As tradition's actor-playwright-managers knew -- Shakespeare and Moliere, Irving and Booth -- art needs commerce. But the 20th century has complicated all that -- more expensive paper money, more crafts people, more audiences, more potential profits, more spinoffs and more dead-end playwrights.

Enter the play, or literary, agent. So effective was Audrey Wood, who died Friday in a Fairfield, Conn., nursing home at the age of 80, that she truly had no peer. For more than 40 years she spotted the true gifts -- in such hitherto unknown playwrights as Tennessee Williams, Robert Anderson, Preston Jones, Arthur Kopit, Carson McCullers and Brian Friel.

Hers were the first professional eyes to recognize that certain words of our major playwrights could be transferred effectively into three dimensions. She was the one who chose for these singular creators the equally singular producers she sensed would do the most for them, a little-considered aspect of agentry. When word got around that Audrey Wood was interested in some new script, she was as importuned as the goddess Ceres by canny impresarios bearing divine moneybags.

So one might have expected Audrey Wood to be larger than life, a physical fusion of Gertrude Stein, Lady Macbeth and Margaret Dumont -- perceptive, peremptory, unassailable and with a club in her hand. She was no such thing. Barely taller than that tiniest of geniuses, Anita Loos, Audrey had the vocal calm of Lillian Gish, and she could make the most startling statements sound sensibly matter-of-fact. Audrey's is a flaming spirit embodied in a teddy bear.

A theater manager's daughter, she began her theater-going as an infant and 70 years later remained, as she admitted, "hopelessly, constantly, on a 24-hour-daily basis, stagestruck." After her father's death she tried acting, halfheartedly it seemed, but gave it up because she was too honest. She could kid neither herself nor others.

Audrey's unblinking realism hit me after the New York opening of Kopit's "Indians." Having admired its previous Arena Stage production, I'd decided to report on its fate from the angle of the Blaine Thompson ad agency on Sardi's 10th floor. A handful of people intimately involved with the production were in the rooms, while public relations master Harvey Sabinson clicked the TV dials and culled the notices from his newspaper composing-room sources.

"Grimly fascinating," "our theater has come alive again," "magnificently played," "intelligent and provocative," "superbly arresting" and "marathon dimensions," ran the heady gamut. Audrey, first to read the words that had inspired such hosannas, cautioned: "Very nice. But wait until tomorrow morning. If there's not a line in the Brooks Atkinson lobby at 10 o'clock, we're sunk." I got there at 10 and found three people. "Indians" got only 96 New York performances, a fiscal disaster.

In the spring of 1984 Kopit, her longtime client, used Audrey as his agent-character in "End of the World: With Symposium to Follow," which was performed at the Eisenhower Theater before its brief New York run. Kopit called this pivotal character "Audrey Wood," though he dubbed others, himself included, with fictional names. Linda Hunt, who had just won a screen Oscar, played Audrey, and to those who knew the real Audrey, she proved a dauntingly accurate figure, even to her own diminutive size.

Though she was born just off Times Square -- "Nine thousand plays ago . . . the year was 1905" -- and though her memorable husband and partner, William Liebling, was as compleat a New Yorker, she has had a vital awareness of the whole of the United States, the South of Williams, the Midwest of Inge, the Texas of Preston Jones.

How things can go wrong forms some of the dramatic scenes of Audrey Wood's career. How they might be right has been her vision throughout. But in all of the plays she has represented, she has had a faith, the serenity that comes after the ringing of a bell that only she can hear. In plays from "Room Service" to "Battle of Angels" to "Wings" and "Sarah in America," she has empathized with the spirit of those scripts she has read in 57th Street or Westport loneliness. She withheld productions and conceivably even was wrong about her choices. But who else has influenced so doggedly the transference to the world's imaginations such vivid characters and scenes as her authors have created?