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Banking on the Unknown

Long-Distance Runner

Rarely unemployed, and always fabulous, Marian Seldes talks to David Finkle about her remarkable career.

By New York City

Marian Seldes
Marian Seldes
"If I say I will do a play, I mean as long as the play goes," Marian Seldes insists. It's not a sentiment most actresses express so adamantly, if at all, nowadays. But then again, Marian Seldes is not most actresses. She's been performing on the New York stage since 1947, when she had a walk-on assignment in Medea with Judith Anderson in the title role. In the early years, the veteran also worked with Katherine Cornell, John Gielgud, Alfred Lunt. And if she wasn't appearing beside them or under their direction, she was seeing them. The great Laurette Taylor? "I saw her three times in The Glass Menagerie," Seldes says, and her eyes lift in near-religious ecstasy.

Tall, angular, her beauty a matter of chiseled features and high cheek bones and a certain theatrical bearing, Seldes is recalling her earliest days in an interview that takes place during her stint in Theresa Rebeck's The Butterfly Collection, which has since ended its run at Playwrights Horizons. The drama about a frustrated Nobel Prize-winning novelist, his conciliating wife (the Seldes part), and his oppressed family received mixed reviews at best, but Seldes doesn't by any means regret her involvement in the project. "I wanted to do [the role] because I loved the play," she states, "and because I wanted to play a real person who lives today, is a part of today's world. So often, I'm in plays of the past, which I adore; but when you get an opportunity [to be in a play] where the behavior is what we see today, it's lucky for me. I felt lucky to be chosen."

Seldes (who pronounces her name SEL-dess, not SEL-dees) is explaining all this in the front row of the auditorium where she's been performing. She's talking into a tape recorder in a soft voice, almost as if speaking loudly would disturb the theater gods she worships. Having been offered the chance to conduct the tete-a-tete on stage--where a comfortable divan and chair and table sit waiting for use later--she had declined. It's obvious that she considers usurping the set for something other than its vaunted purpose a clear violation of sacred space.

Since Seldes is the daughter of the noted critic Gilbert Seldes, and since she was married to the celebrated writer and director Garson Kanin in the final years of his spectacular life, she might have based her characterization in The Butterfly Collection on her own experiences. But she insists that this was not the case. "Theresa Rebeck invented this writer that was so real as played by Brian Murray," she says. "It wasn't necessary for me to imagine anything, because [the playwright] provided it all. She provided the love the woman has for him." Furthermore, Seldes didn't draw on the men in her life because "neither my father nor my husband were eccentric or demanding or combative. It wasn't the same."

Seldes very much enjoyed playing the loving, conflicted Margaret. "This play should have had a longer run," she says, "and it will in other places, of course. But I had hoped it could run longer here. It's an extraordinary company. We're very close. We all believe in the play."

Certainly, the show's brief run doesn't stand much comparison to Seldes' famous endurance test in Ira Levin's Deathtrap,, which she played "something over or around 1500" times on Broadway. "Deathtrap was a phenomenon in my life," she recalls as a look of great earnestness crosses her face. "In the first place, I was only in one act of it. I was in a beautiful theater--the Music Box--and given two rooms that I could work in, write in, rest in. I had a home there. Although I stayed with the play until it closed, everyone else changed. So I was never in the same situation endlessly. The same with Equus: I was in Equus for three years, and by the time that closed, everyone else had changed, too. During those eight years, I was teaching at Juilliard and I was not married. It was an amazingly fruitful existence."

Aside from her long-term commitments to plays, Seldes has a long-term commitment to one particular playwright: Edward Albee. She was in the original cast of A Delicate Balance, understudied Irene Worth in Tiny Alice (it was Worth whom she replaced two seasons ago in Ring Round the Moon), eventually played two of the roles in Three Tall Women and, most recently, was in Houston doing the American premiere of The Play About the Baby, which will be reprised in Manhattan as soon as the producers find the right theater.

Reminiscing on her association with Albee, she flashes on the first day of rehearsals on A Delicate Balance, which were held at Albee's Village house: "It occurred to me on the way there that, years ago, people must have thought, 'I'm going to a rehearsal of a Chekhov play or an Ibsen play.' I was absolutely in awe of Edward. I still am--although, of course, I feel much closer to him. I think his work is marvelous. If you're lucky and if you work with living playwrights, as I'm doing now, the playwright is there all the time. It's exactly what you want--the fact that they are there--but there's also a kind of terror that you won't fulfill the task."

Albee directed The Play About the Baby in Houston, but will be replaced by David Esbjornson in New York. Seldes, however, has no brief against playwrights directing their own work. "I'm quite biased about that," she says, "because Garson Kanin, I think, had he not written a word, was one of the finest directors in the American theater. The Diary of Anne Frank was simply a landmark, and I think also the direction of his own play, Born Yesterday." Seldes, who hasn't been out of work a day since Kanin's death, still feels his presence. She says, "It's the strangest thing. Since Garson died, it's as if he just had arranged my life for me. I'm working on things I've adored doing."

As a young girl who regularly went to theater and movies with the rest of her family and who later acted and taught for 22 years (1969-1991) at Juilliard, Seldes has honed her professional responses to acting and the stage. Asked whether great acting can truly be taught, she responds with no hesitation whatsoever: "No. It's a God-given talent. You can't teach it any more than you can teach someone to fall in love, or teach someone to like the taste of something they hate. It's just there." She says about that fabled Taylor interpretation of Amanda Wingfield, "You thought she was inventing it. It's the greatest tribute to Tennessee Williams that this artist, Laurette Taylor, could make it seem as if she was simply saying what that woman said--not an actress playing a character."

Seldes, who has been known to give a full court bow to people she admires, stops to think more about the subject. "There are other performances. Kim Stanley in a play called Cheri was simply breathtaking. I had to go back and see it, because I couldn't believe it; the skin, the way she breathed. Here's the word for Laurette Taylor and Kim Stanley: transformation. They transformed themselves into these characters, and it's thrilling to see. There are different kinds of transformation. There are actors who don't seem to change physically at all, but just by their intention are different--completely and utterly different." For the record, it should be noted that even though she believes great acting can't be taught, Seldes' list of students from her Juilliard scene-study years includes Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey, Harriet Harris, Frances Conroy, Derek Smith, and William Hurt, who's "a great favorite of mine."

Betsy Aidem, Reed Birney, and Marian Seldesin The Butterfly Collection(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Betsy Aidem, Reed Birney, and Marian Seldes
in The Butterfly Collection
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
About her own career, though, she isn't entirely starry-eyed. "I wanted to play every character in Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare, and I haven't," she says. "The career I dreamed didn't happen. I would love to say to you, 'I've played Elektra, I've played Iphigenia, I've played Clytemnestra, I've played Catherine of Aragon.' That's a kind of fantasy. I thought that's what the theater was and would be. Before I could grow up fast enough, it seemed to have gone; but I'm not sad, because the other opportunities were so wonderful. If you said to me, 'You have to stop now, this is it,' I can't complain. And it's as much the people I've worked with as what I've been able to do."

It's clear as a curtain rising that Seldes could write a book--and she has done so, twice: Bright Lights and Time Together. She could go on and on chronicling what she learned from John Gielgud ("I didn't take one second in his presence for granted") and Alfred Lunt ("He was fearless, he trusted his own instincts and his own talent"). But it's getting toward show time, and technicians have arrived to run a lighting check.

Seldes gazes at the flickering shadows and says, "I love all this. I love the fact that they test the lights every night--that each night is the first time."


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