John Barrymore


By Samuel L. Leiter


To date, the seasons covered by this series have not been especially thrilling with regard to revivals, especially Shakespearean ones. Much of the Shakespeare on view was in the hands of traveling companies led by actor-managers Fritz Leiber, Walter Hampden, or John E. Kellerd. Only the rare, star-based revival, like Lionel Barrymore’s Macbeth, regardless of its egregious flaws, was likely to provide interesting reflections, perhaps because many of us can connect with such actors via their later movie careers.

That, to a degree, is true of 1922-1923, which suddenly leaped forth with six notable Shakespeare revivals, two headed by still familiar names, John and Ethel Barrymore, the latter emblazoned on a Broadway theatre. Both were successful on stage and screen, but a bright star with a less lustrous film persona was Jane Cowl. (Coincidentally, I just read a piece on Facebook by David Barbour about a 1950 film called The Secret Fury in which Cowl—during the year she died)3appears. David later informed me that “Cowl has a fairly substantial role. She’s all over it in the first 30 minutes, then she drops for most of the middle section, and figures fairly prominently in the climax. I gather that, apart from a couple of silent features, she has a little run of films between 1949 and 51.”)


Ethel Barrymore


During 1922-1923, not only did John Barrymore (1882-1942) offer one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished American Hamlets, but Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959)—43-years-old—played the star-crossed teenage lover in Romeo and Juliet in competition with the 38-year-old Jane Cowl (1883-1950), whose version arrived just a month later.

The other Shakespeare revivals featured actors few non-buffs today would recall, although one was among the leading Broadway artists of his day. That was David Warfield (1866-1951), who offered The Merchant of Venice in a version directed by David Belasco, the master director with whom he was long associated. His film presence was practically nil (although he became one of the wealthiest actors of his time), but he is at least better remembered than Reginald Pole, despite his being the actor-writer-director nephew of William Poel, one of the great names in the development of modern Elizabethan staging. (Reginald, for what it’s worth, was also the “father-in-law” of Anaïs Nin).

During our season, he offered one of the two King Lears of the twenties, but its two matinee performances made absolutely no impression. While neither Warfield nor Pole were film actors, Marjorie Rambeau (1889-1970), who played Rosalind in a 1923 revival of As You Like It, created a fine—if not stellar—output on both stage and screen. The production, directed by Robert Milton, was important mainly because it marked the attempt of a company called the American National Theatre (founded by Augustus Thomas) to get off the ground. No one liked As You Like It very much and it was removed in a week.

Thus the four revivals covered below are Hamlet, the two Romeo and Juliets, and The Merchant of Venice. For the record, there were five unexceptional, non-Shakespeare revivals: Peer Gynt, starred Joseph Schildkraut; The Inspector General, starred Maurice Schwartz, who, having done the play in Yiddish, was now doing it in English; a Black production of Wilde’s Salomé; an  altered version of the previous season’s The Rivals, and a matinee series of The School for Scandal. 

Fervent theatre lovers, if they could go back in time to our season, would likely choose Barrymore’s Hamlet (Sam H. Harris Theatre, 11/16/22, 101) as the revival they’d most like to see. When, despite audiences still clamoring to see it, it ended after 101 performances, a record the Great Profile boasted exceeded the 100 of Edwin Booth (but was actually short of John E. Kellerd’s 102 in 1906), it had become what would be recognized as the epochal Shakespeare event of the decade. Director-producer Arthur Hopkins was forced to provide refunds to many ticket holders.

Barrymore’s Prince, although imperfect and subject to erratic changes, has never been equaled in general esteem by an American actor. The qualities it purveyed were “illusion, a sense of reality,” said the Tribune, and a low-keyed believability unmarred by artificiality of tone; thoughtfulness, as Hamlet “seemed to be searching, searching, for some explanation of the curious eventfulness of his life,” according to Alan Dale; physical beauty and grace, wit, perception, economy, psychological depth, precision, a conversational quality that respected the verse, sympathy, intelligence, virility, unity, subtlety, irony, intensity, sophistication, “clarity of outline and a beauty of the spirit that heightens to radiant humanity and deepens to soul tragedy,” in John Corbin’s words.

The critics saw a Hamlet who seemed flawlessly true and honestly concerned with the drama’s issues. “We give you our word that this sweet prince is a distraught, though mysterious, human being; not a prolonged and loquacious query,” declared the Tribune. Barrymore played not madness but feigned madness. Freud entered the picture in Hamlet’s seemingly incestuous relationship with Blanche Yurka’s attractive Gertrude.


John Barrymore and Blanche Yurka in Hamlet


Those who faulted the portrayal cited a general lack of deep feeling, the emotional scenes never quite arousing significant pity. Stark Young wanted to see not so cerebral an interpretation but one with “the sense of a larger inner tumult” suggestive of greater suffering.

This Hamlet made a number of important cuts. Still, it ran over four hours and was considered complete. Robert Edmond Jones’s beautiful set did not slow things down, since it consisted of a unit scheme that allowed the action to move swiftly without the need for shifts. Jones’s design was controversial, since it set the play within an architectural plan dominated by a central arch and a set of stairs that occupied the middle-stage area, thereby cramping the actors’ movements. Its flexibility seemed awkward when it came to Ophelia’s burial, for, as Heywood Broun stated, the funeral seemed to be taking place “in the front parlor.”

Another hotly debated idea—albeit one many would later use as well—was the invisible ghost, whose presence was created by the offstage voice of Reginald Pole (mentioned above) and the use of a wavering spotlight effect. Some thought this laughable.


John Barrymore


The supporting company included important actors but none was particularly distinctive: Rosalind Fuller was Ophelia, John S. O’Brien was Polonius, Sidney Mather was Laertes, and Tyrone Power, Sr., was Claudius. When a 24-performance return engagement came to the Manhattan Opera House on 11/26/23, the ghostly light was replaced by an actor in spectral garments.

This was the Barrymore era, of course, so, with Lionel recently having played Macbeth (badly) and John having succeeded as Hamlet, it was only to be expected that Ethel would tackle Shakespeare, although Romeo and Juliet (Longacre Theatre, 12/27/22, 29) may not have been the wisest choice. In her autobiography, she says she would rather have been playing Rosalind in As You like It (although Rosalind also demands a younger actress), but the obstinacy of director Arthur Hopkins forced her into an experience that “was sheer misery.” She was even more miserable when Jane Cowl’s performance conquered Broadway in a widely reported-on artistic cause célèbre.

Ethel’s version was unappealingly acted, directed, and designed (by Robert Edmond Jones). It was stodgy, dull, and passionless. Barrymore’s age might not have mattered had she been able to carry off the impersonation with fire and spirit. Instead, she was matronly and dowdy, lacking even a hint of youth. In the balcony scene, wrote Corbin, she “moved and spoke as if in a trance.” In the potion scene, she “spoke still as a somnambulist.” She played a dignified, ladylike Juliet, one “bent upon no adventure. She was almost—polite,” reported Ludwig Lewisohn.

Her dispassionate Romeo was the good-looking McKay Morris. Basil Sydney, who would introduce modern-dress Shakespeare to New York in a few years, was an excellent Mercutio. Charlotte Granville was a passable Nurse.


Jane Cowl as Juliet


Jane Cowl’s Juliet (Henry Miller Theatre, 1/24/23, 161) represented not only a competition between two actresses; it also reflected a producer rivalry between the Shuberts and the Selwyns, who were in charge of the Cowl production. Cowl co-starred with Rollo Peters, a multi-talented artist who also designed the revival. Dennis King played Mercutio. Barrymore’s version ran almost a month; Cowl’s lasted five. Critical adulation, in some cases, ran to hyperbole, especially for Cowl.

Frank Reicher’s perfectly shaded yet extremely swift-paced staging moved the tragedy along and built to all its climaxes with fire and finesse. Shakespeare’s passionate pilgrims sprang to full-blown life in this beautifully apt, romantic mounting, over which hung no pall of gloom, but was shot through with youth’s vigor and audacity.

Peters’s sets, “a sort of compromise between the older realism and the new suggestiveness,” were not particularly outstanding. They required “intolerable” waits during the shifts, smacked of “deliberation and often self-consciousness,” and had distracting elements, like electric candles, according to Arthur Hornblow.


Jane Cowl and Rollo Peters in Romeo and Juliet


The work’s core was Cowl’s shining Juliet. Although not much younger than Barrymore, she was able to project with great felicity the doomed girl’s youth, loveliness, and fervency. John Corbin, struggling to refrain from immoderation, commented, “”Miss Cowl’s speech, though quite free from old mannerisms, is ‘modern’ and at times colloquial—but so is the speech of Shakespeare. . . . The scene in which Juliet revolts from the nurse . . . started with the familiar outburst but subsided into a tone of agonized self-communing. And one felt that the innovation was right. The moments of Juliet’s girlishness, the comedy of impatience with the nurse, Miss Cowl touched upon rather than exploited, yet if there was error one felt that it was on the right side.”

The play’s success inspired Cowl to consider it the basis of a personal repertoire of serious drama. But when she attempted to build on it the following season, with a revival of Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, she floundered badly, and, writes Burns Mantle, was forced to replace it after thirteen performances with more of Romeo and Juliet, although details of these added showings are not provided.


Mary Servoss


The Merchant of Venice received a dozen new revivals in the 1920s, including one in Yiddish (starring Rudolph Schildkraut) and one in French (starring Firmin Gémier). Several starred Shakespearean barnstormers Kellerd, Leiber (twice), Hampden (twice), and Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern, while stand-alone productions with big names were led by David Warfield and George Arliss as Shylock. The most widely discussed was the former, directed by David Belasco (Lyceum Theatre, 12/21/22, 92). It was a heavily realistic, expensive production in the manner of 19th-century pictorialism that received mixed responses.

Belasco tampered seriously with the play, cutting, rearranging, transposing dialogue, and adding long pantomimic passages that disturbed some viewers. One of his more irksome devices was combining most of the Shylock scenes into a single act, with the Portia scenes in another. This ruined the dramatist’s careful alternation of effects.

There was much controversy surrounding Belasco’s having spent a quarter of a million dollars on Ernst Gros’s extravagant scenery. “He gives us Italy of the sixteenth century,” commented Ludwig Lewisohn; “he gives us Venice, the Venice of Titian and Veronese. . . . The scenes and costumes are at once correct and splendid,” filling the stage with the teeming life of the city. Stark Young, however, observed inaccuracies of architecture, coloration, and costume, decrying the absence of any truly “Venetian quality at all.”


David Warfield as Shylock


Slightly less controversial was Warfield’s Shylock. It was a highly detailed, skillful, and touching impersonation that evoked sympathy for a pathetic, if necessarily vindictive Jew, but it met with annoyance from some. Lewisohn described it as fitting into the production’s veristic depiction of Jewish customs, exclusive of their place in Shakespeare’s scheme, with which they clashed. Within this atmosphere of synagogues and mezuzahs, Shylock was “a frail and intrepid figure, intense to the point of neurasthenia. The man has been rasped until there is no protective covering over his nerves. He has little or nothing in common with Shakespeare’s magnifico. . . . His ferocity is never natural. It has been wrung from him by blows, slights, insults, cruelties, defamations.” In the trial scene, wrote John Corbin, the actor failed to realize the tragic potentials of the role, opting instead for pathos “to the last degree.” This lack of tragic stature was Warfield’s greatest weakness.

His capable, well-balanced company included an excellent Philip Merivale as Bassanio, manly, noble, and attractive, and a respectable Portia in Mary Servoss.

Next up in “Leiter Looks Back” are selected plays from 1923-1924. It was the season of The Show-Off, Beggar on Horseback, and Outward Bound, to cite several of the best known plays. To see if they’ll be the ones discussed, or whether we’ll go with titles like Chicken Feed or Tarnish, which happen to have been among the season’s ten best, whether they ring a bell or not, get in line for when our box office opens.