Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Unknown Granville Barker

Along with publishing Theatre Notebook, the Society for Theatre Research always sends out one book a year to all of its members.

This year, STR sent out The Unknown Granville Barker: Letters to Helen and Other Texts 1915-18. The book compiles a number of writings by Harley Granville Barker, one of the most important actors, directors, playwrights and all-around theatre makers of the early 20th-century British stage.

For years, Barker endured a sexless marriage with the actress Lillah McCarthy, who was a great artistic partner, but did not provide him with the emotional companion he wanted. Then, at the end of 1914, Barker met Helen Huntington. Over the next few years, he fell in love with her and separated from McCarthy, which corresponded with a radical change in his career path.

In The Unknown Granville Barker, the editor Simon Shepherd puts together a number of documents that portray exactly what happened as Barker changed course and ultimately divorced McCarthy, marrying Huntington. In early 1915 Barker was entertaining New York audiences with hits he had already produced in England, including Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion and The Doctor's Dilemma. Already, though, Barker was searching for ways for the theatre to be more than mere entertainment.

Newspapers interviewing Barker in 1915 noted he was now talking about theatre as being a "social force" that was accessible to everyone, not just professionals. "The theatre should come from the community, and not from the experts of the community," he told the New York Columbia Spectator. He looked back to the Middle Ages as an ideal time, when common people came together to put on Mystery Plays as an expression of their faith and beliefs. He longed to create something similar to that for the modern era.

Shepherd also includes an amusing story Barker published in the Manchester Guardian in 1917, in which he described Cain and Abel inventing the first dramas, with a little help from their mother Eve. The heart of the book, though, is a series of letters Barker wrote to Huntington during their courtship. During this period, Barker was also involved in the First World War, taking part in activities by the Red Cross, and later enlisting as a soldier. He also met with numerous literary figures, including J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Hardy, making his letters very amusing to read.

Well, it just so happens that I will soon be publishing my own book on the theatre, though not with STR. Instead, Palgrave Macmillan will be publishing my book Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas about celebrity performers on the Regency stage. Yes, I even have a contract and everything! More information is to come, but needless to say, I am very excited about it.