Thorndike, Sybil (1882–1976)

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Thorndike, Sybil (1882–1976)

English actress who, having made her debut in 1904, lived to become the last link between the glories of the Edwardian theater and those of the post-World War II "Age of Olivier." Name variations: Lady Lewis Casson; Dame Sybil Thorndike. Born Agnes Sybil Thorndike on October 24, 1882; died on June 6, 1976; daughter of Canon Arthur John Webster Thorndike and Agnes Macdonald (Bowers) Thorndike; sister of Eileen Thorndike (1891–1954, a successful actress and principal of the Embassy School of Acting, 1933–39) and Russell Thorndike (1885–1972, a distinguished actor and playwright); attended the Guildhall School of Music; married Lewis Casson, in 1908; children: John, Christopher, Mary and Ann.


Created Dame Commander of the British Empire (1931); Companion of Honour (1970); LL.D. from the universities of Manchester and Edinburgh, D.Litt from the universities of Southampton, Surrey, Oxford.

Selected roles:

made debut as Phyllis in My Lord From Town (June 18, 1904); toured the U.S. (1904) in a program of Shakespearean plays and classic comedies; made second American tour (1907); made London debut as Janet Morice in The Marquis (1908); appeared with Annie Horniman's company; appeared with Charles Frohman's company; appeared as Adrianna in The Comedy of Errors, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, Constance in King John, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Imogen in Cymbeline, Prince Hal in Henry IV (Part I), Princess Catherine in Henry V, Queen Margaret in Richard III, Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Fool in King Lear, the title role in Everyman, Peg Woffington in Masks and Faces (late 1910s); Clara Bortswick in The Great Day, Anne Wickham in Napoleon, Hecuba in The Trojan Women, title role in Sakuntala (all 1919); appeared as Hecuba in The Trojan Women, title role in Candida, title role in Medea, Mary Hey in Tom Trouble, Beryl Napier in The Showroom, Louise in The Old Woman, the wife in The Unseen (all 1920); appeared at the Odéon in Paris as Lady Macbeth; appeared as Evadne in The Maid's Tragedy, title role in Jane Clegg, Charlotte Feriol in The Scandal, Beatrice in The Cenci (1922), April Mawne in Advertising April, Imogen in Cymbeline, Elinor Shale in The Lie (1923); appeared as title role in Gruach, Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, Sonia in Man and the Masses, Rosalind in As You Like It (1924); appeared as Saint Joan, Daisy Drennan in The Round Table, Elinor Shalke in The Lie, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII (1925), Beatrice in The Cenci, Duchesse de Crucy in Israel, Gertrude in Hamlet, Judith in Granite, Helen Stanley in The Debit Account, Lady Macbeth (1926); appeared at the Theater des Champs Élysees in Saint Joan and Medea (1927), at the Old Vic as Katherine, Portia, Beatrice, and the Princess in Henry V (1927–28); toured South Africa in Jane Clegg, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Saint Joan, and as Mrs. Phelps in The Silver Cord (1928–29); appeared as Barbara Undershaft in Major Barbara, Lily Cobb in The Mariners, Lady Lassiter in The Donkey's Nose, and Madame de Beauvais in Madame Plays Nap (1929); appeared in the title role in Phedre, Sylvette in The Fire in the Opera House, Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, Emilia in Othello (1930); appeared as Monica Wilmot in Dark Hester, Eloise Fontaine in Marriage by Purchase (1931); in Australia appeared in Saint Joan, Macbeth, Madame Plays Nap, Captain Brass-bound's Conversion, Milestones, The Painted Veil, Advertising April, Granite and other plays (1932); appeared as Evie Millward in The Distaff Side, title role in Mrs. Siddons (1933), Victoria Van Brett in Double Door, Nourmahal in Aurengzebe, the Passenger in Village Wooing, and Evie Millward in the New York production of The Distaff Side (1934); appeared as Blanche Oldham in Grief Goes Over, Lady Bucktroput in Short Story, Lisha Gerert in Farm of the Three Echoes (1935); toured in My Son, My Son, Hands Across the Sea and Fumed Oak, Village Wooing, and Hippolytus (1936); appeared in London as Ann Murray in Yes, My Darling Daughter, as Hecuba in The Trojan Women (1937); in New York as Mrs. Conway in Time and the Conways, in London as Volumnia in Coriolanus, and as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green (1938); toured in mining towns of England and Wales with the Old Vic Company (1940–42); as Constance in King John, in title role in Medea (1941); toured with the Old Vic, then appeared in a special engagement as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, Lady Cicely in Captain Brassbound's Conversion and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer; in Bristol as Lady Beatrice in Queen Bee; Mrs. Dundass in Lottie Dundass, in The Rape of the Lock, Queen of Hearts and as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1943); rejoined the Old Vic to play Aase in Peer Gynt, Catherine Petkoff in Arms and the Man, Queen Margaret in Richard III, at the Placa Theater; played in Alice in Wonderland (1944); toured with the Old Vic entertaining troops in Germany, Belgium and France and in Paris at the Comédie Française (1945), in London with the Old Vic played Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Parts I and II, Jocasta in Oedipus Rex and the Justice's Lady in The Critic (1945–46); appeared as Clytemnestra in Electra (1946), Mrs. Whytein Waters of the Moon (1951), Laura Anson in A Day by the Sea (1952); toured the Far East, New Zealand and India with Lewis Casson (1954); toured Australia and New Zealand (1955); appeared as the Grand Duchess in The Sleeping Prince and as Mrs. Railton-Bell in Separate Tables (1955); toured South Africa, North and South Rhodesia, Kenya, Israel and Turkey with Lewis Casson; appeared in London as Amy, Lady Monchensy in The Family Reunion and in New York as Mrs. Califer in The Potting Shed (1957); toured Australia and New Zealand (1957–58); as Mrs. St. Maugham in The Chalk Garden (1958); as Dame Sophia Carrell in Eighty in the Shade; toured England as Mrs. Kittredge in The Sea Shell (1959); as Lotta Bainbridge in Waiting in the Wings at the Dublin Festival and as St. Teresa in Teresa of Avila (1961) in London; toured Australia with Lewis Casson (1962); as Marina in Uncle Vanya in Chichester, as Lady Cuffe in Queen B in Windsor (1963); as the Dowager Countess of Lister in The Reluctant Peer, as Mrs. Stortch in Season of Goodwill (1964); as Mrs. Doris Tate in Return Ticket (1965); Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace (1966); in Guildford as Clair Ragond in The Viaduct and Mrs. Basil in Cousin Jacky (1967); toured as Mrs. Bramson in Night Must Fall (1968); as the Woman in There Was an Old Woman in Leatherhead (1969).

Selected filmography (in Britain unless otherwise noted):

Moth and Rust (1921); Tense Moments from Great Plays (short, 1922); Edith Cavell in Dawn (1928); To What Red Hell (1929); Hindle Wakes (1931); A Gentleman of Paris (1932); Tudor Rose (1936); Major Barbara (1941); Nicholas Nickleby (1947); Britannia Mews (US, 1948); Stagefright (1950); Gone to Earth (1950); The Lady with the Lamp (1951); The Magic Box (1951); Queen Victoria in Melba (1953); The Prince and the Showgirl (1957); Alive and Kicking (1958); Shake Hands with the Devil (1959); Hand in Hand (1960). Made first television appearance in 1939.

Unlike so many of her contemporaries in the British theater, Sybil Thorndike was not a Londoner nor was she raised there; rather, she came from Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in the Midlands of England. Born on October 24, 1882, to a distinctly middle-class family, she was the daughter of Canon Arthur John Webster Thorndike of the Church of England and Agnes Bowers Thorndike , and all her life was a deeply religious adherent of the Anglican faith. She grew up in Rochester between London and Dover, where her father was an honorary canon of the local cathedral. She went on to the Guildford School of Music in London to study for a musical career actually making some appearances as a pianist. An injury to her wrist thwarted her original goal, however, and she turned her artistic impulses toward the theater. Entering the Ben Greet academy, she made her debut in Oxford in a farce entitled My Lord from Town on June 18, 1904, at age 21. Not long after, she made her Shakespearean debut in The Merry Wives of Windsor with the same company. Before ever appearing in London, she spent four years (1904–08) touring the United States with the Ben Greet Company in a repertoire of Shakespearean and other classic English plays. During these years, Thorndike claimed to have played some 112 roles from leads to walk-ons to males parts, most of them Shakespearean and most of them in one-night stands throughout the country. In 1907, having damaged her voice through overuse, she returned home.

Once recovered, Thorndike at last made her London debut at the Scala Theater as Janet Morice in The Marquise on February 9, 1908; later that same year, she married the actor (later director) Lewis Casson, whom she had known since their days together with the Ben Greet Company. The couple had four children: John, Christopher, Mary , and Ann Casson . Lewis Casson was the son of a banker from North Wales and as a young man had intended to become an Anglican priest. Intensely religious, he was nevertheless devoted to the theater and, coming under the influence of Sir Harley Granville-Barker, he was especially drawn to what he considered to be its social and moral role in uplifting the public. Casson's ideas made a profound impression on Thorndike and helped shape her own vision of the role of the theater and the moral responsibilities of those within it. Casson was convinced that something had to be established to counter the commercial London theater, and he saw the expanding repertory companies of his day as the answer to fighting the "star system" and championing new playwrights. A moderate socialist on the order of George Bernard Shaw and the other Fabians, Casson gave a leftward color to Thorndike's own views for the rest of her life. Shortly after their marriage, the Cassons joined Annie Horniman 's highly respected stock company in Manchester, where they gained valuable experience performing in both classic and modern plays, the latter including Shaw's The Devil's Disciple. In March 1910, the Cassons joined the London repertory company of the American impresario, Charles Frohman, after which he engaged them to come to America. There, they appeared with the celebrated

actor John Drew in W. Somerset Maugham's Smith both in New York City and later on tour. Returning to London in 1912, Thorndike appeared as Beatrice Farrar in Stanley Houghton's popular Lancashire play, Hindle Wakes, for the first time under her husband's direction. Shortly thereafter, she appeared in the title role in Sir John Irvine's feminist play Jane Clegg, a part in which she scored a great success and one that she was to repeat often on tour in later years. That same year, she had a second success in Eden Phillpott's The Shadow. In these years, Thorndike played a number of "new woman" roles such as that of Clegg, whose prototype was Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Hedda in his Hedda Gabler.

With the outbreak of World War I, Lewis Casson joined the army, while Thorndike took a position with the struggling company at the Royal Victoria Hall then under the direction of Lilian Baylis . Thorndike's four-year tenure with the Old Vic, as it was popularly known, coincided with the company's first attempt to mount all of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, one after the other, a feat not attempted again until the 1950s (once more by the Old Vic). This was a remarkable period of growth for her as an actress, not only for the experience that it gave her but also for the exposure, night after night in role after role, before the most discriminating theatergoers in the English-speaking world. Until now, she had seemed to be drifting into becoming strictly an interpreter of modern roles, but at the Old Vic she soon appeared as Adrianna in The Comedy of Errors, Imogen in Cymbeline, Viola in Twelfth Night, Constance in King John, Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia and Lady Macbeth (Gruoch ) as well as Prince Hal, Puck, and the Fool in King Lear, which were just a few of the many roles both male and female, young and old, in which she appeared between the ages of 32 and 36. (The male roles were a necessary chore due to the departure of so many actors for military service.) Though the critics tended to neglect the performances at the Old Vic, in later years critic James Agate noted that it was here that Sybil Thorndike first became a great actress.

After the war and the return of Lewis Casson, Thorndike left the Old Vic and appeared in a number of plays elsewhere in London, the most important of which was The Trojan Women by Euripides, in which she played the all-important role of Queen Hecuba, thereby establishing herself as an interpreter of Greek tragedy. Then, over the years 1920–22, Thorndike and her husband appeared in some 30 plays with the seasons of Grand Guignol (horror dramas) at the Little Theater in London. The plays were hardly masterpieces of dramatic literature. Nevertheless, they were great favorites with audiences and wonderful experiences for the actors, who had a chance to let themselves go in a variety of flamboyant roles. All the while, however, with the profits from the commercially successful Grand Guignol productions, Thorndike continued to appear under her husband's direction in a series of matinees of Greek tragedy at the Old Vic, including The Trojan Women, Medea, and Hippolytus. In all of these, she dazzled the critics, who soon realized that in Sybil Thorndike, they were in the presence of a tragedian of the first rank. In fact, it would seem in retrospect that it was at this time of her life, when just past 40, that Thorndike was in her prime. Looking back, the critic W.A. Darlington wrote of her in 1960: "I saw her touch greatness, certainly as Hecuba, perhaps as Medea, and I hoped that these achievements were the prelude to others greater still—but they were not, they were her peak. Never again did I experience with her that sense of surrender which is the involuntary tribute that one pays to emotional acting at its highest pitch." Among her successes in these matinees was her performance as Beatrice of Cenci in The Cenci, a lurid Renaissance-style tragedy by the Romantic poet Percy Shelley that had been banned for over a century in Britain.

In 1923, George Bernard Shaw, profoundly impressed with Thorndike's artistry, especially in the trial scene in The Cenci, undertook to write Saint Joan expressly for her. Although she was not the first to star in the play (the New York production with Winifred Lenihan had opened first), the London production starring Thorndike that opened in March 1924 has gone down in English theatrical history as the stuff of legend. Though at 41 she was admittedly somewhat old for the part of Joan of Arc , Thorndike grasped immediately the intention of Shaw and, skillfully directed by her husband, was perhaps the only actress to play his Saint Joan as he interpreted her: a healthy, hearty, ebullient peasant girl. Even Tyrone Guthrie, a critic who thought her performance too boisterous for his taste, used the word "stupendous" to describe her in the trial scene. So greatly was she acclaimed in this role that she appeared in no less than twelve revivals of the play in six countries. The play was not only a great artistic success, but a financial one as well. Thorndike and Shaw together made some £30,000 (about $144,000) on the production, though she, with little interest in money, spent most of her share before her first tour of South Africa in 1928–29. Saint Joan established Sybil Thorndike as the leading tragic actress on the English stage. By 1929, critics, lamenting the decline of tragedy in the theater, were hailing her as the only inheritor of the great tradition of tragic acting that had characterized the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Role after role now came to her easily as the greatest playwrights of the day sought her out to interpret their works, but Saint Joan remained the summit of her career; she was never able to triumph in a play of equal stature.

In 1929, Thorndike appeared in a distinguished revival of Shaw's Major Barbara and, the following year, took part as Emilia in the now-famed production of Othello in which the American Paul Robeson became the first black actor to play the Moor and rising young Peggy Ashcroft played Desdemona. This production resulted in the crowning of Thorndike's career with the title Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1931 at the early age of 49. The honor was followed by a trip to Egypt and Palestine, after which she and Casson sailed for Australia. There she toured in a repertory of varied plays including Saint Joan, Macbeth, Captain Brass-bound's Conversion and The Painted Veil.

Upon her return to London, Dame Sybil appeared in one play after another, most notably as Evie Millward in The Distaff Side, a role she repeated in New York in 1934, as Volumnia in Coriolanus, as both Aphrodite and the Nurse in Hippolytus and again as Medea, Lady Macbeth, and Queen Hecuba in The Trojan Women. In 1936, she appeared as Mary Herries in Kind Lady, a suspense drama that starred her great American contemporary, Ethel Barrymore , when it was transferred to the screen after World War II. Two years later, Thorndike gave one of her finest performances in the role of Miss Moffat in Emlyn Williams' The Corn is Green, in which she played an elderly spinster schoolteacher who discovers a genius among the children of Welsh miners in a village school. (Coincidentally, this was also Ethel Barrymore's last role on the stage, in the New York production of the same play; Bette Davis would play Miss Moffat on the screen.) By now, Thorndike had given up her attempts to surpass Saint Joan and in the words of her son, John Casson, "had begun to come to terms" with the commercial theater, contenting herself with selecting roles that enabled her to advance a principle in which she firmly believed. Miss Moffat was one such role; Mrs. Linden in The Linden Tree was another one in later years, as was that of the widow in Waters of the Moon.

During the Second World War, Thorndike distinguished herself in a series of performances given throughout the English provinces, including a program of dramatic poetry readings in Scotland and the Orkney islands. When the Old Vic was bombed out of its quarters in 1944, Thorndike appeared with the company at its temporary quarters at the New Theater, first as Aase in Ibsen's Peer Gynt and then as Catherine Petkoff in Arms and the Man and as Queen Margaret in Shakespeare's Richard III. As the war drew to a close, she entertained the troops, touring Belgium, France, and Germany with the Old Vic company, and taking time to appear at the Comédie Française in Paris. Returning to a ruined and deprived London in the summer of 1945, Thorndike appeared as Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Parts I and II and then in the now near-legendary production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, playing Queen Jocasta to Laurence Olivier's Oedipus.

In the years following, Thorndike and Casson appeared in J.B. Priestley's much-appreciated The Linden Tree and then in a series of long-running plays that enabled audiences to enjoy her as a regular fixture upon the London stage: Farrell and Perry's Treasure Hunt (1949), N.C. Hunter's Waters of the Moon (1951) and A Day by the Sea (1953), and T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion (1956). Reviewing her appearance in Waters of the Moon, American critic Moss Hart wrote in awe: "Sybil Thorndike is magical. For an act and a half she does almost nothing except sit and listen but never have I seen an actress … listen with such sly acuteness that the attention of the audience is riveted on her and on her alone…. [I]t is by no means a trick—it is acting of the purest sort and when she rises to her one scene at the end of the second act all the talent and artistry of years of classical playing are displayed … in a few magic moments."

Sybil Thorndike was surely the best-loved English actress since Ellen Terry, and these two great players shared many of the same fine qualities—generosity, diligence, modesty, simplicity.

—John Gielgud

Despite her advancing years, Thorndike spent much of the 1950s and early 1960s on rigorous foreign tours, giving audiences in various parts of the British Commonwealth and elsewhere the opportunity of seeing one of Britain's most distinguished actresses in the flesh. In 1954, she toured New Zealand and India; in 1955 and again in 1957–58, she was in New Zealand and Australia; in 1957, she made her last appearance in New York, as Mrs. Califer in The Potting Shed. As late as 1962, when she was 80, she toured Australia a third time, giving poetry recitals with her husband. In October 1959, she toured England as Mrs. Kittridge in The Sea Shell, and, as late as 1968, she toured the country again as Mrs. Bramson in Night Must Fall. In between these tours, she scarcely rested, taking time to repeat her stage role as the Grand Duchess in the film version of Terence Rattigan's 1955 comedy The Sleeping Prince, now titledThe Prince and the Showgirl and starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe . Those who expected fireworks between a grand dame of the theater and the little American movie queen were sorely disappointed. Wise in her years, Thorndike saw the best in Monroe and said later that she was always a darling and that everyone in the cast loved her—even though she was perpetually late on the set. Most important, she respected Monroe for her knowledge of her craft. Soon after, Dame Sybil appeared as Mrs. Railton-Bell in Separate Tables (1956), with Margaret Leighton as her daughter; as Mrs. St. Maugham in The Chalk Garden; and as Dame Sophia Carrell in Eighty in the Shade, the last a play written for the Cassons by the popular British playwright Clemence Dane to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Lewis Casson, knighted in 1945, died in 1969.

Dame Sybil Thorndike was never a beauty and in her photographs rarely looks young even when she was, yet she was a handsome woman and, though not at all tall, made an imposing impression on the stage largely through her magnificent carriage. Throughout her life, she remained the quintessential Englishwoman—cool, reserved and dignified. On stage, however, she was a passionate performer, who brought a hearty earnestness to her interpretation of Saint Joan and a terrifying intensity to the role of Medea. In her private life, she was a homebody, devoted to her husband, children and grandchildren. She was active in a number of causes, including the advancement of religious drama, the peace movement, trade unionism, women's rights, and the election of Socialist and Labour Party candidates for Parliament. In his memoirs, John Gielgud is unstinting in his praise for Thorndike, the woman, as he was for her as an artist:

In her private life she managed somehow to retain a certain reserve and dignity, despite an ebullient facade. She had beautiful manners. Genuinely interested in everyone she met, strangers as well as friends, she could bounce and flounce without ever losing her modesty and basic humility. The moment you were lucky enough to work with her in the theater you knew she was a leader, but also a giver, not self-centered, professional to her fingertips, disciplined, punctual and kind.

Dame Sybil Thorndike always maintained that she never gave "a blessed hoot" about stardom and was willing to take on the humblest and most modest of roles if she felt that she could learn something from the part. As a result, in her long career she encompassed an enormous variety of roles, from the Greek classics through Shakespeare and Sheridan, and on to such modern playwrights as Ibsen, Chekhov, Maugham, Shaw, Priestly, Dane, Coward, Rattigan, Claudel, van Druten, and T.S. Eliot. She did not always succeed to the extent that she would have wished; she lacked sensuality in her performances, her acting could be over-emotional, her voice could be weak, her Lady Macbeth did not reach the heights, and she tended to be too heavy handed for comedy. Yet, she was counted by many as the finest English actress after Ellen Terry and that, in itself, was a great achievement for an actress who was a contemporary, at least in her later years, of Edith Evans , Peggy Ashcroft, and Judith Anderson .

Thorndike's last appearance on the stage was as the Woman in There Was an Old Woman, the play which in October 1969 inaugurated the Sybil Thorndike Theater in Leatherhead, Surrey, just outside of London, and whose opening was attended by Princess Margaret Rose and her then husband Lord Snowdon, along with Dame Sybil's relatives, friends, and colleagues from the theater. Interviewed at the time, she was in the best of spirits, regretting only what she called the deterioration of clear enunciation in the theater. The following year, she was made a Companion of Honour to Queen Elizabeth II , who invested her with this dignity in a private ceremony. Thereafter, Thorndike began to fail, as her arthritis worsened and she grew deaf. Her last public appearance took place at the Old Vic Theater on the occasion of the closing of the old building prior to the reopening of the company in its new quarters by Waterloo Bridge. Arriving in the theater, the veteran and beloved actress was greeted with a standing ovation. Dame Sybil Thorndike died on June 6, 1976, her death an occasion of national mourning throughout Great Britain. On her passing, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was born three years after she made her debut, said of her: "She was one of the rarest and most blessed of women of whom this country could ever boast. The loss of her is incalculable." In his memoirs, Gielgud recalled that she was "blessed with immense talent, boundless energy, unremitting application and splendid health…. [S]he fought her way, helped by the devotion of a brilliant husband and loving family, to worldwide recognition."


Casson, John. Lewis and Sybil. London, 1962.

Findlater, Richard. The Player Queens. NY, 1977.

Morley, Sheridan. Sybil Thorndike: A Life in the Theater. London, 1977.

Sprigges, Elizabeth. Sybil Thorndike Casson. London, 1971.

Thorndike, Russell. Sybil Thorndike. London, 1929, 2nd ed., 1970.

Trewin, J.C. Sybil Thorndike. London, 1955.

suggested reading:

Thorndike, Russell, and Sybil Thorndike. Lilian Baylis. London, 1938.

Thorndike, Sybil. Religion and the Stage. London, 1927.

Robert Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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Thorndike, Sybil (1882–1976)

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