(August 23, 1928 - October 6, 2014)
When the brilliant actress Marian Seldes died, the New York Times obituary referred to her as a 'regal personality' in New York theatre for more than six decades in plays ranging from whodunits to the work of
Tennessee Williams (The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) and, especially Edward Albee (A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, Tiny Alice).
Perhaps she is best known as the actress who never missed a performance. Understudies were told up front they never would go on for her. She co-starred in Ira Levin's 1978 thriller Deathtrap for almost 1800
performances and earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
She performed more than 900 times in Peter Shaffer's Equus. In 2005 she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 2010 she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the
Tony Awards ceremony.
MARIAN AND ME
I was fortunate to be in the very packed Players Grill on June 19, 1997 when she reminisced about her life and career. Her talk was filled with wit, wisdom, a sharp sense of humor, passion, humility and most of all her love for her beloved husband Garson Kanin whose extensive writing credits included Born Yesterday,
Three Men on a Horse, Do Re Mi and five film scripts for Tracy and Hepburn.
She married Garson in 1990 after his marriage to actress and playwright Ruth Gordon for 32 years ended with her death. This evening marked their seventh anniversary. She referred to their marriage as 'an amazing experience which caused her life to rhyme'.
I taped her conversation and sent it to her for review and corrections. She returned it with her edits in red ink and a note thanking me, adding "I've gone over this very quickly because I'm about to go into rehearsal for IVANOV at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre." Kevin Kline who played the title role had been one of
her students at Juilliard.
MS. SELDES IN HER OWN WORDS
"I am a lover of books, a lover of poetry, a lover of art--I mean literature, the theatre, music, painting, ballet, opera. All art is an expression of what is best about each and every one of us. My belief is that art is a solace, art is a benediction. My prayers are for more Shakespeares and George Eliots. There is not a thought in my head, not a feeling in my body that art hasn't in one way or another informed and fired. I believe there is a chance that art might, just might turn the whole world upside down."
The theatre that I began in the late forties was the theatre that I had dreamed of and the theatre I thought would go on forever. Talk about denial! I thought I would do all the great classic plays and that would be my life. It never occurred to me that people wouldn't want to see them. Or that they wouldn't be done. I realized what would be greater than being in classic plays would be to create parts in new plays.
I wanted to be a dancer. When I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse I studied with
Martha Graham and it changed my life. She was a great teacher and I could do modern dance. I wasn't afraid of it. I think because I am tall and I think because all you've got is yourself. I was terribly lucky that I had the dream of wanting to be a dancer because it is not just important to move well, but also to not be afraid to move.
Early in my career I was told I was too tall and I would never play opposite anybody and if you listen to that you can jump in the river. Those things are so insignificant really. They are only significant when they keep you from working.
I really dreamed of a kind of transcendent career. Every year I would be in a great play with a great part. I mean I lived in a dream. Lucille Lortel called me up one day and said I am going to do a play about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I am fortunate enough to have had a father who knew Gertrude Stein and so I read her always. I knew Lucille was going to give me a chance to play Gertrude and she said "And I want you to play Alice B. Toklas." I thought she knows me and what I can do. I have never had such an experience in my life as in that part. I went into my father's world, a world of Paris in the twenties when you could live on writing words and the romance and the greatness of their love. I just adored it. I mention it because you don't always know what you should play. You don't always know what you can play.
FRIGHTENED OF FAILURE
I have a reputation in the business for never missing a performance. As a child I never missed school. It really isn't anything to do with acting. I try not to take on anything I cannot do. I'm frightened of failure. I'm frightened of not getting someplace on time, of not showing up. I have tremendous anxieties so that my way of quelling them is to establish a record I cannot break. The other part is childish too. It is sort of your own part. From the time you play it, it is really yours.
Death Trap was the first play I was in in which the excitement of the audience was almost palpable. The shrieking and screaming would be there every night and it was extremely exciting. It was a wonderful experience to do and I loved it. When people say, well you were in it 1,800 times, I never say well I was in half of it, because of course they killed me. You might ask me why I stayed so long in the play. I am going to tell you the truth and it troubles me in a way. Because nothing else came my way! I wasn't really looking for a world record. I would have gone. But I am not good at seeking things out and I am not good at self-promotion. I'd have gone, but if I could live the Death Trap experience over again, I would have fired my agent and I would be a really big star now.
I didn't mind. I was teaching at Juilliard the whole time. I had an amazing life. I had those great students and that really wonderful school and this sort of organized life in the play. I never made money in the theatre. I made enough to buy an apartment.
WORKING WITH GREAT ACTORS
Another answer to the question to why did I stay? There were only these two plays (Death Trap and Equus) that I stayed in so long. Everybody else left (not because of me)! But I was playing with an amazing number of other actors and in the case of both plays--some major actors. I don't think you would give up acting with Richard Burton or Stacy Keach or Anthony Perkins.
When I see a cast list of anything I am going to be in, I want someone to be there who is remarkable. For the first ten or fifteen years of my career, the actors, the directors, the scene designers were remarkable people. I have to force myself not to live in the past. I was born in New York and Broadway is the theatre from my own heart in the city where I live. That in my life I could have been in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Peter Shaffer, and more recently Edward Albee-I have been so lucky. And the idea of having an actual living playwright in the case of Garson.
Garson's play Happy Ending is about a couple something like the Lunts, so revered, who are coming to the end of their lives and their careers in the theatre. I played it with Peter Donat who has some of that incredible sweetness that men have, that thing that draws you to them. Burton had it too, to an extent that your heart stopped. When he looked at me he said "You're very tall!" and I said "Well there's nothing wrong with that." He never mentioned it again.
Because I never got to do all the parts I dreamed of playing, maybe it has made me see that is another way to love the theatre. To do whatever comes along. I had three lines as Eleanor Roosevelt in
Truman, but I got to work with Lee Richardson. I feel about him and his work and about his life in the theatre the way I felt about people's pictures I cut out of magazines when I was a kid.
I married Garson Kanin, and there you are.