- Learning from Barry Sullivan: Shaw’s First Superman
On 16 October 1893, Shaw noted in his diary that he had bought W. J. Lawrence’s biography, Barry Sullivan, for a shilling. There has never been another book-length biography, and Shaw never mentioned it again, yet an index to Shaw’s esteem is that he never stopped referring to Sullivan as “the last of the superhuman school dating from Burbage and Betterton, and including Garrick, Kemble, and the two Keans.” Sullivan, so Shaw wrote at ninety-one, “did nothing for contemporary literature, his repertory including nothing more modern than [Bulwer] Lytton’s Richelieu.” Yet Sullivan’s impact is evident over the range of Shaw’s plays, and emerges even in one of his early novels.
As a boy, Shaw often saw Sullivan play in Dublin. His statue, erected after his death in 1891, Shaw recalled late in life, is in Glasnevin, the historic Catholic cemetery in Dublin, a tribute to how Sullivan felt about himself and how the Irish perceived him. His parents, natives of Cork, died in Birmingham, where Sullivan was born in 1821. He was orphaned at eight and raised by his grandfather. By the time he was sixteen, he had made his way to Cork with a “strolling company,” playing minor Shakespearean characters to Charles Kean’s lead, and soon, also, singing tenor parts in opera. In his early twenties, he had moved up to leading roles, and played thereafter across the British Isles, America, and Australia.
When Sullivan was just past fifty, Shaw recalled, “I, then a boy in my teens, saw him for the first time. . . . The play was Hamlet, which he played thousands of times throughout his long life.” It was 6 October 1873. Nearly two years earlier Shaw had seen, at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, the young Henry Irving in James Albery’s The Two Roses (1870), which had established Irving as a star, and thought, “This is the man for me.” Later, in London, he decided that Irving “could not act the big parts, and had to depend upon his queer personality, which fascinated the public. I was [End Page 36] disappointed.” The intensity of Sullivan, however, was a revelation. “Such acting I had never seen or imagined before, nor was my impression weakened when, much later on, I saw the acting of [Tomasso] Salvini and [Adelaide] Ristori, the last of the great Italians, from whom I gathered what else I know of great acting.” Sullivan did not resort to implausible stage effects, relying upon the impact of language. Shaw remembered Sullivan’s playing the banquet scene in Macbeth effectively “by having no ghosts and simply playing at the empty chair.” With words, one needed no apparitions. That Sullivan could get away with playing Hamlet into middle age, when Shaw first saw him in Dublin, and even into his sixties, could be credited not only to Sullivan’s histrionic abilities, but to his slight, wiry figure, which he could also use flexibly and vocally to suggest size and force—and age.
Shaw is often remembered for his curtain-call acknowledgment of a solitary heckler amid the applause at the premiere of Arms and the Man with the self-deprecating “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many.” He remembered Sullivan as “the only actor I have ever heard come before the curtain at the end of a play to apologize for having acted badly. He had opened on Monday night in Hamlet . . . after a very rough passage from Holyhead. . . . With an unanswerable dignity he informed the applauding Dublin playgoers that he had done justice neither to them nor to himself, and begged their indulgence. They were awestruck; and then their applause had a note of bewilderment; for most of them had thought it all very splendid.” Shaw also understood that a Sullivan turn could be done badly, especially by an actor trying to outdo him. To Beatrice Mansfield, wife of Richard Mansfield, the Dick Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple, Shaw explained in January 1898 that he had to “civilize Dick”–he apparently meant both actor and the role he...