Athene Seyler

Athene Seyler

Athene Seyler has a very long career in film and theatre.   She was born in 1889 in Hackney in London.   She made her film debut in 1921 and she seemed to specialise in eccentric old ladies.   Her films include “The Mill on the Floss”, “Dear Octopus”, The Secret People”, “Yield to the Night” and “Campbell’s Kingdom”.   She lived to the age of 101 dying in 1990.   Video clip of Athene Seyler on “Wogan” here.

From British Film Forum by Alex Jennings:
Athene Seyler (1889-1990), actress, was born on 31 May 1889 at 18 Goulton Road, Hackney, London, the seventh and youngest child by ten years of Clarence Heinrici Seyler, secretary and financial adviser to a Greek millionaire, and his wife, Clara Thies, a baker’s daughter. Both parents were of German extraction. Her father was a Hellenophile; he called all his daughters by Greek names. Athene was educated at Coombe Hill, a progressive co-educational school where the emphasis lay on tutorials not textbooks, and Bedford College, London, where she studied Restoration comedy, of which she was to become a peerless interpreter.

From her first performance as a child, dancing a hornpipe at the Conway Hall and reducing the audience to helpless laughter when her ‘draws fell down’, Athene Seyler was determined on a stage career. Her father died when Athene was fifteen years old leaving wife and daughter in straightened circumstances, and although both parents had disapproved of her theatrical ambitions, Sir Henry Irving, a one-time neighbour, encouraged the young Athene (she had once fainted while watching his death scene in Tennyson’s Becket). With his support she applied to the Academy of Dramatic Art, auditioning for Arthur Wing Pinero, Sir Squire Bancroft, and the pioneering female director Lena Ashwell, who took her aside and told her she would never make an actress because of the way she looked. But Athene persevered, recited as Rosalind, and gained a scholarship. She made her debut at the academy as Charles the Wrestler in As You Like It and graduated as the gold medallist in 1908. It was Ashwell who gave Seyler her first professional role as Pamela Grey in W. T. Coleby’s The Truants (1909) at the Kingsway Theatre.

Between her debut and the end of the First World War, Athene Seyler appeared in almost thirty productions, in London and on tour, but it was not until 1920 at the Lyric, Hammersmith, that she began to attract attention: as Rosalind (her favourite role), and particularly in Sir Nigel Playfair’s Restoration revivals, as Melantha in John Dryden’s Marriage a la mode and Mrs Frail in Love for Love by William Congreve. Athene Seyler never stopped working, alternating between the classics and scores of forgotten light comedies, glorying in such wonderfully named characters as Mrs Bucket, Savina Grazia, Mrs Nelly Fell, and Lavinia Mildmay. Classical highlights included three Lady Fidgets in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1924, 1926, and 1934), Titania (1923) and Hermia (1924), another Melantha and Miss Prism back at the Lyric, Hammersmith (1930). She toured Egypt, South Africa, and Australia in the 1930s; played in a season at the St James (1932) as Emilia and Nerissa to Ernest Milton’s Othello and Shylock; and in 1933 joined the Old Vic/Sadler’s Wells Company as Maria, Mme Ranyevskaya, Lady Bracknell, Mrs Frail, and also as first Weird Sister in Macbeth.

In 1937 Athene Seyler shone as Mrs Candour in an all-star (Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, and Alec Guinness) School for Scandal by R. B. Sheridan at the Queen’s Theatre and in 1941 played another and much admired Ranyevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, both directed by Tyrone Guthrie; and was unusually in modern dress for Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (1942) and as Veta Louise in Harvey (1949) by Mary Chase. In the 1950s she played the Nurse at the Old Vic, and Mrs Malaprop. Her final stage appearance was in 1966, with her old friend Dame Sybil Thorndike as the sweetly murderous spinster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace by J. Kesselring.

In a stage career of nearly sixty years Athene Seyler was recognized as one of the great technical experts on the playing of high comedy, relishing with instinctive wit the turn of a phrase or the eloquent manipulation of a fan. In 1943 she co-wrote a book, The Craft of Comedy, which took the form of an exchange of letters with the actor Stephen Haggard (1911-1943), who died on active service. They had acted together in the British premiere of G. B. Shaw’s Candida (1937) and in Haggard’s own play Weep for the Spring (1939). The book offered a marvellous series of reflections on the practice of playing comedy. Seyler wrote that ‘Comedy is the sparkle on the water, not the depths beneath. But note the waters must run deep’, and she developed a system for the getting of laughs: ‘Have I been heard? Have I been truthful? Has the feed line been heard?’ (Seyler and Haggard, 11).

Athene Seyler made her (silent) film debut in 1921 as Rachel Wardle in The Adventures of Mr Pickwick, and managed to appear in over sixty films in a career dominated by the stage. She was invariably cast in comic cameos, as eccentric and imperious aunts or dowagers, and unsurprisingly in several more Dickensian adaptations-as Misses La Creevy, Witherfield, and Pross in Nicholas Nickleby (1947), in The Pickwick Papers (1952), and in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the 1950s and 1960s she made a few television appearances, in the classics and in The Avengers.

On 14 February 1914 Athene Seyler had married James Bury Sterndale-Bennett (1889/90-1941), a journalist, the grandson of Sir William Sterndale-Bennett, composer and entertainer. They had one daughter. In 1922 she met the actor Nicholas ‘Beau’ Hannen (1881-1972), the son of Sir Nicholas James Hannen and his wife, Jessie Woodhouse, and he was to be the love of her life. She changed her name by deed poll to Hannen in 1928, but they were not to marry until 1960, after the death of his first wife, who had refused a divorce. Although Seyler was appointed CBE in 1959, it was generally assumed that the DBE many thought rightfully hers was withheld on account of her unmarried partnership with Beau.

In 1950 Athene Seyler was elected president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the first former pupil to hold that post, and in the same year became life president of the Theatrical Ladies Guild. She lived for some fifty years in the Coach House, Chiswick Mall, and would explain to passers-by the finer points of the boat race (and that she was not in fact Margaret Rutherford). She abandoned an autobiography because its leading character bored her but in her hundredth year she was still working, making mischievous appearances on television chat shows and a belated debut at the Royal National Theatre on her 101st birthday, vividly recalling G. B. Shaw and Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Mrs Patrick Campbell. She died three months later on 12 September 1990 at the Coach House, 26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, London.

Alex Jennings

The above article can also be accessed on the British Film Forum online here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *