Barrett was the son of a poor tailor, born in 1838 in Paterson, New Jersey but raised in Detroit. A child of Irish emigrant parents, his name at birth was Lawrence Brannigan. He made his first stage appearance at Detroit as Murad in The French Spy in 1853. In December 1856 he made his first New York appearance at the Chambers Street theatre as "Sir Thomas Clifford" in The Hunchback.
In 1858 he was in the repertory company at the Boston Museum. In 1862 enlisted for the American Civil War, and was appointed a captain in Company B of the 28th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment; he served until resigning in 1863. From 1868 to 1870, with John McCullough, he managed the California theatre, San Francisco.
Among his many and varied parts may be mentioned Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Shylock, Richard III, Wolsey, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Richelieu, David Garrick, Hernani, Alfred Evelyn, Lanciotto in George Henry Boker's (1823–1890) Francesca da Rimini, and Janies Harebell in The Man o' Airlie.
Barrett acted in London in 1867, 1882, 1883 and 1884, his "Cardinal Richelieu" portrayal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's drama being considered his best part. In 1889, he produced the first performance of The Duchess of Padua, retitling it Guido Ferranti and taking on the title role. He was particularly successful in Kansas City, Missouri, where he performed for a week in December 1870 in the inaugural season of the Coates Opera House; he returned 11 times. In 1889, he produced William Young's play Ganelon, with himself in the title role. The expensive production set in the Middle Ages had a successful run. William S. Hart, who was initially hired to play one of the roles, recalled," The performances were given, and they were highly creditable too!"
He was managed for many years by Robert E. Stevens, the father of actress Emily Stevens and theater director Robert Stevens. In addition to his acting, Barrett also wrote a life of Edwin Forrest in the American Actors Series (Boston, 1881). Of the actor, Barrett said his personality was too strong to allow his characters to show through: "He was in all things marked and distinctive. His obtrusive personality often destroyed the harmony of the portrait he was painting."
Barrett frequently worked with fellow stage actor Edwin Booth; he played Othello to Booth's Iago and Cassius to his Brutus in Julius Caeasar. He wrote a sketch of his colleague for Edwin Booth and his Contemporaries (Boston, 1886). Shortly after, Barrett contacted Booth and suggested that the two tour together beginning in 1887 season. They worked together for the next several years and were immensely successful, both in popularity and in financial returns. As Booth reflected on Barrett's leadership and management, he wrote: "Well, why should I not do good work, after all Barrett has done for me... Good work, eh? Well, I'll give him the best that's in me, he deserves it."
On April 3, 1889, the two were performing in Othello but Booth's voice did not work when he attempted to deliver Iago's first lines. Barrett asked the curtain to be lowered and called for doctors before telling the audience there would be no performance that night. He was reported as saying, "We fear that this is the beginning of the end. The world may have heard for the last time the voice of the greatest actor who speaks the English language." Newspapers reported that Booth was dying, though he survived the incident.
Barrett began showing serious health problems in 1890. That year, after organizing performances starring Booth and Polish actress Helena Modjeska, he traveled to a spa in Germany before rejoining them in the fall. Due to a glandular problem, however, his face was swollen and his voice was weak. Finally, in March 1891, during a performance of Richelieu at the Broadway Theatre, Barrett whispered to Booth that he could not go on. He finished the scene before being replaced by his understudy. He died three days later. A few years after his death, author Eugene Field criticized the condition of his grave in Massachusetts, writing: "The neglect with which Barrett's memory has been treated... is one of the most shameful blots upon the theatrical profession."
One critic noted Barrett had "a well knit form and face capable of expressing sorrow, by the merest movement of a muscle; joy by the kindling of the eye; or rage, by the transport of the entire body". Another critic disagreed, however, writing: "Mr. Barrett is generally looked upon as being a brainy man, an earnest man, an ambitious man, and a studious man. He writes well, talks well, and manages well, but in the judgment of the metropolitan connoisseurs he does not play well. His culture and cleverness appear, they say, in everything he does except in his stage personations."
"An actor is a sculptor who carves in snow." (Auden & Kronenberger, 1966)
- Bordman, Gerald and Thomas S. Hischak. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004: 55. ISBN 0-19-516986-7
- Londré, Felicia Hardison. The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2007: 76. ISBN 978-0-8262-1709-7
- Davis, Ronald L. William S. Hart: Projecting the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003: 29–30. ISBN 0-8061-3558-1
- "Stevens Aids Drive for New Players"; newspaper clipping from October 1926, in the 1924-1927 Scrapbook of the Rochester Community Players, stored in the Local History Depart, Rundel Library of the Rochester NY Public Library
- Kippola, Karl M. Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828-1865. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012: 65. ISBN 9781137068774
- Bloom, Arthur W. Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013: 139. ISBN 978-0-7864-7289-5
- Giblin, James Cross. Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth. New York: Clarion Books, 2005: 212. ISBN 0-618-09642-6
- Giblin, James Cross. Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth. New York: Clarion Books, 2005: 213–215. ISBN 0-618-09642-6
- Giblin, James Cross. Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth. New York: Clarion Books, 2005: 216. ISBN 0-618-09642-6
- Saum, Lewis O. Eugene Field and His Age. University of Nebraska Press, 2001: 179. ISBN 0-8032-4287-5
- Londré, Felicia Hardison. The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2007: 78. ISBN 978-0-8262-1709-7
- Kippola, Karl M. Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828-1865. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012: 124. ISBN 9781137068774
- "Barrett, Lawrence". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
- Auden, W.H.; Kronenberger, Louis (1966), The Viking Book of Aphorisms, New York: Viking Press.
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