Sunday, February 19, 2023

This Day in Irish-American History (Playwright Philip Barry Scores 1st Broadway Hit With ‘You and I’)

Feb. 19, 1923— Starting a career that would see him become an integral part of the “Golden Age of American Theater,” Philip Barry achieved his first Broadway success with a comedy written for a college class that won him a prize—and enough money to assure he could make a living from the theater to marry the woman he loved.

You and I, premiering at the Belmont Theater in its first of 174 performances, launched the 26-year-old playwright on a quarter-century run as one of the leading lights of the Great White Way, with several of his plays—The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, and The Animal Kingdom—adapted into classic films.

Those works, like his first, were comedies of manners in which razor-sharp repartee was joined to piercing insights into the lives of the rich and well-born.

Barry also served as a key signpost of Irish-American success in the worlds of theater and literature. He made his Broadway debut the same year—and with more success—than F. Scott Fitzgerald would achieve with his play The Vegetable; a year after George Kelly enjoyed a long, profitable run with his comedy The Show-Off; and in the same decade that Eugene O’Neill steered American theater away from its former shallowness into more probing, psychologically oriented considerations of the human dilemma.

While the quartet were most consistently popular in the 1920s, the overturning of traditional norms during that time—and the subsequent collapse of the bubble prosperity with the Great Depression—led them to deeper, more pointed examinations of how personal conduct could survive under such an onslaught.

At that point, popular and critical regard for their work became harder to come by.

The unstable Fitzgerald became a casualty of this more negative reevaluation—and O’Neill would require superb posthumous productions of his last plays (The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten) to remind people of his greatness. Kelly, a member of the famous Philadelphia clan that also produced his brother John, an Olympic medalist and wealthy contractor, and niece Grace, lived with restraint and carefully managed his income.

The fickleness of success seemed far away for Barry when You and I packed the Belmont Theater. His play, colored by the anxiety of long-term failure, simultaneously celebrated a commitment to one’s muse and to one’s heart.

It was a triumph Barry knew intimately. He had followed his ambition to writing drama, even in the face of strong opposition from his brothers, who wanted him to take over the family’s stone-quarry business. He had followed his heart just as strongly, as hinted in his stage directions for the play’s ingenue, based largely on his fiancée and eventual wife, Ellen Semple—herself a talented artist:

She is about nineteen, slim, of medium height, with a decidedly pretty, high-bred face, lovely hair, lovely hands, soft, low-pitched voice  —whatever she may be saying. Heredity, careful upbringing, education and travel have combined to invest her with a poise far in advance of her years. She has attained the impossible—complete sophistication without the loss of bloom. Her self-confidence is an added charm —free, as it is, from any taint of youthful cocksureness.

The solid Broadway run of You and I also brought much-needed credibility to Barry’s Harvard drama instructor, George Pierce Baker. Barry had revised and renamed this play he had conceived of for Barry’s class, the “47 Workshop.”

By winning the prestigious Richard Herndon Prize for the comedy, the playwright was not only guaranteed a Broadway production, but also was able to vindicate the instructional methods of Baker.

Students in the latter’s class gained practical experience by mounting their plays on a makeshift stage far from the unforgiving eyes of New York critics. Many in the Harvard faculty had viewed Baker’s class with condescension and disdain.

But Barry’s success signaled that such a pedagogical approach could work in a real-world setting, and such other “47 Workshop” alumni as Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman and Edward Sheldon effectively answered the naysayers, as I noted in this prior post on Baker.

You and I sprang from the urbane, witty side of Barry that not only captivated audiences but won him friends like artist Gerald Murphy, novelist John O’Hara, and Wall Street financier and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. There was another side—less successful, more experimental and preoccupied with religious and ethical concerns—that came to the fore in later years.

But, in whichever vein he worked, Barry was a diligent craftsman on whom nothing was lost or wasted.

In 2018, You and I enjoyed its first New York revival in 95 years at the Off-Broadway Metropolitan Playhouse. COVID-19 and the social disruptions of the last few years have led to more change in the New York theater scene than I recall during my lifetime. 

But when all is said and done, I hope theater producers and directors will look at Barry with the same fresh eyes they are using to assess everything else with.

No comments: