Philip Barry Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Outwardly, Philip Barry led a charmed life: He married the right woman, made lots of money, and ran with the rich and famous. Inwardly, however, his life was not as fortunate. By the time Barry died in 1949, at the comparatively young age of fifty-three, he had experienced more failures on Broadway than successes, and he was plagued by depression and religious doubts severe enough to disrupt his otherwise disciplined and orderly work habits. In addition, all his life Barry remained on the periphery of the upper-class world he depicted in so many of his plays and emulated in his life. As Brendan Gill has perceptively noted, Barry, like such other Irish-Catholic writers of his generation as Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John O’Hara, spent his creative career striving for the perquisites and assurance of his Protestant “betters.”

Philip James Quinn Barry was born on June 18, 1896, in Rochester, New York, to James Corbett Barry and Mary Agnes Quinn. He was the youngest of four children. His father, who emigrated from Ireland as a boy, became wealthy in a marble and granite business, and when he married Mary Agnes, they brought together two well-to-do Irish families who were obviously going to make their mark in the prospering upstate city. Unfortunately, James Barry died the year after Philip’s birth, leaving his youngest son to be brought up by his sister and mother under increasingly reduced circumstances, for despite the best efforts of the two older Barry sons, the granite business gradually declined. Barry attended Nazareth Hall Academy, a Roman Catholic secondary school, and East High School in Rochester. He attempted his first three-act play, “No Thoroughfare,” in 1909, but other than a story, “Tab the Cat,” which he wrote for publication in the Rochester Post Express, the young Philip did not show any precocious literary talent. In the autumn of 1913 he entered Yale.

The combination of East High and Yale did much to broaden Barry’s world beyond the rather narrow Catholicism of his family. Especially at Yale, where he was thrown in among the Protestant elite, Barry decided to work his way into the larger, more sophisticated world of money. Because of defective eyesight, he had not been an athlete in school, so Barry turned to writing, and over the next three years he contributed poetry, short stories, and editorials to the Yale Literary Magazine. World War I disrupted Barry’s education, and he went to work for the American Embassy in London as a code clerk after he was rejected for military service. He used the time to advantage, however, completing a three-act play, which he unsuccessfully tried to get produced. In March of 1919, he was back at Yale, his work done in London, and in June the Dramatic Club produced his only known one-act play, Autonomy. That September, after receiving his degree, Barry enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s Workshop 47 at Harvard, and during the next year he wrote another three-act play, A Punch for Judy. Temporarily out of funds, Barry wrote copy for a year at W. A. Erickson, an advertising agency. During this time, he became engaged to Ellen Semple, daughter of a wealthy international lawyer, Lorenzo Semple, who with his wife lived in New York City and Mt. Kisco, New York. In the summer, Barry received word that A Punch for Judy would be produced by Workshop 47, would open in New York,...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)