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Sybil Thorndike, Lady Casson

Sybil Thorndike photographed in 1943
Born Agnes Sybil Thorndike
24 October 1882(1882-10-24)
Gainsborough, Lincolnshire
Died 9 June 1976 (aged 93)
London, England
Spouse(s) Lewis Casson

Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike CH DBE (24 October 1882 – 9 June 1976) was a British actress.

Contents

Early life

She was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire to Arthur Thorndike and Agnes Macdonald. Her father was a Canon of Rochester Cathedral. She was educated at The 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.

Career

At the age of 21 she was offered her first professional contract: a tour of the United States with the actor-manager Ben Greet's company. She made her first stage appearance in Greet's 1904 production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. She went on to tour the U.S. in Shakespearean repertory for four years, playing some 112 roles.

In 1908 Sybil 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 December 1908, and had four children - John (1909), Christopher (1912), Mary (1914) and Ann (1915).

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

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, Thorndike appeared in a short film of the cathedral scene from Saint Joan made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process.

Both Sybil and Lewis 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.

Nonetheless, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1931. As a pacifist, Sybil was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and gave readings for its benefit.

During World War II, Dame Sybil 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.

She continued to have success in such plays as Waters of the Moon. She also undertook tours of Australia and South Africa, before playing again with Olivier in Uncle Vanya at Chichester in 1962. She made her farewell appearance with her husband in 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 Sir Lewis Casson died.

Her final appearance was in a TV drama The Great Inimitable Mr Dickens, with Anthony Hopkins in 1970.

The same year she was created a Companion of Honour. She had also been awarded an honorary degree from Manchester University in 1922, and an honorary D.Litt from Oxford University in 1966.

Dame Sybil's ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

Films

She made her film debut in Moth and Rust (1921), and appeared in a large number of silent films the next year, including versions of Bleak House, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and The Scarlet Letter.

She also appeared in a 1927 short film, made in the DeForest Phonofilm process, of her performing as Saint Joan in an excerpt of the play by George Bernard Shaw. Among her notable film roles were as Nurse Edith Cavell in Dawn (1928), General Baines in Major Barbara (1941), Mrs. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (1948), Queen Victoria in Melba (1952) and The Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). She made her last film appearance - in a version of Uncle Vanya - in 1963.

Television

Appearances included:

In fiction

She appears in Tony Harrison's play Fram, played in the premiere by Sian Thomas. Here she is resurrected from the dead to play herself in one of Gilbert Murray's plays.

She appears in Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England, played in the premiere by Nichola McAuliffe.

Her name is also used in Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," citing her as "a woman of noble mien."

Famous quotes

When asked if she ever considered leaving her husband, she answered: Divorce, never! Murder, often!

Bibliography

  • Biography of Dame Sybil Thorndyke by Sheridan Morley (1977)
  • 'Sybile Thorndyke:A Star of Life' (2008) by Jonathan Croall

External links

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