Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ethel Barrymore's Curtain Call

According to New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, “Everything about ‘The Corn is Green’ reawakens enthusiasm for the theatre.”

He wrote in 1940 on Ethel Barrymore’s Broadway performance. We’ve noted on this blog the recent performance in Boston, in the same role of Miss Moffat, by Kate Burton (see post here). Ethel Barrymore also appeared in Boston with this play, where the audience contributed to an ethereal experience at the curtain.

The play, which had earlier been a hit in London, was offered first to Helen Hayes when it was brought to this country, but handed over to Ethel Barrymore when Miss Hayes declined, which Miss Barrymore also did on first reading, and was later persuaded to take the part. Despite the misgivings of more people than just these two celebrated actresses, the play went on to become an enormous hit.

Then, as now, it was tricky times for the theater. We were in the last years of the Great Depression. Just the happy realization that such a first class production representing the best of what theater could be could also be a financial success, seemed heaven-sent.

As Mr. Atkinson noted, “As things go in the theatre, this is a great part, and as things are gong in the theatre just now, Miss Barrymore plays is magnificently…from now on she can wear Miss Moffat as a jewel in her crown.”

In May 1942, Ethel Barrymore toured with the play. On May 19th, her brother, famed actor John Barrymore collapsed in Hollywood, suffering from several serious health conditions. Her other equally famous brother, Lionel Barrymore, stayed with John and kept Ethel informed of John’s illness and that John requested she not come to the hospital, but that she remain with her show.

Ten days later, on evening of May 29th, John Barrymore died. Earlier that afternoon Lionel called Ethel after her matinee performance on the box office telephone at the Wilbur Theatre on Tremont Street in Boston. He told her that the end was likely near. In taking his call, according to “The Barrymores” by Hollis Alpert (The Dial Press, NY, 1964), she fell before reaching the phone. Only after she hung up the phone and had difficulty walking back to her dressing room, did she realize she had hurt herself. She had broken a bone in her foot, and played that evening’s performance with her ankle taped.

As Alpert described it, when she came on stage for her curtain call and “…the audience gave her a stunning ovation for several minutes, and through the tumult of sound that filled the theater she stood with head bowed.”

She realized suddenly the tribute was for John, offering condolences. It was a tribute to herself, and Lionel Barrymore, and possibly all their acting ancestors, so great was the contribution made to American theater by one family.

A playbill of Ethel Barrymore’s performance at the Wilbur Theatre is currently being offered on eBay. Have a look here.

For more on the history of the Wilbur Theatre, have a look at this website.


  1. Hi, John. thanks for stopping by. Kind of a kick that the very playbill is currently on eBay, though for how much longer I don't know. I'd love to know if somebody buys it.