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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

2 - Dangerously Modern: Shakespeare, Voice, and the “New Psychology” in John Barrymore's “Unstable” Characters


On October 27, 1963, a late-night discussion of Hamlet with Peter O'Toole and Orson Welles was chaired by Huw Weldon for the BBC television program Monitor (online at Weldon asks Welles who was the best Hamlet he had ever seen, “Is there such a thing?” Without hesitation, Welles replies, “Yes, Barrymore.” Barrymore, Welles insists, played Hamlet as “a man of genius … who happened to be a prince.” In a slow cadence that emphasizes each adjective, he goes on to say that Barrymore's Hamlet was “tender … and virile … and witty … and … [even more emphasis] … dangerous.” In proclaiming Barrymore's Hamlet as dangerous, Welles implies that this quality was distinct, that the actor had brought something out of the Danish prince that in previous incarnations lay dormant. Michael Morrison, in his detailed study of Barrymore's Shakespeare roles, demonstrates that Barrymore had, indeed, been distinct from the Victorian Hamlets of Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Henry Irving in that he brought a naturalism in his cadence of speech and an emphasis on Hamlet's psychological motivation that rendered Shakespeare accessible and “modern” (Morrison 253–4). Morrison points to Barrymore's influences on John Gielgud and Lawrence Olivier. Having seen Barrymore's Hamlet in the 1925 London performances, Gielgud praised his range: “He had tremendous drive and power, and a romantic sensibility which was very rare” (253). Olivier commented that the Victorian Hamlets of the likes of Irving had “descended into arias and false inflections … castrated. Barrymore put back the balls.” While it may be that, along with Welles, each actor's comment says as much about his own approach to the role, they all underscore a masculinism as one of the distinctive modern forces in Barrymore's performance: danger, power, and balls. This quality in his work was put into service to convey Richard III'srage against his twisted body and to render Hamlet's uncertainty devastating, which became the basis for the monstrous and/or aberrant masculinity that Barrymore carried into his sound film work at Warner's in the early 1930s.

This dangerous quality is evident in the only filmed recording of his soliloquy as Richard III, that featured in the Warner Bros. 1929 variety film Show of Shows.