Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barry, Spranger

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BARRY, SPRANGER (1719–1777), actor, was born in 1719 in Skinner Row, Dublin. The day of his birth is stated to have been 20 Nov. His father, a man of gentle descent and an eminent silversmith in Dublin, brought him up in his business. With his wife Spranger Barry is said to have obtained a sum of 1,500l. A few years of mismanagement resulted in bankruptcy, and he then became an actor. His first appearance took place for his benefit at the Theatre Royal in Smock Alley, Dublin, on 15 Feb. 1744. The two Dublin theatres in Smock Alley and Aungier Street, then under the same management, were in low water, and the engagement of Barry marked the commencement of a better state of affairs. At the time of his appearance Barry, according to Hitchcock, was the possessor of a figure so fine that imagination could not conceive it ‘more perfect.’ To this was added a voice, ‘the harmony and melody of whose silver tones were resistless.’ Foote at this time joined the company, and Barry, though, a chief attraction, was seldom seen. He played, however, in turns, Lear, Henry V, Pierre, Orestes, Hotspur, and other characters. At Smock Alley Theatre Garrick and Barry first met, the former, three years Barry's senior, being already acknowledged the first actor on the stage. Garrick shared with Thomas Sheridan the round of his favourite characters, thus furnishing Barry with ample opportunities of study. On 4 Oct. 1746 Barry, engaged by Lacy, who became shortly afterwards partner with Garrick in the management of Drury Lane, made as Othello his first appearance at that theatre. He speedily won his way into public favour. Garrick and Barry appeared alternately in ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth,’ and sometimes in the same piece, as on the production, 13 Feb. 1748, of Moore's comedy, ‘The Foundling,’ in which Garrick played Young Belmont, and Barry Sir Charles Raymond, to the Faddle of Macklin, the Rosetta of Mrs. Woffington, and the Fidelia of Mrs. Cibber. Barry, who had profited by the teaching of Macklin, felt himself handicapped by the position of Garrick as manager, and after a success in Romeo which roused some jealousy even in Garrick, he quitted, at the close of the season of 1749–1750, Drury Lane for Covent Garden, taking with him his Juliet, Mrs. Cibber. The rivalry of Garrick and Barry now commenced in earnest. In 1750 ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was produced simultaneously at the two great houses. At Drury Lane Garrick was, of course, Romeo, Woodward being Mercutio, and Miss Bellamy, whose first appearance at the theatre this was, Juliet. At Covent Garden Barry and Mrs. Cibber reappeared as Romeo and Juliet, and Macklin was Mercutio. Francis Gentleman, author of the ‘Dramatic Censor,’ says that ‘Garrick commanded most applause, Barry most tears.’ Cooke declares that the critics decided in favour of Barry; Macklin, who disliked Garrick, records that Barry was the best Romeo he ever saw, while Garrick was nowise qualified for the part. Mrs. Bellamy asserts that, except in the scene with the Friar, Barry was universally allowed to have exceeded Garrick. That Barry was superior in characters in which his noble figure, handsome face, and harmonious voice were of eminent service to him, may be conceded. When intellectual subtlety was of more importance than physical gifts, Garrick's supremacy was easily shown. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was played twelve consecutive nights at each house, and a thirteenth at Drury Lane. An epigram in the ‘Daily Advertiser’ expresses the annoyance of playgoers:—

‘Well, what's to-night?’ says angry Ned,
As up from bed he rouses;
‘Romeo again,’ and shakes his head—
‘A plague on both your houses!’

In 1754–5 Barry visited Ireland, returning again to Covent Garden. Four years later he and Woodward migrated to Dublin, in which city they built the Crow Street theatre, which they opened 23 Oct. 1758. Barry did not appear until 3 Nov., when he played Hamlet. The struggle between the two Dublin theatres caused loss to both managements. This did not, however, prevent Barry and his partner from building and opening, in 1761, a new theatre in Cork. In 1762, Woodward, having lost the greater part of his savings, returned to Covent Garden. For four to five years longer Barry continued the struggle. Ruined and harassed in mind and body, he then yielded the Crow Street theatre to Mossop, the manager of the rival house in Smock Alley, and returning to London appeared at the Haymarket, then under the management of Foote. He had during the previous summer appeared with Mrs. Dancer [see Barry, Ann Spranger], who had been associated with him in Ireland, at the Haymarket Opera House. In 1768, her first husband having died, Mrs. Dancer was married to Barry, who had lost his first wife. Husband and wife were at this time both engaged by Garrick, Barry, after an absence of ten years, having reappeared on 21 Oct. 1767 as Othello on the stage on which he was first seen in England. In October 1774 Barry, this time accompanied by his wife, again migrated to Covent Garden. At this house he remained, partially disabled by gout, until his death, which took place on 10 Jan. 1777. Though destitute of tact, knowledge, and judgment, Barry was one of the ablest actors our stage has seen. His career was a success marred only by his attempts to play heroic characters. He was extravagant in living, and is said to have offended his most distinguished guests by the ostentatious style of his entertainments. Though best known in tragedy, Barry was of admitted excellence in some comic characters, especially as Lord Towneley.

[Hitchcock's Historical View of the Irish Stage; Tate Wilkinson's Mirror or Actor's Tablet; The Dramatic Censor, 2 vols., 1770; Davies's Dramatic Miscellanies; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Theatrical Biography; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Murphy's Life of Garrick, &c.]

J. K.