John Barrymore: A bridge to Shakespearean actors past

Photograph of John Barrymore as Hamlet
John Barrymore as Hamlet. ART File B281 no.2 PHOTO. Folger Shakespeare Library.

John Barrymore is sometimes passed over in the lists of great Shakespeare actors. He was a light comedian and matinee idol who made a serious bid for respect with Broadway productions of Richard III in 1920 and Hamlet in 1922. His commercial and artistic success in both title roles, while not uncriticized, was considerable, and in retrospect it now appears that Barrymore was an important transitional figure in our understanding of the evolution of Shakespearean performance styles.

In John Barrymore: Shakespearean Actor, Michael A. Morrison argues that Barrymore “was the first to reinterpret time-honored roles in light of modern psychological theory,” and that his “dynamic portrayals…helped to revitalize Shakespearean acting and production in America and Great Britain.” Barrymore appears to have had his feet planted firmly in both the 19th and 20th centuries: He inherited a family acting tradition that went back two generations to Great Britain (and included his siblings Lionel and Ethel and, later, film star granddaughter Drew), but he was also a post-World War I American flush with success and attuned to emerging understandings of psychological motivation through the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Morrison, Barrymore can be viewed “as a revolutionary bridge between Victorian and modern methods of acting” and “should thus be considered in light of the bravura acting of Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.”

Barrymore had a famously energetic private life and passion for the traditions of his youth. This, combined with a desire to be taken seriously after an early career of charming audiences in not terribly taxing fare, led to performances that combined some of the romantic acting style of a previous era with a more psychologically grounded approach to the text. In I Hate Hamlet, Paul Rudnick’s 1991 Broadway play about a modern TV actor doing Shakespeare in the Park and getting coached by the ghost of John Barrymore himself (in the kind of light comedy in which the real Barrymore once specialized), Rudnick has Barrymore defend his reputation for excess and being ‘larger than life’ by saying, “I do not overact. I simply possess the emotional resources of ten men.” Despite (or because of) this old-school actor-manager ego, the actual Barrymore encouraged and coached his actors—several of whom “spoke Shakespeare in the cadenced musical style of an earlier day,” according to Morrison —to speak in their real voices to achieve a more natural effect.

Engraving of a drawing by Bert Sharkey. of John Barrymore as Hamlet
John Barrymore as Hamlet. ART File B281 no.1 M. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Influenced as he was by the previous generation, Barrymore also left his mark on the next. Sir Stanley Wells, in his book Great Shakespeare Actors, records Laurence Olivier as saying that Barrymore “breathed life into the character [of Hamlet], which, since Irving, had been lulled into arias and false inflections, all very beautiful and poetic, but castrated. Barrymore put the balls back.” Olivier also admitted that he “admired Barrymore and used much of his Hamlet” in both his stage and film versions, including bits of staging and athleticism, as well as the Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude, according to Morrison. John Gielgud was also a fan, as we learn from Wells, claiming that Barrymore was “classical without being unduly severe” and had “tenderness, remoteness, and neurosis, all placed with great delicacy and used with immense effectiveness and admirable judgment.”

Without a visual or audio record, it’s hard to understand exactly what Barrymore did that was so extraordinary. Fortunately, John Lark Taylor, one of the actors in Barrymore’s production of Hamlet, took copious notes and wrote highly detailed and specific descriptions of the star’s cadence, emphasis, and delivery, which Morrison quotes at length. Highlights include:

  • “Can (pause) you [/] play (long pause) the Murder (long pause) of (pause) Gonzago?”
  • “Now I am alone.” Pause. Hamlet stands by the chair and begins slowly. “O, (low tone) what a rogue and (quicker) peasant slave am I!”

And my personal favorite:

bloody (drawn out), bawdy villain! (upward emphasis)…Remorseless, (speeding up) treacherous, lecherous, KINDLESS (drawn out but still quiet) VILLAIN! / (and then, in a drawn-out, hysterical scream of anguish) O VENGEANCE!” 

A promptbook for a Hamlet production with John Barrymore
A promptbook for a Hamlet production with John Barrymore, with notes made by Lark Taylor beginning at rehearsals on Oct. 18, 1922, and finished on Feb. 10, 1923. PROMPT Ham. 30. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Transcribed that way, it seems less revolutionary and more ridiculous. But what’s also fascinating is Barrymore’s apparent awareness of his strengths and weaknesses, as well as his own place in the timeline of Shakespeare performance styles. When John Gielgud’s Hamlet arrived in New York fourteen years after Barrymore’s, and ran for more weeks with an even greater level of public enthusiasm, Barrymore admitted, “I was a bridge between two periods and my period has passed.”

But I think Barrymore’s influence lives on. One of the criticisms leveled against him (by James Agate, writing in the Sunday London Times in 1925), and seemingly borne out by the transcriptions above, was that Barrymore “attempts to get power by sudden gusts, choosing a single word for an explosion. Sometimes the choice is quite arbitrary…the words, being perfunctory, are robbed of their just splendor.” This evocative description stands out for me because it brings to mind two more recent actors who also practice a kind of sudden and explosive phrasing that weirdly emphasizes arbitrary words. The first is Richard Burton, whose performance of Hamlet is preserved in a filmed recording of a performance on Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 1964 and available on DVD. Burton’s voice is a beautiful French horn, with a Welsh musicality both mournful and powerful, but there’s no denying that sudden explosions and unusual emphases are very useful clubs in his bag.

The second actor who most embodies Agate’s description of John Barrymore is, of course, the frequently-and-justly parodied Stratford Shakespeare Festival alumnus and original James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise himself, William Shatner. I stand second to none in my fondness for and appreciation of Shatner as the impassioned and earnest captain boldly going where no one had gone before, but it now seems obvious that his distinctive phrasing and oddly-emphasized delivery goes where at least two actors went before him.

Which sparks this realization: Faint echo and pale xerox of an already-faded copy though he may be, William Shatner might be our last remaining 21st-century embodiment of a 19th-century performance style — and the connection between them is the enduring example and 20th-century bridge of John Barrymore.