The House of Barrymore

Ethel, the first to achieve great fame, practiced undue caution both professionally and personally. Popular on stage in 1901, she courted her public in roles tailored to maintain this appeal. She dismissed the plays of Ibsen (too morbid) and Shaw (too trivial) and wrote beseechingly to lightweight author Clyde Fitch asking him to whip up another stage confection for her. Such unchallenging roles made Ethel’s theatrical triumphs date quickly. She herself later said, “I think I’ve played every bad part ever written.”

Lionel was the most reluctant actor in the family, handsome John the most self-destructive. Introverted, nervous Lionel shunned romantic leads and excelled in character roles, becoming the first Barrymore to reject the stage for the screen. Kinetic, charming John became a matinee idol on stage and on silent screens, but drink and a fatal lack of discipline burned him out. Among the most intriguing passages in the book are those that describe John at his peak, spellbinding audiences in 1921 with an athletic Hamlet, perhaps the first-ever Freudian stage interpretation of the hero. Peters calls John the greatest American actor of this century.

One of the many strengths of the book is Peters’ convincing interpretation that the Barrymores’ emotional states corresponded to the key phases of life—"That is, Lionel was from the beginning old, Ethel even as a girl maternal with a middle-aged sense of responsibility, Jack irrepressibly young” — and that the siblings maintained these awarenesses throughout their lives. Important also for its insights into the maturing American theater and the early film industry, Peters’s biography is highly recommended.