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John Barrymore

The Shakespearean Actor

John Barrymore initially had very little interest in acting. Much like his brother Lionel, he seemed more interested in his art of drawing and believed that he could make a career out of it. But eventually, when he had problems making any profit on his work, he gradually found himself headed into the world of the stage, like his two siblings. He initially thought that “I was there merely because it was supposed that any member of a theater family ought to have something in him that would carry him through a crisis on the stage; at least he might be expected to possess a certain adaptability to the medium.” (Hoffman, p. 45) The former artist was now finding his niche in the family business, joining ranks with Lionel and Ethel in treading the boards that had supplemented the needs of his ancestors. John was gifted with the good looks and charm of his father, along with the striking profile of his mother and grandmother. He was able to take on the leading man roles where his brother Lionel became more accustomed to the character roles. John became known for his renditions of Shakespearean tragedians and his ability to project his effusion from the stage to his adoring audience cemented his fame on the stage. In looks he was a more handsome actor than Edwin Booth and his ability rivaled that of the great thespian. Even though today’s audiences can not relive his performances on stage, there are recordings that can be heard of his soliloquies that testify to his strength as a performer on the stage. His rendition of Hamlet is still considered one of the sublime performances of the American stage, performed by an American actor. John would later write about his connection with Hamlet: “I was amazed to find how simple Hamlet seemed to be, and I was no little bewildered that anything of such infinite beauty and simplicity should have acquired centuries of comment.” (p. 61)

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