Professor Glynne Wickham

First Professor of Drama in the UK
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The Independent Online

Glynne William Gladstone Wickham, drama scholar: born Cape Town, South Africa 15 May 1922; Assistant Lecturer, Drama Department, Bristol University 1948-55, Senior Lecturer 1955-60, Professor of Drama 1960-82 (Emeritus), Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1972-74, Senior Research Fellow 1995-2004; chairman and chief executive, Radio West 1979-83; President, Society for Theatre Research 1976-99; married 1954 Hesel Mudford (two sons, one daughter); died Bristol 27 January 2004.

Glynne Wickham, Professor of Drama at Bristol University from 1960 to 1982, enjoyed the rare distinction of having pioneered a new academic discipline in British universities.

In March 1945, Oxford University had explored the possibility of setting up a Department of Drama, and dispatched a team of academics across the dangerous waters of the north Atlantic to investigate how things were done in America. Oxford hesitated, but in 1947 Bristol, under the imaginative leadership of its Vice- Chancellor, Sir Philip Morris, seized the initiative and introduced drama to the curriculum.

But it would need someone of extraordinary energy and vision to ensure the infant subject's survival. Enter, the following year, Glynne Wickham, 26 years old, great- grandson of William Gladstone, educated at Winchester and, after serving as a navigator in the RAF, at New College, Oxford, and the first post-war President of Ouds.

On graduating he was faced with a decision: to take up the junior academic post at Bristol or accept an offer to work in the professional theatre. Fortunately, Bristol won, and by 1951 (helped by George Rowell and John Lavender) the new department had a studio - converted from a squash court to create the first wholly flexible studio space in Britain. The same year, Wickham persuaded Morris to part with £50 of university money and bought William Etty's portrait of Charles Kean as King Lear. This acquisition was the foundation stone of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, now, apart from the Theatre Museum in London, the largest theatre-history archive in the UK.

It was central to Wickham's vision of drama in universities that there should be the closest links possible with the professional theatre and he forged close ties with the company at the Bristol Old Vic and with the BOV Theatre School. John Arden was one of those who held a playwriting fellowship, while in 1957, Harold Pinter's first play, The Room, was premiered in the department's studio, in an atmosphere which Wickham described as "electric".

But to Wickham drama did not mean just theatre. The arrival of George Brandt in 1951 (the last member of what Wickham called "the four musketeers") introduced film studies to the curriculum. Wickham, meanwhile, keen to include broadcast media, talked his way on to a BBC training course. It had unexpected benefits, for while there he met Hesel Mudford and they married in 1954.

Throughout his career he travelled widely, helping establish departments of drama in other countries, lecturing and directing. It was while he was directing the American premiere of Pinter's The Birthday Party in San Francisco in 1960, that a letter arrived from Bristol, inviting him to become its first - and so the UK's first - Professor of Drama.

His inaugural lecture was entitled "Drama in a World of Science" (and published in 1962). Having established the discipline's academic respectability, Wickham took the opportunity to set out his ambitions for the department and the subject. What excited him about Drama was the way it could connect with so many disciplines (including some beyond the Arts faculty), its potential to embrace Eastern and Western traditions, and that it had to be pursued not just through study but through practice - what he described as "the hands reunited with the heart and with the head".

He published extensively. In 1959, the first volume of Early English Stages appeared, which changed the face of medieval and early modern drama studies. Further volumes followed in 1963, 1972 and 1981. In between came Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage (1969), The Medieval Theatre (1974), English Moral Interludes (1976) and a host of essays, as well as productions of many of the - often neglected - plays about which he wrote.

In 1979 he became one of the General Editors of the Cambridge University Series "Theatre in Europe: a documentary history". His enthusiasm for discussing and writing about his subject never waned, and retirement saw no slowdown in his output. In 1985 he published his comprehensive History of the Theatre; in 2000, English Professional Theatre 1530-1660 - the volume he had edited and co-written for the documentary history series - appeared, and has already become indispensable to researchers working in the period. The publication of the fifth and final volume of Early English Stages in 2001 gave him particular pleasure.

He received many awards and honours. In 1970 Sam Wanamaker asked him to advise on the scheme to reconstruct Shakespeare's Globe in London. For years Wickham was a vigorous advocate for the project, and the 1999 Sam Wanamaker Award, presented to him on the stage of the Globe at the end of a performance, meant a great deal.

In 1996, Bristol University made him an Honorary Fellow, the highest accolade it can bestow, and awarded to only 25 individuals in the university's history. In 2002 the drama department, in collaboration with the Society for Theatre Research (of which Wickham was President from 1976 to 1999) inaugurated an annual Wickham Lecture, to be given alternately by a scholar and practitioner - this perfectly encompassed Glynne Wickham's passions for the theatre: its past and its present, its study and its practice.

When he retired in 1982, the former Vandyck Theatre (to which the department had moved in 1968) was renamed, as the handsome blue plaque in the foyer proclaims, in honour of "Glynne Wickham, who inspired the study of Drama in British universities".

Wickham was an entertaining and generous companion, drawing on his extraordinarily wide knowledge and experience of the theatre. He loved gardens, travelling and painting. Above all he revelled in his family, his wife Hesel, their children - Stephen, Catherine and Nicholas - and many grandchildren.

Martin White