Basil Calvert Langton (9 January 1912 – 29 May 2003) was an English actor, director and photographer, who made a career on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an authority on the plays of George Bernard Shaw and compiled an archive of more than 400,000 words of interviews with people who had known and worked with Shaw. He was also a teacher, working at colleges in New York and California.
Life and career
Langton was born in Bristol, but spent his early years in Canada, where his family moved soon after his birth. His first experience of theatre was in Montreal, where, at the age of six, he was taken by his mother to see Sarah Bernhardt's farewell tour in Camille. During his youth in Canada he became attracted by silent films: "I learned courage from Pearl White, love from Rudolph Valentino, and laughter from Charlie Chaplin". After leaving school he worked in a bank, but was inspired to become an actor by seeing Donald Wolfit's performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1932. He won a scholarship that enabled him to leave Canada and return to England to begin a stage career in 1934. He studied with Beatrice Straight at her school of dance-mime at Dartington Hall, Devon, and worked with Kurt Jooss. In 1935 he began learning classical acting at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and the Old Vic.
Langton appeared in fifteen films between 1935 and 1949, including The Belles of St. Clements (1936), One Good Turn (1936), The Shadow of Mike Emerald (1936), Father Steps Out (1937), The Elder Brother (1937), Mr. Smith Carries On (1937) and Merry Comes to Town (1937). In Laurence Olivier's first Macbeth at the Old Vic, Langton "took the eye with an extremely subtle and suspicious little characterisation of Lennox in the murder scene"; he understudied the star in the title role. In 1936 he was cast as Dolabella in Theodore Komisarjevsky's staging of Antony and Cleopatra. In the same year he played Eliah opposite the exiled German star Elizabeth Bergner in the title role in J. M. Barrie's The Boy David. In 1938 he played the lead in the London premiere of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing, and for Michel Saint-Denis he appeared in Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard with Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft in 1938. He played Sebastian to Ashcroft's Viola in Twelfth Night in the same season. At Stratford in 1940 Langton played Hamlet with what The Times called "a fine Italianate presence", and was praised for his "tight lipped and tortured passion" as Angelo in Measure for Measure.
After a series of leading roles with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Langton founded his own permanent repertory ensemble, the Travelling Repertory Company, in 1941. It toured Britain until 1946, performing in bombed cities, munitions factories and army camps. At various times the company's members included Sybil Thorndike, Margaret Leighton, Lewis Casson, Renée Asherson. Esmond Knight, Paul Scofield and Eric Porter.
Having already been declared medically unfit for military service because he had asthma but nonetheless registering as a conscientious objector, Langton's wartime pacifism had estranged him from some in the British establishment; it was widely believed that his pacifist beliefs had led the authorities to withhold the public subsidy a touring repertory company might have been expected to receive. In 1947 he moved permanently to the US, and worked on stage and television as a director and actor. Langton gave the American television premiere of a Shaw play, The Devil's Disciple, and produced the first Shaw Festival in America. He was a co-founder of the Empire State Music Festival, and ran a jazz festival with Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and George Shearing. On Broadway he acted in The Affair, Camelot and Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play Soldiers. He returned to London in as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lord Alanbrooke, in Clifford Williams's production of Soldiers at the New Theatre in 1968. His last acting performance was in a two-hour pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 1994.
In addition to his acting, Langton taught at the Manhattan School of Music, the University of California, Los Angeles and the Sarah Lawrence College. He was an authority on the stage works of Shaw, and in 1959 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to research the playwright's stagecraft. The resulting interviews with more than sixty people who had known and worked with Shaw were recorded on tape and transcribed. The recordings and transcripts, amounting to more than 400,000 words, were acquired by the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas Library in Austin. Langton was also an exhibited photographer. In 1963 he began to capture images of artists at work; his pictures of Henry Moore, David Hockney, Joan Miró and others have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Langton's first marriage was to the dancer Louise Soelberg, with whom he had a daughter; the second marriage was to the actress Nancy Wickwire. Both the marriages ended in divorce. He was survived by his daughter and his long-term companion, Judith Searle. He died in Santa Monica, California at the age of ninety-one.
Notes and sources
- Langton, Basil. "Shaw's Stagecraft", Shaw, Vol. 21 (2001), pp. 1–26 (subscription required)
- Obituary: Basil Langton, The Times, 18 June 2003, p. 31
- "Basil Langton", British Film Institute, retrieved 7 November 2015
- Shorter, Eric. "Basil Langton", The Guardian, 5 June 2003, p. 27 (subscription required)
- "His Majesty's Theatre", The Times, 15 December 1936, p. 14
- Brown, Ivor. "The Stratford Festival", The Manchester Guardian, 25 April 1940, p. 4
- "Basil Langton, 91, Stage Actor, Director and Then Photographer", The New York Times, 4 June 2003
- Croall, p. 360
- Croall, p. 362
- "Basil Langton", The Daily Telegraph 4 June 2003