Sybil Thorndike

Dame Sybil Thorndike

Sybil Thorndike photographed in 1943
Born Agnes Sybil Thorndike
(1882-10-24)24 October 1882
Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England, UK[1]
Died 9 June 1976(1976-06-09) (aged 93)
Chelsea, London, England, UK[2]
Years active 1904-1970
Spouse(s) Lewis Casson (1908-1969; his death)
Children John (b. 1909)
Christopher (b. 1912)
Mary (b. 1914)
Ann (b. 1915)

Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike 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 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, to Arthur Thorndike and Agnes Macdonald. Her father was a canon of Rochester Cathedral. 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.

Her childhood home in Rochester has been renamed after her.[3] 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.


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, 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 four children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren when she died.

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 Thorndike 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 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. 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.[4]

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.[5]

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 Olivier in Uncle Vanya at Chichester in 1962. 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 Lewis Casson died.[6]

Portrait by Allan Warren, 1973

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 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.


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 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
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
1957 The Prince and the Showgirl The Queen Dowager
1959 Alive and Kicking Dora


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!"


When Lindsey County Council constructed an east-west dual-carriageway southern relief road in her birthplace of Gainsborough, since April 1974 in West Lindsey, the new route of the A631 road was named Thorndike Way, in recognition of her, when it opened in March 1974; this was two years before her death in 1976. The former A631 route is now the B1433 (Corringham Road). The western terminus is with a roundabout with the A156 and A159. Soil from the bypass was taken to build the new bypass of Beckingham, Nottinghamshire, two miles to the west in Bassetlaw.



  1. "". Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  2. "". Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  3. Historic England. "Thorndikes and former stable and coach house adjoining  (Grade II) (1086441)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  4. "ROB WILTON THEATRICALIA Theatre World Magazines 1940s". 20 February 1946. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  5. 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)
  6. "Lewis Casson (1875–1969)". Retrieved 3 June 2015.
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