“You can only be as good as you dare to be bad.”
John Barrymore is considered one of the most thrilling, chilling Shakespearean actors of all time. Here’s a great story about his huge success on Broadway playing Hamlet:
A newspaper reporter came backstage to interview our boy John after his fifty-sixth performance. He had a deadline, but had to wait an hour and a half until the company’s rehearsal was over. When he finally got his interview, he told the actor, “Mr. Barrymore, I’m surprised that you would need a rehearsal after fifty-six performances on Broadway. Why, you’re being acclaimed the greatest Hamlet of all time and a genius of the stage.”
When he heard this, Barrymore started laughing and told the incredulous reporter: “Listen. Do you want to know the truth? For five months, nine hours every day, I read, re-read, studied, and recited that part. I thought I’d never get it into my head. Several times I wanted to quit. I thought I’d missed my calling, and that it was a mistake for me to ever have gone into acting. Yes, a year ago, I wanted to quit, and now they are calling me a genius. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Fantastic story, isn’t it? I love it, not just for what it says about Shakespeare and Hamlet, but because of how candid the great Barrymore was when it came to revealing the massive amount of time and energy he devoted to mastering his craft. And even more impressive, when he was at the top of his game and getting rave reviews, he continued to rehearse and fine-tune his performance. Now, that’s dedication. That’s mastery. And that’s an appreciation for the fundamentals.
Think about it: Here’s the fabled Barrymore sitting on his butt for nine hours every day for five months. If this is accurate, then he was spending well over 1200 hours immersing himself in this part, learning it backwards and forwards, making it part of him, so that saying it was like breathing.
He must have been drilling himself constantly, practicing it again and again, feeling discouraged, pushing on, feeling he had a handle on it, then feeling like it was falling apart. Yet he kept on practicing, day after day.
There’s so much to inspire us here: The self-doubt that John had to overcome to keep going. The understanding that mastery of the role could come only after he drilled relentlessly and completed his “basic training.” The intense concentration he brought to the job at hand. And of course, the willingness to laugh at himself and topple his public image. Write on!