British stage actor Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) was one of the leading figures in British theatre during the first half of the 20th century. She made her stage debut in a regional company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1904, and achieved her greatest success in the title role of Saint Joan, a play written for her by George Bernard Shaw in 1924.
Agnes Sibyl Thorndike was born in October of 1882, the daughter of Arthur Thorndike, a canon of Rochester Cathedral, and his wife, Agnes Macdonald Thorndike. As a child she trained as a pianist, taking weekly lessons at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and she gave her first public recital in Rochester in 1899. Compelled by painful hand cramps to abandon her musical aspirations, Thorndike quickly transferred her creative expression to theatre at the suggestion of her younger brother, Russell Thorndike, and made her debut in an 1904 production of a Shakespearean repertory company under the direction of by Ben Greet. Thorndike and her brother traveled throughout the United States with this group, and she gained extensive stage experience during the tour, playing more than 100 minor roles and serving as understudy to several leading roles. She remained with Greet's company until 1907, giving performances as Ceres in The Tempest, Viola in Twelfth Night, Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, and advancing from Lucianus to Gertrude to Ophelia in Hamlet.
In 1908 Thorndike and her brother joined Annie Horniman's repertory company based at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, and at about this time she met the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw. Understudying the title role in Shaw's Candida under the playwright's direction, Thorndike gained valuable instruction and experience. Also during this period she met and married fellow actor and director Lewis Casson. In addition to their interests in theatre and music, Thorndike and Casson shared a concern for leftist social and political causes. They had four children and remained married until Casson's death at age 93 in 1969.
Repertory in Manchester and London
As part of Horniman's company at Manchester's Gaiety Theatre in 1908 and 1909, Thorndike undertook such roles as Mrs. Barthwick in The Silver Box by John Galsworthy, Artemis in Gilbert Murray's adaptation of Hippolytus by Euripides, Thora in The Feud by Edward Garnett, and Bettina in The Vale of Content by German dramatist Hermann Sudermann. For a time she joined Charles Frohmann's company in London and appeared in various roles, including Columbine in The Marriage of Columbine by Harold Chapin at the Court Theatre, and Winifred in The Sentimentalists by George Meredith, and Emma Huxtable in The Madras House by Harley Granville Barker, both in 1910 productions at the Duke of York's Theatre.
Thorndike also made her Broadway debut at the Empire Theatre in 1910, playing the role of Emily Chapman in the comedy Smith by Somerset Maugham. Touring U.S. theatres in this part throughout 1911, she returned to England and rejoined Horniman's company, going on to perform such roles as Beatrice Farrar in Stanley Houghton's sensational Hindle Wakes at London's Aldwych Theatre in 1912, and Ann Wellwyn in John Galsworthy's The Pigeon and Lady Philox in Harold Chapin's Elaine, both at the nearby Court Theatre. Renewed productions at Manchester's Gaiety Theatre included Portia in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Privacy in Harley Granville Barker and Laurence Housman's Prunella, and Hester Dunnybrig in Eden Philpott's The Shadow.
In 1912 Thorndike originated the role of Jane Clegg in St. John Ervine's realistic drama of the same name. Thorndike's portrayal of Jane Clegg, a wife coming to terms with her husband's infidelity and the utter failure of their marriage, became among the best-known roles of her career; she recreated it for London revivals in 1913, 1914, 1922, and 1929, toured internationally with traveling productions of the play, and performed the role for the last time in January of 1967. According to a London Times reviewer discussing Thorndike's dual performance of Jane Clegg and Medea at the Wyndham Theatre in 1929, "It is the peculiar power of Miss Thorndike's acting that it can draw to a character just as much sympathy as it deserves and no more. In the quietly felt tragedy of the commercial traveller's wife, no less than in the dreadful and insistent Medean clamour of revenge, this power of shedding a clear, unsentimental light on the complexities of character was equally effective."
In 1914 Thorndike joined Lilian Baylis's Shakespeare company housed at the Old Vic in London. There she distinguished herself in a number of roles, including Lady Macbeth, and became a favorite of audiences. During this time, while many male actors—including Lewis Casson—were serving in the British Army during World War I, Thorndike added a number of male roles to her resumé. Among these were performances as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Fool in King Lear, and Ferdinand in The Tempest.
Successes of the 1920s
In the postwar years Thorndike was a fixture of the London theatre season, and appeared in numerous successful productions, including comedies, tragedies, Grand Guignol, modern works, and stage classics. Commenting on the quality of her voice in a 1922 performance of La Tosca at the Coliseum, a reviewer in the London Times wrote that Thorndike's "wonderful voice could be heard in every corner of the vast theatre, and yet she never seemed to be raising it at all unduly.… The whole performance was a signal triumph for one of our most capable actresses. She was recalled time and again before the curtain." Most notable among her roles of this period are her interpretations of Hecuba in The Trojan Women and in the title role of Medea, both works adapted from the Greek by Gilbert Murray. So successful was Thorndike at portraying these characters that she participated in revivals of these productions until the mid-1950s. Of Thorndike's performance as Medea at London's New Theatre in the fall of 1922, a London Times, reviewer faulted Thorndike's vocal style, but concluded that "her performance never falls short of its full tragic effect, and is remarkable, not only for its force but for the intellectual insight it exhibits." In addition to these roles, Thorndike made her film debut in 1921 and assumed management, with Casson, of the New Theatre, London, in 1922.
A resurgence of interest in 15th-century figure Joan of Arc, the French national heroine who led a troop of soldiers in the last phase of the Hundred Years' War, took place in the early 1920s following Joan's canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Thorndike originated the role of Joan in Shaw's Saint Joan, which debuted at the New Theatre in London in 1924 and ran for 244 performances. The part, which was written specifically for the actress by the 67-year-old Shaw, brought her critical acclaim and became a popular favorite, and Thorndike was called upon to revive her interpretation in revivals at London theatres in 1925, 1926, 1931, and 1941. She also performed the role of Joan before appreciative French audiences at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1927, as well as on international touring productions to South Africa in 1928-29, to Australia and New Zealand in 1932, and to the Far East in 1954.
Throughout the ensuing decades Thorndike acted in a wide selection of dramas and comedies both classical and modern. In addition to Shakespearean and Greek heroines, she portrayed leading roles in a number of works by Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Noel Coward, Emlyn Williams, and Clemence Dane. Thorndike made her television debut in May of 1939 as the Widow Cagle in Lula Vollmer's Sun Up, a redemption drama set among the mountain folk of North Carolina in 1917. On the occasion of her 70th birthday in 1952, a drama critic writing in the London Times noted that, "As the years have passed there has been no decline in Dame Sybil's art: indeed, it has deepened in feeling and technical assurance, delighted in widened virtuosity."
Witnessed Changing Theatrical Styles
From a perspective of working for over four decades in the theatre, Thorndike commented on the realistic and restrained style of acting that predominated in Britain by the early 1950s in an open letter to the British Actors' Equity Association. As quoted in the London Times, Thorndike wrote: "I have seen much that is beautiful in this typically English reticent acting, with its holding back of emotion and feeling bringing under restrained control the passionate throbbing life that is in us. (I think it is a pity that so many of the younger generation copy the restraint, forgetting that there should be some violence to restrain.) This extremely reserved style of playing for which we are famous seems a bit inadequate when it has to serve the plays of our modern poet-dramatists. Where words are important, where phrasing and stylized speech matter more than lighting and décor, we may have to resurrect a bit of the stylized speech thrown over long ago—and round the circle again."
Not influenced by such passing fashions in acting style, Thorndike remained true to her heritage, and was applauded for doing so. In a 1953 Green Room Rag performance, Thorndike and Casson re-created the scene in Henry VIII in which Queen Katherine receives the two cardinals. According to a London Times reviewer, Thorndike's "Queen Katherine is less an interpretation of her own than a true illumination of the text. She adds nothing to the character, as a clever actress of the second rank might do; she is content merely to reveal everything that is there. But it is in simple revelations such as this that the characters of the drama assume for the moment a reality greater than the people about one, and that actors and actresses declare their own greatness."
Golden Jubilee and Later Career
Shakespeare's Henry VIII was chosen in 1954 for a special performance in honor of Thorndike's golden jubilee. Fifty years to the day of her first stage appearance, Thorndike, along with fellow actors Casson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Robert Donat, performed a version of the play for the BBC Home Service. In addition Thorndike was presented with a commemorative statuette of herself as Joan of Arc.
Thorndike and Casson created new roles in Eighty in the Shade, a play written specifically for them by Clemence Dane that premiered at the Globe Theatre in 1959. She continued working through the 1960s, appearing as Lotta Bainbridge in Waiting in the Wings by Noel Coward at the Duke of York's Theatre, as Marina in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Chichester Festival Theatre, as Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring at the London's Vaudeville Theatre, and as Mrs. Bramson in a touring production of Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams, among other roles.
In 1969 Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon attended the dedication of the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead, outside of London. (The Thorndike has since closed and reopened under new management as The Theatre.) Thorndike's farewell stage appearance was in the Thorndike Theatre's first production, John Graham's There Was an Old Woman, in which a homeless old woman recalls her life from her optimistic days as an attractive young newlywed through the long struggle of her widowhood and eventual institutionalization. Thorndike, who had been made a Dame of the British Empire in 1931 and a Companion of Honour in 1970, died following a heart attack at her home in south central London in June of 1976.
Casson, John, Lewis & Sybil: A Memoir, Collins, 1972.
Morley, Sheridan, Sybil Thorndike: A Life in the Theatre, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977.
Sprigge, Elizabeth, Sybil Thorndike Casson, Victor Gollancz, 1971.
Thorndike, Russell, Sybil Thorndike, Thornton Butterworth, 1929, reprinted, Theatre Book Club, 1950.
Times (London, England), July 4, 1922; October 17, 1922; May 30, 1929; October 24, 1952; December 13, 1952; April 27, 1953; June 10, 1976.
Staples, Siobhan, "Dame Sybil Thorndike," Retirement Matters Web site,http://swww.retirement-matters.co.uk/sybthorn.htm (January 6, 2004).