Friendship and the Love of Art

My new post at cac.ophony.org is up– a few thoughts on Marian Seldes’s visit to Baruch College yesterday. I’m pasting it below, or read the more-attractive original here.

Marian Seldes– actor, director, teacher, and journalist– was the guest lecturer at yesterday’s Clair Mason Women of Distinction Lecture Series. “Lecture” might be the wrong word to describe the event, however; Seldes, regal in a shimmering pink and purple flowery wrap-type dress (yes, hard to explain), presided over a fairly remarkable Q&A session. She began by putting her purpose right on the lectern: she was there to discuss the importance of the arts, and her career in the performing arts as about more than rewards and prizes: “To talk of theatre as friendship and love of the art.”

As if to illustrate this theme, Seldes had a posse of theatrical grande dames with her; seated in the front row were blockbuster stage actresses Angela Lansbury and Joan Copeland. Seldes would occasionally comment on their presence; “Angela, just seeing you there…calms me.”

Fantastic Four: Lansbury, Mason, Copeland, Seldes

After opening with a monologue by playwright John Arden about the blessings of art– “business and politics I leave to the crooks”– Seldes said firmly, “this is what I believe.” With that, she was done with her talk, and announced that she would answer any questions that anyone had– otherwise, she had not much else to say. As expected, the questions flowed from every corner of the audience, allowing Seldes to transfix with stories from her rich career, recollected with ample grace and humor; from her early aspirations as a ballerina, to studying with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse (“you don’t have to be nice to teach acting, but you have to be demanding”), to her well-known roles in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Peter Shaffer’s Equus, to her unfulfilled dream of playing Hecuba.

When asked by an audience member which women of distinction had made an impression on her own life, she recalled the head of Theatre at the Dalton School: “Her name was Mildred Geiger, and she was very important to me,” she said simply, and left it at that. While she was critical of the high prices of theatre tickets today, Seldes shaped a most non-judgmental, gratified, and appreciative theatrical figuration– one who is equally enthusiastic as a performer as well as an audience member. She is never bored at the theatre, she maintained, not even when watching a boring performance– there is always something, or someone, interesting to look at. “I think just watching other human beings is the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.” Soon, the final question was posed, there were flowers to present, and talk of a car waiting outside; time to go.

Later, I reflected on Seldes’s point of linking the individuality of actors to the plays they are in, taking the stance that the original cast is just one of the impossible-to-reproduce, ethereal aspects of the theatre. (When asked if Three Tall Women might be revived, she claimed it wouldn’t work without actress Myra Carter in one of the roles.) This insistence could make any of the younger audience members at yesterday’s talk pine for the opportunity to hop into the time machine and head for the box office circa 1967. I went home, curious for more Marian, and found a bizarre little trailer for a documentary on Seldes that somehow manages to capture just a piece of the intensity she brought to Baruch:

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