Payne, Ben Iden (1881–1976)

By: Alice J. Rhoades

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Ben Iden Payne, actor, director, and teacher, was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, on September 5, 1881, the son of Alfred and Sarah Payne. His parents, who were regular playgoers, introduced him to the theater. His father, a Unitarian minister, also encouraged plays at his church in Manchester. Payne was educated at a private preparatory school and later at Manchester Grammar School. In 1899 Frank R. Benson, manager of a Shakespearean company visiting Manchester, offered him a job as a "walker-on," and Payne left school without graduating. Payne is credited with pioneering the repertory theater movement in Britain and later in the United States. He was briefly director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, in 1907. Later that year he organized what some say was the first modern repertory theater company in England for Miss A. E. F. Horniman's Company at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester. Between 1911 and 1913 Payne toured the British Isles with his own companies and organized a number of repertory seasons in several provincial cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, and Leeds and Sheffield, England. During this period he married actress Mona Limerick, with whom he had three children.

Payne went to Chicago in 1913 to establish a repertory company, which later became the Fine Arts Theatre. His wife remained in England with the children, and their marriage was eventually dissolved. In 1914 Payne was director at the Little Theatre in Philadelphia, and in 1916 he directed his first Broadway production, John Galsworthy's Justice. The play starred John Barrymore, who later credited Payne with having "discovered" him. Payne was subsequently general stage director for the Charles Frohman Company at the Empire Theatre, New York, where he worked until 1922 and directed such performers as Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes.

In 1919 Payne was visiting professor of drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he helped organize the first drama department at a major American university. He continued to teach and direct at colleges for the rest of his life. At Carnegie, Payne began to use a modified Elizabethan staging for Shakespearean plays instead of the Victorian proscenium staging common at the time. This development greatly affected the way Shakespeare's plays were produced throughout the world for many years and is considered one of Payne's major achievements. He continued producing and directing plays in New York, Chicago, and other cities, working with such producers as the Shuberts and Ziegfeld, as well as directing at the New York Theatre Guild and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, among others.

Payne returned to England in 1935 to become director of the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. He remained there until 1942; then he returned to the United States, where, with the exception of a few Broadway plays, he devoted himself to educational theater. He went to the University of Texas as guest professor of drama in 1946 and continued working there for the remainder of his career. His annual Shakespeare productions were the highlight of the department's seasons for twenty years. During his tenure he directed twenty-four plays from the Shakespeare canon. His last was The Tempest, produced in 1968. Payne's directing style was said to be more imaginative than realistic and to employ a deep sense of character. Rather than using one particular style, he preferred to approach each individual play on its own merits. He quit formal teaching in 1970–71 but continued working with individual students until his retirement in 1973, when he was named professor emeritus. He acted in only two roles at the University of Texas, playing Puff in Sheridan's The Critic to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary in the theater, and a small part in Christopher Frye's The Lady's Not For Burning.

In addition to his work at the University of Texas, Payne held guest summer positions at a number of schools and summer theaters, including the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada; the state universities of Washington, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, and California; and the Shakespeare festivals at San Diego, California, and Ashland, Oregon. He won many awards, including the fifth annual award of the American Shakespeare Festival and Academy in 1959; the Rodgers and Hammerstein award for distinguished service to the theater in 1962; the Medal of Honor from Theta Alpha Phi, the national honorary dramatics fraternity, in 1969; and the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival's award for distinguished service to the theater in 1974. He also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alberta in 1963. In Texas he received the Southwest Theatre Conference Award of Merit in 1954 and the first annual award of the Austin Circle of Theaters in 1975. At the University of Texas the B. Iden Payne Fund was established by former student Barna Osterag in 1962 to support Shakespeare productions. In February 1976 Queen Elizabeth II made Payne an Honorary Officer of the British Empire, the highest award a British citizen can obtain short of knighthood.

Payne married a second time, to former ballet dancer Barbara Rankin Chiaroni, who had assisted him in several of his productions. He died at the age of ninety-four in Austin on April 6, 1976; at his request, his body was donated for scientific research. In May 1976 the University of Texas Board of Regents approved the establishment of a 500-seat theater within the new addition to the drama building, to be named after Payne. In addition to several plays and numerous articles for various educational journals and theater magazines, Payne wrote a book, A Life in a Wooden O: Memoirs of the Theatre, published posthumously in 1977.

Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Education
  • Educators
  • Music and Drama
  • Peoples
  • English
  • Visual Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alice J. Rhoades, “Payne, Ben Iden,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995