Friday 11 February 2011

Theatre Review: Barrymore

John Sidney Blyth Barrymore (1882-1942) is a name all but forgotten for the general public. I am certain for the majority of people the only Barrymore they know would be his granddaughter Drew. However, in his day he managed to reach dizzying heights of professional success not just as a well known actor but as a critically acclaimed actor who set standards which remain impressive to his peers to this day. The lament, if there is for anyone who has managed to be achieve greatness, is the inevitable and sometimes self-inflicted decline which may caricature and mock the former glory.

This one-person play by William Luce depicts a fictionalized account of John Barrymore shortly before his death rehearsing a revival of his Richard III. This never actually took place and is merely a device used by the author to portray the celebrated actor reminiscing about his life, his career and his alcoholism. Although essentially a one person play, there is a second character in the wings, Frank who interacts with Barrymore assisting him with his lines.

The play was originally opened at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada on September 20, 1996, starring Christopher Plummer as Barrymore. The production went on to tour several cities in the United States including Broadway and led to Plummer winning three awards for Best Actor in a Play.

Friday, February 11, 2011: The Elgin Theatre, Toronto; starring Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer is currently 81 years old. He was amazing. Heck, anybody would be amazing to be able to carry an entire show all by themselves. And to remember all the dialogue? The man is truly incredible.

My wife and I saw him at Stratford in 2008 when he starred in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra then again in 2010 when he starred in The Tempest. This guy is somebody's grandfather but he is energized far beyond what I would think of as the typical doddering old man.

The play is a tour de force: a little song, lots of ribald jokes, a few F words and some legitimate snippets of the Bard thrown in to boot. The play, well acted by Mr. Plummer, is a humorous delight. John Barrymore was apparently a charismatic man and as portrayed by Mr. Plummer, that charisma shines brightly. However, while I sit and watch this captivating entertainment which certainly does much to romanticize the protagonist, I have to come back to both the notes in the program and the Wikipedia article on Barrymore. Here was a man who had it all, achieved it all then sunk into alcoholism and slowly but methodically snuffed out his own light. Unlike Plummer who dazzled the entire audience in tonight's performance with the mesmerizing rendition on this almost 2 hour one-person play, Barrymore's decline was highlighted by his well-known inability to remember his lines. For the purposes of the play, it is an amusing story. In reality, it all sounds very sad. Nobody enjoys seeing the great fall.

If I remember correctly this one line William Luce wrote in his play, "A man's life is over when he only has regrets instead of dreams."

The play is entertaining, funny and lively. I would highly recommend it and considering its limited run here in Toronto, you need to seek out tickets right away.

The Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
limited run until March 9, 2011


official web site of the play in Toronto

videos about Plummer and John Barrymore

Wikipedia: Barrymore (play)

Wikipedia: Christopher Plummer

Wikipedia: John Barrymore

The Montreal Gazette - Feb 3/2011
Video: Atom Egoyan shares his impression of Christopher Plummer's Barrymore

official web site: William Luce

Wikipedia: John Barrymore: Later career
Barrymore collapsed on his boat, The Mariner, in 1929 off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores, requiring admittance into doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from his consumption of bad and sometimes nearly poisonous illegal alcohol during the period of Prohibition in the United States. In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines, and his diminished abilities were apparent in a surviving screen test that he made for an aborted film version of Hamlet in 1934. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. He gave one last bravura Shakespeare performance, as an overage Mercutio in the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in some of Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and offered one last bravura dramatic turn in RKO's 1939 feature The Great Man Votes. After that, his remaining screen roles were broad caricatures of himself, as in The Great Profile (with "Oh, Johnny, How You Can Love" as his theme music) and World Premiere. In the otherwise undistinguished Playmates with band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore recited the "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet.

John Barrymore - biography
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. 

Biography of Famous Alcoholic and Actor John Barrymore
"Acting, romance, and drinking occupied John Barrymore about equally," wrote Hollis Alpert in The Barrymores. John was remarkably successful at all 3: For a decade he was America's preeminent actor, setting standards of performance that some critics say have never been equaled; he was married and divorced 4 times, the 4th marriage, at 53, to a girl of 19; and he lived and died a chronic alcoholic. Gene Fowler, in his biography of Barrymore, estimates that ". . . in 40 years he consumed 640 barrels of hard liquor."

John's career began to decline in 1934 when he appeared on a movie set ". . . in so dazed and drunken a condition that he was unable to remember any of the words of his new script." Failing memory and failing health plagued him the rest of his life. His last years were spent performing roles that parodied his former greatness--when he was not in the hospital, or on extravagant trips aboard his yacht in a futile search for a "cure" for his alcoholism. He made an enormous amount of money in his lifetime, but after his death in 1942, his effects were sold at auction to satisfy his creditors.


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