The greatest American exponent of the tradition of English language acting of his generation, Lawrence Barrett became, next to Edwin Booth, the actor most committed to performing the repertoire of classic plays since Christopher Marlowe. An intellectual who sought to lay bare the most profound human insights contained in classic plays, he impressed audiences with the reverence that arises only when one has witnessed a selfless artist at work. His technique of defamiliarizing the roles by presenting the unconventional depths of motivation implicit in scripts brought him much opposition early in his career. He entered the professional acting world unschooled, with no familial support, no financial backing, and by force of will, extraordinary discipline and convicted purpose he elevated himself from a provincial performer to a leading man in the great houses of the major American cities.
Barrett's greatest roles--Richleau and Becket--brought to life individuals of great spiritual majesty. As a Shakespearean, he rivaled Edwin Booth in range, performing Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Iago, Shylock, Leontes, Cassius, Wolsey, Hamlet, Richard III, and Benedict. His other memorable performances included King Arthur, Evelyn, Aranza, Daniel Druce, Rienzi, Gancion, King James and Lanciette. He was particularly brilliant in presenting the most private and quiet motions of the mind on stage--and in an age when fulmination was the hallmark of tragic acting, he took pains to reveal the way that passions, experiences, and ideas intermingled in behavior.
Born in Patterson, New Jersey, into an Irish laboring family, Barrett was home schooled by his mother. After the family moved to Detroit, its shaky financial situation required that he find employment while a boy; by chance he became a call boy at Detroit's Old Metropolitan theater. Naturally observant and analytical, Barrett absorbed much about the technique of acting there, in addition to gaining a wide acquaintance with human types. He developed the habit of keeping a pocketbook in which he recorded phrases spoken in plays that he did not understand. Each night he would look words up in Johnson's Dictionary to determine their meaning.
At age eighteen he left for New York and secured after some trial employment as a stock company actor. His studiousness, ambition, and personal austerity impressed managers, and he became the second ranked juvenile at Burton's Theatre. There he witnessed Edwin Booth perform his first lead, and the two would become friends and allies in a campaign to champion the classic repertoire. It was an odd friendship, for Booth was genial, ebullient, and witty, while Barrett was austere, thoughtful, and ironic.
During the Civil War he was involved in managing a theater in New Orleans, and there undertook for the first time Richleau, Hamlet, and Shylock. In 1864 he purchased "Rosedale" from Lester Wallack, and touring that play became a star. He eventually settled in 1867 in San Francisco where he managed the California Theatre until 1870 when ambition moved him to New York where he joined forces with Booth and acted intermittantly at Booth's Theatre for a decade. General recognition of his greatness as an actor did not come until his 1882 staging of "Francesca di Rimini" at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
It was during his fourth sojourn in London in 1884 that English critics accorded him universal acclaim. During the latter part of the 1880s, he teamed with Booth in one landmark revival after another. He periodically undertook the role of director and superintended the productions of two quite interesting works in the later 1880's: William Young's atavistic tragedy "Ganelon" and Oscar Wilde's tragedy "Guida Ferranti."
A man of decided tastes, he was outspoken in his criticism of what he found meritritious in the contemporary stage (burlesque, comic opera, variety interpolations, vaudeville). Needless to say, he was feared and hated by some in the theatrical profession whose ideals were inflected with a desire for profit. Barrett never shied from putting on a play he believed important because it was uncommercial; hence his championing of Wilde's tragedy.
His death from pneumonia in 1891 was viewed as a major loss to the acting profession. David S. Shields/ALS