Prof. Emeritus Kenneth Northcott lived a vibrant existence, which was often filled with drama—in the classroom, on the stage, and in the British Intelligence Corps after World War II.
A renowned University of Chicago scholar of Germanic studies, actor and translator of significant authors, Northcott passed away June 4 in Chicago at age 96.
“Northcott stood out for his brilliance as a teacher, translator, and actor and for his warmth and outgoing personality,” said Françoise Meltzer, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, the Divinity School and the College. “His translations from German to English of important writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Siegfried Unseld are an immensely significant contribution to the humanities and scholarship.”
His inspired translations of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997), Walking (2003, 2015), Three Novellas (2003), and Histrionics: Three Plays (1990) remain in print. “Kenneth was always the first translator we approached when considering a work in German,” recalled Alan Thomas, editorial director of the UChicago Press. “Although he was a medievalist by training and translated several specialized studies for us, Kenneth’s greatest achievement was his brilliant translations of the 20th-century writer Thomas Bernhard. Kenneth’s linguistic resourcefulness, sly humor, and experience with the theater made him a perfect match for Bernhard.”
For 28 years, Northcott taught medieval German scholarship to UChicago students. “I know his expertise in both Old German and Middle High German won him international respect,” said colleague Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School. “He was particularly interested in Middle High German poetry, especially of the Minnesingers, the lyric poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. Kenneth was extremely generous with his time and sharing his knowledge with students because I sent him several students from the Divinity School who needed to get basic knowledge of High Middle German for their dissertations.”
As an actor and occasional director, Northcott had roles in plays at diverse venues, including the Court Theatre, University Theatre, Hull House, Pegasus Players, National Radio Theatre, Wisdom Bridge, City Lit, Chicago Theatre on the Air and NBC TV. Like the late Nicholas Rudall, who directed him in several plays at Court Theatre, Northcott lived as a scholar by day and an actor by night.
“I first saw Kenneth when I was in high school in a TV production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter,” Meltzer said. “The play only has two actors, and Kenneth made a profound impression on me. I never imagined that he would later become my close friend.”
‘A shoo-in as an interrogator’
Northcott was born Nov. 25, 1922, in London. At the age of 12, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, which advanced him on the path toward becoming a professor. During World War II, Northcott served in the British Army’s Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from 1942 to 1945 and later in Germany as an interrogator in the Intelligence Corps from 1945 to 1946.
“Kenneth was a shoo-in as an interrogator because he spoke fluent German and French—there were plenty of French collaborators to deal with,” said his wife, Patricia John Northcott. “He interrogated lower-level people suspected of war crimes—mostly crimes against Jews. The methods he used were much more timid than the ones favored by the U.S. military today. The stick was using bright lights and waking suspects up at 3 a.m. and marching them around the compound. The carrot was cigarettes.”
After the war, Northcott earned his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and master’s degree in 1952 from King’s College, University of London. Following teaching positions at the University of Glasgow and University of Sheffield, he arrived at the University of Chicago, first as a visiting assistant professor in 1958 before permanently joining the faculty in 1961. During his tenure, Northcott held varied administrative positions, including the dean of students in the Division of the Humanities, resident-master of Pierce Hall, and three terms as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures.
Actor’s ‘twinkling sense of mischief’
His acting career took off in the 1960s at several theaters in Chicago and on TV. In a New York Times’ review, Paul Gardner wrote of the 1965 performance of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter TV production, “Arthur Geffen and Kenneth Northcott of the Hull House Theatre in Chicago admirably conveyed the desperation and ennui of Pinter’s frightened characters.”
Subsequently, Northcott appeared in multiple productions at the Court Theatre, including Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1994), Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1991) and George Bernard Shaw’s You Can Never Tell (1983), for which he was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for best supporting actor.
“Northcott’s austere stage demeanor gave way backstage to a twinkling sense of mischief, the erudition always evident but also the utter lack of hierarchy or amour-propre, and a gently paternal sense of inclusion,” said Gavin Witt, a fellow actor in Measure for Measure and now associate director of Baltimore’s Center Stage. “He led by example, or would articulate gentle reproof with an arch obliqueness that I can only associate with a Wodehouse character.” The Wodehouse comparison is apt, as Northcott’s roles included Jeeves in a 1993 City Lit Theater (Chicago) production of Right Ho, Jeeves!
“We decided to host a cast party for the close of Right Ho, Jeeves!” Patricia John Northcott said. “The menu consisted of all the dishes in the play served up by Anatole, the French chef, such as ris de veau à la financière and nonettes de poulet Agnes Sorrel. The party is spoken of to this day.”
In addition to his wife, Northcott is survived by children Victoria, Julian, Michael and Felicity; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.