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Did you know that when John Gielgud was arrested for soliciting in 1953 – the basis for critic Nicholas de Jongh’s play, Plague over England, the then landlord of the famous Dirty Duck public house in Stratford-upon-Avon removed from its wall of photographs the one of Sir John? It was only when Peggy Ashcroft, according to theatre goer John Sheppard, said that unless it was returned to its rightful spot, no actor from the theatre would ever cross its threshold again, that the landlord placed the photograph back where it belonged.
Gielgud’s female colleagues were some of his staunchest supporters at this time. It is well-known that Sybil Thorndike (played by Nichola McAuliffe in De Jongh’s play)), with whom he was appearing in N C Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, told him “what a silly bugger” he’d been. This is no surprise from a lady who was never backward in coming forward.
Another instance of Dame Sybil’s ability to hit her marks was when she upstaged Marie Tempest, her senior by nearly twenty years. “You’re a very clever actress, aren’t you?” said Tempest. “Not especially, darling,” said Sybil, “but clever enough to act with you.”
When Sybil, for whom Shaw wrote Saint Joan, was made a DBE, Tempest was heard to remark that that’s what came of playing saints: “Nobody asks me to play a saint.”
It sometimes seems as if this formidable actress is in danger of being forgotten, and how sad it is that the theatre named in her honour at the end of the 1960s – the Thorndike in Leatherhead – went dark in 1997 and has re-opened as the Leatherhead Theatre.
The eldest of four children, Dame Sybil was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. Her father was Canon of Rochester Cathedral and she was educated at Rochester High School, latterly making a weekly trip to London for piano lessons at the Guildhall with a view to a career as a classical pianist.
This was not to last. Having given a recital in her home town in 1899, she was instead propelled towards the stage as a result of hand cramps brought on by nerves. Although she initially met resistance from her parents, she studied acting alongside her brother Russell under actor-manager Sir Ben Greet (her sister Eileen was also an actress until her marriage) and made her debut in 1904 in the grounds of Downing College, Cambridge: as Palmis in The Palace of Truth in the afternoon and a walk-on part in The Merry Wives of Windsor in the evening.
Greet subsequently offered her a tour of the United States where she played a succession of small parts in Shakespeare as well as understudying the major roles. A second tour of the States in 1905 revealed a voice problem and the only cure was for her to be mute for six weeks; it was a problem which never fully went away.
Back in England she caught the eye of the influential theatre manager Annie Horniman for whom she spent a season in Manchester playing such parts as Thora in The Feud, Judith in The Devil’s Disciple, and Columbine in The Marriage of Columbine. It was at this time that she first met Shaw though their Saint Joan association would not come about until the 1920s. The introduction led to her being engaged to understudy on a tour ofCandida which Shaw himself directed, and it was on this production that she met her future husband, actor and director Lewis Casson.
They were married on 22 December, 1908, in clothes borrowed from the theatre wardrobe, and were together until his death in 1969, producing four children – Ann, Christopher, John and Mary – in the first six years of their marriage. Theirs was a great theatrical partnership; once asked if divorce had ever been a possibility, she said, “Divorce? Never. But murder, often!”
Her West End debut came at the beginning of 1908 at the Scala Theatre where she played Janet Morice in The Marquis. After a spell for the American manager Charles Frohman who divided his time between London and New York, and for whom she played, among other parts, Winifred in The Sentimentalists and Emma Huxtable in Harley Granville Barker’s The Madras House, she rejoined Horniman’s company and proceeded to play a variety of leading parts, often directed by her husband. These included Beatrice in Hindle Wakes, and Malkin in The Whispering Well.
In 1914 her growing stature within the business brought her to the Old Vic under Lilian Baylis. The outbreak of war meant that her husband joined the army while she played many Shakespearean women such as Adriana in The Comedy of Errors, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Portia, Viola, Beatrice, as well as the Chorus and Princess Katherine in Henry V, the Fool in King Lear, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice due to the lack of available men. Other parts were Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal and the actress Peg Woffington in Masks and Faces.
In spite of such success, The Great War was not, as for so very many, a happy time since her brother Frank was killed in action and her father died just a few months later having never recovered from the shock.
War over, her list of credits continued to grow and with it her reputation, one major success being Hecuba inThe Trojan Women. Grand Guignol melodramas at the Little Theatre followed and then in 1922 she and her husband joined forces with Sir Bronson Albery to manage the New Theatre – renamed the Albery in 1973 and the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006, it was the first theatre to have ‘electrical flying scenery’. It was here, in 1924, that she was to have one of her greatest successes as Saint Joan, a part she revived on several occasions, giving her last performance in 1941.
Having previously wanted to write about the French martyr, Shaw was only inspired to put pen to paper when he saw Sybil in a production of The Cenci. The actress herself was already interested in the character of Joan, who had previously been portrayed as a sweet peasant girl rather than ‘the real Joan, the tough revolutionary’, and had commissioned Lawrence Bingan to write a play for her. But as soon as she read in the paper about Shaw’s Joan, and the playwright revealed to the actress that he had her in mind while writing, history was made.
Sybil was politically as well as theatrically astute and could see immediately that Shaw was writing about the real woman and not a romanticized saint – exactly the Joan in her own mind. Great acclaim greeted her portrayal and the play ran for 244 performances. A revival in 1926 was cut short by the General Strike but as an active member of the Labour Party, along with Sir Lewis, siding with the strikers was more important to her than any stage glory so that she was not disappointed. She said of her seminal role that she had “reached something I could never reach again, and I was just so grateful that the audience was there night after night to see me do it”. In 1931 her lasting success was assured when she was made a Dame of the British Empire.
From then until the outbreak of the Second World War she played such a wide and extensive range of parts, including further forays into Shakespeare at the Old Vic, that it would be impossible to list them all here. For a young actress who had been informed she did not have ‘the face’ for tragedy, she became the noted tragedienne of her day. Prominent roles in the late 1920s and early 1930s included Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Judith in Granite, Barbara Undershaft in Major Barbara, Medea – “All the foul tempers, wanting to knock my husband’s block off, to spank the children. I got rid of them, all. The family used to say I was angelic after playing Medea!” – Phaedra, Mrs Alving in Ghosts, Saint Joan again in 1931 at Her Majesty’s, and the Citizen’s Wife in The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
Her thirst for travel was further quenched by work in South Africa, America, Australia, Egypt and Palestine in plays such as Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Saint Joan – again – and The Painted Veil. The segregation of blacks and whites in South Africa proved an eye-opener. To enable black people to see their plays, she and Casson persuaded the management to allow blacks in the circle with whites in the stalls which was quite some feat for the time. Often referred to as the Mrs Siddons of her generation, she starred as the late 18th, early 19th century actress in a play of the same name in London in 1933 and, as the world moved inexorably towards war again, she could also be seen in plays as diverse as The Distaff Side, Shaw’s Village Wooing,Hands Across the Sea, Hippolytus, Yes, My Darling Daughter, Mrs Conway in Priestley’s Time and the Conways, Volumnia in Coriolanus, and Miss Moffat in Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green.
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 she and her husband toured Welsh mining villages with the classics – “it kindles a fire”, said one of the miners. They subsequently linked up with Olivier and Richardson for the Old Vic’s season at their old stamping ground, the New Theatre. But the war years brought much suffering when their son John was declared missing, presumed killed. One can only imagine their relief and joy when, with peace, came the news that he had spent the years as a prisoner of war; within weeks of VE Day, John was safe at home.
Soon after the war, Casson himself was knighted and spent more time directing than acting while Dame Sybil continued, with inexhaustible energy, to increase her range. Overseas touring interspersed with West End appearances gave her parts such as Mrs Woodrow Wilson in In Time to Come, Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, Clytemnestra in Electra, Isabel in The Linden Tree, and another Isabel in The Foolish Gentlewoman. She appeared at the Edinburgh Festival and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre as Aunt Anna Rose in Treasure Hunt and had particular success in N C Hunter’s Waters of the Moon. In the early 1950s her work took her to New Zealand, India and the Far East where she and her husband gave Dramatic Recitals. She also played the Grand Duchess in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince and Mrs Railton-Bell in the same writer’s Separate Tables.
Her career on film was not extensive though it began in the 1920s. She appeared in Dawn, Major Barbara, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1947 Ealing version of Nicholas Nickleby alongside Derek Bond, Cedric Hardwicke, Jill Balcon, Stanley Holloway and Cathleen Nesbitt and, in 1957, repeated her Grand Duchess, this time for Laurence Olivier’s film of Rattigan’s play which was called The Prince And The Showgirl.
But theatre was her first love and that same year she set off again for Australia and New Zealand where she played Mrs St Maugham in Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden. She and her husband were reunited on stage when Clemence Dane wrote a play especially for them to mark their golden wedding anniversary: Eighty in the Shade ran at the Globe (now Gielgud) Theatre in 1959. The 1960s saw no let-up in her activities; although she was now in her eighties, she continued to tour exhaustively as well as to appear in the West End. She was persuaded to appear with her husband in Uncle Vanya at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1962, and played Abby Brewster in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Vaudeville in 1966 as well as Mrs Bramson in Night Must Fall in 1968.
Her beloved husband died in 1969, not living to see the newly built theatre in Leatherhead named in her honour and at which she followed the inaugural production, The Lion in Winter, with the part of a vagrant inThere Was An Old Woman – it was to be her last stage performance.
In 1970 she was made a Companion of Honour; ‘I can’t imagine the Queen having a nicer companion,’ Olivier told her in a telegram.
It was said that Dame Sybil could enter a room and lead all present to think that he or she was the only person the actress had come to see. Her extraordinary qualities of warmth, vitality and genius were extinguished in 1976 on 9 June when she died at the age of 93, the same age at which Casson had died. She should not be forgotten and it is to be hoped that someone somewhere will have the presence of mind to name another theatre in her honour.
Now out of print, her brother Russell wrote a biography of his sister, and she and Casson collaborated on a book about Lilian Baylis.
The last word should go to Gielgud describing her last public appearance, at the Old Vic: “She was wheeled down the aisle in her chair to smile and wave for the last time to the people sitting in the theatre she had always loved so well. Lively, passionate, argumentative, always travelling, acting, learning a new language or a new poem, a magnificent wife and mother, she was surely one of the rarest women of our time. ‘Oh, Lewis,’ she cried once, ‘if only we could be the first actors to play on the moon’.”
Sarah Vernon © 2008
Originally published on R&V 05-03-08
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