Like a character from his own sparkling plays, Philip Barry had the good fortune to be handsome, clever, and rich. Born into an Irish-Catholic middle-class family (his dying father left him unprovided for in his will), he was fortunate in his opportunities for education, marriage, and the fulfillment of his talent. After finishing public high school in Rochester, New York, Barry was accepted into Yale University in 1913, when he was seventeen. From his freshman year he showed a keen interest in literature; he read avidly and wrote poems and stories for the Yale literary magazine. He spent a year in London as a code clerk for the American embassy during World War I and afterward returned to the United States, receiving a degree from Yale in 1919.
Barry’s interest in the theater, evident even in his early teens, now ripened into an ambition that would make him one of the most successful playwrights of his time. He enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s Workshop 47 drama course at Harvard University in 1919 and earned Baker’s respect and friendship. Baker perceived the authenticity of Barry’s talent and gave him the encouragement and knowledge that made the workshop indispensable not only to Barry but also to a generation of American dramatists, including Eugene O’Neill.
Barry’s first full-length play, A Punch for Judy, was completed at the workshop and produced in 1921. By this time, he had met Ellen Semple, a wealthy debutante, and the two were married in July, 1922. For a wedding present the couple was given a house in Cannes, on the French Riviera, and for the rest of his life Barry moved between Broadway and Cannes as his career blossomed.
His first major success was the comedy You and I, which ran on Broadway for 170 performances. The play was characteristic of the well-made comedy of manners that became Barry’s hallmark: clever, witty dialogue among charming men and women of high society, a romance with its conflicts, and an artfully satisfying resolution.
His next play, The Youngest, about the younger generation’s conflict with the conventions of family life, established Barry as the foremost American dramatist of the comedy of manners. Yet it was Paris Bound, Holiday, and, especially, The Philadelphia Story that earned for him a significant place in American drama. In these plays, serious themes such as adultery, love sacrificed for career, and divorce were presented in the content of humor and good sense, punctuated by crisp, clever dialogue. They are among Barry’s most appealing works.
Not content simply to entertain, however, Barry also wrote plays in which he experimented with darker themes and more serious intentions. In a Garden is a thoughtful comedy about a successful dramatist’s sense of self. White Wings treats the clash of tradition and modernity and the impediment of such a clash to love and romance. John explores the religious doubt and disappointment of John the Baptist. Hotel Universe is a serious, dreamlike play that brings a group of wealthy people onto a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean in search of life’s meaning. Similarly, Here Come the Clowns establishes a vaudevillian setting in which the main character, like Job, confronts God on the mystery of evil. Though they contain some of Barry’s best writing, these plays only puzzled the public.
Barry died suddenly of heart failure on December 3, 1949. He left behind some twenty plays, ranging from high drawing-room comedy to religious allegory, fantasy, and philosophical explorations on the meaning of life. He is generally remembered, however, as the master of high comedy. At its best, his work in this genre catches the tempo and the temper of a society representing a kind of American royalty, a hierarchy of wealth and privilege, which flourished particularly during the boom years after World War I. Barry’s people are monied, cultivated, and charming; the conflicts that stain their lives are the domestic incivilities of adultery, divorce, and shallow materialism. Though such conflicts are resolved by the very qualities of intelligence and benign common sense that mark the characters themselves, his plays manage to suggest the triumph of a value system relevant not only to Barry’s men and women but also to humanity at large. His serious plays, though not artistically satisfying, are thoughtful, often poetic presentations of the doubts and despair inherent in the experience of all intelligent human beings. Despite the workmanlike quality of his plays and their inerrant dramatic technique, only a few of Philip Barry’s comedies are still performed. Yet the solidity of his work suggests that he is a playwright who deserves more serious attention.