Dame Sybil Thorndike



  • (1882 - 1976) Versatile British actress, who played partsranging from Shaw's Saint Joan to the fool in King Lear. JohnGielgud described her as "lively, passionate, argumentative."She was created a DBE in 1931.

    The daughter of a clergyman, Sybil began to perform as a childin family plays that she and her brother, Russell, had written. Her originalambition of becoming a professional pianist had to be abandoned when she wasfound to suffer from weak wrists. Sybil subsequently trained for the stage atBen Greet's Academy, making her professional debut with his company, thePastoral Players, in 1904. During her three years with Greet, she performed112 parts.

    She married the actor-director Lewis Casson in 1908 whileperforming with Annie Horniman's company in Manchester; they appearedtogether in many plays over a span of 55 years. In 1914 she joinedthe Old Vic under Lilian Baylis; during the four years shespent with the company she built up a reputation as one of the foremosttragic actresses of her day. Celebrated roles included Hecuba in TheTrojan Women (1919) and the title role of Medea (1920).

    In 1924 she created the title character of Shaw's SaintJoan, a part the author had written especially for her. Of therole she later said, "I felt I'd reached something I could neverreach again, and I was just so grateful that the audience was therenight after night to see me do it."

    During World War II, she and her husband took Shakespeareand Greek classical drama to the mining villages of Wales; after oneperformance of Medea an elderly miner told her, "It kindlesa fire." In her later years, she created outstanding portraitsof elderly women and undertook many demanding overseas tours. In 1963she was called out of retirement by Laurence Olivier to appear inUncle Vanya, the first production of the National Theatre company.Her last performance, as one of the murderous old women in Arsenicand Old Lace, was given at the age of 84.