John Barrymore's portrayals of Richard III and Hamlet electrified audiences. Critics proclaimed him one of the greatest actors ever. But Barrymore's life was not all glory. MICHAEL A. MORRISON tells the story of the actor's behind-the-scenes struggles.
On March 6, 1920, the Plymouth Theatre in New York was filled to capacity with more than a thousand spectators eager to witness John Barrymore's Shakespearean debut in Richard III. Many in the audience that night were skeptical of Barrymore's ability. Despite recent triumphs in several dramatic roles, he was still better known around Broadway for light comedy and heavy carousing. By the end of the evening, however, it was apparent that Barrymore had made theatrical history. His sinister, almost painful beauty as Shakespeare's hump-backed tyrant had made the audience gasp, and his unprecedented psychological interpretation won praise as a welcome departure from the "tragic elevation" of his Victorian and Edwardian predecessors. The production was hailed by leading critics as the beginning of a new era for Shakespeare on the American stage. 
     John Barrymore's journey to Shakespearean distinction had been neither sudden nor easy. He was born in Philadelphia on February 15, 1882 into an illustrious theatrical family. His grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, served for three decades as manager of Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre. His father, Maurice Barrymore, was a dashing leading man. His mother, Georgiana Drew, was an accomplished comedienne, and his uncle, John Drew, was the "First Gentleman of the American Stage." Yet he resisted the family trade, preferring to try his hand as a painter and commercial illustrator while frequenting New York's clubs and night spots. Only economic necessity forced him to join sister Ethel and brother Lionel on the stage, which to him was simply "the easiest place to earn a decent living."  
Within a few years, his handsome profile and amiable disposition had helped him become a popular matinee idol in light comedy and farce. In 1909, his appearance in The Fortune Hunter catapulted him to Broadway stardom. The following year he entered into the first of his four marriages with Katherine Harris, a stage-struck 18-year-old debutante. 
     A fortuitous meeting with the playwright Edward Sheldon during the 1911-12 season ultimately led to a new direction for Barrymore's career. Blithe and mercurial by nature, with a penchant for alcohol and chorus girls, Barrymore had never taken himself or the theatre seriously. Yet Sheldon detected hidden reserves of dramatic power that lay untapped in his abilities and gradually persuaded him to look beyond the trivial entertainments that for years had provided his livelihood.  
     In 1916, at Sheldon's urging, Barrymore attempted his first substantial role: Falder in Galsworthy's Justice. His success was instantaneous, and overnight he found himself acclaimed as a tragedian of the first rank. Leading roles in Peter Ibbetson (1917), Redemption (1918), and The Jest (1919) consolidated his position as one of the most talented actors on the American stage. During this period he also established himself as a popular and versatile star of the silent screen in films such as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) and The Test of Honor (1919). 
     In 1920, Barrymore joined forces with the producer-director Arthur Hopkins and the designer Robert Edmond Jones (with whom he had first worked a season earlier on Redemption) to attempt his most ambitious undertaking to date: Shakespeare's Richard III. Aware of his limited vocal prowess, Barrymore studied intensively with a voice coach to prepare for the role. When the production opened on March 6, critics were nearly unanimous in praising Barrymore's "intellectual, stealthy, crafty and subtly malevolent royal monster." To Heywood Broun of the Tribune, his Richard was "the most inspired performance which this generation has seen." The production was destined for only a limited run, however; less than four weeks after the opening, Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown, the result of his intense performance and months of overwork. Hopkins was forced to refund more than thirty-five thousand dollars to disappointed ticket holders. 
     Two years later, Barrymore, Hopkins, and Jones, after noteworthy failures the previous season - Barrymore in a play by his second wife, Michael Strange, and Hopkins and Jones in an ill-fated production of Macbeth starring Lionel Barrymore, again joined forces. On November 16, 1922, at the Sam H. Harris Theatre, they presented Hamlet. Barrymore's portrayal - colloquial, restrained, yet forceful and startlingly clear - electrified the audience and moved the critics to proclaim him as one of the greatest Hamlets seen in New York. His characterization was revolutionary in its use of Freudian psychology; in keeping with the post World War I rebellion against everything Victorian, he eschewed the genteel, idealized "Sweet Prince" of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with danger and sexuality. His impersonation, proclaimed Arthur Hornblow in Theatre Magazine, was "alive with virility and genius." 
     After 101 performances - one more than Edwin Booth had played during the 1864-65 season - Barrymore, by then weary of the role, withdrew from the production. Nonetheless, he revived the play in New York and toured it the following season, and in 1925, serving as his own producer and director, took his Hamlet to London - a city where American Shakespeareans had in the past achieved scant success. Although the production brought an irate letter from George Bernard Shaw, who objected vociferously to the extensive cuts to the text, Barrymore's performance was acclaimed by an overwhelming majority of reviewers. James Agate, dean of the London critics, found his portrayal to be "nearer to Shakespeare's whole creation than any other I have seen." His Dane was much admired by future Hamlets John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who recalled that "Everything about him was exciting. He was athletic, he had charisma, and, to my young mind, he played the part to perfection."
Barrymore returned to New York in May 1925, and the rest, for many years, was motion pictures. Those who had worked with Barrymore during the period when he was Broadway's leading tragedian lamented his defection to Hollywood, yet they were aware of his fundamental aversion to the nightly grind the theatre demanded, his boredom with long runs. "The creative part of the theatre he loved," recalled Arthur Hopkins. "Its repetition was unbearable." 
     For several years Barrymore concentrated exclusively on silent films, appearing mainly in swashbuckling costume melodramas such as Don Juan (1926) and The Beloved Rogue (1927). With the coming of sound, he found his services even more in demand. In the early 1930s he appeared in more than a dozen films including Grand Hotel (co-starring Greta Garbo and his brother Lionel), A Bill of Divorcement (Katharine Hepburn's screen debut), and Rasputin and the Empress - the only film in which all three Barrymore siblings appeared together. 
      During this period Barrymore entered into his third marriage, with the actress Dolores Costello, and had two children (he had earlier fathered a daughter, Diana, with Michael Strange). For a time, he enjoyed domestic and professional prosperity. By the mid-1930s, however, years of hard living, reckless drinking, and a mercurial disregard for his personal well-being had taken their toll. Barrymore began to experience numerous alcohol-related illnesses, and his memory became increasingly erratic; on several occasions, he found himself unable to remember his lines. 
     In 1935, he began a relationship with a starstruck 19-year-old college student, Elaine Barrie, later to become his fourth wife. Their bizarre liaison resulted in sensational tabloid headlines as this young "Ariel" pursued her "Caliban" (as the press dubbed them) across the country. 
     By that time, it was clear to the film community that Barrymore's skills and memory were in decline. Forced to read lines from blackboards placed  just out of camera range, he was cast mainly in secondary roles in inferior films as a parody of his former self. During the 1939-40 season, he made an ill-starred return to Broadway in My Dear Children, a flimsy, exploitative comedy in which he burlesqued his image as an over-the-hill ham. The play opened to scathing reviews, yet audiences came to see a once-magnificent talent, lured by his propensity to make unpredictable departures from the script. 
     In the years that followed, Barrymore, in part to honor his monumental debts to ex-wives and the Internal Revenue Service, continued to accept whatever roles were offered. He became a fixture on Rudy Vallee's radio show, where the jokes invariably centered on his drinking, marital problems, and has-been status. Even in decline, he continued to harbor quixotic hopes of returning to the stage in a worthy Shakespearean vehicle, despite ravaged powers and recurring memory loss. 
     On May 19, 1942, Barrymore collapsed during a rehearsal of the Vallee radio program. He was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where he was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, hardening of the arteries, hemorrhaging ulcers, and cirrhosis of the liver. For ten days he faded and rallied, drifting in and out of consciousness until May 29, when at 10:20 p. m. he died in his sleep. 
     Commentaries appearing over the next few days almost invariably lamented the dissipation of his talents, yet the supreme dramatic artist was not forgotten. "The moralists," remarked an anonymous editorial writer in the Herald Tribune, "said it was 'sad' that in his latter years he became a 'caricature' of a once magnificent figure. But none of this was news to Barrymore, nor did he allow it to disturb him unduly. . . . Here was an actor. Was ever there a better in America? . . . No matter what he touched, he gave it a manner and a dash. He was born to be an actor, and when he conscientiously set himself to a task he could blend his genius with a thoroughly sound and intelligent craftsmanship. . . . He was a mortal whose head at times reached very close to the stars." 
This article appeared originally in STAGEBILL. Special thanks to John Istel and Alex Stark.
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