You might say the ghost of the great Shakespearean actor John Barrymore is haunting the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Twice—but in a good way.
For one thing, the ghost of Barrymore—the iconic 20th century film and stage actor whose portrayals of Hamlet are among the greatest in history—is a central character in Paul Rudnick’s comedy, “I Hate Hamlet,” which opens June 13. In the play, Barrymore’s ghost hilariously haunts, torments and instructs a slick young actor from Hollywood who has accepted the role of Hamlet at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park.
For another, a CSF dramaturg researching the play this winter stumbled upon the world’s largest collection of Barrymore letters, photos and artifacts, all but forgotten for decades in the special collections at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Norlin Library.
“This is a remarkable find about a remarkable man,” says Tim Orr, CSF’s producing artistic director, who is directing “I Hate Hamlet.” “This is a truly serendipitous discovery.”
The tale begins in the dark days of December, when Roxxy Duda began doing her dramaturg thing—researching background to provide context for the play to the director, actors and audiences. She happened across a throwaway reference to some Barrymore materials donated to the university by theater writer Gene Fowler, the actor’s friend and first biographer, and thought she’d check it out.
When she visited Norlin’s special collections, she found some 40 boxes of invaluable archival materials. The boxes contained everything from the actor’s birth certificate to the contents of his wallet when he died in 1942, to financial records, hundreds of photos, personal writing and sketches, and original correspondence to such 20th-century artistic luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Zane Grey and Greta Garbo.
“It’s a treasure chest of primary sources that make the life of Barrymore come alive,” says Duda, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Dance. “Many of these boxes hadn’t been opened in decades and in some cases it was the first time they had been touched by someone other than the archivists since their donation.
Although Barrymore had no notable Colorado connections, Fowler was a Denver native who attended CU-Boulder in 1910-11 and was awarded an honorary master of letters in 1947. He worked for many years as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, and befriended Barrymore after interviewing him for the New York American in 1918. In 1944 Fowler published “Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore.”
Fowler died in 1960 at age 70. His family donated his personal papers, including the long-hidden Barrymore archive, to CU-Boulder in 1962.
“This is a marvelous rediscovery of a jewel of a collection,” says Bruce P. Montgomery, director of archives and special collections.
For the director, actors and designers of “I Hate Hamlet,” the find is more than just a curiosity. The cast attended a special exhibit on the first day of rehearsal in May, coming away with a deeper understanding of a complex man—he smoked, philandered, divorced and drank often—who also was a quintessential Shakespearean artist.
“Seeing all these personal documents, sketches and letters offers incredible, helpful insight to who he really was,” says Sam Gregory, who will portray Barrymore this summer. “You might expect to find this in New York or L.A., so it’s amazing to have found all this in Boulder. This is going to really make his story come alive for me, and for audiences.”
“This is like the frosting on top of the cake for us, with a million cherries,” says Alex Esola, who will play Andrew, the young actor. “We are so lucky to have this right here.”