When Edna Ferber sent The Royal Family to Ethel Barrymore, suggesting she play the lead, the first lady of the American theatre flung it right back, furious at her lèse-majesté. Ferber protested that she and George S Kaufman were not portraying Ethel or her brothers Lionel and John, but Ethel didn't believe her, and neither did anyone else.
The comedy, understood by all as an affectionate send-up of the Barrymores, was one of the hits of 1927. But, as so often with the subjects of celebrations and satires, the family's glory days had ended. Lionel (1878-1954) had left Broadway four years earlier for Hollywood, where he would act in more than 200 films, never with distinction. John (1882-1942) followed in 1925; when The Royal Family opened, he was starring in The Beloved Rogue, the kind of period piece ridiculed in Singin' in the Rain. Ethel (1879-1959) in 1927 was starring in one of her biggest successes, The Constant Wife, but she would have only one more hit (The Corn Is Green) and would have to wait 13 years for it. Two of Ethel's children went on the stage but soon subsided into obscurity; John's two acting children won only notoriety for alcohol and drug abuse, his daughter Diana dying at 37, a year after publishing an autobiography titled Too Much Too Soon. John Barrymore Jnr's daughter, Drew, was briefly famous for her role in ET, but while still a teenager she, too, succumbed to drink and drugs.
It was a sad finale for a dynasty that had begun in England more than 200 years before. Mrs John Drew, as she later billed herself, came to America in 1827. The daughter and granddaughter of actors, Mrs John, at seven, was already recognised as an infant phenomenon. For the next 70 years she acted in Shakespeare and Sheridan, along with the popular dross of the time, and for 30 of them managed a theatre in Philadelphia considered the best outside New York. Drew, an Irish immigrant,was the last and most distinguished of her three actor husbands, but heavy drinking led to his death at 34.
The Drews' son, also John, had more staying-power – he remained a star for more than 50 years, his performances in drawing-room comedies winning him the title First Gentleman of the Stage. The Drews' daughter Georgiana, a comic actress, died of tuberculosis at 33, but she had by then produced John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. Their father, Maurice Barrymore, the scapegrace son of civil servants, was the amateur boxing champion of England and one of its handsomest men. In America, leading actresses begged him to co-star, and female audiences worshipped him as Orlando, Romeo, or just as himself. He was known for his innumerable affairs (he was called "the Bedouin of Broadway"), his drunkenness and his deadly wit (when a hack dramatist said that he would never be a great actor until he had known great suffering, he replied: "I agree – write me a play").
Inheritors of talent and beauty and little else (profligacy was another Barrymore trait), Lionel, Ethel and John were employed early in the family business. But it was not the one their forebears knew. At the end of the 19th century, the theatre had begun to shake off its torpor of more than 100 years with more realistic and daring plays. While intelligent, cultivated people started to become interested in the drama once more, the general public, readers of the new, cheap, mass-circulation papers, became even more interested in the actors.
Their father and the Drews had been stars, but the Barrymores were celebrities, and classy ones. Their enormous reputations, though, had little to do with the plays. Lionel's one Shakespearean role was panned, as were Ethel's three (she waited until she was 43 to begin, and of course it was with Juliet). With John's Hamlet and Richard III, he was hailed as the greatest actor alive or remembered, but those were the only classical parts he played. Shaw and Ibsen were in their heyday, but Ethel got no grittier than Pinero, and her brothers' other plays were melodramas or mindless comedies. The new playwrights' work was seen in small theatres far from Broadway, and that would never do for a Barrymore. Born 20 years too soon, they were, as John said, a bridge between the old-style theatre of romantic bombast and the new – before serious plays and serious acting became popular.
The Barrymores preserved their birth order in their acting personae – Lionel was old before his time; Ethel, after a brief, fluttery youth, matronly; and John, for an amazingly long time, the gilded boy. But they also represented three acting styles. Lionel was a hard worker, and one could always see the sweat. Good-looking when young, he refused romantic leads to play the heavy, and though he impressed audiences with his intensity, in time he lost them with his poor choice of material – roles so sour and gloomy that they seemed to fulfil a psychological, rather than an artistic need. He would have been ideal for one of O'Neill's doom-laden characters, but, with typical judgement, he turned down Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie.
Ethel, by contrast, made everything look easy. With her thick, wavy hair, huge, round eyes and a drawl one critic described as a blend of cello music and caramel sauce, Ethel became a star in 1901, of New York and London high society as well as the stage. She was engaged to the sons of Henry Irving and George du Maurier, and refused a heartbroken Winston Churchill. But as early as 1904, Max Beerbohm, while calling her delightful and fascinating, accurately predicted, "I am quite sure that [her own personality] is the only one that Miss Barrymore could ever manifest on the stage." She was one of those women, he wrote, "whose defect and charm alike are in their detachment from the realities of life." Indeed, when too old to play bubbly ingénues, Ethel, ever genteel, made audiences and critics (even Dorothy Parker) weep buckets over the plight of a grand lady in Déclassée, reduced to selling her jewellery, or the hard luck of Marguerite Gautier – a nice girl, really.
John was the one real artist of the three – making sure the work didn't show, playing the character and not himself. His Hamlet astounded Broadway in 1922 and, three years later, conquered the West End. Ellen Terry, when the curtain came down, was sobbing, too moved to speak. John Gielgud, who saw it at 20, credited the production with popularising Shakespeare, then considered box-office poison. Even more remarkably, this Hamlet inspired not only Gielgud's silvery, poetic one, but also the muscular, athletic version of another young fan, Laurence Olivier. (When he went out on the stage, John said, he wanted the audience to "hear my balls clank".) Olivier's Oedipal Hamlet was copied from Barrymore's, the first to caress the queen like a lover and lie with his head in her lap.
But even greater than John Barrymore's genius was his self-destructive temperament. He despised "pansy parts" such as Don Juan, in which he put on display his beautiful body and his now antique left profile. His philandering led to multiple alimony bills and drunkenness made him increasingly unemployable and a figure of fun – the naughty matinée idol in The Royal Family constantly, emphatically turns his left side to the audience. When, during the Depression, his looks finally faded and audiences were violently egalitarian, the only parts he could get were caricatures of himself, which became more and more sadistic. The first taste of this was in Kaufman and Ferber's next play. A hit in 1932, Dinner at Eight was filmed the following year. The stage directions called for one character, a washed-up actor, to close the doors and windows, turn on the gas, sit back and then, remembering the next day's papers, to shift so that his left profile was uppermost. And, in the film, that is what John Barrymore did.
'The Royal Family' opens 1 Nov at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (020-7930 8800)Reuse content