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Betwixt altar and stage

24 March 2009

Michael Caines on a great actress who had time for good causes

“I was exalted”: Sybil Thorndike as Shaw’s St Joan in1924

“I was exalted”: Sybil Thorndike as Shaw’s St Joan in1924

Sybil Thorndike: A star of life
Jonathan Croall
Haus Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

HIGH MASS had a profound effect on the young Sybil Thorndike, a vicar’s daughter. As she later recal­led, she and her brother Russell came away from the church that Sunday “the most ex­treme Anglo-Catholics you could possibly have. . . We bowed and crossed ourselves to practically every word.” Only music had an equally powerful hold over her: “I dedicated myself to the Lord and the piano.”

Dedication would seem to be central to the very strong Thorndike claim to greatness. Once she had chosen acting over the piano, she stuck to it for more than 60 years, beginning with small roles in a touring company in 1904, and ending with television and radio performances in the 1970s.

The clarity and conviction of her performances, as exemplified by her 1920s triumphs in Medea and The Trojan Women, brought her wide­spread acclaim, and she challenged herself consistently to take on dif­ferent and difficult roles (“I want to be lots of different people: isn’t that what acting’s about?”). Noël Coward was not alone in seeing her as “one of the few really great actresses of our time”. George Bernard Shaw couldn’t begin to write Saint Joan, which he had been contem­plating for years, until he saw, in her, the person who could play the pro­tagon­ist as he conceived it; Thorn­dike became permanently associated with the role. She is, to date, the only actress to be honoured with a burial in West­minster Abbey.

Even with the Lord and the theatre to keep her busy, Thorndike had dedi­cation to spare. Both she and her hus­band Lewis Casson were “ardently Left”, as the novelist Patrick White put it; they involved themselves relentlessly in socialist, feminist, pacifist, and chari­table campaigns and committees. From the Committee To Aid Homeless Spanish Women and Children (during the Spanish Civil War of 1936) to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to remonstrating letters in The Times against the passing down of a death sentence on an 18-year-old, “[t]here were never enough causes for Sybil to support,” writes Jonathan Croall, whose Sybil Thorndike: A star of life is perhaps surprisingly graceful, given the sheer eventfulness of the life, on and off stage, that it seeks to celebrate.

Croall has already written a com­prehensive account of John Giel­gud’s life, in which he suggested that the actor made one of his few poli­ti­cal interventions — writing to Neville Chamberlain in 1939 — only with the encouragement of his friend Sybil Thorndike. As far as I can see, there is no room in this (if anything, slightly fatter) biography for revisiting that theory. Nor for any of the frank in­sights of Michael MacOwan’s interview with her in Great Acting (1967), in which she describes her own family as “religion-mad”, and her father’s ability to read the exhortation at morning and evening prayer one-and-a-half times through in a single breath — to Laurence Olivier’s twice.

But these are not significant omis­sions. Instead, there are Thorn­dike’s triumphs over the critics, her astonish­ing labours on tour, instances of her personal charm, combined family and professional responsi­bilities, charis­matic offstage per­formances (“even more wonder­ful than I’d expected”, wrote Chris­topher Isherwood; “She is a sort of saint”) and contemporary views. “Just when the occasion de­manded it,” said Oli­vier, “she could pour trust into you; it was like a message from God.”

For Sybil at least, there was a con­nection between socialism and acting: “It makes you much freer, you have a much deeper under­standing of all sorts of people,” she told Drama magazine in 1968. The following year, Casson died, and she consoled herself with the New Testament — read in bed each morn­ing, with tea, a lexicon, and a transla­tion to hand — with texts from My Daily Light, and with psalms. It seems true to form that the final impression that this book leaves of this star of life is one of a wonderful integrity, despite the vicissitudes and the variety of the era in which she shone.

Michael Caines is website, bibliography, and reference editor at the TLS.

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