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Winifred Lenihan



The actress who in 1923 created the role of Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan," Winifred Lenihan shaped the art of American acting as director of the Theatre Guild School in the early 1920s. A Brooklynite born into a family not much interested in theater, she saw her first play at age fifteen, Maude Adams in "Peter Pan," an experience that ignited her imagination. Against her family's wishes, she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

Lenihan first appeared on the New York stage in a minor role in "The Blue Bird," and after graduating joined Jessie Bonstelle's summer stock company, in which the young Katherine Cornell was also a member. Her first lead was with Richard Mansfield in "For the Defense," which proved a singularly wretched introduction to life in the theater. When she followed this with "Survival of the Fittest" which some critics declared "the worst play that New York had ever seen," only a summer with the Providence Stock Company saved her from abandoning the stage. A modest success in "The Dover Road" had her primed for a tryout with the Theatre Guild which was casting "Failures," the play that would launch her distinguished career.

She memorably limned "Major Barbara," but acting interested her less than directing and teaching. She worked in radio in the 1930s, experimenting with the adaptation of American literary classics to dialogue, and became a master of orchestrating vocal polyphony. She was a notoriously demanding director. In 1940 she became one of the members of the governing council of Actor's Equity. David S. Shields/ALS