Katharine Worth was born on 4 August 1922 in Newcastle upon Tyne and brought up in Northumberland. Although she won a scholarship to Bedlington High School, she left at 16 to sit the Civil Service entry exam. While working as a junior civil servant, she embarked on an English degree through a correspondence course with the University of London, following this up with a master’s by research dissertation on George Bernard Shaw at Bedford College, University of London, and a PhD on Eugene O’Neill.
In the early stages of her career, Professor Worth combined work with raising a family and lectured part-time in drama and theatre history at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, and for the university’s department of extramural studies. In 1963, however, she became a lecturer in English literature at what is now Royal Holloway, University of London. She went on to become the University of London’s first professor of drama and the first woman in the country to hold such a title.
In terms of research interests, Professor Worth focused on modern, and particularly Irish, drama. In Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys (1999), for example, she stressed the Irishness of even Beckett’s French-language texts and disputed the bleaker interpretations of his plays, pointing to the ways that music hall routines and gags always disrupt, puncture and modify their pessimism and despair in performance.
“Charming, tenacious and utterly determined…Katharine combined career, rigorous scholarship and family commitment with (apparent) unruffled calm,” recalls Liz Schafer, professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway. “Anyone who can persuade Samuel Beckett – who never allowed anything to be changed – to agree to his short story Company being adapted for the stage deserves respect.
“In setting up a drama department in what had been the physics building, a Regency villa, Katharine colonised a maverick ‘found space’ and amidst the decommissioned gas taps and English Heritage grade II-listed furnishings she nurtured some extraordinary theatre – plays by Beckett, Cicely Hamilton, Lady Gregory, even W. B. Yeats’ demanding dance plays. Her ability to work so productively with actors and directors was extraordinary.”
Although notionally retired from 1987, Professor Worth continued to publish and directed staged readings of the plays behind the operas as part of the Royal Opera House’s Verdi Festival (1995-2001).
She died of a viral infection on 28 January and is survived by two sons and a daughter.