…A NOTE FROM RICHARD GIDEZ
In the 1920’s, John Barrymore reached the acme of his acting career in two
Shakespearean productions, an electrifying Richard III and a famous Hamlet.
(His only other Shakespeare role was as Mercutio in a film version of Romeo
and Juliet opposite Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the star-crossed
lovers). Barrymore had an affinity with the melancholy Dane. Margot Peters
writes in her biography of the Barrymores (John, Lionel and Ethel) “one could
argue that Laurence Olivier acted Hamlet, Barrymore was Hamlet.” Critic
John Mason Brown found Barrymore to be “the embodiment of the Dane.”
Acting styles and directorial concepts have changed since Barrymore’s Hamlet.
but there is little doubt that his Freudian interpretation influenced the future
Hamlets of John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, and Maurice
Evans. When Barrymore’s production closed in 1923 (it later took to the road
and to London) it had broken Edwin Booth’s record 100 performances by one
performer. Barrymore’s record was broken fourteen years later by Gielgud’s
132 performances. Barrymore’s production could have run longer, but he got
easily bored by long runs. There is little doubt that had he had more discipline
and more dedication to his craft, he would have been the finest actor of his
time. As it was, he dissipated his talent. In 1940, he returned to Broadway in
the witless comedy My Dear Children after an eighteen-year absence. In My
Dear Children, he played an aging, much married Shakespearean ham
(Barrymore was married four times), a not-to-subtle caricature of Barrymore
himself. He died two years later at the age of 60.
Richard B. Gidez