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05 May 2014

Sybil Thorndike

British actress Sybil Thorndike (1882–1976) was a distinguished theatrical tragedienne, who toured internationally in Shakespearean productions. Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan specially for her, and she starred in it with great success. Her over six-decade career allowed for a gallery of masterful portrayals, both classic and contemporary. However, she would not evolve into a film star. In later years, Thorndike played a number of queens, dowagers and old crones with finesse, such as in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) with Marilyn Monroe. Many critics consider her as one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century.

Sybil Thorndike
British card.

Not a classic beauty by any stretch


Agnes Sybil Thorndike was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1882. Her parents were Arthur Thorndike, a minor canon of Rochester Cathedral, and Agnes Macdonald. Sybil was the eldest of four children. One younger brother, Frank, was killed in WWI action, a tragedy that left her father inconsolable. He himself would die a few months later.

Sybil was educated at Rochester Grammar School for Girls, and first trained as a classical pianist, making weekly visits to London for music lessons at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She gave her first public performance as a pianist at the age of 11, but in 1899 was forced to give up playing owing to piano cramp.

At the instigation of her brother, the author Russell Thorndike, she then trained as an actress. Russell would later become a novelist and his sister's biographer.

Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: “Not a classic beauty by any stretch, Dame Sybil had sharp features, prominent cheek bones and a pronounced chin that gave her a rather severe look. At age 21 she and her brother began professionally in a touring company guided by actor-manager Ben Greet.”

She made her first stage appearance in Greet's 1904 production of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. She went on to tour the USA in Shakespearean repertory for four years, playing some 112 roles.

In 1908, she was spotted by the playwright George Bernard Shaw when she understudied the leading role of Candida in a tour directed by Shaw himself. There she also met her future husband, Lewis Casson. They were married in 1908, and had four children: John (1909–1999), Christopher (1912–1996), Mary (1914–2009) and Ann (1915–1990). Thorndike was survived by her four children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren when she died.

Sybil joined Annie Horniman's company in Manchester (1908–09 and 1911–13), went to Broadway in 1910, and then joined the Old Vic Company in London (1914–18), playing leading roles in Shakespeare and in other classic plays.

Sybil Thorndike
British card.

Saint Joan


After the war, Sybil Thorndike played Hecuba in Euripides' The Trojan Women (1919–20), then from 1920–22, she and her husband starred in a British version of France's Grand Guignol directed by Jose Levy.

She made her film debut in Moth and Rust (Sidney Morgan 1921), with Malvina Longfellow. The next year, she appeared in a large number of silent films, including versions of Bleak House (H.B. Parkinson, 1922), The Hunchback of Notre Dame/Esmeralda (Edwin J. Collins, 1922), Macbeth (H.B. Parkinson, 1922), The Merchant of Venice (Challis Sanderson, 1922) and The Scarlet Letter (Challis Sanderson, 1922).

She returned to the stage in the title role of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in 1924, which had been written with her specifically in mind. The production was a huge success, and was revived repeatedly until her final performance in the role in 1941. In 1927, she appeared in a short film of Saint Joan made in the DeForest Phonofilm process, an excerpt of the play by George Bernard Shaw.

The following year she played Nurse Edith Cavell in the silent British war film Dawn (Herbert Wilcox, 1928). Cavell was a nurse who risked her own life by rescuing British Prisoners of War from the Germans. When Cavell was captured and sentenced to be executed, it sparked international outrage, even from neutral nations. Dawn was one of the most controversial British films of the 1920s. The film was censored because of what objectors considered its brutal depiction of warfare and anti-German sentiments. Pressure was exerted by both the German Ambassador and the British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain to prevent the film being passed for exhibition.

Both Thorndike and Casson were active members of the Labour Party, and held strong left-wing views. Even when the 1926 General Strike stopped the first run of Saint Joan, they both still supported the strikers. As a pacifist, Thorndike was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and gave readings for its benefit.

She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931. During World War II, Thorndike and her husband toured in Shakespearean productions on behalf of the Council For the Encouragement of the Arts, before joining Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson in the Old Vic season at the New Theatre in 1944.

Sybil Thorndike
British card. Photo: publicity still for Uncle Vanya (1963).

There Was an Old Woman


Among Sybil Thorndike’s notable film roles were General Baines in Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941), Mrs. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1948), Queen Victoria in Melba (Lewis Milestone, 1952) and the witty Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier 1957) with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, for which she was awarded the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.

In the theatre, she continued to have success in such plays as N. C. Hunter's Waters of the Moon at the Haymarket in 1951-52. She also undertook tours of Australia and South Africa, before playing again with Laurence Olivier in Uncle Vanya at Chichester in 1962.

She made her last film appearance in a film version of Uncle Vanya (Stuart Burge, 1963) featuring Anthony Hopkins.

Thorndike made her farewell appearance with her husband in a London revival of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1966.

Her last stage performance was at the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead, Surrey, in There Was an Old Woman in 1969, the year Lewis Casson died.

Her final acting appearance was in the TV drama The Great Inimitable Mr Dickens (Ned Sherrin, 1970), with Anthony Hopkins. The same year she was made a Companion of Honour. She and her husband (who was knighted in 1945) were one of the few couples who both held titles in their own right.

In 1976 Dame Sybil Thorndike died in London, England at the age of 93. Her ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.


Scene from The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Source: serdarzzt (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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