What a Ménage à  Trois !

What a Ménage à Trois !

The Ménage à Trois in Ellen Terry’s Garden
Presented by Ann Rachlin MCE

Thanks to AboutBritain.com and to Gary Cooper for the photos.

Many who attended Ann Rachlin’s riveting performance – The Ménage à Trois in Ellen Terry’s Garden – at our East Street Museum on Thursday 9th November —  were familiar with the local National Trust attraction of Smallhythe and its treasures — such as the restored Ellen Terry costume made from 1000 beetle wings –and may have gone to plays at the Barn Theatre and admired the Priest House next door. But everyone in the audience will have learned much more about the woman once regarded as the leading actress of the age and the threesome who did so much to preserve and enhance her legacy – and laughed many times during Ann’s telling too.   The lead character in the Ménage à Trois was Edy Craig, Ellen Terry’s daughter. 

Though the main characters in Ann’s story  lived in an age of much stricter declared ideas of ‘morals’  than are current today, the personal lives they lived were much more in tune with what has become permissible in our own times.  The father of Ellen Terry’s children,  Edith Craig and her younger brother Gordon Craig, was not  any of her three husbands but of the architect-designer Edward Godwin.  (The surname Craig was a kind of defence against the ostracism often meted out to illegitimate  children in former times.)  Edith (1869-1947) became a well-regarded costume designer, theatre director /producer and suffragette, and set up the  the lesbian Ménage à Trois in Ellen Terry’s Garden at Smallhythe.  Her younger brother (1872-1966) became an actor, designer, writer and director of ‘modernist’ theatre — also producing 14 children by a variety of women. 

After Ellen Terry died, Edy worked on memoirs of her mother’s life and her own part in it.  The quarto notebooks containing the memoirs and photos and illustrations were lost for years, then found – and  it was Ann Rachlin, MBE,  who bought them and in 2011 produced the book Edy was a Lady,  illuminating not only the partnership of her mother and Sir Henry Irving which gripped audiences everywhere and made Ellen Terry  the undisputed Leading actress of her day but the role of daughter Edith and her friends in that life and legacy too.

 Ann Rachlin built her reputation as a pioneer of music appreciation for children via public storytelling performances around the world and Fun with Music recordings.   (Prince William and Prince Harry attended her classes).  She now gives audio-visual presentations for adults and because she lives locally Rye Museum has been able to take advantage!   Thus the wonderful  evening of professional storytelling illuminated by rare photos and illustrations from Edy’s colourful collection. 

 Edy Craig has been called the most extraordinary contributor to British Theatre of her time.  Besides being illegitimate, a lesbian and an active campaigner for women’s suffrage  she was an actor onstage and in silent movies, a brilliant costume designer and maker, a stage producer, and a fencing expert! Touring the UK and USA with her mother she met other big names of the day such as George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, King George V – the list is very long.  The focus of Ann’s talk was the threesome who lived and worked together at Smallhythe and after Ellen Terry’s death in 1928 created the Barn Theatre  dedicated to honouring her.  Every year the three produced a Shakespeare play to commemorate the anniversary of her mother’s death.  They prepared Smallhythe for opening to the public, supported by the National Trust from 1939  and  Edy left Smallhythe to the National Trust when she died. 

The second member of the Ménage à Trois was (aka Christopher Marie St John) (1871 –1960), also a suffragette campaigner and also a playwright and author who was contracted by Ellen Terry to  assist with her publications; she edited her Memoirs and continued such work after her death and after Edy’s too  She had lived with Edy for 48 years.  The Ménage à Trois was created in 1916 when a third lesbian women joined Edy and  Christabel  at Smallhythe. Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood (1866-1962) was a British painter — portraits, landscapes, still life — who was commissioned by the Canadian government and also the Imperial War Museum to paint war scenes.  Her  paintings are held in prestigious collections in the UK (e.g. the V&A and Tate) and abroad.  She joined the other two women in 1916.  Among their good friends were Radclyffe Hall of Rye and Vita Sackville-West.  The ashes of  Edith Craig’s two companions are buried at the Smallhythe church but Edith’s have been lost.

There were so many good stories about all the characters mentioned above (and more)  but neither space nor flair to do them justice here.  So  the best course for interested readers  of this report is to ask your organisation to invite Ann to visit you.  Oh, and visit/revisit Smallhythe, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First posted in East Street Posts, Featured, Past Talks, Surrounding Towns and Villages, Talks Summaries on 21st November 2017
Last updated: 21st November 2017