The Legendary Zoe Caldwell on Her New One-Woman Show, ‘Elective Affinities’

Ah, here’s the rub: Super-secret Upper East Side venue accommodates just 30 people per night!

Ms. Caldwell said her performance as Alice was influenced by a close friend, Gladys Pulitzer Preston, better known as Patsy, who was the granddaughter of Joseph Pulitzer and whose husband, Lewis Thomas Preston, was the chairman of J.P. Morgan. While Ms. Preston, who died just two weeks ago, was by all accounts a lovely person who shared none of Alice’s terrible prejudices or fears (in fact, was a staunch supporter of women’s rights around the world and once caught a record-setting 1,230-lb. black marlin), she was, like Alice, to the manor born. “The performance was informed by the world Patsy had allowed me into,” she said. “I went to wonderful dinner parties with Brooke Astor and stuff like that because of Patsy.”

Though Elective Affinities was written a decade ago, Alice, an unabashed one-percenter, seems to have been invented with the present moment in mind, as Americans increasingly take to the streets in protest of economic inequality. As Alice puts it, “People say to me, ‘But you’re so rich, you must be spiritually empty.’ And I say, ‘But I’ve managed to find spiritual fulfillment in material things.’”

Ms. Caldwell was asked if she’d been following the demonstrations. “Have I ever!” she replied. “Of course. I’m so admiring of them. Don’t you love the way they do their speeches? So unusual. But I know if I put a big placard around my neck, I’d fall right over.”

She laughed. “The change the world has undergone in the last few years is just astonishing—how they can just pick up a king who’s been there for 37 years. Pop, out he goes! They’re dropping like flies.”

Ms. Caldwell is best known as a theater actress, which is to say that despite appearing opposite such world famous actors as Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Jason Robards, and Christopher Plummer, outside of ardent fans of the stage, she is scarcely known at all. “Actors idolize her,” Ms. Benson said. “So many of them have contacted me begging just to come watch a rehearsal. She’s an icon.” Ms. Caldwell’s last great role, as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, was unanimously judged a triumph, but when it came time to turn it into a film, Faye Dunaway was cast in the lead, perhaps because she was also the director. (The film has yet to be released.)

For those who haven’t been lucky enough to witness Ms. Caldwell in action, there is a stunning clip on YouTube of her turn in Medea—deviously sweet-talking Creon one moment, trembling with rage the next. That’s about it, in terms of recorded media. Except for a turn in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, another in the Nicole Kidman thriller Birth, which she called “really a bummer,” and a small role in Stephen Daldry’s forthcoming adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, she has remained steadfastly loyal to the stage.

“I can do anything in front of 2,000 people,” she insisted, “but I can do practically nothing in front of a camera.”

Ms. Caldwell prefers the theater, she added, because it’s more immediate—and more dangerous. Why dangerous? “Because,” she said rising slightly in her seat, “We…are…alive! Anything that’s alive is dangerous.”

She placed a hand on our arm. “People used to communicate by looking in each other’s eyes,” she went on, doing just that. “I am alive. You are alive. That’s how you communicate.”



The Legendary Zoe Caldwell on Her New One-Woman Show, ‘Elective Affinities’