Obituary: Lucille Lortel

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LUCILLE LORTEL earned the name "Queen of Off-Broadway" by using her immense wealth to champion new writers and produce plays considered too off-beat or experimental for the mainstream theatres. She had an enviable gift for spotting innovative talent, promoting the careers in America of Ionesco, Albee, Mamet, Genet, Beckett, O'Casey, Whiting, Fugard, Shepard and Brecht.

"Off-Broadway has always seemed a more appropriate place for the kind of theatre I like," she once said. "New playwrights, neglected classics, adaptations of poetry, and things which are slightly off-beat." In the mid-Fifties, one of her off-beat productions considered a commercial risk, the Weill-Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera, was a massive hit, running for seven years.

An actress before she married a millionaire who insisted she stay home nights, Lortel channelled her theatrical enthusiasm into production, and her work was so distinguished that a gallery has been named after her in the Museum of the City of New York. The New York Library for the Performing Arts has a Lucille Lortel room, and in 1985 she became the first recipient of the Lee Strasberg Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The daughter of Harry Wadler, a manufacturer of women's clothes, and his wife Anna Mayo, she was born Lucille Wadler in New York City in 1900, though she preferred not to acknowledge her date of birth. "Age is a number," she said, "and mine is unlisted." She was tutored at home, and then attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art, after which she was sent in 1921 to study in Berlin with Max Reinhardt and the American drama teacher Arnold Kopf. She returned in 1924 to join a stock company in Albany, New York and made her Broadway debut the following year in Two By Two. (She had by now become Lucille Lortel in the belief that actresses should have alliterative names.)

In a Theatre Guild production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1925) starring Helen Hayes and Lionel Atwill, she was a hand-maiden. Several shows later she had a leading part in The Man Who Laughed Last, repeating her role in a 1930 film version. After appearing on Broadway as a French Maid in The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1932) with Claude Rains and Jean Arthur, she retired from the stage, having married the previous year the fabulously rich chemical engineer Louis Schweitzer aboard the great ocean liner SS Leviathan, though until 1939 she acted in movie shorts filmed in Brooklyn during the afternoons (one critic called the doe-eyed, dark-haired beauty "a cinematic sexpot").

During the Second World War she bought a big white barn and moved it to the Schweitzers' 18-acre estate in Westport, Connecticut, ostensibly to provide a home for horses. Using a shortage of grain as an excuse, Lortel persuaded her husband to let her turn the barn into a theatre, and in 1947 it opened as the White Barn with a series of play readings, attended by the cream of the theatre world.

Initially little more than a raised platform with deckchairs for the audience, the theatre was gradually transformed into an impressive auditorium (with generous help from Louis) and quickly established itself as much more than just a summer theatre. Eva Le Gallienne taught there (Peter Falk, the star of Columbo, spoke his first words of Shakespeare in one of her classes) and plays which had their premiere there included Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, Sean O'Casey's Red Roses For Me, William Saroyan's Jim Dandy, Somerset Maugham's Loaves and Fishes, Tennessee Williams's Three Players of a Summer Game and John Whiting's Saint's Day.

Le Gallienne recalled: "When the White Barn began, it was to summer theatre what Off-Broadway is to the commercial theatre. An avowed pioneer, it proved that summer productions could be stimulating, avant-garde and enthusiastically received." Since there was no local hotel, Lortel would let the cast and crews stay on the estate, something of which her husband did not entirely approve, so as a 24th wedding anniversary present he bought his wife a small theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, the Theatre de Lys, one of the most amenable and charming of off-Broadway theatres.

Lortel's first production there, The Threepenny Opera, translated by Marc Blitzstein with a cast including Lotte Lenya and Beatrice Arthur, ran from 1955 to 1962. Though pleased the show was such a hit, Lortel was unhappy that its run restricted her ambition to mount several plays a year, so she began a series of matinee readings which were to run for 20 years. The first was a verse adaptation of Alan Paton's book Cry the Beloved Country, and many legendary performances followed, including Anna Sokolow's dance-drama Metamorphosis, Shakespeare in Harlem - a dramatisation of Langston Hughes's poetry - Richard Burton and Cathleen Nesbitt reading Dylan Thomas, Siobhan McKenna as Hamlet (a solo performance supported by off-stage voices), Helen Hayes in a Shakespeare anthology, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in a joint dramatic reading, plus rarely seen plays by Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Edward Albee, O'Casey and Ionesco.

After The Threepenny Opera closed, Lortel produced over 500 plays at the theatre which in 1981 was renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre in her honour. A forthright liberal, Lortel made a point of employing blacklisted actors, and plays she produced included Larry Kramer's Destiny of Me, which dealt with Aids, and Athol Fugard's apartheid-themed Blood Knot.

A frequent visitor to Europe, Lortel once stated that she was strongly influenced by George Devine's work at the Royal Court and tried to bring a similar spirit to Off-Broadway. In Paris she met Jean Genet ("he was kind of strange" she said) and she brought him to the attention of American audiences with her production of The Balcony (1960). Other plays at the Lucille Lortel included David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, Sam Shepard's Buried Child, Betty Garrett's one-woman show, Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 (brilliantly directed by Tommy Tune) and Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, which was a big success.

"If you love the theatre you must be innovative," she once said. "You must try new ideas and new faces. That's the only way theatre can develop. You can't do it on Broadway because it costs too much. Off-Broadway you can afford to take a chance, and you must take a chance." Though she was co-founder of the American Shakespeare Festival, she rarely produced works of the Bard, stating, "Shakespeare's not a new writer, he doesn't need my help."

Louis Schweitzer, who died in 1971, never stopped lavishing gifts on his wife, and in 1956 became the first foreigner in 400 years to be allowed to buy a gondola in Venice, and was given permission to name it Lucille. After his death, Lortel resided mainly in New York at her mid- town apartment at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, maintaining her zest for the theatre and her sense of humour.

When a journalist reported last year that she would soon be 98 years old, she told a friend that she was furious, adding, "This will kill my love life!" She created the Lucille Lortel Fund for New Drama at Yale University to support the production of new plays, the Lucille Lortel Fellowship in Playwriting at Brown University in Rhode Island, made sizeable donations to dance and music groups and countless donations to scholarship and awards schemes. "I know that I keep saying that I am going to retire," she said a few years ago. "People keep approaching me with projects. Before I know it, I've said `yes' again. You could say I'm too busy to retire."

As Lortel once explained to a journalist, "Honey, I've got a one-track mind and it's theatre, theatre, theatre. I have no time for anything else."

Louise Wadler ("Lucille Lortel"), actress and theatre producer: born New York 16 December 1900; married 1931 Louis Schweitzer (died 1971); died New York 4 April 1999.