Today the stage actor known for light comedy roles made his Shakespearean debut as Richard III at the Plymouth Theatre, New York.
The news was received with scepticism and indeed the stage was not Barrymore’s career of choice, preferring art and commercial illustration. But, unlike today, it was the “easiest place to earn a decent living”.
But before long it was obvious that they were dealing with no ordinary talent. Critics described his Richard as “an intellectual, stealthy, crafty and subtly malevolent royal monster”.
Despite coming from a highly respected theatrical family (including his grandmother, both parents, uncle and his brother and sister, Lionel and Ethel) Barrymore had never taken himself or his relationship with the theatre seriously. However for this pivotal move he worked day and night to prepare himself for the role, studying intensively and throwing himself into a rigorous routine of vocal training.
It all caught up with him however when Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown after only a four week run and hundreds of ticket holders had to be refunded. Barrymore’s reputation however had been made as one of the finest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century.