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Who is Ellen Terry?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Ellen Terry was one of the most renowned English actresses during the turn of the 20th century. Known mostly for her Shakespearean roles, she began her stage career at the age of seven. In her later years, she became a theater manager and famously corresponded with playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Ellen Terry was born on 27 February 1847 in Coventry, England. Both of her parents were actors, and four of her ten siblings would later take on the craft as well. Two of her brothers who did not act had careers in theater management.

As a child, Ellen Terry studied acting under Shakespearean actor Charles Kean and performed in his Princess Theatre in London, following in the footsteps of her older sister Kate. Ellen Terry first appeared as the Duke of York in Richard III at the age of seven, followed by the role of Mamilius in A Winter's Tale at the age of nine. When Charles Kean and his wife Ellen retired in 1859, Kate and Ellen Terry toured for two years with their parents.

Ellen Terry worked at London's Royalty Theatre for two years before pairing with Kate again in 1962, this time in Bristol under manager J. H. Chute. She added burlesque to her repertoire, but continued to play Shakespearean roles. When Chute opened a new theatre in 1863 in Bath, Ellen Terry appeared as Titania in the opening production of A Midsummer's Night Dream.

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While working at London's Haymarket Theatre later that year, Ellen Terry met her first husband, George Frederick Watts, who painted a portrait of her and Kate. The marriage took place in February of 1864. Watts was 30 years her senior and Ellen Terry felt stifled in the marriage, during which she put her acting career on hold. Both had affairs, and they broke up after ten months.

In 1867, after accompanying Kate on her farewell tour, Ellen Terry starred in her first role opposite actor Henry Irving, with whom she would later form a profitable acting duo. The following year, however, she again halted her career to begin a relationship with architect Edward William Godwin, with whom she had two children, Edith and Edward. After the affair ended in 1874, Ellen Terry once again devoted herself to the stage.

Henry Irving invited Ellen Terry to be the leading lady at his Lyceum Theatre in London in 1873, and the two dominated English theater for over twenty years. Ellen Terry's children also appeared onstage with her from time to time during this era. Ellen Terry remarried, to actor Charles Clavering Wardell, in 1877.

In 1903, Ellen Terry divorced her husband and turned her attention to theatre management with the help of her two children. She engaged in a long correspondence with George Bernard Shaw and was largely responsible for popularizing his works on the English stage, as well as those of Henrik Ibsen. Ellen Terry began acting again in 1906 and would continue appearing onstage to great acclaim in England and the United States until 1920. She also appeared in a film, Her Greatest Performance (1916), and wrote an autobiography, The Story of My Life.

In 1925, Ellen Terry was made Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in honor of her impressive and influential stage career. She died on 21 July 1928 remembered as one of the best English actresses of all time. Her children were also involved in theater in different capacities throughout their lives.

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