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RIP Marian Seldes (1928–2014), the epitome of theater

By
Adam Feldman
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The death of Marian Seldes yesterday, at the age of 86, is a profound spiritual loss to New York City. A magnificent theater actor, Seldes never coasted on her formidable powers of enchantment, but strove to communicate a sense of reverence for the stage as a sacred calling. She was everyone’s dream of a Theater Person: elegantly witty, grand yet gracious, her ethereal artistry balanced by quotidian care for craft. She brought an aura of history everywhere she went; now she’s gone, and it feels as though a ghost light has been turned off.

Seldes made her Broadway debut in 1947, in a production of Medea that starred Judith Anderson and John Gielgud, and made her final Broadway bow opposite Angela Lansbury in 2007’s Deuce. She originated multiple Edward Albee roles. She earned five Tony nominations—including one win, for 1966’s A Delicate Balance—plus a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010 and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for not missing a single performance in her four-year run in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. (Magical though she seemed, she was also a workhorse. A work Pegasus.)

Her superb skill onstage was equaled by her class, generosity and lushly cultivated style. The daughter of a theater critic, she was steeped in drama, with an Edwardian edge, as though she had just stepped out of an Edward Gorey panel. Her voice was a deep, precise, extended sigh; she wore velvets and purples like no one else. (She could even pull off a cape and cowl.) In her decades on the drama faculty of Juilliard, she helped impart her sensibility to a generation of performers, and she was loved—adored—like few others in the theater community. “When I say she was an angel I mean she was literally an angel on this earth,” wrote the playwright David Adjmi on Facebook yesterday. “No one will ever match her. No one.”

To meet Marian was to be touched by her, often literally. Our first encounter was at the Algonquin Hotel, about a decade ago. She was at a cabaret show—when she wasn’t busy performing, she was often in the audience—and I stopped by her table to thank her for several performances of hers that I had treasured. “No, no, my dear,” she said, reaching up to gently press the back of her hand against my cheek. “It is I who must thank you.” She was a marvelous creature.

Over the next few years I saw her often. I was president of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and she was the group's unofficial mascot, the incarnation of the values we aspired to promote; for years, Marian presented an award at the NYDCC’s award ceremony in the spring. I got to act opposite her several times as well, in staged readings of the Christopher Durang short Nina in the Morning. During a talkback session for that show, I made the mistake of praising her at the tacit expense of another actor who had played her role at another performance. Out of the audience’s view, she shot me a glance of stern reproach: It was bad form of me, in my actor hat, to denigrate a former costar in public. She was right, and I was duly abashed.

At the 2010 NYDCC ceremony, she was to toast John Simon on his 85th birthday. By then she was physically frail—it would be the last time she could attend the event—and seemed, for the first time in our acquaintance, a bit vague. I was concerned that she would not be up to the demands of making her speech, but I needn’t have worried. As soon as I announced her name, her body seemed possessed by new energy, a spirit of the stage; she strode to the podium sans her cane, made a quick, self-deprecating joke—“She’s here, again?”—and delivered a lovely, pitch-perfect tribute to John.

Later, I complimented the dress she was wearing. “It’s an old costume!” she replied. “I don’t have any clothing!” That was Marian in a nutshell. There was no space between her and the stage: theater and person, person and theater, ghost and light, light and ghost.

Broadway marquees will dim for Marian Seldes on Wednesday, October 8, at 7:45pm.

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