Daniel Seltzer

Faculty Profile

In his senior year at Princeton in 1954, Daniel Seltzer, assistant professor of English, wrote a thesis that was nearly six hundred pages long (don't put that down as if I were proud of it"). Dealing with "royal themes--the characterization of moral ideas on the stage," the thesis was for Seltzer a "kind of catharsis," and he now looks back with Joycean delight at the comment of his roommate who suggested that "I put the thing on casters."

As an undergraduate, Daniel Selzer, acting director of the Loeb, was president of Theatre Intime, "an affected name for the Princeton equivalent of the HDC." And as an actor in student productions, Daniel Selzer, widely acclaimed for his performance as Falstaff last spring portrayed Tartuffe, Iago, and Henry IV.

Continuity seems to mark Seltzer's career, and if anything unifies his varied roles as teacher, actor, director, and writer, it is his abiding dislike of professionalism. Characterizing his life in the theater as a "love-hate relationship," he emphasizes that "there are aspects of the professional theater which appall me." Most simply, he decries the "big business of Broadway" which emphasizes a criterion of achievement "only incidently related to merit." And he finds the theater in "pretty dismal shape when we have to tout Albee as our leading playwright."

Although the London theater and off-Broadway productions are both sources of creativity, Seltzer is adamant about drama's potential at Harvard. "Original drama and preservation of the classical tradition is at least as much the responsibility of the academic community as the professional," he said last week in his Loeb office, surrounded by glossy prints of main stage productions.

In Seltzer's view, Loeb productions must avoid spending too much time on the more superficial aspects of a play in lieu of teaching an actor his part. "I would rather spend five time as many hours on the planning of a play with an actor, than worry about specific details. The problem with the Loeb is that the seams of the tights have to be straighter here than in the house dining rooms."

Another problem that nettles Seltzer is the Loeb's remoteness from the rest of the university. "An amorphous beast," its location, architecture, and advanced stage equipment implicitly prevent if from being part of the community. But because they do so now "is no reason to fall back on professionals. People are no longer frightened by all that machinery. It must remain a student theater." Therefore new ways must be found to stimulate students, one being the Marlowe-Shakespeare Quadricentennial. However, Seltzer realizes that time remains a nagging difficulty; few undergraduates can manage a full production schedule and still thrive academically.

He has the same conflict. Fighting the desire to be a drama wonk, Seltzer strives to establish a balance between the hours spent on the Loeb's mainstage, those teaching classes and tutorial, and those in the stacks researching his book. He seems to have done it. Besides teaching the second half of English 125, Tudor and Stuart Drama, Seltzer is supervising the Quadricentennial program, will direct Julius Caesar, act in King Lear, and is writing a book on the styles of Elizabethan acting.

In the last capacity as a writer, Seltzer is blocked by a lack of secondary material; "No one went home and wrote down that Burbage was good last night as Hamlet and why." Using textual and stage notes, Seltzer must infer what the Elizabethans felt was real in terms of acting. "Every age thinks its own are is real. But obviously the Globe player differs from the method actor. The ideal of realism begins in the mind of the artist. It's the old idea of imitating nature."

For the paunchy Seltzer "imitating the nature" of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I was more an interpretive than a physical problem. "Although a rather old man to be enjoying the games of boys, Sir John must be prevented from becoming a pathetic figure. Somehow we must laugh at the things he does, not the man." Developing the character was a formidable and slow process. "The actor must find the way in which the text relates to his imagination; the fun is in fooling around with any number of equally valid ways of projecting a line."

But "fooling around with a line" is much more than fun to Daniel Seltzer. "Drama," he says, "is a form which must be made meaningful when one is in a play and then feels it. This are cannot be taught unless one does it." He should know.