Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1398
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, and would go on tour. In the fall, Barry left advertising and returned to Baker’s Workshop 47, where during the next few months he wrote the drafts of two plays, The Jilts, later retitled You and I, and “Poor Richard,” which underwent several title changes before being published as The Youngest. On July 15, 1922, he married Ellen Semple, and they spent the rest of the summer honeymooning in Europe. On the return voyage, Barry, who had few prospects for employment, learned that The Jilts had won the Herndon Prize for the best full-length play written in Workshop 47 and that it would be produced on Broadway early in the new year. Retitled You and I, Barry’s play became a rousing success and established him as one of the rising stars of the new American theater. Later that same year, his first son was born.
In spite of his impressive beginning, over the next few years Barry’s plays were increasingly unsuccessful. The Youngest ran for 104 performances, In a Garden survived for seventy-four performances, White Wings ran for twenty-seven, and John lasted only eleven performances. During the summer of 1927, however, while Barry was living at Cannes in Southern France, his luck changed.
On the trip over, Barry and Rice had begun collaboration on a mystery play, Cock Robin, which Barry completed along with Paris Bound during his stay in France. Paris Bound opened in December and Cock Robin in January, 1928, both to good audiences. Barry followed these successes in the fall with Holiday, his eighth Broadway production, and it ran 230 performances at the Plymouth Theater. Thereafter, although his plays would often have a disappointing box office or receive mediocre reviews, Barry was at least financially secure. He earned increasing sums from the sale of his properties to Hollywood, and amateur performances continued to boost the revenues on each play he wrote. His second son was born in 1926. Although Barry’s mother had died in 1927, his marriage, the most fortunate part of his exceptionally fortunate life, continued to provide him with sustenance. As one critic has described it, his marriage was itself “Barryesque,” full of charm, intelligence, wit, and concern.
The 1930’s treated Barry, professionally at least, much in the same way the 1920’s had. He began strong with the successful run of Tomorrow and Tomorrow, slumped downward during the middle of the decade, his career reaching what was perhaps its nadir when Bright Star closed after seven performances, only to rise spectacularly in 1939 with the overwhelming success of The Philadelphia Story. The latter, starring Katharine Hepburn, ran for more than four hundred performances and is credited with restoring to Solvency the Theatre Guild, which Barry had joined a decade earlier. Barry also published his only novel, War in Heaven, in 1938, and earlier in the decade he spent a brief stint in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Barry came under increasing criticism during this period of social and political unrest. He was roundly condemned for writing frivolous plays at a time when many critics felt that all artists should be engaged in the struggle for economic and social justice. In particular, his refusal to write overtly about political causes lost him support among the younger drama critics of the period. In addition, Barry suffered two personal losses in these years: Both his brother, Edmund, and an infant daughter died.
World War II suspended the Barrys’ routine of living most of the year in Southern France, but it hardly diminished Barry’s output: He produced plays in 1941 (Liberty Jones), in 1942 (Without Love), and in 1945 (Foolish Notion). When the war was over, the Barrys returned to France. For the next three years, Barry had nothing running on Broadway, but in 1949, My Name Is Aquilon, his adaptation of Jean Pierre Aumont’s L’Empereur de Chine, opened as his twentieth Broadway production and, as it would turn out, his last. After submitting the draft of his next play, Second Threshold, to the Theatre Guild, Barry died suddenly of a heart attack at his apartment in New York City. On December 5, a requiem mass was said at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, and he was buried at East Hampton, Long Island. Second Threshold was completed by Robert E. Sherwood in 1951 and, in the same year, it opened at the Morosco Theatre and ran for 126 performances.
Although Barry shared certain accidents of birth and background with other Irish-Catholic writers of his generation, he succeeded, unlike many of the others, in gaining acceptance into the moneyed world of the Protestant upper class. Even so, he always remained apart; the role of an observer was congenial to him. In the end, perhaps, Barry saw the upper classes clearly not only because of his proximity but also because of his restraint; by avoiding the excesses of O’Hara, Fitzgerald, and O’Neill, he was able to cross the social and financial barriers into the world that receded before the others like Gatsby’s rolling prairie out into the night.
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