The celebrated playwright was born Philip Jerome Quinn Barry, on June 18, 1896, in Rochester New York. He was the youngest of four children of James Corbett Barry and Mary Agnes Quinn. James Barry was a successful marble and tile contracter whose family had emigrated from Ireland when he was ten. His wife, also of Irish descent, was a Philadelphian, daughter of the proprietor of a lumber business. Their other children were Edmund Henry, born 1882; James Corbett, Jr., born 1888; and Agnes Mary, born 1893.
Philip Barry's father died of a ruptured appendix at the early age of forty-five, a year after his youngest son's birth. However, a generous inheritance enabled the latter to complete his early education in Catholic and public school, before proceeding to Yale University in 1913. Barry had been writing since the age of nine and was widely read. At Yale, he further pursued his literary interest, contributing to the Daily News and the Literary Magazine. For the drama club, he also wrote a one-act play entitled, 'Autonomy.'
The outbreak of the First World War interrupted Barry's university years. He sought to enlist, but was rejected for poor eyesight, and had to content himself with service in the State Department as a clerk and the American embassy in London, where he worked at deciphering cables. In 1919, Barry returned to Yale to complete his B.A.
In the autumn of 1919, Barry enrolled in the prestigious English 47 Workshop directed by George Pierce Baker at Harvard. Baker's mentorship was to have a lasting influence on the developing playwright. It was Baker who urged him to concentrate on American themes and to 'try to write [about] conditions in the life of the present time which shall be amusing, and at the same time amuse in such a way that one finds one is thinking about the play afterwards - not exactly in the amusement, but thoughtfully and pleasantly,' ('States of Grace,' by Brendan Gill, p.27). Gill adds that 'this prescription comes close to summing up Barry's intentions in at least a dozen of the twenty-odd plays he was to write,' (ibid.)
The fruit of the 47 Workshop was Barry's first publicly recognized play. Originally entitled, 'Oh Promise Me,' the play was renamed, 'A Punch for Judy,' and made its debut in Cambridge, before playing on the road in Worcester, Utica, Buffalo, Cleveland, and in New York under the auspices of the League of Pen Women, on April 19 and 20, 1921.
In early 1920, Barry temporarily left the workshop for a job in a New York advertising firm in order to finance further studies. During the following eventful two years, Barry returned to the workshop (October 1921), married (on July 12, 1922) his sweetheart Ellen Semple whom he'd met through his friend Theodore Babbitt in New York in late 1919, and continued to write plays.
Ellen Semple was the daughter of a Southern lawyer, Lorenzo Semple, and an Irish Catholic mother. The family maintained two residences, one in Washington Square in Manhattan, and their favorite, a small farm in Mt. Kisco, New York. Lorenzo Semple was a generous man, and was to present the young couple twice with houses, a small cottage in Mt. Kisco as a wedding gift, and later, in 1923, a villa in Cannes, which they named the Villa Lorenzo. The latter was to remain in the family until 1951.
The next two plays that Barry wrote were to launch his career on Broadway, as well as to introduce him to a long association with the Theatre Guild directed by Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn, the latter a former student of Baker's. The Guild would later produce some of Barry's most successful plays.
Baker initially presented Helburn with the script for 'The Jilts,' Barry's play originally entitled 'The Thing He Wanted to Do,' and eventually succeeding on Broadway as 'You and I.' The Theatre Guild rejected 'The Jilts.' However, unshaken by this initial failure, Barry submitted it for publication in Scribner's Magazine, and on September 26, 1922, the New York Times announced that the play had won the prize that the Belmont Repertoire Company awarded each year to a member of the 47 Workshop. Known also as the Harvard Prize or the Richard Herndon Prize, the award assured the play a professional production on Broadway. Herndon, a theatrical manager and a member of the award committee, produced the play.
'You and I' opened at the Belmont Theatre in New York on February 19, 1923, and ran for 170 performances. The succeeding play, consecutively renamed, 'Poor Richard,' 'New Freedom,' 'God Bless Our Home,' and finally, 'The Youngest,' opened at the Gaiety Theatre in New York, on December 22, 1924, and ran for 104 performances. These two plays established Barry's reputation as a playwright of high comedy.
Barry continued to write comedies, however he was determined to experiment and broaden his skills. Thus, following two more highly successful sophisticated comedies, 'Paris Bound' (1927), and 'Holiday' (1928), he wrote 'John' (1927), a tragedy about John the Baptist; 'Cock Robin' (1928), a murder mystery in collaboration with Elmer Rice; and 'Tomorrow and Tomorrow,' (1931), a serious drama that was a surprise hit that ran for 206 performances.
'The Animal Kingdom,' (1932) was a successful return to drawing-room comedy starring Leslie Howard; but was followed by the failures of three other light plays, 'The Joyous Season,' (1934), 'Bright Star,' (1935), and 'Spring Dance,' (1936). Barry regained his reputation somewhat with his next serious drama, 'Here Come the Clowns,' adapted from his only novel, 'War in Heaven,' the appropriately titled study of good and evil in the universe. The play opened on December 7, 1938, at the Booth Theatre in New York, with a total of 88 performances.
By far the greatest success for Barry arrived with the debut of 'The Philadelphia Story,' on March 28, 1939, presented by the Theatre Guild at the Shubert Theatre in New York, starring the redoubtable and talented young Katherine Hepburn. The fact that the world today remembers him best for this play and the subsequent motion picture, testifies to his strength as a writer of high comedy.
The next three plays represent Barry's response to the Second World War: 'Liberty Jones' (1941), 'Without Love' (1942), and 'Foolish Notion' (1945). Of these, 'Without Love,' was the most successful. Produced once again, by the Theatre Guild, Katherine Hepburn was signed as the star, and the play opened in Princeton, New Jersey on March 4, 1942. The play toured thirteen cities before opening in New York on November 10, 1942, with a subsequent run of 113 performances. Unfortunately, Hepburn had to withdraw, after this initial success, to meet motion picture commitments in Hollywood. However, when Metro-Goldwyn-Myer purchased the film rights, she starred in her original role as Jamie Coe Rowan, opposite Spencer Tracy as Patrick Jamieson and Lucille Ball as Kitty Trimble.
'Second Threshold' was Barry's last play, the first draft of which he completed just before he died. Voluminous notes on the play spanning an 11-year period show Barry's inspiration to be rooted in several of the darkest periods of his life, namely the death of his infant daughter (sometime in 1933), and the death of his friend Robert Benchley in 1945.
As indicated by its working title, 'Stern Daughter,' the play centers around a father-daughter relationship. An early note by Barry delineates the concept: 'Daughter. The man of 42 at the end of his soul's rope, recovering from attempt at suicide...Emphasis to go on the father-daughter relationship...Two people whom life has treated badly. Maybe she has been jilted by a married man. Companions in adversity. The perfect combination: mature wisdom with youthful freshness...Love without the complications...' (see Folder 6:10.2 for the original manuscript of this note).
The play was produced and directed posthumously by Alfred de Liagre, and co produced by Barry's son, Philip S. Barry, and by Barry's long time friend Robert Sherwood, also a successful playwright. Working from Barry's draft, Sherwood revised the play considerably for production. The revised scripts are included in this collection.
"Second Threshold" opened in New York on January 2, 1951, with a run of 126 performances. It also toured in Boston and England through 1952. The play starred the well known British actor Clive Brook and the young newcomer, Betsy von Furstenberg, who made her debut in the play.
Philip Barry suffered a fatal heart attack on December 3, 1949, and was buried in East Hampton, Long Island. He was survived by his wife, Ellen, and two sons Philip S. Barry and Jonathan Peter Barry.