Obituary: Douglas Seale

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS perhaps appropriate that Douglas Seale's long - 65 years - and distinguished career as both actor and director on both sides of the Atlantic should include towards its end a touchingly graceful but (as always) ruthlessly unsentimental performance as Archie Rice's father, the old music-hall performer Billy, in John Osborne's The Entertainer. Seale was 84 at the time, in 1996, and the production was by the Classic Stage Company of New York. Although he had some late success in movies (especially as the voice of the Sultan in the 1992 Disney smash-hit Aladdin), his en-during love throughout a remarkably varied career was the theatre.

London-born and educated at Rutlish school (where his early stage leanings were encouraged by one of his masters), Seale trained as an actor at Rada and had a crowded early acting career with few "resting" breaks. His first professional appearance was in The Drums Begin in 1934 at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, one of a few off- West End London venues providing homes for most adventurous work in the inter-war years.

His first West End appearance came immediately afterwards when he was cast in the small but worthwhile role of D'Amville in Queen of Scots (New, 1934). This was the much-awaited new play from Gordon Daviot (alias the novelist Josephine Tey) who had written the most successful romantic chronicle- play of the 1930s, Richard of Bordeaux, which had catapulted John Gielgud to West End stardom in his own production at the same theatre in 1932.

Seale was in remarkable company. Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who had played Richard II's Queen, Anne of Bohemia, in Richard of Bordeaux, played the title role, with Laurence Olivier (replacing Ralph Richardson who withdrew after a few days' rehearsal, feeling awkwardly miscast) as a blazing Bothwell. Other newcomers in the cast alongside Seale including James Mason and George Devine. It was designed by the exciting new three-women team collectively known as Motley, directed by Gielgud, and although nothing like the success of Richard of Bordeaux, it was a useful stepping-stone for several of its cast, Seale included.

With the British repertory movement in full flower, he worked consistently throughout the 1930s in some of the leading companies of the time, including seasons at Croydon and Brighton as well as Perth, when he made his first excursion into directing with one of Noel Coward's less durable comedies, the Paris-set frivol of a Ruritanian Princess and her amours, The Queen was in the Parlour (Perth, 1940).

Seale was away from the theatre for over five years during the war while he served in the Army; he was commissioned in the Royal Signals. Immediately on demobilisation he resumed his acting career and played supporting roles in two consecutive Stratford seasons, strengthening his directorial ambitions.

In 1948 he directed an athletic, fast-moving The Comedy of Errors (always a favourite play) at the Birmingham Rep, then at the height of a glorious post-war epoch under Sir Barry Jackson, always an encourager of the gifted young (the youthful Peter Brook subsequently had a vital early break from him).

Jackson appointed Seale as Director of Productions at Birmingham at the end of 1949 and for the next three years his work extended Birmingham's reputation as one of Britain's most adventurous repertory companies with a predominantly young and passionately committed group of actors under Seale's guidance. His Chekhov and Ibsen productions, and an especially strong Turgenev (A Month in the Country) confirmed his abilities as a director utterly faithful to the text but capable of surprising illuminations.

Perhaps his most successful Birmingham venture was the 1952 rarity of King Henry the Sixth: Part 3, of which there had been no important full British revival (an Old Vic condensation aside) since the Stratford production of 1906. Birmingham had successfully revived Part 2 in 1951, but the final play in the sequence, full of the triumph-calls and battle cries underscoring the young Shakespeare's version of the long clamours of the Wars of the Roses, was a complete triumph.

Seale was particularly successful with plays that are often patronised by scholars in the study; he understood the fiery theatrical life underneath the apparently unremarkable surface of some Shakespeare on the page and this production, which included memorable performances such as Paul Daneman's Richard of Gloucester, a monster of silky malevolence ("I can add colours to the chameleon"), was a revelation. It led to his Birmingham staging - full of vivid, kinetic stage-pictures in a simple three-arch setting - of the complete trilogy in 1953.

The subsequent visit of the trilogy to London (to the Old Vic) with the same company established Seale as a director of the moment and on leaving Birmingham he directed throughout the 1950s at the Old Vic, at Sadler's Wells (his opera productions included The Marriage of Figaro and Fidelio) and at Stratford.

He proved again that he was a superb animator of the spirit behind some of Shakespeare's least-prized plays with a spring-heeled Merry Wives of Windsor (Old Vic, 1955), and his gift for comedy infused an affectionate and warm-hearted production of Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (Old Vic, 1960) with the unexpected casting of Tommy Steele as Tony Lumpkin proving under Seale's direction to be larkily successful.

The focus of his career shifted to the United States in the 1960s. Like other British directors (Margaret Webster, Michael Langham) he was much influenced by Tyrone Guthrie's pioneer voyages in North American regional theatre and his work included productions at Stratford, Connecticut (a new look at The Comedy of Errors and a sinewy Henry V in 1962) as well as freelance New York productions (N.F. Simpson's One Way Pendulum, which rather baffled American audiences, and Shaw's Saint Joan). He also directed a dismal Broadway flop, Sam Spewack's "comedy" about Potemkin and Catherine the Great, Once There was a Russian (1961).

From 1969 he directed many productions at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, raising the profile of an energetic and often innovative company with some challenging plays (Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers, 1969 and Robert Shaw's play based on the Eichmann trial, The Man in the Glass Booth, 1970) as well as impeccably stylish revivals including The Importance of Being Earnest (1971).

His acting career also flourished again in America, beginning with his appearance as Sir Michael Audley in his own version of Lady Audley's Secret (Washington and Eastside Playhouse, New York, 1972), followed by a deliciously sly performance as the old valetudinarian Oliver Seaton in Ivy Compton Burnett's coruscatingly black hymn of hatred to family life in A Family and a Fortune (Seattle, 1974).

Later theatre work inevitably includes the occasional Broadway turkey (Frankenstein), but also two successful British imports, both with theatre backgrounds. Ronald Harwood's The Dresser ( 1981) drew on Harwood's own experiences working for the outsize personality of Sir Donald Wolfit, familiar territory for Seale, who had directed a season of Shaw plays under Wolfie's management at the old Bedford, Camden Town, in 1949.

Most memorably, he played the wonderfully-named Selsdon Mowbray, the sozzled old ham actor-laddy, in the Broadway production of Michael Frayn's backstage comedy Noises Off (1983). With a few performances somewhat coarsened by American comic overkill, Seale wisely underplayed, progressively disappearing throughout the evening into an hilarious moist-eyed, thickening alcoholic haze, taking on-stage drunkenness into the higher realms of comic delirium. It was a performance both beautifully observed and executed with the apparently effortless technique born of decades of experience; it wholly deserved the nomination of Best Feature Actor in a Play which he received at the 1984 Tony Awards.

He also worked regularly in American movies (Amadeus, Ghostbusters III) and on television, including episodes of Cheers and Rags to Riches, in the latter stages of a crowded and fulfilling career.

Douglas Seale, actor and theatre director: born London 28 October 1913; married first Elaine Wodson (marriage dissolved), second Joan Geary (two sons); died New York 13 June 1999.

Comments