Harley Granville-Barker

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Harley Granville-Barker circa 1915
Granville-Barker in 1906

Harley Granville-Barker (born Harley Granville Barker; stage name, Granville Barker; hyphenated surname adopted later; 25 November 1877 in London – 31 August 1946 in Paris) was an English actor-manager, director, producer, critic and playwright.


Barker made his debut onstage there at the age of 14. His acting work led to increasing discontent with the low standards of the commercial theatre. In 1899, he played the lead role in Richard II under William Poel, founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society. In 1900 he became a leading member of the Stage Society and this led to contacts with George Bernard Shaw, William Archer, Elizabeth Robins, and William Poel, among others. His first play, The Marrying of Ann Leete was produced by the Stage Society in 1900.

After success with the Stage Society, Barker turned his attentions to his own theatre company and with J.E. Vedrenne took a lease on the Royal Court Theatre in London. There he managed three seasons of repertory theatre. Among many of the works he produced were plays by Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Maurice Maeterlinck, and new translations of Euripides. These plays were produced successfully in repertory. In the period 1904–07, Barker also produced, directed, and acted in ten of Shaw's plays at the Royal Court, establishing Shaw's reputation as one of the foremost playwrights of the time. In some cases, the great success of the productions was due in part to Barker's acting performances (for example, as Cusins in Major Barbara and Tanner in Man and Superman). Worth mentioning is the play Prunella (1906) which was written in colabouration with a good friend of his, the writer Laurence Housman.[1]

During his years at the Court, Barker met and married his first wife, actress Lillah McCarthy. Over the following decade, the two of them would produce and act in a number of plays around London. In 1910, he coached her while she played Jocasta in Max Reinhardt's production of Oedipus at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Barker and Lillah were divorced in May 1918. Barker then married Helen M. (Gates) Huntington, (ex-wife of Archer Milton Huntington and a niece of Collis Potter Huntington) on 31 July 1918.[2]

Oberon in Harley Granville-Barker's production of A Midsummer Nights Dream.

His productions of Shakespeare's plays at the Savoy Theatre in 1912 and 1914 were highly influential. In 1912 he directed The Winter's Tale and Twelfth Night for Evelyn Millard; in 1914 he directed A Midsummer Night's Dream. Granville Barker did away with "star" system of acting and instead concentrated on excellence in the entire ensemble. He directed actors to speak Shakespeare's text rapidly, and used mainly curtains to create scenery, thus cutting down on the length of performance. He steered clear of elaborate, historically-"accurate" scenery and opted instead for symbolic patterns and shapes on stage. He extended the stage of the Savoy over the footlights and onto the first few rows of the stalls; thus his actors could play on an open stage, and connect more closely with the audience. In all of these innovations, Barker sought to capture the "spirit" of Shakespeare's plays.

During World War I, Granville-Barker served in the Red Cross and in Somme, he met the poet Robert William Service who was ambulance driver in the Red Cross Corps.[3]

In 1923 Helen and Harley Granville-Barker translated the works of G. Martinez Sierra that were included in a two-volume work, with the first volume translated by John Garrett Underhill.[4]

As a playwright, Barker experimented with form, and proved an extremely gifted writer of dialogue and architect of ideas. His best known plays are The Voysey Inheritance (1905) (later adapted by David Mamet), Waste (1907, not licensed until 1920 and not performed until 1936, when a revised version written in 1926 was staged[5] and The Madras House (1909). All of his plays, except Vote by Ballot (1914) and Farewell to the Theatre (1916), have been produced at the Shaw Festival in Canada.[6] His plays have also been featured by director Sam Walters at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond upon Thames. Farewell to the Theatre (1916) was given its World premiere performance at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, with Jane Asher in the leading role of 'Dorothy' in September 2011.

Later in his career, Barker broke with many of his old theatre friends, including Shaw, and settled in Paris. He then added the more aristocratic hyphen between Granville (both his middle name and the surname of his mother, Mary Elizabeth Bozzi-Granville) and Barker (his original surname, after his father, Albert Barker) while publishing volumes of criticism, his Prefaces to Shakespeare, and translations of Spanish plays.

He was Director of the British Institute in Paris between 1937 and 1939.[7]

He died in Paris in 1946.



  • Plays by Harley Granville Barker (The Marrying of Ann Leete, The Voysey Inheritance, The Kyle and Waste), ed Dennis Kennedy, Cambridge University Press (1987) ISBN 0-521-31407-0
  • Prefaces to Shakespeare by Harley Granville Barker, in 12 paperback volumes by Nick Hern Books, originally published by Batsford
  • Granville Barker and the Dream of Theatre by Dennis Kennedy, Cambridge University Press (1985)
  • The Court Theatre A Commentary and Criticism 1904–1907 by Desmond MacCarthy, Bullen (1907), University of Miami Press (1966)
  • Cambridge Guide to Theatre, 1992 ISBN 0-521-43437-8
  • Modern World Encyclopedia: Illustrated, 1935

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