would come for a whole season; if their magnitude were of the first
order, for only one night. Sometimes they would rehearse with the stock
company, sometimes they wouldn't. There is a story of a manager visiting
Edmund Kean at his hotel on his arrival in a small provincial town, and
asking the great actor when he would rehearse.
"Rehearse! I'm not going to rehearse--I'm going to sleep!"
"Have you any instructions?"
"Instructions! No! Tell 'em to keep at a long arm's length away from me
and do their d----d worst!"
At Bristol, where I joined Mr. J.H. Chute's stock company in 1861, we
had no experience of that kind, perhaps because there was no Kean alive
to give it to us. And I don't think that our "worst" would have been so
very bad. Mr. Chute, who had married Macready's half-sister, was a
splendid manager, and he contrived to gather round him a company which
was something more than "sound."
Several of its members distinguished themselves greatly in after years.
Among these I may mention Miss Marie Wilton (now Lady Bancroft) and
Miss Madge Robertson (now Mrs. Kendal).
Lady Bancroft had left the company before I joined it, but Mrs. Kendal
was there, and so was Miss Henrietta Hodson (afterwards Mrs.
Labouchere). I was much struck at that time by Mrs. Kendal's singing.
Her voice was beautiful. As an example of how anything can be twisted to
make mischief, I may quote here an absurd tarradiddle about Mrs. Kendal
never forgetting in after years that in the Bristol stock company she
had to play the singing fairy to my Titania in "A Midsummer Night's
Dream." The simple fact, of course, was that she had the best voice in
the company, and was of such infinite value in singing parts that no
manager in his senses would have taken her out of them. There was no
question of my taking precedence of her, or of her playing second fiddle
Miss Hodson was a brilliant burlesque actress, a good singer, and a
capital dancer. She had great personal charm, too, and was an enormous
favorite with the Bristol public. I cannot exactly call her a "rival" of
my sister Kate's, for Kate was the "principal lady" or "star," and
Henrietta Hodson the "soubrette," and, in burlesque, the "principal
boy." Nevertheless, there were certainly rival factions of admirers, and
the friendly antagonism between the Hodsonites and the Terryites used to
amuse us all greatly.
We were petted, spoiled, and applauded to our heart's content, but I
don't think it did us any harm. We all had scores of admirers, but their
youthful ardor seemed to be satisfied by tracking us when we went to
rehearsal in the morning and waiting for us outside the stage-door at
When Kate and I had a "benefit" night, they had an opportunity of coming
to rather closer quarters, for on these occasions tickets could be
bought from members of the company, as well as at the box-office of the
Our lodgings in Queen Square were besieged by Bristol youths who were
anxious to get a glimpse of the Terrys. The Terrys demurely chatted with
them and sold them tickets. My mother was most vigilant in her role of
duenna, and from the time I first went on the stage until I was a grown
woman I can never remember going home unaccompanied by either her or my
The leading male members of Mr. Chute's stock company were Arthur Wood
(an admirable comedian), William George Rignold, W.H. Vernon, and
Charles Coghlan. At this time Charles Coghlan was acting magnificently,
and dressing each of his characters so correctly and so perfectly that
most of the audience did not understand it. For instance, as Glavis, in
"The Lady of Lyons," he looked a picture of the Directoire fop. He did
not compromise in any single detail, but wore the long straggling hair,
the high cravat, the eye-glass, bows, jags, and tags, to the infinite
amusement of some members of the audience, who could not imagine what
his quaint dress meant. Coghlan's clothes were not more perfect than his
manner, but both were a little in advance of the appreciation of Bristol
playgoers in the 'sixties.
At the Princess's Theater I had gained my experience of long rehearsals.
When I arrived in Bristol I was to learn the value of short ones. Mr.
Chute took me in hand, and I had to wake up and be alert with brains
and body. The first part I played was Cupid in "Endymion." To this day I
can remember my lines. I entered as a blind old woman in what is known
in theatrical parlance as a "disguise cloak." Then, throwing it off, I
"Pity the poor blind--what no one here?
Nay then, I'm not so blind as I appear,
And so to throw off all disguise and sham,
Let me at once inform you who I am!
Henrietta Hodson as Endymion and Kate as Diana had a dance with me which
used to bring down the house. I wore a short tunic which in those days
was considered too scanty to be quite nice, and carried the conventional
bow and quiver.
In another burlesque, "Perseus and Andromeda," I played Dictys; it was
in this piece that Arthur Wood used to make people laugh by punning on
the line: "Such a mystery (Miss Terry) here!" It was an absurd little
joke, but the people used to cheer and applaud.
At the end of my first season at Bristol I returned to London for a time
to play at the Haymarket under Mr. Buckstone, but I had another season
at Bristol in the following year. While my stage education was
progressing apace, I was, through the influence of a very wonderful
family whose acquaintance we made, having my eyes opened to beautiful
things in art and literature. Mr. Godwin, the architect and
archaeologist, was living in Bristol when Kate and I were at the Theater
Royal, and we used to go to his house for some of the Shakespeare
readings in which our Bristol friends asked us to take part. This house,
with its Persian rugs, beautiful furniture, its organ, which for the
first time I learned to love, its sense of design in every detail, was a
revelation to me, and the talk of its master and mistress made me
_think_. At the theater I was living in an atmosphere which was
developing my powers as an actress and teaching me what work meant, but
my mind had begun to grasp dimly and almost unconsciously that I must do
something for myself--something that all the education and training I
was receiving in my profession could not do for me. I was fourteen years
old at Bristol, but I now felt that I had never really lived at all
before. For the first time I began to appreciate beauty, to observe, to
feel the splendor of things, to _aspire_!
I remember that in one of the local papers there had appeared under the
headline "Jottings" some very wonderful criticisms of the performances
at the theater. The writer, whoever he was, did not indulge in flattery,
and in particular he attacked our classical burlesques on the ground
that they were ugly. They were discussing "Jottings" one day at the
Godwins' house, and Kate said it was absurd to take a burlesque so
seriously. "Jottings" was all wrong.
"I don't know," said our host. "Even a burlesque can be beautiful."
Afterwards he asked me what I thought of "Jottings," and I confessed
that there seemed to me a good deal of truth in what had been said. I
had cut out all that he had written about us, read it several times, and
thought it all very clever, most amusing--and generally right. Later on
I found that Mr. Godwin and "Jottings" were one and the same!
At the Godwins' I met Mr. Barclay, Mr. Hine, William Burges the
architect, and many other people who made an impression on my young
mind. I accepted their lessons eagerly, and found them of the greatest
value later on.
In March 1863 Mr. Chute opened the Theater Royal, Bath, when, besides a
specially written play symbolic of the event, his stock company
performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Titania was the first Shakespeare
part I had played since I left Charles Kean, but I think even in those
early days I was more at home in Shakespeare than anything else. Mr.
Godwin designed my dress, and we made it at his house in Bristol. He
showed me how to damp it and "wring" it while it was wet, tying up the
material as the Orientals do in their "tie and dry" process, so that
when it was dry and untied, it was all crinkled and clinging. This was
the first lovely dress that I ever wore, and I learned a great deal from
Almost directly after that appearance at Bath I went to London to
fulfill an engagement at the Haymarket Theater, of which Mr. Buckstone
was still the manager and Sothern the great attraction. I had played
Gertrude Howard in "The Little Treasure" during the stock season at
Bristol, and when Mr. Buckstone wanted to do the piece at the Haymarket,
he was told about me. I was fifteen at this time, and my sense of humor
was as yet ill-developed. I was fond of "larking" and merry enough, but
I hated being laughed _at_! At any rate, I could see no humor in Mr.
Sothern's jokes at my expense. He played my lover in "The Little
Treasure," and he was always teasing me--pulling my hair, making me
forget my part and look like an idiot. But for dear old Mr. Howe, who
was my "father" in the same piece, I should not have enjoyed acting in
it at all, but he made amends for everything. We had a scene together in
which he used to cry, and I used to cry--oh, it was lovely!
Why I should never have liked Sothern, with his wonderful hands and blue
eyes, Sothern, whom every one found so fascinating and delightful, I
cannot say, and I record it as discreditable to me, not to him. It was
just a case of "I do not like thee, Dr. Fell." I admired him--I could
not help doing that--but I dreaded his jokes, and thought some of them
Another thing I thought cruel at this time was the scandal which was
talked in the theater. A change for the better has taken place in this
respect--at any rate, in conduct. People behave better now, and in our
profession, carried on as it is in the public eye, behavior is
everything. At the Haymarket there were simply no bounds to what was
said in the greenroom. One night I remember gathering up my skirts (we
were, I think, playing "The Rivals" at the time), making a curtsey, as
Mr. Chippendale, one of the best actors in old comedy I ever knew, had
taught me, and sweeping out of the room with the famous line from
another Sheridan play: "Ladies and gentlemen, I leave my character
I see now that this was very priggish of me, but I am quite as
uncompromising in my hatred of scandal now as I was then. Quite recently
I had a line to say in "Captain Brassbound's Conversion," which is a
very helpful reply to any tale-bearing. "As if any one ever knew the
whole truth about anything!" That is just the point. It is only the
whole truth which is informing and fair in the long run, and the whole
truth is never known.
I regard my engagement at the Haymarket as one of my lost opportunities,
which in after years I would have given much to have over again. I might
have learned so much more than I did. I was preoccupied by events
outside the theater. Tom Taylor, who had for some time been a good
friend to both Kate and me, had introduced us to Mr. Watts, the great
painter, and to me the stage seemed a poor place when compared with the
wonderful studio where Kate and I were painted as "The Sisters." At the
Taylors' house, too, the friends, the arts, the refinements had an
enormous influence on me, and for a time the theater became almost
distasteful. Never at any time in my life have I been ambitious, but at
the Haymarket I was not even passionately anxious to do my best with
every part that came in my way--a quality which with me has been a good
substitute for ambition. I was just dreaming of and aspiring after
another world, a world full of pictures and music and gentle, artistic
people with quiet voices and elegant manners. The reality of such a
world was Little Holland House, the home of Mr. Watts.
So I confess quite frankly that I did not appreciate until it was too
late, my advantages in serving at the Haymarket with comrades who were
the most surpassingly fine actors and actresses in old comedy that I
have ever known. There were Mr. Buckstone, the Chippendales, Mr.
Compton, Mr. Farren. They one and all thoroughly understood Sheridan.
Their bows, their curtseys, their grand manner, the indefinable _style_
which they brought to their task were something to see. We shall never
know their like again, and the smoothest old-comedy acting of this age
seems rough in comparison. Of course, we suffer more with every fresh
decade that separates us from Sheridan. As he gets farther and farther
away, the traditions of the performances which he conducted become paler
and paler. Mr. Chippendale knew these traditions backwards. He might
even have known Sheridan himself. Charles Reade's mother did know him,
and sat on the stage with him while he rehearsed "The School for
Scandal" with Mrs. Abingdon, the original Lady Teazle in the part.
Mrs. Abingdon, according to Charles Reade, who told the story, had just
delivered the line, "How dare you abuse my relations?" when Sheridan
stopped the rehearsal.
"No, no, that won't do at all! It mustn't be _pettish_. That's
shallow--shallow. You must go up stage with, 'You are just what my
cousin Sophy said you would be,' and then turn and sweep down on him
like a volcano. 'You are a great bear to abuse my relations! How _dare_
you abuse my relations!'"
I want to refrain, in telling the story of my life, from praising the
past at the expense of the present. It is at best the act of a fogey and
always an easy thing to do, as there are so few people who can
contradict one. Yet even the fear of joining hands with the people who
like every country but their own, and every age except that in which
they live, shall not deter me from saying that although I have seen
many improvements in actors and acting since I was at the Haymarket, I
have never seen artificial comedy acted as it was acted there.
Not that I was much good at it myself. I played Julia in "The Rivals"
very ill; it was too difficult and subtle for me--ungrateful into the
bargain--and I even made a blunder in bringing down the curtain on the
first night. It fell to my lot to finish the play--in players' language,
to speak the "tag." Now, it has been a superstition among actors for
centuries that it is unlucky to speak the "tag" in full at rehearsal. So
during the rehearsals of "The Rivals," I followed precedent and did not
say the last two or three words of my part and of the play, but just
"mum, mum, mum!" When the first night came, instead of dropping my voice
with the last word in the conventional and proper manner, I ended with
an upward inflection, which was right for the sense, but wrong for the
This unexpected innovation produced utter consternation all round me.
The prompter was so much astounded that he thought there was something
more coming and did not give the "pull" for the curtain to come down.
There was a horrid pause while it remained up, and then Mr. Buckstone,
the Bob Acres of the cast, who was very deaf and had not heard the
upward inflection, exclaimed loudly and irritably: "Eh! eh! What does
this mean? Why the devil don't you bring down the curtain?" And he went
on cursing until it did come down. This experience made me think more
than ever of the advice of an old actor: "Never leave your stage effects
to _chance_, my child, but _rehearse_, and find out all about it!"
How I wished I had rehearsed that "tag" and taken the risk of being
For the credit of my intelligence I should add that the mistake was a
technical one, not a stupid one. The line was a question. It _demanded_
an upward inflection; but no play can end like that.
It was not all old comedy at the Haymarket. "Much Ado About Nothing" was
put on during my engagement, and I played Hero to Miss Louisa Angell's
Beatrice. Miss Angell was a very modern Beatrice, but I, though I say it
"as shouldn't," played Hero beautifully! I remember wondering if I
should ever play Beatrice. I just _wondered_, that was all. It was the
same when Miss Angell played Letitia Hardy in "The Belle's Stratagem,"
and I was Lady Touchwood. I just wondered! I never felt jealous of other
people having bigger parts; I never looked forward consciously to a day
when I should have them myself. There was no virtue in it. It was just
because I wasn't ambitious.
Louise Keeley, a pretty little woman and clever, took my fancy more than
any one else in the company. She was always merry and kind, and I
admired her dainty, vivacious acting. In a burlesque called "Buckstone
at Home" (in which I played Britannia and came up a trap in a huge
pearl, which opened and disclosed me) Miss Keeley was delightful. One
evening the Prince and Princess of Wales (now our King and Queen) came
to see "Buckstone at Home." I believe it was the very first time they
had appeared at a theater since their marriage. They sat far back in the
royal box, the ladies and gentlemen of their suite occupying the front
seats. Miss Keeley, dressed as a youth, had a song in which she brought
forward by the hand some well-known characters in fairy tales and
nursery rhymes--Cinderella, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, and so on,
and introduced them to the audience in a topical verse. One verse ran:
"Here's the Prince of Happyland,
Once he dwelt at the Lyceum;
Here's another Prince at hand,
But being _invisible_, you can't see him!"
Probably the Prince of Wales must have wished the singer at--well, not
at the Haymarket Theater; but the next minute he must have been touched
by the loyal greeting that he received. When the audience grasped the
situation, every one--stalls, boxes, circle, pit, gallery--stood up and
cheered and cheered again. Never was there a more extraordinary scene in
a playhouse--such excitement, such enthusiasm! The action of the play
came to a full stop, but not the cheers. They grew louder and louder,
until the Prince came forward and bowed his acknowledgments. I doubt if
any royal personage has ever been so popular in England as he was. Of
course he is popular as King too, but as Prince of Wales he came nearer
the people. They had more opportunities of seeing him, and they
appreciated his untiring efforts to make up by his many public
appearances for the seclusion in which the Queen lived.
In the middle of the run of "The American Cousin" I left the stage and
married. Mary Meredith was the part, and I played it vilely. I was not
quite sixteen years old, too young to be married even in those days,
when every one married early. But I was delighted, and my parents were
delighted, although the disparity of age between my husband and me was
very great. It all seems now like a dream--not a clear dream, but a
fitful one which in the morning one tries in vain to tell. And even if I
could tell it, I would not. I was happy, because my face was the type
which the great artist who had married me loved to paint. I remember
sitting to him in armor for hours and never realizing that it was heavy
until I fainted!
The day of my wedding it was very cold. Like most women, I always
remember what I was wearing on the important occasions of my life. On
that day I wore a brown silk gown which had been designed by Holman
Hunt, and a quilted white bonnet with a sprig of orange-blossom, and I
was wrapped in a beautiful Indian shawl. I "went away" in a sealskin
jacket with coral buttons, and a little sealskin cap. I cried a great
deal, and Mr. Watts said, "Don't cry. It makes your nose swell." The day
I left home to be married, I "tubbed" all my little brothers and sisters
and washed their fair hair.
Little Holland House, where Mr. Watts lived, seemed to me a paradise,
where only beautiful things were allowed to come. All the women were
graceful, and all the men were gifted. The trio of sisters--Mrs.
Prinsep--(mother of the painter), Lady Somers, and Mrs. Cameron, who was
the pioneer in artistic photography as we know it to-day--were known as
Beauty, Dash, and Talent. There were two more beautiful sisters, Mrs.
Jackson and Mrs. Dalrymple. Gladstone, Disraeli and Browning were among
Mr. Watts' visitors. At Freshwater, where I went soon after my marriage,
I first saw Tennyson.
As I write down these great names I feel almost guilty of an imposture!
Such names are bound to raise high anticipations, and my recollections
of the men to whom some of the names belong are so very humble.
I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner--the girl-wife of a famous
painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, of a
side-show, than hostess to these distinguished visitors. Mr. Gladstone
seemed to me like a suppressed volcano. His face was pale and calm, but
the calm was the calm of the gray crust of Etna. To look into the
piercing dark eyes was like having a glimpse into the red-hot crater
beneath. Years later, when I met him again at the Lyceum and became
better acquainted with him, this impression of a volcano at rest again
struck me. Of Disraeli I carried away even a scantier impression. I
remember that he wore a blue tie, a brighter blue tie than most men
would dare to wear, and that his straggling curls shook as he walked. He
looked the great Jew before everything. But "there is the noble Jew," as
George Meredith writes somewhere, "as well as the bestial Gentile." When
I first saw Henry Irving made up as Shylock, my thoughts flew back to
the garden-party at Little Holland House, and Disraeli. I know I must
have admired him greatly, for the only other time I ever saw him he was
walking in Piccadilly, and I crossed the road, just to get a good look
at him. I even went the length of bumping into him on purpose. It was a
_very little_ bump! My elbow just touched his, and I trembled. He took
off his hat, muttered, "I beg your pardon," and passed on, not
recognizing me, of course; but I had had my look into his eyes. They
were very quiet eyes, and didn't open wide.
I love Disraeli's novels--like his tie, brighter in color than any one
else's. It was "Venetia" which first made me see the real Lord Byron,
the real Lady Byron, too. In "Tancred" I recall a description of a
family of strolling players which seems to me more like the real thing
than anything else of the kind in fiction. It is strange that Dizzy's
novels should be neglected. Can any one with a pictorial sense fail to
be delighted by their pageantry? Disraeli was a heaven-born artist, who,
like so many of his race, on the stage, in music, and elsewhere, seems
to have had an unerring instinct for the things which the Gentile only
acquires by labor and training. The world he shows us in his novels is
big and swelling, but only to a hasty judgment is it hollow.
Tennyson was more to me than a magic-lantern shape, flitting across the
blank of my young experience, never to return. The first time I saw him
he was sitting at the table in his library, and Mrs. Tennyson, her very
slender hands hidden by thick gloves, was standing on a step-ladder
handing him down some heavy books. She was very frail, and looked like a
faint tea-rose. After that one time I only remember her lying on a sofa.
In the evenings I went walking with Tennyson over the fields, and he
would point out to me the differences in the flight of different birds,
and tell me to watch their solid phalanxes turning against the sunset,
the compact wedge suddenly narrowing sharply into a thin line. He taught
me to recognize the barks of trees and to call wild flowers by their
names. He picked me the first bit of pimpernel I ever noticed. Always I
was quite at ease with him. He was so wonderfully simple.
A hat that I wore at Freshwater suddenly comes to my remembrance. It was
a brown straw mushroom with a dull red feather round it. It was tied
under my chin, and I still had my hair down.
It was easy enough to me to believe that Tennyson was a poet. He showed
it in everything, although he was entirely free from any assumption of
the poetical role. That Browning, with his carefully brushed hat, smart
coat, and fine society manners was a poet, always seemed to me far more
incomprehensible than his poetry, which I think most people would have
taken straightforwardly and read with a fair amount of ease, if certain
enthusiasts had not founded societies for making his crooked places
plain, and (to me) his plain places very crooked. These societies have
terrorized the ordinary reader into leaving Browning alone. The same
thing has been tried with Shakespeare, but fortunately the experiment in
this case has proved less successful. Coroners' inquests by learned
societies can't make Shakespeare a dead man.
At the time of my first marriage, when I met these great men, I had
never had the advantage--I assume that it _is_ an advantage!--of a
single day's schooling in a _real school_. What I have learned outside
my own profession I have learned from my environment. Perhaps it is this
which makes me think environment more valuable than a set education, and
a stronger agent in forming character even than heredity. I should have
written the _externals_ of character, for primal, inner feelings are, I
suppose, always inherited.
Still, my want of education may be partly responsible for the
unsatisfactory blankness of my early impressions. As it takes two to
make a good talker, so it takes two to make a good hero--in print, at
any rate. I was meeting distinguished people at every turn, and taking
no notice of them. At Freshwater I was still so young that I preferred
playing Indians and Knights of the Round Table with Tennyson's sons,
Hallam and Lionel, and the young Camerons, to sitting indoors noticing
what the poet did and said. I was mighty proud when I learned how to
prepare his daily pipe for him. It was a long churchwarden, and he liked
the stem to be steeped in a solution of sal volatile, or something of
that kind, so that it did not stick to his lips. But he and all the
others seemed to me very old. There were my young knights waiting for
me; and jumping gates, climbing trees, and running paper-chases are
pleasant when one is young.
It was not to inattentive ears that Tennyson read his poems. His reading
was most impressive, but I think he read Browning's "Ride from Ghent to
Aix" better than anything of his own, except, perhaps, "The Northern
Farmer." He used to preserve the monotonous rhythm of the galloping
horses in Browning's poem, and made the words come out sharply like
hoofs upon a road. It was a little comic until one got used to it, but
that fault lay in the ear of the hearer. It was the right way and the
fine way to read this particular poem, and I have never forgotten it.