Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846
Harley Granville-Barker was, in a manner of speaking, born into the theater in 1877. Granville-Barker’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Barker, formerly Bozzi-Granville, was a professional entertainer. The family traveled around together to her engagements, and young Harley was brought up to appear and to recite poetry with her professionally. Little is known of the extent and the nature of his formal education, but, at the age of fourteen he was enrolled in Sarah Thorne’s theatrical school at the Margate Theatre. During his six-month attendance at the school Granville-Barker met Berte Thomas, with whom he collaborated in the writing of his first four plays. Granville-Barker’s first major acting job was touring with Ben Greet’s Shakespeare company, which included Lillah McCarthy, whom he later married. In 1899, at the age of twenty-two, Granville-Barker took the main role in William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society production of William Shakespeare’s Richard II. Poel’s production led Granville-Barker to become involved in the newly founded Stage Society, for which he functioned as both an actor and a director. One of the results of his involvement with the Stage Society was his long and close friendship with George Bernard Shaw and, through his involvement with Shaw, his membership in the Fabian Society.
Another, more significant result of Granville-Barker’s work with the Stage Society was the revolutionary Vedrenne-Barker management at the Court Theatre from 1904 to 1907; J. E. Vedrenne acted as business manager and Granville-Barker directed all the plays and acted in many. The Vedrenne-Barker seasons at the Court Theatre were revolutionary not only in the plays they presented (by John Galsworthy, Henrik Ibsen, Maurice Maeterlinck, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Shaw, to name a few) but also in their format of repertory. In 1906 Granville-Barker married McCarthy, who had also been involved in the Vedrenne-Barker productions. Following the Vedrenne-Barker management, Granville-Barker’s involvement with the theater took the form of efforts to establish a repertory theater in London. Such efforts defined the nature of his management of the Duke of York Theatre in 1910 (a venture backed by the American impresario Charles Frohman), the McCarthy-Granville-Barker management of the Little Theatre in 1911, and the Granville-Barker management of the St. James Theatre in 1913. In 1912 Granville-Barker gave his last performance as an actor, preferring to devote his time and energy to directing, to the establishment of a repertory theater, and to the writing of plays.
On a trip to America in 1914 Granville-Barker met Helen Huntington, later to become his second wife. Upon his return to England and after the outbreak of World War I, Granville-Barker served with the Red Cross; he later enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery and was soon after transferred to Army Intelligence. McCarthy and Granville-Barker were divorced in 1917, and the following year he married Huntington; it was also at this time that he hyphenated his name. Granville-Barker’s second marriage marked the beginning of the end of his friendship with George Bernard Shaw. Moreover, Helen Granville-Barker’s dislike of Shaw in particular and theater people in general, coupled with Granville-Barker’s own disillusionment with the theater, led to his retirement from active theater work in 1921.
Granville-Barker’s reputation as an homme de théâtre began to suffer a decline after he left active theater work and became a “mere professor.” His plays, already looked upon with suspicion by his contemporaries, suffered an even greater decline. Although Granville-Barker’s plays were lauded by such fellow dramatists as Shaw, John Masefield, and Gilbert Murray, external factors, such as Shaw’s growing dominance and changes in dramatic and theatrical styles, hastened the decline of his plays into obscurity. Toward the end of the twentieth century, there was a revival of interest in the plays of Granville-Barker (The Madras House, for example, was produced for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation).
Beginning in 1922 Granville-Barker devoted himself entirely to the program of writing that he began with his first attempts at playwriting. In 1930 the Granville-Barkers moved to Paris, where they lived until the German invasion of France. They spent the remainder of the war years in New York, where Granville-Barker worked for the British Information Services until 1942. After the war the Granville-Barkers returned to England and then to Paris, where Granville-Barker died in 1946, a few months before his sixty-ninth birthday, of arteriosclerosis.
The Granville-Barker play is singular among plays of the Edwardian period in its use of heterosexual relationships to define the worth of human actions and to signify the larger moral concerns that are the prime focus of his plays: the necessity of what he termed “the secret life,” the inner reality that puts into perspective the trivialities of everyday life. Granville-Barker was lauded by his fellow dramatists not only for the superb “actability” and polish of his plays but also for his dramatic portrayal of the real, vital dilemmas of human sensibility and of absolute morality beneath the superficialities of daily existence. Granville-Barker’s greatest achievement as a dramatist, and his significance as a dramatist, lies in his successful deployment of relationships as signs of human beings’ fragile hold on their essential selves and their humanity.