John Drinkwater

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John Drinkwater was born on June 1, 1882, in Leytonstone, Essex, England, to Albert Edwin and Annie Beck Brown Drinkwater. His father, headmaster of the Coburn Foundation School at Bow, in East London, had been active in amateur theatricals and, in 1886, embarked on a career in the theater as an actor, playwright, and manager (setting a pattern for his son to follow years later). Because his mother was terminally ill, young Drinkwater was sent to live with his maternal grandfather in Oxford when he was nine. An indifferent student, he left Oxford High School in 1897 for Nottingham, where he worked for the Northern Assurance Company and did some acting in amateur productions. His transfer in 1901 to the Birmingham branch of the firm was a fortuitous move, for there he met Barry Jackson, a well-to-do theater enthusiast (two years older than Drinkwater) who presented plays at his father’s palatial home. When Jackson’s group went public as the Pilgrim Players, Drinkwater joined them, and, in 1909, he gave up his career in insurance to work for the Players, becoming general manager in 1913 (by which time the Pilgrim Players had become the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and had a theater). By the time he left Jackson’s employ in 1918, Drinkwater had directed more than sixty productions, had appeared (under the name of John Darnley) in about forty roles, and had written a number of plays, including X = O and Abraham Lincoln. His wife, Kathleen Walpole, whom he had married in 1906, also acted in the company (as Cathleen Orford).

The presentation of Abraham Lincoln at Sir Nigel Playfair’s theater, the Lyric, in a London suburb, starting on February 19, 1919 (it had a run of four hundred performances), and its subsequent New York production made Drinkwater a celebrity on two continents. Birmingham gave him an M.A. in 1919, and he was in demand for lecture tours of the United States. On his return home, in 1921, from his second trip to the United States, Drinkwater met and fell in love with the violinist Daisy Kennedy. This shipboard romance led to an affair that culminated in the breakup of Drinkwater’s marriage to Kathleen Walpole and of Kennedy’s to Russian pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch. Drinkwater and Kennedy married in 1924 and during the next decade traveled widely on concert, lecture, and stage tours in the United States, on the Continent, and in Britain. They also became major figures on the London social circuit. Through this entire period, Drinkwater wrote for the stage; wrote articles, poems, and biographical and critical studies; did screenplays as well as lyrics for films; wrote two volumes of autobiography; and edited anthologies. He also continued to act, and shortly before he died—at his London home on March 25, 1937—appeared in the role of Prospero in a Regent’s Park, London, production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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