Irene Worth, Honorary CBE (June 23 1916 - March 9 2002) was an American stage and screen actress who became one of the leading stars of the English and American theatre. She pronounced her given name with three syllables -- "I-REE-nee" -- and other actors are heard to use this pronunciation when referring to her at the Tony Awards ceremony and other public occasions.
Harriet Elizabeth Abrams
was born in Fairbury, Nebraska
descent. Her parents, Agnes Thiessen and Henry Abrams, were educators. They moved from Nebraska to California
in 1920. She was educated at Newport Harbor High School
, Costa Mesa, California, Santa Ana Junior College
, Santa Ana, California and UCLA
Shakespeare and the West End
She joined the Old Vic
company in 1951, worked with Tyrone Guthrie
and there played Desdemona
, Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream
, Portia in The Merchant of Venice
and her first Lady Macbeth
. The company went off to South Africa
with Worth as one of the leading ladies.
In 1953, she joined the fledgling Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario for its inaugural season. There she was the principal leading lady, partnering Alec Guinness in All's Well That Ends Well and Richard III - and performing in a tent. "Binkie" Beaumont brought her back to London in N. C. Hunter's "Chekhovian" drama, A Day by the Sea, with a cast that included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. She joined the Midland Theatre Company in Coventry for Ugo Betti's The Queen and the Rebels. Her transformation from "a rejected slut cowering at her lover's feet into a redemption of regal poise" ensured a transfer to London, where Kenneth Tynan wrote of her technique: "It is grandiose, heartfelt, marvellously controlled, clear as crystal and totally unmoving."
In the 1950s, Worth demonstrated her exceptional versatility by playing in the farce Hotel Paradiso in London with Alec Guinness, high tragedy in the title role of Schiller's Mary Stuart, co-starring Eva Le Gallienne; and on Broadway and Shakespearean comedy in As You Like It at Stratford, Ontario.
The RSC and the National
In 1962, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company
at the Aldwych Theatre
, and it was there that she gave some of her greatest performances. She was Goneril to Paul Scofield
's Lear in Peter Brook
's acclaimed King Lear
, the first of many collaborations with Brook. She repeated her Lady Macbeth and appeared again for Brook in Friedrich Dürrenmatt
's The Physicists
. Playing an asylum superintendent, she showed the darker side of her acting. She then went to New York in 1965 for the opening of Edward Albee
's enigmatic Tiny Alice
, in which she co-starred with Gielgud and which won her the first of her three Tony awards
She returned to the RSC at the Aldwych to repeat her role. She worked with Peter Brook in Paris and also toured Iran with Orghast, Brook's attempt to develop an international theatre language. She joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1968 to play Jocasta in Peter Brook's production of Seneca's Oedipus, again opposite Gielgud. She was proud to have been in Noel Coward's last play Suite in Three Keys, in which he himself made his last appearance on stage.
She spent most of the 1970s in North America, apart from a season at the Greenwich Theatre
in which she played Gertrude in Jonathan Miller
's production of Hamlet
. She played Hedda Gabler
at Stratford, Ontario, which she considered one of her most satisfying achievements and which prompted Walter Kerr
to write, in the New York Times
, "Miss Worth is just possibly the best actress in the world."
She played Princess Kosmonopolis in Tennessee Williams's
Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Christopher Walken, which brought her a second Tony award. She was Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, for which she received another Tony nomination and which brought to the stage an unknown actress named Meryl Streep. Towards the end of the decade she played Winnie, in Beckett's Happy Days.
She also appeared in the premiere of another Albee play, The Lady from Dubuque, but it closed after only twelve performances; a revival of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman and The Golden Age, by A.R. Gurney (which co-starred Stockard Channing).
The later years
In 1984, Peter Hall
invited her to return to the National Theatre to play Volumnia in Coriolanus
, with Ian McKellen
in the title role. The impresario Joseph Papp
persuaded her to repeat Volumnia on Broadway in a production by Steven Berkoff
when she was once again partnered by Christopher Walken as Coriolanus. She was also seen in David Hare
's The Bay at Nice
(National, 1987) and in Chère Maître
(New York, 1998 and Almeida, London 1999), compiled by Peter Eyre
from the letters of George Sand
and Gustave Flaubert
In 1991, she won a third Tony for her performance as the tough as nails Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers and later appeared in the film version.
In 1999, she appeared in the film Onegin. As she was about to begin preview performances in a Broadway revival of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon, Worth had a stroke and never appeared in the production. She continued to act, however, right up until September 2001, when one of her last appearances was with Paul Scofield at the Almeida Theatre in the two-handed play, I Take Your Hand in Mine, by Carol Rocamora based on the love letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper.
During the mid 1960s in New York, Worth and Gielgud had collaborated in a series of dramatic readings first from T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell
and then from Shakespeare. It was a form of theatre at which she became more adept as she grew older, drawing from Virginia Woolf
, Ivan Turgenev
and Noel Coward among others. She referred to them as "her recitals". In the mid 1990s, she devised and performed a two-hour monologue, Portrait of Edith Wharton
, based on Wharton
's life and writings. Using no props, costumes or sets, she created characters entirely through vocal means.
She died following a second stroke in a New York City
hospital, aged 85. At her memorial service, held at The Public Theater in New York City, speakers included Edward Albee, Christopher Walken, Mercedes Ruehl, Meryl Streep and Alan Rickman.
- Daily Mail Television Award The Lady from the Sea 1953 - 54
- British Film Academy Award Best British Actress Orders to Kill 1958
- Page One Award Toys in the Attic 1960
- Tony Actress (Dramatic) Tiny Alice 1965
- Evening Standard Award Suite in Three Keys 1966
- Variety Club of Great Britain Award Heartbreak House 1967
- Plays and Players London Theatre Critics Award Best Actress Heartbreak House 1967
- Irene Worth received an honorary CBE in 1975.
- Tony Actress in a Play Sweet Bird of Youth 1975 - 76
- Joseph Jefferson Award Best Actress in a Play Sweet Bird of Youth 1975 - 76
- Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Play The Cherry Orchard 1977
- OBIE Award Performance The Chalk Garden 1981 - 82
- OBIE Award Sustained Achievement 1988 - 89
- Tony Featured Actress in a Play Lost in Yonkers 1991
- Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Lost in Yonkers 1991
- One Night with You (1948 film debut)
- Orders to Kill (1958) with Lillian Gish, directed by Anthony Asquith
- The Scapegoat (1959) with Alec Guinness and Bette Davis
- Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) with a large cast including Janet Suzman, Michael Jayston, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave and Harry Andrews
- Happy Days (1980) (TV)
- Deathtrap (1982) with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, directed by Sidney Lumet
- Separate Tables (TV) (1983) with Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Claire Bloom, directed by John Schlesinger
- The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1984) (TV), directed by Elijah Moshinsky
- Onegin (1999) with Ralph Fiennes, Toby Stephens and Liv Tyler, directed by Martha Fiennes
- Lost in Yonkers (1993) with Richard Dreyfuss and Mercedes Ruehl