Sybil Thorndike

Sybil Thorndike, English actress, 1932 - The Falk Studios (6480135843).jpg
Thorndike in 1932
Agnes Sybil Thorndike

(1882-10-24)24 October 1882
Died9 June 1976(1976-06-09) (aged 93)
Chelsea, London, England[2]
Resting placeWestminster Abbey, London, England
Alma mater
Years active1904–1970
(m. 1908; died 1969)

Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike, Lady Casson CH DBE (24 October 1882 – 9 June 1976) was an English actress who toured internationally in Shakespearean productions, often appearing with her husband Lewis Casson. Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan specially for her, and she starred in it with great success. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931, and Companion of Honour in 1970.

Early life

Thorndike was born on 24 October 1882 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, the eldest of the four children of Agnes Macdonald, daughter of ship engineer John Bowers, and Reverend Arthur John Webster Thorndike (1853–1917). When she was two years old her father was appointed a minor canon of Rochester Cathedral.[3] She 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.[4][5]

Her childhood home in Rochester has been renamed after her.[6] 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 under Elsie Fogerty at the Central School of Speech and Drama, then based at the Royal Albert Hall, London.[7]


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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.[8]

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 December 1908, and had four children: John (1909–1999), Christopher (1912–1996), Mary (1914–2009), and Ann (1915–1990). She was survived by her four children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren when she died.

She joined Annie Horniman's company in Manchester (1908–1909 and 1911–1913), went to Broadway in 1910, and then joined the Old Vic Company in London (1914–1918), playing leading roles in Shakespeare and in other classic plays. After the First World War, she played Hecuba in Euripides The Trojan Women (1919–1920), then from 1920 to 1922 Thorndike and her husband starred in a British version of France's Grand Guignol directed by Jose Levy.[9]

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 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.[10]

Thorndike in 1943
Thorndike in 1943

She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931. As a pacifist, Thorndike was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and gave readings for its benefit. During the Second World War, 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 1944–45.[11]

At the end of the Second World War, it was discovered that Thorndike was on "The Black Book" or Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. list of Britons who were to be arrested in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain.[12]

She continued to have success in such plays as N. C. Hunter's Waters of the Moon at the Haymarket in 1951–52. In 1953 she was performing in a new play, A Day by the Sea, when the press revealed that her co-star Sir John Gielgud had been fined for homosexual activity.[13] Thorndike "staunchly championed" Gielgud, as did most theatre audiences: the play was warmly received both in Liverpool and the Haymarket.[14]

She also undertook tours of Australia and South Africa, before playing again with Olivier in Uncle Vanya at Chichester in 1962–63. She 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 Sir Lewis Casson died.[15]

Portrait by Allan Warren, 1972
Portrait by Allan Warren, 1972

Her final acting appearance was in a TV drama The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens, with Anthony Hopkins in 1970. That 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. She was also awarded an honorary degree from the University of Manchester in 1922 and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Oxford in 1966.

She died at her flat in London on 9 June 1976.[3] Her ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

Personal life

In 1908, Thorndike married Lewis Casson, to whom she remained married until his death in 1969. The couple had four children, John (born 1909), Christopher (born 1912), Mary (born 1914), and Ann (born 1915).


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She made her film debut in Moth and Rust (1921), and appeared in many 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 (1953) and as the Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), for which she was awarded the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress. She made her last film appearance, in a version of Uncle Vanya, in 1963.

Selected filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1921 Moth and Rust Mrs Brand
1922 Macbeth Lady Macbeth
1922 The Merchant of Venice Lady Portia
1928 Dawn Nurse Edith Cavell
1929 To What Red Hell Mrs. Fairfield
1931 A Gentleman of Paris Lola Duval
1931 Hindle Wakes Mrs. Hawthorne
1947 The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Mrs. Squeers
1949 The Forbidden Street Mrs. "The Sow" Mounsey
1950 Stage Fright Mrs. Gill
1951 The Lady with a Lamp Miss Bosanquet
1951 The Magic Box Sitters
1953 Melba Queen Victoria
1954 The Weak and the Wicked Mabel Wicks
1957 The Prince and the Showgirl The Queen Dowager
1958 Smiley Gets a Gun Granny McKinlay
1959 Jet Storm Emma Morgan
1959 Alive and Kicking Dora
1960 Hand In Hand Lady Caroline
1961 The Big Gamble Aunt Cathleen


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.

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

In the film My Week with Marilyn, she is played by Judi Dench.

She is one of the principal characters in Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England, about John Gielgud's arrest for homosexual acts in 1953. She was played in the premiere by Nichola McAuliffe. In the London production she was played by Celia Imrie.

Famous quotes

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


In Leatherhead, Surrey, England, Roderick Ham designed a new theatre within the shell of the disused 1930s Crescent Cinema. Named after Dame Sybil, the Thorndike Theatre was opened on 17 September 1969 by Princess Margaret. It is a Grade II listed building, noted for clear sightlines from all 526 seats. The theatre closed in 1997 after the loss of public funding. A charitable trust was set up to operate it and the theatre re-opened as the Leatherhead Theatre in 2001.

When it opened in March 1974, the re-routed A631 dual-carriageway southern relief road constructed by Lindsey County Council in her birthplace of Gainsborough was named Thorndike Way.

In Rochester, the Dame Sybil Thorndike Health Centre occupies part of the former site of the Rochester Grammar School for Girls which she attended.[16]


See also


  1. ^ "". Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  2. ^ "". Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  3. ^ a b Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B., eds. (23 September 2004). "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. ref:odnb/31760. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31760. Retrieved 6 December 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Sybil Thorndike: A Star of Life, Jonathan Croall, 2009
  5. ^ Women in World History, vol. 15: Sul-Vica, ed. Anne Commire, Deborah Klezmer, Yorkin Publications, 2002, p. 426
  6. ^ Historic England. "Thorndikes and former stable and coach house adjoining (Grade II) (1086441)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  7. ^ ‘Fogie – The Life (1865–1945) of Elsie Fogerty Pioneer of speech training for the theatre and everyday life’, Marion Cole (Peter Davis, London, 1967),
  8. ^ "Not always a saint". The Spectator. 19 November 2008. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
  9. ^ "THE THEATRE 16 Apr 1921 The Spectator Archive". 21 April 1921. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
  10. ^ "BFI Screenonline – Now and Then: Dame Sybil Thorndike". 1967. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
  11. ^ "ROB WILTON THEATRICALIA Theatre World Magazines 1940s". 20 February 1946. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  12. ^ William Hetherington, Swimming Against the Tide:The Peace Pledge Union Story, 1934–2009. London; The Peace Pledge Union; ISBN 978-0-902680-51-7 (p. 14)
  13. ^ Koenig, Rhoda (28 February 2008). "John Gielgud: When England hounded a hero". The Independent. Archived from the original on 26 May 2022. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  14. ^ "Sir John Gielgud, OM". The Telegraph. 23 May 2000. Archived from the original on 28 February 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  15. ^ "Lewis Casson (1875–1969)". IMDb. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  16. ^ Dame Sybil Thorndike Health Centre website(Accessed 16 March 2019)