Today is the birthday (1882) of Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike CH, DBE,an English actress who toured internationally in primarily Shakespearean productions, and often appearing with her husband Lewis Casson. Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan especially 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.
Thorndike was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, to Arthur Thorndike and Agnes Macdonald. After she was born her father became 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. 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 chronic hand cramps. 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 around 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. Her ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey.
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 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. At the end of World War Two, 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.
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.
Her final acting appearance was in a TV drama The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens, with Anthony Hopkins in 1970. 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. She had also been awarded an honorary degree from Manchester University in 1922, and an honorary D. Litt. from Oxford University in 1966.
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) with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, 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.
Sybil Thorndike was a name I knew as a teenager, but she was mostly known for her stage acting and her career was over by the time I went to England. I don’t recall seeing her in films, although I might have. However, I knew her brother Russell’s family very well, and am still sporadically in touch with them. Russell’s son, Dickon (Richard), was a writer for BBC2 news in the 1960s and 70s, and his daughter Amanda was my girlfriend when I was in the sixth form in south Buckinghamshire, and for a time when we were at Oxford together. Dickon and his wife Susan founded the Chilterns Shakespeare Company, and I acted with Susan, Dickon, and Amanda for several years. So in a tangential kind of way I feel a connexion with Sybil.
For a recipe I have chosen gypsy tart which originates in Kent where Sybil grew up, and which was at one time a mainstay of school lunches. Maybe, therefore, Sybil had at on occasion. It is very sweet; not to my tastes at all these days. Nevertheless it is an English classic to add to my growing list. It is dead easy to make. The only thing is that you will need to get hold of muscovado sugar, a very dark, molasses laden sugar – much darker than ordinary brown sugar. It is not refined in any way. Sugar cane syrup is simply reduced to crystals. It is the basis for dark West Indian rum. At a pinch you can use regular dark sugar, but it is not as rich.
1 14 oz tin evaporated
10 oz muscovado sugar
1 10 inch pre-cooked shortcrust pastry case (see Hints tab)
Preheat the oven to 400°F
Place the sugar and evaporated in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat. Start slowly and gradually increase the speed to high over about 10 minutes or longer, until the mixture is very light and frothy and substantially increased in size.
Pour this filling into the tart case and bake until the filling is set (about 15 minutes).
Cool completely on a wire rack, and serve slices with clotted cream or ice cream.