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Dealing Whimsically With Misbehavior

CONFESSIONS OF AN ACTOR, by John Barrymore. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis. 1926.


THE chatty memoirs of actors never fail to interest. People can always stop long enough to listen to gilded figure, usually seen only across footlights, unbending and telling the juicler details of the strange, luxuriously vagabonding existence that actors lead. This narrative of Mr. Barrymore's is, although not at all literary, among the best of the type; racy, gossippy, adequately frank and revealing.

Famous figures and events are told about with all the intimacy that is required in such a book. Barrymore's consistently distinguished family, Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, appear as perplexed spectators of the author's checkered career. What happened to this distinguished actor stranded in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake (or fire if you prefer), when people turning over for a last snooze before breakfast found themselves exposed to the startled public view and sliding pajamaed into the street; riotous nights in New York when Barymore and his cronies stole the huge plaster sword from the Dewey arch and paraded with it through every bar on Broadway; nights not so riotous but equally fertile in reminiscence, nights that ended with a breakfast of hot water, pepper and salt in default of money to buy anything more filling; this is the kind of a life that everyone yearns for at some time of his life, and, in all candor, would rather read than the novels that used to be labelled 'problem' and are now called "stark and gripping."

The author seems to take an obscure pride in telling things that other people would have been careful to leave unsaid. He is almost proud of the small slips from grace that filled his boyhood; the tone of the whole thing reminds one of Jean Jacques' "Confessions," Jess startling, of course, but put together with the same intentional candor.

It is illuminating, as well, to realize that great events in the theatre, staged with impressive formality and harped on by critics for years afterwards, are taken by the participants with such a large calmness. The narrative of how Barrymore came to do "Hamlet," the details of the production, his own notions of the play and the first performances, sound more like a casual account of deciding to play gold instead of tennis than a great actor planning to enter on his greatest artistic triumph. All this is somewhat disappointing; and it may be that, in an excess of caution Mr. Barrymore is hiding behind this casualness. Still, it has a natural air; and, although the reader might expect soul-stirring revelations, his Anglo-Saxon temperament is vaguely relieved to find that this artist leave such things to the imagination and keeps his stirrings deep within him. It is too true that "show-business" is a business first, and an art afterwards, even in the published memoirs of a great actor.

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