Shaw, Glencairn Alexander [Glen] Byam (19041986), actor and stage director
by Michael Denison, rev.
© Oxford University Press 2004–16
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Shaw, Glencairn Alexander [Glen] Byam (19041986), actor and stage director, was born on 13 December 1904 at Addison Road, London, the fourth in the family of four sons and one daughter of , artist, and his wife, (Caroline) Evelyn Eunice Pyke-Nott (18701959), miniaturist. He went to Westminster School as a day-boy during the First World War and his contemporaries included his elder brother who became a distinguished art historian, and John Gielgud, a lifelong friend and colleague.
Byam Shaw next surfaced on 1 August 1923 as an apparently untrained professional actor in At Mrs Beam's at the Pavilion Theatre, Torquay. In the era of the matinée idol, Byam Shaw's dazzling and lifelong good looks, together with the reported encouragement of his cousin May Ward, a close friend of Ellen Terry, may have been enough to make him take the plunge into acting. His first London appearance in 1925 was as Yasha in The Cherry Orchard (John Gielgud was Trofimov), and in the next four years he had the good fortune to appear in three more Chekhov plays.
In 1929 Shaw married the actress , the elder sister of . Their father, William Herman Clinton-Baddeley, was an unsuccessful composer. The Byam Shaw marriage was a supremely happy one, both domestically and professionally, until Angela's death in 1976. They had a son and a daughter.
After a tour together to South Africa in 1931 Byam Shaw appeared memorably at the Lyceum in 1932 in Max Reinhardt's mime play The Miracle, with Lady Diana Cooper as the Madonna. In 1933 the long and mutually rewarding association with John Gielgud began when Byam Shaw took over the Gielgud part in the long-running Richard of Bordeaux by Gordon Daviot (that is, Elizabeth MacKintosh, whose other pseudonym was Josephine Tey). In 1934 he was Darnley in Daviot's Queen of Scots, and later Laertes in Gielgud's longest running Hamlet, each time directed by Gielgud. In 1935 he played Benvolio in the famous Romeo and Juliet with Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, and Peggy Ashcroft. During the play's run there was the beginning of a sea change in Byam Shaw's career. He assisted Gielgud in directing Richard II for the Oxford University Dramatic SocietyVivien Leigh was the Queen and Michael Denison played three small partsand he was as stimulating, firm, and courteous to his undergraduate cast as he was always to be to professional companies. He had now found his true métier; he had never enjoyed acting. Until the Second World War, however, he continued to act, mostly in supporting parts in prestigious Gielgud productions, but also, importantly for the future, with Michael Redgrave, George Devine, and Peggy Ashcroft in Michel Saint-Denis's short season at the Phoenix. But he was now directing too, and in 1938 was engaged to direct Gielgud in Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus.
Byam Shaw had joined the emergency reserve of officers before the war and with his brother James was commissioned into the Royal Scots in 1940. They both served in Burma from 1942 and were both wounded. Byam Shaw ended his service in 1945 as a major making training films in India. By 1946 he had joined Saint-Denis and Devine in running the Old Vic Centre, which combined a school of acting, an experimental project, and the Young Vic Company. Byam Shaw also found time to direct The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan (with Angela in a key role)the start of another rewarding associationand also three Shakespeare plays at the Vic. Despite much success in all fields the three partners fell foul of the Vic governors and of the theatre's top-heavy and largely hostile administration and resigned in 1951.
Fortunately for Byam Shaw and the British theatre there followed his great work at Stratford, first as co-director with Anthony Quayle (19526) and then on his own, until handing over to his chosen successor Peter Hall in 1959. Byam Shaw directed fourteen plays at Stratford, notably Antony and Cleopatra (Redgrave and Ashcroft), Macbeth (Olivier and Leigh), As You Like It (Ashcroft), Othello (Harry Andrews and Emlyn Williams), and King Lear (Charles Laughton and Albert Finney), and chose companies which were a magnet to directors of the calibre of Hall, Peter Brook, and Gielgud. He helped transform Stratford from a worthy tourist trap into the country's theatrical capital. Ironically the company became Royal only after he left.
As a freelance director in the 1960s Byam Shaw was much in demand. Then suddenly, though self-confessedly tone deaf, he turned to opera; and, unencumbered by musical considerations, brought his special gift for clarifying texts to the service of outrageous operatic story-lines, inculcating in principals and chorus his passion for theatrical truth. From The Rake's Progress at Sadler's Wells (1962) to Wagner's Ring at the Coliseum (1973), in all he directed fifteen operas, sweeping the stage before first nights to calm his nerves. The decoration of the Coliseum's safety curtain was taken from a painting by his father.
Byam Shaw was slim, neatly and untheatrically dressed, with shoes always highly polished; his white hair, ruddy complexion, and searching brown eyes were those of the archetypal senior officer. Even his quiet voice and beautiful manners cloaked a steely authority. He did not aspire to be a virtuoso director, manipulating the playwright's intentions to conform to a subjective vision. He was content to be an interpreter, but he brought to that characteristically modest role the highest level of research, intuition, and love of the theatre and its workers.
Byam Shaw was appointed CBE in 1954 and was given an honorary DLitt by Birmingham University in 1959. He died in a nursing home in Goring-on-Thames on 29 April 1986, not far from his house at Wargrave.
MICHAEL DENISON, rev.
The Times (1 May 1986) · M. Billington, Peggy Ashcroft (1988) · M. Denison, Double act (1985) · WWW · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1986)
CUL, letters to Siegfried Sassoon
U. Birm. L., Eden MSS, corresp. with Lord Avon
T. F. Holte, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£352,612: probate, 21 July 1986, CGPLA Eng. & Wales