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KATHARINE WORTH (1922–2015)

Richard Allen Cave

© Richard Allen Cave, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0081.16

It was fitting that at the funeral of Katharine Worth, who died on 28th January 2015 at the age of ninety-two, her daughter quietly read The Wild Swans at Coole. It had been the poem that Katharine had chosen to read and discuss with a poetry group in the home where she spent the final months of her life. The echoes and resonances at that moment were many and various: recall of the years Katharine taught at the Yeats International Summer School at Sligo; realisation of the extent to which Yeats like those swans was a constant in Katharine’s life, absent for a while but always, dependably returning to consume her interest and commitment; awareness of the ripple-effect that her passionate endorsement of the need to stage Yeats’s plays had on students and theatre professionals who came under the spell of her persuasiveness.

There were, too, memories of her stringent but kindly critical voice as lecturer, editor, author, theatre director and of her eagerness to accept the challenge of joining in debate with any dissenter to her view that Yeats’s plays were theatrically dynamic, if the right conditions were met and the cultural context of his experiments with dramaturgy were understood. Beckett rather than Yeats might seem for many to be the figure who dominated the final years of her scholarship; and to some extent this is true, except it was precisely the study of Yeats’s drama in its Irish and international contexts that gave Katharine insight into how best to approach Beckett’s plays and their performative potentials at a time in the 1960s when (as her work on the panel creating and editing the Beckett sections of the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature showed her) more attention was being paid to his fiction.

Katharine’s first two book-length studies (the then required submissions for the M.A. as well as the Ph.D. degrees at the University of London in the 1950s, which she completed at Bedford College, working with Una Ellis-Fermor and Kathleen Tillotson) already showed the favoured direction her later publications would follow. On Shaw and Eugene O’Neill respectively, the theses did not discard traditional modes of literary criticism but extended them to embrace theatre history and nuanced appreciation of details of dramaturgy, particularly the visual dimensions of drama in performance.

This pioneering approach, strengthened over a number of ensuing monographs, prepared the way to engage readers imaginatively in the arts of performance; it became the hallmark of her quasi-improvisational lecturing style and informed at every level the construction of a syllabus for the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies that she in time established at Royal Holloway College in the University of London in 1978. It was to prove too to be the ideal approach to a study of Yeats’s drama: not avoiding the felicities of the verse or the searching philosophy that underpins his invention, but exploring how greatly elements of performance continually enhance one’s appreciation of them. Her quest was to establish the unity of Yeats’s dramatic vision.

Katharine’s first published monograph, Revolutions in Modern English Drama (London: G. Bell, 1972), would not appear at first glance to be advancing in a Yeatsian direction: it was a study of modern, chiefly English, playwriting but it elucidates challenging texts from the standpoint of their theatricality and (in terms of theatre history) from a wholly Yeatsian impulse, as encapsulated in her use in her chosen title of the word, ‘Revolutions’. She carefully glossed her deployment of the term as embracing more than political or social upheaval; rather she preferred the creative implications of Yeats’s pursuit of his philosophy of the gyres, in which change brought with it transformation, a return of the recognisably known that nonetheless encompassed a marked difference: the traditional reworked by a refreshingly individual vision. She examined in this light, for example, Pinter’s staging of Joyce’s Exiles (Mermaid Theatre, 1970) and John Barton’s revival of Murder in the Cathedral (Aldwych, 1972), which consciously presented the play for an age far less uniformly Christian than originally envisaged by Eliot. Provocatively Katharine highlighted the technical, thematic and stylistic links between Noël Coward and Pinter, between Shaw and both Osborne and Stoppard, and between Wilde, Stoppard again and Orton.

The focus throughout all the chapters is on production and performance as (especially when considering revivals) a reaching back to the circumstances surrounding a work’s initial staging, but also outwards to engage new, decidedly different audiences. New dramaturgy is continually examined in the context of the potential influences shaping its apparent originality. In many ways the book offers subtle (because not overly theorised) studies in the history of theatrical reception by not only audiences but also, and crucially, by playwrights in respect of their perception of and response to their predecessors’ achievements. Forty years on, the monograph remains a potent and evocative history of post-war English theatre of the sixties and seventies.

If Yeats is to be detected as a shaping presence behind the methodology of Revolutions, there is no denying his absolute centrality in The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (1978). From the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society it had always been part of Yeats’s ambition to create a theatre culture in Ireland that would provide as welcoming a stage for international as for Irish drama. It may have proved a struggle to achieve this in practical terms because of strong opposition from Yeats’s co-directors, but Katharine contended that on an inspirational level those same directors, Lady Gregory and Synge, were in fact open to international influences on their own creative work and usually on Yeats’s recommendation. The strictures on acting style and methods of stage presentation embraced at the Abbey after 1904 were quite alien to English techniques at the time but wholly in line with innovations especially in contemporary French theatre.

Katharine was the first fully to explore the impact of Maeterlinck on Yeats’s creativity as playwright and theatre director, mindful always of Yeats’s uncanny ability to resist outright imitation, preferring invariably to adapt his influences to his own particular needs and ends. The same was true of his search for a hieratic dramaturgy where, though a marked stylisation prevail, a passionate intensity might nonetheless steadily be evolved. When he found Noh as his ideal model with Ezra Pound’s help, again it was to work astonishing and highly original variations on the form. It was here that Katharine’s approach came into its own: the visual dimensions of this new style (the use of masks, the bringing of dance to convey states of ‘otherness’, the use of music, not just to create atmosphere, but often to control the movement of actors within the playing space) were far from easy to gauge from the text. Katharine not only elucidated their significance and evoked their impact but showed how crucial they were to a perception of the dramaturgical design and to the intimations of the poetry that shaped the dialogue. Katharine made an irrefutable case for seeing Yeats as absolutely a man in and of the theatre.

But Yeats is only one privileged name in Katharine’s title; Beckett is also present there; and one great strength of the volume is the confidence with which Katharine places Beckett firmly within the continuities of Irish dramatic culture. She draws nuanced affinities between Synge’s plays and Beckett’s and subtly defines how the particular grounds on which she has assessed the excellences of Yeats’s richly varied dramas may be extended into as sensitive an appraisal of Beckett’s. She was wonderfully attuned to the manner in which the facial features of some of Beckett’s characters harden to become mask-like; to the near-choreographic patterning of stillness and movement in scripts that at times read almost like scores; to the musicality resonating on in voices that Beckett requires steadily to lose all vestiges of expression; to the poetry residing just beneath the surface of his prose; to the wit, stoicism and sheer inventiveness with which loss and approaching death are faced.

These qualities in Beckett’s work were to receive even more searching treatment in two of Katharine’s final publications: the highly personal monograph, Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys (1999), which explores both her longstanding engagement with his work as reader, spectator and critic, and their personal friendship, as recorded in their correspondence; and the remarkable and deeply moving essay, ‘Beckett’s Divine Comedy’ in Mary Luckhurst, A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama (Oxford, 2006).

The wealth of scholarship in theatrical history and the critical acumen that are the hallmarks of Katharine’s monographs were subsumed within her judicious editing for the Irish Dramatic Texts series of Yeats’s Where There is Nothing and The Unicorn from the Stars (1987), in which she demonstrates in her Introduction the relative merits of each of the versions (the latter tighter intellectually, the former dynamic and provocative) and she edits to highlight those elements in each text. Her annotations not only draw attention to textual cruces but also to thematic and dramaturgical parallels with Synge’s comedies and with earlier plays and poems by Yeats. Her account of Yeats’s sources and influences while composing the dramas at two different periods in his career (Blake, Spenser, Nietzsche, Vedanta, Tolstoy) illuminate the ways in which Yeats could ably transform what are chiefly intellectual materials into stageable dramatic situations as well as (by way of extended revision and often with Lady Gregory’s help) increasingly characterful dialogue.

Characteristically, Katharine finds grounds to redeem both plays as plays by revealing the theatrical vitality underlying their composition. The same is true of her monographs on two playwrights continually referenced throughout The Irish Drama of Europe. Oscar Wilde and Maurice Maeterlinck became themselves the subjects of intense and focused studies (published respectively in 1983 and 1985), partly as a consequence of researching and writing The Irish Drama of Europe, where Katharine had discovered how seminal their influences were. Wilde, generally at the time considered by critics and directors as markedly (almost exclusively) a verbal dramatist, she redeemed from such a limited view by demonstrating how complete a dramatist his texts show him to be, with his growing interest in effects of colour within the stage picture, in stage design and proxemics, in incorporating music and dance into the fabric of his dramas. To all appearances Maeterlinck is today a forgotten dramatist, but Katharine challenged that notion by approaching the range of his plays through the history of their performance, which she showed as being surprisingly steady and world-wide, varied in styles of presentation, richly open to imaginative interpretation, and demanding of actors, designers and directors many of the qualities she had earlier extolled as necessary for the adequate staging of Yeats’s work. Yeats may not feature strongly in either volume, but there is no denying how powerfully Katharine’s relish of the complex theatricality to be found in Yeats’s dramaturgy guided her intellectual and imaginative scrutiny of his older contemporaries as purposefully as her engagement subsequently with Beckett. Always in her work there is that concern for revolutions, a joy in daring innovation accompanied by the excited recognition of continuities. Read in sequence, her monographs define an ever-expanding web of connections.

Yeats may have retreated to the background of Katharine’s later published work, but she never lost her passion for his plays and poems, as generations of students and audiences to whom she lectured may attest; she continued to foster an enthusiasm in younger practitioners (Niema Ash, Sam and Joan McCready, and two of her colleagues, Poh-Sim Plowright and myself) where she recognised a developed practical ability that matched her commitment to see Yeats’s plays regularly staged; and she advised for many years on the editorial board of Yeats Annual, guiding scholars addressing aspects of Yeats’s dramaturgy with rigour and kindness, scruple and insight. Clarity of expression was the hallmark of her own style, though never at the expense of subtlety, nuance or wit. It falls to few critics to cultivate over time writing styles that are a close correlative of their actual speaking voices: Katharine Worth was so gifted. Her scholarship, framed in her distinctive ‘voice’ (the sense of her very presence in her style), is an enduring legacy.