Tuesday, March 7th, 2017...5:34 pm

An Actress Prepares

Jump to Comments

A promptbook I’ve been working on recently, The Amber Heart, by Alfred Calmour (1857?-1912), is bound in tan leather wrappers with its title stamped in gold on cover and spine. Inside, the covers are decorated with gorgeous red-violet marbled endpapers edged with intricate gold stamping. The book resides in a quarter tan calf and cloth case. It’s not one of those well-worn, frayed working scripts, full of hastily scrawled notes, but rather a treasured memento of a theatrical experience.

Ellen Terry, one of the most celebrated British Shakespearean actresses of the late 19th century/early 20th century, originated the main role of Ellaline in The Amber Heart, presented by actor-manager Henry Irving in 1887 in London, when she was 40 years old, 12 years later playing it in repertory with the Irving company in New York in 1899, with a return engagement in 1900. Here is an image of Terry in the role.

Ellen Terry’s family was a true British theatrical dynasty whose most famous members also include Ellen’s elder sister actress Kate Terry, her son the set designer Gordon Craig, and her nephew John Gielgud. The Theatre Collection copy is inscribed by Ellen Terry to her niece Minnie, daughter of her brother Charles Terry, and a noted child actress in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company by the time she was six years old. The inscription is dated “Christmas, 1902”; Ellen Terry would already have completed her successful Broadway run of the play.

Ellen Terry’s inscription in Minnie’s copy of the play

Ellen Terry’s inscription in Minnie’s copy of the play

When Minnie was 19, in 1901, she married Edmund Gwenn, later famous for his unforgettable turn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. The couple traveled to Australia where Gwenn was engaged for what proved to be a highly unsuccessful production of Ben Hur. They stayed in Australia for three years and Minnie joined an Australian company so they could get back on their feet. Upon their return to England in 1904, they continued their success on the London stage, separately and together. Their marriage was dissolved during World War I, but they remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives. It’s interesting to imagine what it was like for Minnie to be part of the third generation of such an illustrious acting family and to marry into the profession as well (Gwenn’s cousin was Cecil Kellaway, another noted actor).

Two folded letters were retained in the uncataloged copy, one from the playwright to Minnie, dated April 3rd, [?]9 (possibly 1899?), promising her a copy of the play someday, and one from Minnie to a Mr. Osborn explaining the annotations found within the text of the inscribed copy. Without this letter, one might conclude that Ellen Terry herself had written the marginal notes, but Minnie writes that “Auntie didn’t cut it herself – but had my father Charles Terry cut it from the original script for her and also dictated to him how she played each scene as you will see it is marked”, adding that Ellen Terry had given her the copy of the play hoping that she would play it in Australia, but that Minnie didn’t as (ah, the opprobrium suffered by regions considered to be “the sticks”!) it “would have been Greek to them”.

Minnie’s letter, page 1

Minnie’s letter, page 1

Minnie's letter, page 2

Minnie’s letter, page 2

Minnie's letter, page 3

Minnie’s letter, page 3

The dictated notes Charles Terry wrote throughout the text of the play in our copy describe both stage business and acting details of Ellen Terry’s performance and there is also a drawing by Ellen Terry herself opposite the opening section of the play.

Ellen Terry’s sketch

Ellen Terry’s sketch

The prompt copy of this play, held by the Harvard Theatre Collection and available to researchers at Houghton, offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a famous Victorian actress preparing to play a role: her physical and emotional choices for creating her performance, her thoughts on the stage environment for her character. Because she dictated them after the fact, they are more retrospective than anticipatory, but they do give us a valuable window into her acting technique. In many cases, the annotations are brief, indicating the tone she will use in a speech or the mood of her character, but on the bottom of page 38 of our copy, she has directed Charles to actually write in a brief section labeled “Notes” at the end of Act II. Here, she reminds herself of her character’s “motivation”, to use a later theatrical term: “I must be consistently gentle throughout. Never the tragic Queen never the shrew & never the whine of the stage martyr.”

Stage directions dictated by Ellen Terry and transcribed by her brother Charles Terry, page 38

Stage directions dictated by Ellen Terry and transcribed by her brother Charles Terry, page 38

Ellen Terry’s meticulous and detailed analysis of her character ensured that Ellaline was not a scripted role, but a completely realized person who shared her life with the audience during the span of each performance. Thrillingly, Terry’s creative process is detailed in her dictated notes in our copy of The Amber Heart. We are reminded that this legendary performer was not some two-dimensional image in a quaint old photograph from long ago. She was a thinking, feeling artist, completely dedicated to her craft, as professional and committed as any of our best actresses today.

[Thanks to Susan Radovsky, Metadata Creation, Harvard Library Information and Technical Services, for contributing this post.]


  • This could not be more fascinating. Love the theater genealogy and the beautifully-penned letters behind the notations, and the notations behind the script! Your insightful writing sets it all off and makes the details shine. Many thanks!

  • Fascinating! I love seeing her actual notes on the script and the sketch. A window into her creative process. And I love hearing about the treasures at Houghton.

  • What a great peek into the past!

  • I forgot to include this excellent bit from the end of chapter 10 of Ellen Terry’s autobiography The Story of My Life (found at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12326/12326-h/12326-h.htm#ChapX). The citation is a bit unspecific, but the content is delightful! Henry, of course, is Henry Irving):

    ‘While Henry was occupying himself with “Werner,” I was pleasing myself with “The Amber Heart,” a play by Alfred Calmour, a young man who was at
    this time Wills’s secretary. I wanted to do it, not only to help Calmour, but because I believed in the play and liked the part of Ellaline. I had thought of giving a matinée of it at some other theater, but Henry, who at first didn’t like my doing it at all, said: “You must
    do it at the Lyceum. I can’t let you, or it, go out of the theater.”

    So we had the matinée at the Lyceum. Mr. Willard and Mr. Beerbohm Tree were in the cast, and it was a great success. For the first time Henry saw me act–a whole part and from the “front” at least, for he had seen and liked scraps of my Juliet from the “side.” Although he had known me such a long time, my Ellaline seemed to come quite as a surprise. “I
    wish I could tell you of the dream of beauty that you realized,” he wrote after the performance. He bought the play for me, and I continued to do it “on and off” here and in America until 1902.

    Many people said that I was good but the play was bad. This was hard on Alfred Calmour. He had created the opportunity for me, and few plays
    with the beauty of “The Amber Heart” have come my way since. “He thinks it’s all his doing!” said Henry. “If he only knew!” “Well, that’s the way of authors,” I answered. “They imagine so much more about their work than we put into it, that although we may seem to the outsider to be creating, to the author we are, at our best, only doing our duty by him.”‘