So, rehearsals are beginning for I Hate Hamlet, and I am preparing the character of Barrymore’s Ghost.
I haven’t often played an actual historical figure—I think Pastor Wilson in The Scarlet Letter eight years ago was the most recent in a full production, and just before that Buckingham in R3. In neither case did I feel much tension between the actual person and the character in the play—and I didn’t do much research into the actual persons, such as might have uncovered areas of tension. They were both distant enough in the past, I guess, for me to feel the actual person to be nearly irrelevant to the play. I’ve also played Franklin Pierce in a few readings of a play that centered on his wife; I did a fair amount of research for that one, and mostly felt that I was able to use the historical stuff within the play—perhaps if I were to do a fully staged production I would find more tension there, but perhaps not.
For the ghost of John Barrymore, however, the historical John Barrymore exists, for me, in a much more significant way, and there is a good deal of tension between that actual John Barrymore and the ghost character in the play written by Paul Rudnick. That is, the character of Barrymore’s ghost has a history that differs in quite a few respects from the history of John Barrymore—specifically relating to events that are talked about in the play. Hm, let me be specific.
Within the play, Barrymore was a light-comedy actor and matinee idol who made a sudden an unexpected bid for cultural respectability by playing Hamlet, played the show for a hundred and one performances and then went to Hollywood, never to return to the legitimate stage. In our universe, John Barrymore had already had an enormous success as Richard III, and following the Broadway run of Hamlet (of, indeed, one hundred and one performances) and an interim in Hollywood, returned to the part in London and on tour. And also, late in his career, did return to the stage in another light comedy—not successfully, but it happened. There are a few other matters that I consider minor (Mr. Rudnick’s character at one point says I lived just long enough for the introduction of truth into the modern theater, when in fact both Konstantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg came to his Hamlet, which was often cited as a milestone of “modern”, that is, naturalistic acting) but that’s the main one: for the ghost of Barrymore, but not for the real John Barrymore, the Broadway run of Hamlet was a one-off, a short but life-changing moment of Shakespeare. Which is a pretty reasonable condensation for the purposes of the play—Mr. Rudnick is not, after all, telling the story of John Barrymore, but telling a story about an actor who is at a career crossroads, choosing between commercial success and artistic fulfilment. The fictionalized Barrymore’s ghost—with his single and sudden Shakespeare—presents that choice in higher relief than the actual John Barrymore would.
The other thing with playing a recent historical figure is—to what extent should I impersonate John Barrymore? His voice, his gestures… I don’t know how many people who might attend the show might be familiar with John Barrymore’s voice and gestures in the first place. I mean, I am a big fan of the movie Twentieth Century (and enjoyed Grand Hotel, although Lionel Barrymore stole the picture out from under John, who played a fairly conventional-seeming romantic lead) but I don’t know that I would recognize a John Barrymore impression. And it doesn’t feel as if Mr. Rudnick really intended the part to be played as an impersonation in that way. I’ll have to see how I feel about it as I’m playing in—at the moment, I think I’ll try for a high pitch and maybe that thing with the eyebrows (which to be honest comes quite naturally to my eyebrows anyway) and leave it at that.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,