Youth and beauty problematic for actresses (1907)

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Ethel Barrymore says youth and beauty are stumbling blocks to the advancement of an actress

by Charles Darnton

All a-shimmer in that silver gown that dazzles envious woman and admiring man at the Empire Theatre, Miss Ethel Barrymore had the face – the more-beautiful-than-ever face – to say that a “charming personality” is a serious handicap to an ambitious young actress.

“But down in your woman’s heart,” I protested, “you surely do not regret the possession of youthful charm?”

“I don’t mean that, or at least, I don’t mean it just that way,” she explained, with an upward flutter of eyelashes. “I am duly thankful for anything I may have, though for that matter there are some people who don’t think me even good-looking. But I don’t mind about that, for I am not an exhibit, and nothing makes me so furious as the ‘E-t-h-e-l  B-a-r-r-y-m-o-r-e, isn’t-she-sweet!” sort of thing. It is not a question of what I am, but what I can do.”

I told her of one thing she had done. A physician had told me the story only the day before. One of his patients, a woman, was suffering from hysterical loss of voice – whatever that may be. After having tried various remedies without success, he suggested an afternoon at the theater and took his patient to see Miss Barrymore in “Captain Jinks.” This pleasant treatment effected a complete cure. When he saw his patient the next day her voice was in full working order and she could talk of nothing but Miss Barrymore.

“I hope,” remarked Miss Barrymore, smiling at the story, “that she didn’t talk of my ‘charming personality.’ That is the one thing I can’t stand. It is the great stumbling block in the path of a young actress.”

Is beauty a detriment?

“You consider youth and beauty detrimental to an actress?”

“Yes, when youth and beauty come in for first consideration. I’ve seen it proved in a great many cases. Because a woman happens to be good-looking or has what is called a ‘personality’ she is often denied the opportunity of becoming anything else. She is condemned to a stage existence in which she is given no chance to escape from herself. In play after play she is merely a ‘walking lady.'”

Too true! You’ve seen her, many times and oft, the walking lady who isn’t a moving actress.

“Perhaps,” Miss Barrymore was saying, as she rested a white arm on her dressing table, “I have not made myself quite clear on the point of youth and beauty. ‘Charm,’ ‘personality,’ or whatever it may be called – the term is always vague – is not detrimental in and of itself, of course, but at the same time it is likely to be detrimental to the advancement of an actress along the serious lines of her work.

“The critic, watching her performance, comes to this conclusion: ‘Yes, she is young and good-looking, but I’ll be darned if I’ll say she can act.’ Whatever she does is put down to ‘personality.’ And what, after all, is ‘personality?’ It’s that indefinable something a show girl may have. It’s her stock in trade. She has not been on the stage a moment before your eye lights on her. ‘Extraordinary!’ you exclaim. ‘Who is she?’ ‘What’s her name?’ As an exhibit she is fascinating, but once let her speak two words and your interest is gone – her wonderful ‘personality’ has faded into thin air. That’s one kind of ‘personality.’ An actress may have another sort, and if this happens to be the case, she finds herself confronted by the extra task of ‘getting it over.'”

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Makes work harder

“Do you mean that it adds to the difficulties of her work?”

“Precisely that. In order to live up to her ‘personality’ she must land it in the orchestra, send it to the girls in the balcony and project it into the gallery. Now, if she doesn’t happen to have a ‘personality,’ she needn’t bother about all this.”

“Do you feel that an actor is better off without a ‘personality’?”

“That depends entirely upon what is meant by the term. A great deal was said about the ‘personality’ and the ‘mannerisms’ of Sir Henry Irving. This alone robbed him, perhaps, of a great deal that was due a great actor. Neither a name nor a ‘personality’ can win success by itself. I know there are some who say that a young actress cannot get along in her profession without a name, without beauty, or without ‘influence.’ It has been my experience that these things have little or nothing to do with one’s advancement.

“I know that a name didn’t help me, neither did it help my brothers. I was on the stage seven years before I was given a part that amounted to more than a few lines, and the experience of my brothers was much the same. If a name does anything at all it makes the public expect more from you than it would from some one whose name is unfamiliar, and that means you must work just so much harder to win the good opinion of the public. All of us realized that when we went on the stage. We were willing to work, and there was every reason to believe that we should love the work. But Lionel grew to hate the stage and left it for good and all, and Jack, too, has grown tired of acting.”

“But you are not tired of it?”

“Tired of it!” she repeated, with a little laugh that seemed to ripple down over the silver gown. “I adore it. It is my life. My only regret is that some people seem determined not to take me seriously. They are the people who take the drama seriously — or think they take it seriously.”

The Silver Box

There was steel beneath the silver, and the thrust at the critics delighted, if it did not pierce, my soul. The merry war continued when “The Silver Box” was taken up.

“I knew ‘The Silver Box’ would not be a success,” she said, “and I also knew that unless I put it on Mr Frohman would never produce it. It was not a play, it was a message — a message, I felt, that should be carried to this country. It created a sensation in London, where, of course, it was better understood; but,” with a touch of pride, “it had a longer run here than it did on the other side. I realize that it should not have been put on here at evening performances. No, it should have been given at special matinees with a foreign actress. If this had been done it would have been proclaimed a great play, and the actress lauded as a wonderful genius.”

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Luckily this shot went a little wide, and I secretly congratulated myself upon the fact that I, for one, had not lost my head over a certain foreign genius.

“But aren’t you happy as Stella de Gex?” I asked, in an endeavor to draw her away from poor Mrs. Jones.

“Oh yes,” she said, “it’s great fun, of course, playing a silly role of this sort, but it seems less worth while. My heart went out to the poor, wretched charwoman in her hopeless misery, and at every performance when I stepped out of the dock I felt as though I had been beaten with iron bars. But,” with a sigh, “if Mrs Jones is gone, I still have Carrots. I love Carrots best of all.

“When I first appeared in the part, I was afraid to play it as it should be played, but now, when I give the little play on special occasions, I play the part in my own way. I was afraid at first that the public might not be quite ready for it. That sometimes happens, you know, ‘His Excellency the Governor,’ for instance, goes much better now than when it was first produced. People seem quicker in catching the humor of the play. Shaw, I think, has made them ready for Marshall.”

On curtain calls

A highly-amused audience only a few moments before had given its opinion in three or four curtain calls to the delightful Stella, and as usual Miss Barrymore had acted like a frightened child.

“I have been trying for years,” she said, “to cultivate a curtain call manner, but it’s always the same. I am perfectly at home when I’m acting, but I feel lost the moment I am called out after an act. It isn’t fear exactly, it’s an uncomfortable feeling that might be called embarrassment. I don’t know what else to call it. I’m like a child who is asked to recite in the parlor — though, thank Heaven, I never went through that experience, I should like to put it down to extreme youth, but I’m afraid I can’t do that.

“Meanwhile, I suppose, I must grow old as fast as possible in order to be taken seriously. I should like to play everything from Shakespeare to George Ade, and to act, as I have always tried to act, without letting anyone see the wheels go ’round. Some people may say: ‘She is just herself,’ but as long as I am able to move an audience to tears of laughter in roles of widely different character, I shall be content to be just myself.”

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