Athene Seyler is 101 years old today. Edward VII was king when she made her first professional stage appearance – ‘quite a triumph’ according to the Daily Telegraph.
Although now frail and slightly deaf, Athene Seyler has a startlingly good memory. She remembers challenging George Bernard Shaw whom she knew in 1914 while acting Prosperpine Garnett in Candida. ‘We were great friends. He wanted me to make a drunken exit and be funny and suggested that I should get up from where I was sitting, go to the door and fall over the mat. This I would not do. I hate anything like that.’
Instead Miss Seyler made an exaggeratedly long trip around the stage to reach the door, ‘which was really funny’. And the playwright bowed to the actress’ comic judgment.
This judgment distinguishes Athene Seyler’s widely acclaimed book The Craft of Comedy, written in 1943. Taking the form of an exchange of letters, the book throws light on comedy from Congreve to Schnitzler. Drama students still find it inspiring reading and it has been a bible to at least two of our funniest actors, Prunella Scales and Simon Callow.
In a career that has spanned over 50 years (her last stage appearance was at the age of 77), Seyler has tackled Shakespeare, Congreve, Chekhov, Sheridan and Wilde, as well as many modern authors. She has seen legends perform. Henry Irving in Becket made her faint. ‘He had a curious way of dragging his feet behind him which was very characteristic.’
Ellen Terry ‘a darling woman’ and friend had ‘the most elegant way of pointing to things with both hands.’ Less elegantly, she ‘used to have such fun at lunch, making castles out of her pudding’.
Seyler spotted Sir John Gielgud’s talent early, telling a colleague at RADA, ‘That boy there has just given a very bad performance but he’s the one you’ve got to watch.’
Born in Hackney, Seyler went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1908. ‘Acting was not considered very respectable but my mother and father lived next door, it so happened, to the Irvings.’ Seyler was determined and, with the support of Henry Irving, her parents gave their consent.
Auditioning at RADA, she was ‘different from the other girls. I was much plainer.’ Now, dressed in maroon, with lipstick to match, Seyler has a wonderfully expressive face. Anecdotes are told with a half smile, one corner of her mouth slightly raised, or accompanied by an apologetic shrug. But because she was never a classical Edwardian beauty, she learnt early on that the less pretty you are, the more talented you need to be.
‘I went to my RADA interview in the only nice clothes I had: a short-sleeved dress and some long black gloves I had bought.’ While waiting to meet the principal, Seyler debated whether or not to wear the gloves. ‘I got only the one off when I had to go in looking like a zebra with one black arm and one white.
‘The principal said, ‘Miss Seyler, I’m sorry I must tell you that you don’t seem to me to have any obvious qualifications for the stage.’ And I said, ‘I know what you mean. I’m very plain. But I think if you heard me recite you would change your mind.’ ‘Shaking her head at the memory, Seyler says, ‘How brave can one be as a little girl?’
She was soon turning the bitchiness of others to her advantage, however. The celebrated belle Mrs Patrick Campbell ‘wasn’t a nice lady at all. And she came across the stage one day and said, ‘Oh, look at her’ pointing to me ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ And of course I wasn’t and the audience laughed. I was very upset. So the next night when she said it I made the ugliest face I could and I got the laugh. She never did it again.’
One of her first schoolgirl roles was in As You Like It, playing Rosalind (her favourite part). At RADA her debut, in the same play, was as Charles the Wrestler. But she went on to be gold medallist of her year and later the first former pupil to be appointed President.
A good sense of humour and impeccable timing still serve Seyler well. ‘I think to make people laugh is a lovely thing to do.’ She has only two directional credits, the first being in 1928, the second 20 years later. She says she didn’t particularly want to direct and not many Edwardian directors were women. But one of the few, Lena Ashwell, gave Seyler her first professional role in a play called The Truants. This actress-manager ‘had a lovely little theatre off Kingsway. It was decorated in pink stripes and all the programme girls had pink-striped aprons.’
Seyler continued to act during both world wars. She remembers an air raid with ‘my little mother rushing down the passageway in entirely the wrong direction. I shouted out, ‘Mother, Mother, there’s an air raid warning, darling’ and she said, ‘I know, dear. I’m just going to fetch my corsets.’
For the past 20 or so years, Seyler has lived overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith. It was on this river she took one of the only three holidays she’s ever had, rowing with her husband from its source to Henley. ‘I’ve had a lovely career, so happy,’ says Seyler dreamily. ‘When I was a little girl, my first performance. . . when I went to make my exit, my drawers fell down. And the audience roared with laughter. I had to pick them up, you know. And I thought from that moment on I would do for a comic role.’
The Craft Of Comedy is republished today by Nick Hern Books, at Pounds 4.95. There will be a birthday celebration, including a reading of the book and a discussion with Prunella Scales, Jeremy Northam and Gareth Jones (Seyler’s grandson), at the Cottesloe Theatre tonight at 6pm. Tel 071 928 2252 for details