Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) – part 1

February 16, 2009 by: admin


Harley Granville Barker was born in Kensington, London. In 1891, at the age of 14, he made his first stage appearance at Harrogate (GB) in the  Vice Versa. After spending some months training for the stage with Sarah Thorne and performing in her stock company at the Theatre Royal, Margate, he made his London debut in 1892. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Ben Greet players. With his striking Italianite good looks, his expressive voice and total dedication, he was soon attracting considerable attention.

In 1899, he toured with Mrs Patrick Campbell and The Weather-Hen, a play he had written jointly with Berte Thomas, was presented at Terry’s Theatre. The same year saw the foundation of the Stage Society which arranged private Sunday performances of experimental plays in London. Growing discontent with the commercial theatre, Granville Barker joined the society in 1900.

(signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 1794K, c.1907)

Bernard Shaw & Granville-Barker, 1901

Baker’s first appearance in a Stage Society production was in The Coming of Peace, a translation of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Das Friedenfest. Among the audience was Bernard Shaw who was later to say, ‘His performance of this part – a very difficult one to cast – was, humanly speaking, perfect.’ Shaw clearly was smitten by the handsome actor, who was twenty years his junior, and decided that he was the ideal actor to play the part of Eugene Marchbanks in Candida, a play that he had written in 1895 but had not yet been performed.
The play was produced by the Stage Society at the Strand Theatre on July 1, 1900

Mr Granville Barker succeeded in playing Eugene Marchbanks where almost every other actor would have failed, because the representation of a lyrical mood is one within the peculiar range of his powers. His voice, too, can express a contemplative ecstasy. It possesses a curious individual quality, which, while it limits the range of his impersonations, gives particular intensity to some. When he repeats her name ‘Candida, Candida, Candida,’ there is not a touch of self-consciousness in the musical reiteration; he does not appear to be following the sound of his own voice like most actors at such times, but to be listening, detached, to his longing made audible. It is in his representation of intellectual emotions that he excels, and so he excels in this part.

Desmond MacCarthy (1907)

Over the next couple of years, Granville Barker appeared in productions both by Ben Greet and by William Poel, the founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society (1894-1905) – in 1903, Granville Barker played the title role in the society’s production in Oxford of Edward II.
Poel’s Shakespearean productions did not use scenery, had an Elizabeth-style open-platform stage and used swift and musical speech, rather than the more laboured, didactic style that was then the vogue. It was a staging approach that was possibly the most important influence on modern Shakespeare productions. It also had a considerable influence on Granville Barker.

It 1904, Granville Barker – who, in 1902, had already produced his own play, The Marrying of Ann Leete, for the Stage Society, was given the opportunity to direct his first Shakespeare play. John Highfield Leigh, a barrister and theatre manager, had purchased the lease of the tiny Court Theatre, adjoining  Sloane Square underground station in Chelsea, so that his wife, the actress Thyrza Norman, could appear in a series of ‘Shakespeare Representations’. For the third of these, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Leigh engaged Granville Barker both to produce and act in it. The play opened on April 9, 1904, and, while it was still running, Granville Barker arranged to put on a series of six matinees of Shaw’s Candida, beginning on April 26.

While at the Court Theatre, he had discussions both with Leigh and his business manager, J E Vedrenne. As a result, it was agreed that, for the following season, the Barker-Vedrenne Management would take over the direction of the theatre, producing repertory in the evenings and special matinee performances. They agreed to spend no more than £200 on each production. A significant theatrical revolution was about to begin.

To go to Part 2, click HERE.

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