Sybil Thorndike

Active - 1929 - 1963  |   Born - Oct 24, 1882   |   Died - Jun 9, 1976   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

"I would rather have been a pianist than anything," admitted Sybil Thorndyke to one of her chroniclers. Even so, from her first concert at age 11 onward, Ms. Thorndyke never quite overcame her nervousness. She would later insist that it was nerves as much as anything else that caused her to suffer the wrist injury that ended her musical career. Seeking another creative outlet, she joined the rest of her family in their favorite pastime of amateur theatricals (her father was a minister, inclined toward ripe oratory; her brother Russell later became a prominent actor/playwright; his best known work was the moody melodrama (Dr. Syn). Sent to America to study at the Ben Greet, Sybil made her first stage appearance in Greet's 1904 production of Merry Wives of Windsor. She went to tour the U.S. in Shakespearean repertory for three years, playing some 112 roles. Once again, her nervousness got the better of her, causing her to develop acute laryngitis; fortunately, her voice came back stronger and more forceful than ever, enhancing her effectiveness in such classic stage roles as Medea and Lady MacBeth. In 1909, Sybil wed Welsh-born actor/director Lewis Casson; the marriage, which lasted until Casson's death in 1969, produced five children, all of whom successfully pursued acting careers. From 1920 through 1922, Sybil and her husband starred in a British version of France's Grand Guignol; during this same period, she made her film debut in Moth and Rust (1921). In 1924, Sybil created the title role in Shaw's St. Joan, a part which she would reprise with great success well into her sixties. While is said that Shaw wrote the play with Sybil specifically in mind, the actress insisted that Shaw himself interpreted the part far more persuasively than anyone during the first read-through. A veteran of twenty-seven years by 1931, Sybil was that year made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. During the 1940s, Dame Sybil and her husband toured Welsh mining villages in Shakespearean productions on behalf of the Council For the Encouragement of the Arts. Though her screen appearances remained infrequent, they were always welcome, always unforgettable. Among Dame Sybil's film roles were Nurse Edith Cavell in Dawn (1928), General Baines in Major Barbara (1941), Mrs. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (1948) and Queen Victoria in Melba (1952). She made her last film in 1963, and her final stage appearance in 1969. Books about Dame Sybil's life and career include her brother Russell's 1950 biography Sybil Thorndyke, and her son John Casson's 1962 volume Lewis and Sybil. Though Dame Sybil Thorndyke never wrote an autobiography, she was the author of the 1927 book Religion on the Stage.

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