On Wednesday 1st September, ’21 the Chichester Literary Society was treated to a performance by two professional actors: Jean Rogers and Paddy O’Keefe. The play, in two parts, dramatized the epistolary correspondence between the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the actress Ellen Terry between 1892 and 1898. At times, these letters appear to be, in Shaw’s own words “a paper-based courtship” whilst also shedding considerable light on the changing nature of the British theatre, at the end of the nineteenth century.
The performance opened to the strains of “Love letter straight from the heart”, setting the tone appropriately for a correspondence, beginning in 1892, which quickly moved from a “stiff and prim” tenor, in Ellen Terry’s words, to a series of intimate exchanges which delighted both respondents. In the first instance, Terry wrote to the editor of “The World” about a critical review of an Italian composer and singer. As art critic for “The World”, not yet established as a successful playwright, Shaw politely responded. Several letters are exchanged, during which Shaw’s writing begins to adopt a flirtatious character. This does not surprise Terry who comments: “GBS, the common flirt, he’d coquette with a piece of string.”
Terry decided to suspend letter-writing for three years but decided to resume correspondence, in 1895, with a desire to discuss the future of theatre in Britain. Terry was well-established, by the 1890s, as leading lady for Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre, in the West End, playing Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth, Portia to his Shylock and Beatrice to his Benedict. Tensions are caused by Terry’s professional relationship with Irving, probably prompted by Shaw’s jealousy. He is particularly scathing about Irving’s performance of Lear. At the time of her correspondence with Shaw, Terry is anxious about playing Imogen in a production of “Cymbeline”, and she seeks Shaw’s advice about the performance. For Shaw, her Shakespearean performances, although extremely well-received, are representative of a theatrical world that is behind the times, characterised by nineteenth century melodrama and sentiment.
Shaw, on the other hand, regarded himself as living in a world ahead of its time, embodied in the socialist ideas of the Fabian Society, of which Shaw had been a member since 1884. For Shaw, the future of British theatre lay in social realism, especially the plays of the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. Terry was aware of Shaw’s 1891 monograph “The quintessence of Ibsenism” and much of her correspondence with Shaw concerns whether she should concentrate on Shakespearean heroines or modern, strong female Ibsen characters such as Nora, in “A Doll’s House” and Hedda Garbler. Shaw and Terry’s correspondence even hints at the possibilities of a theatrical partnership. In 1902, Terry did, in fact, take over the management of the Imperial Theatre, in the West End, with productions that included plays by Shaw and Ibsen.
In 1896, Shaw met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a rich Anglo-Irish woman and a fellow member of the Fabian Society, dedicated to the struggle for women’s rights. Shortly after he mentions Miss Townshend in his letters, Terry declares that there is “no further need for correspondence.” Shaw is distressed by this response; Terry’s advice is for him to go ahead and marry Miss Townshend. When Shaw does marry Townshend on 1st June 1898, Terry doesn’t display any jealousy. She does suggest meeting Shaw and Townshend but, in fact, only meets Shaw several years after and does not ever get to meet the “green-eyed millionairess.” The Shaw-Terry correspondence continued a while longer, discussing new plays and theatre gossip, before gradually tailing off. It was published three years after Terry’s death, in 1931, by Terry’s daughter, much to the disapproval of Terry’s son, Teddy, who considered some of the letters too risqué and indiscrete for publication
In an email age of sentence fragments and word clippings, this correspondence reminds us of the power of the word to amuse, entertain and engender serious debate about the nature and function of drama. In their splendid dramatization, Jean Rogers and Paddy O’Keefie demonstrated the great loss to the literary world which would have been sustained had these letters not been published.