Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) – part 2

February 16, 2009 by: admin


Although it appears that Bernard Shaw was the main financier of the Court Theatre project, it was clear that, with the limited budget, Granville Barker would, in addition to producing, also have to act in many of the plays. He chose as his leading lady Lillah McCarthy, who had also acted in the Ben Greet Players.

During the next three seasons, there were 988 performances at the Court Theatre, 701 of these were of the eleven Shaw plays that were presented – most of the premieres.  Shaw directed and cast his own plays: their performances established him as a major playwright. In Shaw’s new plays, Granville Barker created many famous roles, including John Tanner in Man and Superman, Valentine in You Never Can Tell, Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara and Louis Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma. Lillah McCarthy played Anne Whitefield in Man and Superman, Jennifer Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma and Nora in John Bull’s Other Island. 

Lillah McCarthy & Harley Granville-Barker in Man and Superman, Court Theatre, 1905.

Apart from the Shaw plays, there were new works by progressive playwrights which Granville Barker produced. They included his own most successful play, The Voysey Inheritance and Prunella, which he wrote with Laurence Housman. There were new plays by John Galsworthy, St John Hankin, Elizabeth Robins (Votes for Women) and John Masefield, as well as translations of plays by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Schnitzler, Materlinck and three by Euripides, translated by Granville Barker’s friend, Gilbert Murray.

During these three hectic years at the Court Theatre, Granville Barker and Lillah McCarthy fell in love and married in 1906.

At the end of the 1906/07 season, Barker decided to end his relationship with the Court Theatre and to move, the following season, to the much larger Savoy Theatre, where he hoped to establish a repertory program similar to that introduced so successfully at the Court. During the year, there were yet more Shaw plays and Euripides’ Medea, but the experiment did not attract the anticipated audiences and so was a commercial failure.

In 1909, another opportunity arose. The American impresario, Charles Frohman, took over The Duke of York’s Theatre with the intention of presenting mainstream plays in the evening and a repertory season of new plays in matinee. He arranged that the main program would be directed by Dion Boucicault (who had directed J M Barrie’s Peter Pan for Frohman in both London and New York) and the repertory plays would be directed by Granville Barker.

Things do not go well. Henry James and Somerset Maugham did not deliver their promised plays. Nor did Arthur W Pinero provide a new play: instead, there was a revival of Trelawny of the Wells. Granville Barker’s new work, The Madras House, and Shaw’s Misalliance were both discussion plays that did not appeal to the public. The Times theatre critic called Misalliance ‘a debating society of a lunatic asylum’. Playing to half-empty houses, Misalliance was given only eleven performances in the first ten weeks of the season and The Madras House only ten. Frohman was delighted to be able to use the death of King Edward VII as his excuse for bringing the experiment to an end.
In 1911, Lillah McCarthy and Granville Barker took over the management of the Little Theatre. On April 19, they presented yet another new play by Bernard Shaw, Fanny’s First Play, which he had written especially for Lillah. Although he considered it to be ‘a potboiler’, the audiences loved it and it ran for 622 performances – a record for a Shaw play.

Harley Granville Barker’s 1912 production of Twelfth Night

Between 1912 and 1914, Granville Barker presented at the Savoy Theatre his ground-breaking productions of three Shakespeare plays – The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream. He remodeled the theatre, adding an apron stage. With his designer, Norman Wilkinson, he created a set, that while using a bare stage, had draped curtains brightly painted with symbolic designs. Some of the costumes were elaborate – the fairies, for example, had gilded body-paint and gold-bronze dresses that jangled as they moved. Adhering closely to the original text, the lines were delivered at a normal, fast-moving pace, rather than the drawn-out oration that had been the norm.

In 1915, Granville Barker and Lillah McCarthy set off for New York where his productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion were presented at Wallack’s Theatre. After this successful season, Lillah returned to England and the company moved on to present plays by Euripides at American universities, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton. During this tour, Granville Barker met and instantly fell in love with the American novelist and poet, Helen Huntingdon. He contacted Shaw, demanding that he should obtain Lillah’s consent to a divorce. When he approached her, she was, of course, astonished.

Granville Baker’s decision ended his marriage, his acting career, and his friendship with Shaw, whose socialism Helen Huntingdon found unacceptable. When he returned to England, he enlisted in the Army and by the end of the First World War was divorced from Lillah McCarthy and married to his new love. Shortly afterwards, the couple moved to Paris and collaborated in translating Spanish plays. He also wrote his much acclaimed Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927-48).

Granville Barker died in Paris on August 31, 1946. 

This is part of an article on Harley Granville Barker that was published
in The Theatre World, February 1926:

…There is not a single producer of to-day who, if he were honest, would not instantly admit that the stage in England owes infinitely more to Barker than to any other man. There is not a single actor of to-day who, with every allowance made for temperamental incompatibility, would not allow that he had learnt more during one rehearsal under Barker than he had learnt during a score of rehearsals under anyone else…

Barker is a great producer, but I cannot truthfully add that he is an ideal producer – at least from the unfortunate actor’s point of view. He seems to start off with the assumption that the members of his company haven’t a grain of intelligence between them, and he proceeds to drill them, phrase by phrase and syllable by syllable, until they have become wither mesmerised marionettes or potential murderers!

He tells each actor the entire family history, from the cradle, of the part he is interpreting, even suggesting that as a child the character under discussion suffered from whooping-cough, scarlet fever, two varieties of measles, and serious bout of mumps. In fact he Boswellizes every single one of his creations – in the firm belief that only by knowing a certain person likes treacle with his porridge, or has an antipathy to cats, or adores the poetry of Gilbert Frankau, will an actor be able to do the part justice.

This mania for minutiae has become so much a part of his method that a well-known actor once ironically announced that he couldn’t get into the skin of the character he was studying until he knew for certain whether the fellow lived in Peckham Rye or Tooting Bec!

Hesketh Pearson

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