THE minutely observed novels of Edith Wharton (1862-1937) make the past so palpable, their author is often called the first social historian in American literature. The rustle of greenbacks and sighs of thwarted lovers are almost audible in the New York high society she portrayed. Through Feb. 27 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, a one-woman show by Irene Worth based on Wharton's writings brings this to life.
Worth's career spans a half-century of dramatic triumphs that amount to a history of the theater after World War II. Her leading men have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, and Alec Guinness, in plays penned by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and T.S. Eliot. Yet, for the 77-year-old actress, who has received three Tony Awards, the past is only germane as it illuminates the present.
Her goal in creating ``Portrait of Edith Wharton,'' Worth said in a recent interview in her flower-bedecked dressing room, was ``to give a glimpse of what an all-around woman Wharton was, how intrepid and brave, and what a great, bright mind she had.''
Worth's interest in Wharton preceded the recent flurry of attention catalyzed by Martin Scorsese's film ``The Age of Innocence.'' In the movie, Wharton's uppercrust, white-glove world of suffocating conventions seems as stale as yesterday's toast.
For Worth, however, dilemmas presented in Wharton's fiction are ``completely modern. We understand what Wharton is talking about because, although standards and mores change, we all have the same passions: love, hate, jealousy, anger, patience.''
In an age when genteel ladies were expected to be purely decorative, Wharton was modern in pursuing literary ambitions and producing trenchant criticism. ``All artists are outsiders, independent thinkers out of the mainstream of sheeplike behavior,'' Worth maintains. ``Therefore, they can observe the society in which they live, and underline and give comment.''
Today's pleasure-seeking society resembles in many ways Wharton's milieu, where robber barons paraded vulgarity as elegance. Worth, like Wharton, points out the hazards for a culture in which, as she says in the show, ``conspicuousness passes for distinction.''
``The most horrendous thing that has been invented in our society is hype,'' Worth says. ``It makes people live falsely and it makes people want the false. It has destroyed honesty and simplicity.''
To correct an excess of me-first egotism in American culture, Wharton would recommend, Worth says, ``discipline.'' She adds, ``That does not necessarily mean being corseted or rigid. It has to do with good manners and respect for the other person. When we consider the other person more than ourselves,'' she says, ``we will find a society that is not dropping rubbish on the street and generally breaking the laws of tribal behavior.''
``We have to be careful what kind of society we build for our children,'' Worth says. She predicts that children will grow up as misfits, ``if at age 11, they are cynical, without faith or trust, and full of revenge.''
Worth is quicker to defend the United States, however, than Wharton, for whom Europe represented the epitome of civilization. ``The American landscape has no foreground,'' Wharton said, ``and the American mind no background.'' According to Worth, who was born in Nebraska and lived in London 34 years, ``America is not remotely shallow. It just expresses itself in a different manner. America has a stability and honesty that are quite rare and wonderful.''
American society flounders, however, in Worth's opinion as well as in Wharton's, in that ``its attitude towards sex is still very awkward. Wharton felt very passionate about the fight for female liberation,'' says Worth, who includes a fragment of erotica by the writer in her program. ``She writes of sex with so much respect and thankfulness,'' yet in the United States today, ``it's as though sex had some stigma on it, instead of being the most basic part of our natures.''
Wharton, who divorced her husband at a time when divorce was scandalous, learned, Worth says, that ``everything has a price.'' Her writings stressed ``what courage it takes to break the rules of a narrow-minded society,'' Worth says, and the ``tragic loss of fulfillment for those who waste their lives through cowardice.''
Worth's on-stage recital and backstage ruminations cast a thought-provoking light on where we've been and where we're going. The complex portrait does justice to Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Her friend Henry James said of her, ``What a woman! Her imagination boggles at nothing!'' A tireless writer, at age 75 Wharton still scribbled away, turning her experiences into allegories of entrapment.
Delivering Wharton's lines in a silvery diction that elevates the listener to Olympian heights, Worth, too, seems tireless and ageless. ``An artist is never fulfilled,'' she says, citing the boundless creativity of her distinguished friends like Gielgud. ``He's always working and working,'' Worth says. ``He wants to go on with the craft he knows so well and give this very rich emotional life he lives'' to the public.
For Irene Worth, as for Edith Wharton, each a grande dame of their respective arts, age has nothing to do with retreat but marks the widening of life into, as Wharton wrote in her autobiography, ``A Backward Glance,'' ``usefulness and beauty.''