On her sole experience of sharing a stage with Sybil Thorndike the redoubtable old dragon, Marie Tempest, found all her scene-stealing tricks foiled by her co-star. Hear- ing of Thorndike’s later damehood she muttered: ‘That’s what comes of playing saints’.
Thorndike was, of course, always associated with Saint Joan from her first portrayal of Shaw’s heroine in 1924 through revivals at home and overseas to her final encounter with the role in her eighties on radio, that matchless voice still silver-toned. Other saints included Teresa of Avila along with women carrying a nimbus of sanctity or the mystic — Katharine of Aragon, Edith Cavell and a memorable Mrs Moore in a stage version of A Passage to India. But in her astounding seven-decade career, from repertory under Miss Horniman in Manchester to the emergence of the National Theatre, she played a huge range of roles in farce and grand guignol, as well as the Greek roles — Medea, Hecuba, Phaedra — which stamped her as the great tragedienne of her era.
Always she was a pioneer, even when an established star, never happier than during the second world war when touring Welsh mining villages with her director husband, Lewis Casson, in Medea and Macbeth. Sybil began her career in the days of the Edwardian actor-manager, touring Shakespeare in North America in Ben Greet’s company, playing many outdoor venues (Greet, ever mindful of the box-office, was convinced, during one Canadian alfresco matinee, that two latecomers had slipped into the back row without paying — they were discovered to be two bears). She became a lifelong champion of the thrust stage — ‘I love to see the audience’ — and the ensemble-ethic.
This questing spirit survived into extreme age. She had always opposed censorship and responded positively to much of post-1956 theatre from Look Back in Anger and The Caretaker to Jesus Christ Superstar. It was her misfortune — and ours — that that theatre had little to offer her generation. She admired Brecht’s humanity and in her prime would have made a magnificent Mother Courage or illuminated Beckett’s Happy Days.
Jonathan Croall’s meticulous biography illustrates how the critical jury was often split on Thorndike. Her exuberance — ‘I like to go slap-bang like the Greeks!’ — could take her over the top (‘She’s magnificent if she can keep her arms below her shoulders’ said one producer), but Croall reminds us of such finely-etched performances as her Lady Monchesney, a mother carved from marble opposite Paul Scofield in Eliot’s The Family Reunion or an unforgettable nurse, rooted in the earth like a Courbet-figure, in Uncle Vanya.
She was devoted to causes religious, political and pacifist from Women’s Suffrage to CND it was fitting that she and Casson were together in that legendary Vanya with Olivier and Redgrave for the opening Chichester season. It continued in the repertoire of the first season at the Old Vic (to which she had devoted herself during two world wars) of the National Theatre, for which both Cassons campaigned for decades.
Croall maintains a fine balance between public and private. The critic, James Agate, felt that her greatness was informed by her ‘moral grandeur’, amply illustrated here. But Croall is also alert to what Ralph Richardson pinpointed as ‘the stiletto’ in her character.
She hated bullying and stood up for Marilyn Monroe against Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. Yet, although a loving matriarch, her outsize personality could swamp, even damage, family members, not least a granddaughter for whom she had unrealistic theatrical ambitions, while her marriage — enduring for 60 years in spite of Casson’s dalliances — could be tempestuous.
One can sympathise with Marie Lohr, co-starring in Coward’s play about retired actresses, Waiting in the Wings, whose preferred solitude before performances would be shattered by an exuberant Thorndike describing her busy day, which often included a funeral or a memorial service: ‘Remind me,’ Lohr wryly smiled, ‘to add a codicil to my will that Sybil is not to come to my funeral.’ Still, the impression of a great actress and a glowing spirit shines through this richly absorbing chronicle.