Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Irene Worth
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Irene Worth, Hedda Gabler, 1970Irene Worth

Late-starting American actress who created a number of classic roles and was most at home on the London stage

The Times, 12 March 2002

On stage, Irene Worth had great command. She was of no more than medium height and her beauty was unconventional. She kept her hour-glass, Edwardian figure until well into middle age, but her cheek bones were high and wide, almost middle European. Her presence came through her rich contralto voice which, unless she decided otherwise, betrayed no hint of her American upbringing: it was based on the great speaking traditions of the English theatre.

Her eyes too were a vital asset. They were dark and deep-set, slightly hooded, and announced considerable intelligence. She had a justified reputation as an intellectuals’ actress. One of her first British successes was as Celia in The Cocktail Party, which she created in 1949. She was always ready to take on the new, and appeared in the British premières of plays by Albee, Greene, Dürrenmatt and Betti among others. But it is for the great classical roles, especially those of Chekhov and Ibsen, that she will be most remembered.

Usually she was at her happiest with cerebral directors. There were famous partnerships with Peter Brook, which included King Lear and Oedipus, and a brief spell under the influence of Jonathan Miller. But her work was far from all being high tragedy and elevated thinking. Irene Worth may all her life have sought the company of the intelligentsia — especially its more fashionable members —but she could also be an accomplished comedienne, with a rich and gurgling laugh shaking her mane of chestnut hair. There was no forgetting her Marcelle with Alec Guinness in Feydeau’s marvellous farce Hotel Paradiso at the Winter Garden in 1956.

But she had one disadvantage: she came late to the theatre. She was 26 when she made her stage debut (in a touring version of Escape Me Never) and missed playing the roles which are part of the training of most actresses. There was no Cordelia, no Juliet. Nor was there ever, to Worth’s especial regret, a chance to play Nina in The Seagull. Her fame was to be won with ladies of a certain age and sometimes with a misty past: Hedda Gabler, Mme Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Irene Worth certainly made her own beginnings as misty as possible, if not positively foggy. Biographical entries always give Nebraska as her birthplace, but on one or two occasions she hinted that she was in fact born in Los Angeles. Certainly it was in that city that she took her Bachelor of Education degree, at the University of California in 1937, before going on to be a teacher. It has been suggested that her father was a musician, which would account for her lifelong passion for classical music, but she would not confirm this: she always declined to discuss her private life with the few whom she allowed to interview her at all, and similarly she always refused to talk about the private lives of others. She was content later for colleagues to invent a background for her — the late Coral Browne was among those who used their imagination.

As well as teaching, Worth did some modelling before joining a touring company in 1942. Thereafter she moved fast. She was on Broadway the following year in The Two Mrs Carrolls, which starred Elizabeth Bergner. Bergner and her film director husband, Paul Czinner, then persuaded Worth that London was the centre of the English-speaking theatre, and she made her way here while the war was still in progress.

She studied drama with Elsie Fogerty, and had a series of engagements in the late 1940s at the fringe theatres which flourished at the time, among them the Embassy, Bolton’s and the Q. One of her major parts was in Molnar’s The Play’s the Thing opposite Clive Brook. Then came The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot, which began at the Edinburgh Festival. When it moved to London, Worth was replaced by Margaret Leighton, but she took over again later in the run and also played Celia on Broadway. She had caught the eye of “Binkie” and had arrived as an actress.

Her ambition, though, was to be a classical performer in the British tradition. To this end she had worked hard on her voice, using the enunciation of certain carefully chosen established actresses as her models. In 1951 she joined the Old Vic company, and there she played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, and her first Lady Macbeth. She also appeared in the première of a now forgotten drama about François Villon, The Other Heart. Perhaps these were not the Old Vic’s most distinguished years, but the company went off to South Africa with Worth as one of the leading ladies.

In 1953 she joined another theatre, that of the newly formed Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario. There she was the principal leading lady, partnering Alec Guinness. Binkie Beaumont brought her back to London in N. C. Hunter’s “Chekhovian” drama A Day by the Sea, a typical Tennent production at the Haymarket, with a cast that included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Another Haymarket play, Ugo Betti’s The Queen and the Rebels was less successful.

Worth’s exceptional versatility was demonstrated by the contrast between her two major performances on stage in the mid 1950s. At the Winter Garden there was farce (with Alec Guinness) in Hotel Paradiso, and in New York there was high tragedy in the title role of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. To preserve the balance she gave an outstanding Rosalind in As You Like It at Stratford, Ontario.

A number of these stage successes were repeated on radio or television, but Worth was not much drawn to the cinema. In 1958 she made one of her few appearances in an original screenplay, as Leonie in Orders to Kill, a taut thriller directed by Anthony Asquith, for which she won a British Film Academy Award. At about this time there was talk in London of a close friendship with Kenneth (later Lord) Clark, who had a penchant for actresses, Vivien Leigh included. Certainly she revered him and consulted him as an arbiter of artistic questions.

It was perhaps Worth’s reputation as a loner that made her seek the security of the subsidised theatre. In 1962 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which then had a London home at the Aldwych, and with them she gave some of her greatest performances. She played Goneril in Peter Brook’s acclaimed Lear with Paul Scofield in the title role, and repeated her Lady Macbeth. She appeared again for Brook, who became something of a guru, in Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, as an asylum superintendent, which brought into full play the sinister side of her acting. She then went to New York for the opening of Albee’s enigmatic Tiny Alice, and reappeared in it with the RSC at the Aldwych.

The performance which gained most notoriety was her Jocasta in Seneca’s Oedipus at the Old Vic in 1968, with Gielgud. Again it was a Peter Brook production, with the stage dominated by a massive golden phallus — on which Jocasta finally impaled herself. Then in her fifties, Worth was widely praised for her stage courage in going to so graphic a death.

Apart from a season at the Greenwich Theatre working with Jonathan Miller and Peter Gill, she spent quite a lot of the 1970s in North America. She played Hedda Gabler at Stratford, Ontario, which she considered one of her most satisfying achievements, and the Princess in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, which brought her a Tony award. Towards the end of the decade she was a remarkable Mme Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard in New York. This was directed by a then unknown Romanian, Andrei Serban, who had spent time working with Peter Brook during his Iran period and, apart from Worth, it brought to the stage an unknown actress named Meryl Streep.

Her homecoming to London was in 1984. Peter Hall invited her to play Volumnia in Coriolanus, with Ian McKellan in the title role. The part fitted her perfectly, and Worth had no trouble returning to the company which she had left thirty years before. The impresario Joseph Papp persuaded her to repeat Volumnia on Broadway.

During the mid 1960s in New York Gielgud and Worth collaborated in dramatic readings first from Eliot and Edith Sitwell and then from Shakespeare. It was a form of theatre at which she became more and more skilled as she grew older, drawing from Virginia Woolf, Turgenev and Noel Coward among others. She was proud that she was in Coward’s last play Suite in Three Keys, which also marked his last appearance on stage. One of her last appearances was in I Take Your Hand in Mine, based on the love letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, in September 2001, at the Almeida Theatre. Irene Worth had been appointed Hon CBE in 1975.

She was unmarried.

Irene Worth, American stage and screen actress, was born on June 23, 1916. She died in New York on March 9, 2002, aged 85.


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