The versatile actress Sybil Thorndike was born at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, on 24 October 1882, the daughter of Arthur John Webster Thorndike, a canon of Rochester Cathedral, and his wife Agnes Macdonald (née Bowers). Sybil trained at the Guildhall School of Music, London, and for some time worked as a pianist. In 1904 she studied at Ben Greet’s Academy, and her early stage career was closely interwined with Greet’s theatrical activities. Her first professional appearance was with his company at Downing College, Cambridge, on 14 June 1904, when she acted Palmis in “The Palace of Truth” and walked on in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. Her first London appearance was as Janet Moriee in “The Marquis” at the Scala Theatre on 9 February 1908. She performed in Annie Horniman’s company at Manchester (1908-9 and 1911-13) and in 1914 rejoined Greet at the Old Vic, under Lilian Bayliss, playing Adriana in “The Comedy of Errors” on 30 November. Over the next four years at the Old Vic, in a variety of roles, modern and classical, tragic and comic, she was instrumental in establishing that theatre’s name, especially as the home of Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth, Portia, Rosalind, Viola, Constance, Imogen and Mistress Ford were among her major parts. She also acted Lady Teazle, Kate Hardcastle and Lydia Languish, as well as the male roles of Lear’s Fool and Prince Hal.
Her long career spanned some 65 years, during which she appeared in most of the major roles in the theatrical repertory, playing in theatres in London, all over Europe, Australia and America. In March 1924 at the New Theatre, London, she created the title role in Shaw’s “St Joan”. Other significant roles included Hecuba in “The Trojan Women”, Miss Moffat in “The Corn is Green”, Medea, Candida, Isabel Linden in “The Linden Tree”, Mrs St Maugham in “The Chalk Garden”, Mrs Callifer in “The Potting Shed” and Abby Brewster in a revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace”. She opened the Chichester Festival in July 1962, acting Marina in “Uncle Vanya”. With her husband Sir Lewis Casson, she toured Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Turkey and Israel, giving recitals.
In June 1931 she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire and in 1970 was created a Companion of Honour. She received honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Southampton, Surrey and Oxford. She has been the subject of biographies by Sheridan Morley, Elizabeth Sprigge and John C. Trewin. Her writings include “Religion and the Stage” (1928) and, with her brother Russell Thorndike, a biography of Lilian Bayliss (1938). Dame Sybil died in London on 9 June 1976. (WWWT, OCT, EB)