What is a Juvenile
by John Barrymore -- 1914
There is nothing amusing in playing a juvenile lead for anyone
but the audience. The "lead" himself is working just
as hard as if he were a tragedian. In some ways I think he works
harder. To my mind there is no more difficult role than that
of a leading juvenile.
This being a "gay young dog" on the stage is a complicated
proposition. In the first place, theatergoers have the idea that
the juvenile lead is just a moderately agreeable young man who
has the knack of making them laugh at regular intervals between
8:30 and 10:45.
I wish--Oh1 how I wish--that this were all he had to do. Just
being funny is a comparatively simple task. This is all the straight
comedian has to do, and he can do it in any way he chooses. He
can sing, dance or 'scramble like an egg." He can make just
as much of a clown of himself as he wishes, so long as he forces
people to laugh. Ridiculous make-up, silly mannerisms will do
no harm so long as it is all funny.
||Can the juvenile do this? He cannot--most emphatically
he cannot. And whether you ask why or not, I'm going to tell
you. The reason is a good and sufficient one--it is a pretty
And what has the pretty girl to do with it? you will ask. Listen,
Rollo! She has just this much to do with it. The juvenile lead
in every play that I can recall had to marry one of these nice
little girl characters that are always put opposite juvenile
leads. Now the public always takes a fatherly and motherly, and
sisterly and brotherly interest in a pretty girl. They would
never approve a play in which a charming girl was married off
to a grotesque clown. No matter how many laughs he had extracted
from them during the rest of the performance, they would feel
sore. They want their pretty girl to "marry well,"
therefore the leading juvenile must not be too ridiculously funny..
He must maintain a certain amount of dignity or he will never
hoop up with the wedding bells that every play with a juvenile
head has to have.
For instance, if you had a pretty sister you wouldn't care to
have her marry a circus clown who was born with a face that needed
no make-up. Well, that is the way the audience feels about juvenile
lead who is too grotesque.
No sir! no audience wants its pretty girl married to anything
less than a regular hero. He can be an amusing here, if you will,
but his humor must be mixed with just enough sterner stuff to
make him eligible to be the husband of Gwendolyn.
It is this combination of heroism and comedy that baffles the
juvenile lead. He must mix the two as carefully as a perfect
cocktail. If he uses too much of anything, he will be either
too clownish to be pleasing or too serious to win the necessary
laughs. Thus the juvenile lead has to do some lively jumping
from the sublime to the ridiculous and
back again. Photo is John with Clark
|In "Believe Me Xantippe" I had just
one dramatic moment. For a few brief seconds I had to pose as
the brave rescuer of beauty in distress, or in grave danger of
being in distress in a very short time. Just the right point
at which to switch off the funny stuff and turn on the real "drayma"
was not discovered until many hard rehearsals. within the space
of half a minute the audience had to be carried from a mood of
utter hilarity to a situation that was desperately serious, and
then--bing! right back again to shrieking mirth. Believe me Xantippe,
it is not easy.
Besides this there must be constant touches through the play
to drive home the point that the young man on the stage who is
so very, very amusing, is in reality not so much of a fool after
But youth and the ability to make one's audience feel its joy,
weigh heaviest toward success in a juvenile lead. Youth on the
stage is natural. to be natural is to be a good actor. The slightest
touch of affectation will spoil a juvenile part quicker than
any other mistake one can make. The juvenile lead can only get
his character across the footlights by winning the friendship
of the audience. He must make those "out front" take
a real interest in him as a "nice young man," who is
going through an amazing series of adventures leading to happiness
ever after with the only girl in the world.
||Only a man who is really young can do this. Youth
cannot be simulated on the stage by men. Women can do it, but
that is another story. Unquestionably, youth does much to make
the success of a juvenile lead, youth and the enthusiasm that
goes with it. An actor thus equipped can "get his stuff
across," can make his audiences see things as he intends
them to, better than one who is getting older and only "acts
young." There has been a lot of talk about magnetism being
the big thing in acting. Now I, for one, discount those accepted
traditions about magnetism and charm and good looks making a
way for a man on the stage. Anyone, man or woman, who is young,
has enough of the beauty of youth to go ahead and act--if they
can act. Just learn how to get your stuff over. Without that
knowledge all the magnetism in the world won't make an actor
and that knowledge is only gained by hard work. It is not an
||Being a leading juvenile is something like being
funny to order. You may have both qualities in you and they'll
come out if you are not self-conscious, but you are a sad failure
trying to be either spontaneous and youthful or funny but the
methods used with a monkey on a stick. There is one good rule,
in my opinion, for the aspiring juvenile lead to follow. There's
an old saying about good breeding. Apply it to acting. "What
is the key-note to good acting?" "B-Natural."
That's enough. If you cannot do it, you'll never succeed on the
stage, least of all as a juvenile who, first, foremost and all
the time must have his audience in his confidence. At that, even
when you've worked hardest for a success, one cannot always act.
Sometimes you catch a tone an emphasis in your voice that pleases
your hearers. You decide always to say the same thing that way.
But the next time you find you cannot find that tone at all,
and you meanings not the same.
|A recipe for a successful juvenile lead is:"Acquire
a trick of manner that establishes a warm bond of sympathy and
reflected friendliness with your audience."
Some people think that because I come of an acting family my
"inherited talent" makes stage work easy for me. These
will be surprised to learn that I had to work as hard to get
a start as any stranger. There isn't any romance about how I
went on the stage. I did it for just the same reason that a clerk
gets a job in a store. I needed the money. I worked just like
any clerk. I minded the "boss"--in my case the stage
manager--and learned my trade, that of the juvenile lead, by
slow hard stages.
It was no fun. In fact I never knew any actor or actress that
genuinely though acting fun except my wife--and she has been
on the stage only a little while. Photo
is of John with Madge Evans.