Pakenham, Edward Arthur Henry (1902–61), 6th earl of Longford , theatre manager, and writer, was born 29 December 1902 in London, eldest son of Thomas Pakenham (1864–1915), 5th earl of Longford and lieutenant-colonel in the Life Guards, and his wife, Lady Mary Julia Child-Villiers (d. 1933), daughter of the 7th earl of Jersey. Edward was educated at Eton and succeeded to the title at the age of 14; his father was killed in action in Gallipoli in August 1915, but this was not confirmed until the following year. Although his father was anti-home-rule and his mother was English, Edward became an Irish nationalist over the course of summer holidays spent on the family estate, Pakenham Hall, near Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath. At Oxford he met Christine (qv) (née Trew), who was quarter-Irish and shared his political sympathies. After graduating BA in 1925 he married Christine on 18 July 1925 and moved to Pakenham Hall, where they became pillars of the community, supporting local enterprises such as the Castlepollard agricultural show, and fostering national industries such as the Leinster hand-weaving company, which made and sold tweeds and eventually became the hand-loom shop.
Pakenham, however, remained restless and in search of a focus for his patriotic idealism, which he eventually found in the Gate Theatre. At a meeting on 12 December 1930 called to announce the closure of the theatre, he amazed the company by offering to buy up all the remaining shares, valued at £1,200. Thus began a fruitful collaboration with Hilton Edwards (qv) and Micheál MacLiammóir (qv), which lasted six years and is generally termed that theatre's golden age. It was the period of Orson Welles and James Mason on stage and the debuts of plays by Mary Manning (qv) and Denis Johnston (qv). Longford is generally seen only as holding the purse-strings of the theatre, but he and his wife were also playwrights who were responsible for some of the Gate's successes. His first play, ‘The Melians’, about the insurrection of the island of Melos against Athens, drew clear parallels with the Irish situation and was performed in September 1931. The following year he undertook with his wife an ambitious translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteian trilogy, which ran as ‘Agamemnon’ in February 1933, but played to empty houses. Seven months later he had his greatest success with his best play, ‘Yahoo’, on the life of Jonathan Swift (qv), with Edwards in the title role. It made use of expressionist techniques in the third act to capture Swift's derangement. In 1935 the production went to London where the Observer critic called it the best piece of expressionism he had seen, though James Agate in the Sunday Times noted that it was devoid of humour, which was odd given its subject.
Longford was an unstintingly generous patron and so sensitive to the hard-luck story that he put actors on the payroll whom Edwards did not think up to the standard of the Gate. This caused tension, as did Longford's reluctance to employ English actors or allow the company to travel; he was adamant that the Gate's function was to employ Irish actors to entertain Irish audiences. Things came to a head in early 1936 after his refusal, for the second time, to allow the Gate company to go on a lucrative trip to Cairo. MacLiammóir and Edwards went on their own initiative and the Longfords founded Longford Productions, which shared the premises of the Gate theatre with Edwards’s company, alternating every six months. The split was irrevocable and caused great bitterness.
Longford ran his company enthusiastically for twenty-five years until his death and in that period produced 151 plays. These were typically eighteenth-century comedies, G. B. Shaw (qv), Chekhov, Shakespeare, Moliere, and light satires by Lady Longford. The company was successful though it lacked the flair of Edwards's, but it did give opportunities to numerous actors including Cyril Cusack (qv), Dermot Tuohy (d. 1986) and Milo O'Shea (qv), and to designers such as Kay Casson and Alpho O'Reilly. The beautiful opulent costumes were designed by Longford. When not playing in the Gate, the company toured the provinces and was far more central to the life of provincial drama than Edwards's company. This accorded with Longford's idea of a national theatre and he was cheerful about his constant losses. Unfailingly generous, he was the first manager to give his actors contracts, but he had little aptitude for business. However, he never went bankrupt as his theatrical patronage meant that he was exempt from surtax and income tax. In 1957 Dublin corporation proclaimed the Gate a fire hazard and demanded alterations costing £37,000. Longford went on a fund-raising drive which included petitioning his wealthy friends, auctioning off his family silver, and collecting on the street. His by now enormously fat figure in baggy flannels, clutching a collection box, became a common sight outside the Gate. The public responded generously and the Gate was saved.
In the 1940s he turned to translating from the Irish; his well-received version of ‘The midnight court’ by Brian Merriman (qv) appeared in Poetry Ireland (1949). On 13 November 1946 he was nominated to the senate by Éamon de Valera (qv); however, he was not a good senator, being inclined to fall asleep during debates. There were only two issues in which he took an interest: the revival of the Irish language and the theatre. His senatorship did not survive the replacement of de Valera by John A. Costello (qv) in 1948. In the 1950s he garnered academic honours, being elected MRIA (1952) and receiving honorary doctorates from TCD (1954) and the NUI (1958). He died 5 February 1961 at Portobello nursing home after a massive stroke and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. His wife handed over her controlling interest in the Gate to Edwards and MacLiammóir, and they responded by making her chairman of the reconstituted board. Longford Productions was dissolved. As the couple were childless, Longford was succeeded to the earldom by his brother, Frank Pakenham (qv).
MacLiammóir wrote of Longford's ‘light-blue eyes beaming in a massive coral-coloured face. “Oh jolly jolly tuck shop” one thought inevitably after the manner of John Betjeman or Tom Brown's schooldays as he came striding into the theatre with his sudden infectious cackle of laughter’ (MacLiammóir, 122). Despite his enthusiasm and dedication, Longford was not particularly beloved of Dublin theatre goers; his attitude was patrician and his social manner, even with his actors, was awkward and remote. He lost his temper frequently and childishly, and relied heavily on his more tactful wife to make amends. However, he deserves full recognition for his part in maintaining the Gate at a time when it received no government subsidy, and for managing one of the last companies to undertake annual provincial tours.