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On this day in history in 1882, was born Sybil Thorndike.
Thorndike was one of the most accomplished actresses of the Twentieth Century, whose career spanned both stage and screen.
Agnes Sybil Thorndike was born on 24th October 1882, at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, the daughter of a canon at Rochester Cathedral. She had a gentile education and upbringing and it was hoped that she would become a concert pianist, a honourable profession for a young lady of refinement, but sadly a nerve injury to her right hand closed off this particular vocation. On the prompting of her brother, the author Russell Thorndike, she decided on a career on the stage.
At the age of twenty-one, Thorndike joined the company of actor-manager, Ben Greet, where she received her initial training. She performed with Anne Horniman’s company from 1908 to 1913, when she was invited to join the Old Vic, where she not only established her own name as an actress, but also launched the Old Vic as the principal place for Shakespeare. Thorndike became acquainted with George Bernard Shaw who introduced her to Lewis Casson, who soon became her husband.
The First World War afforded Thorndike the opportunity to play male parts and she became particularly noted for her portrayal as the Fool in King Lear. Although not a classical beauty, having sharp features and prominent cheekbones, she was endowed with robust health and sufficient vigour to distinguish herself as one of the most versatile actresses of the day. Her acute observation of human behaviour and eccentricities, brought to her parts an added component, which elevated her performances to a further dimension. In silent movies, Thorndike recreated many of her stage performances, especially her classic, Lady Macbeth, but she disdained the talking pictures, preferring to remain in live theatre, although she did appear in several films later in her career.
Thorndike achieved stardom in 1924, when she appeared in the title role of Shaw’s Saint Joan, a play written with Thorndike in mind for the lead part. Her many and varied roles included queens, dowagers, showgirls and housewives, both young and old, and she continued performing well into her eighties. When appearing in The Prince and the Showgirl, she managed to upstage both Lawrence Olivier and Marylyn Monroe.
In 1931, she was created a Dame of the British Empire and in 1970, a Companion of Honour. In 1976, she lent her name to, and personally opened the Thorndike Theatre, 7 Church Street, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8DN.
When interviewed at the age of ninety, Thorndike modestly attributed her success to personality rather than talent, by saying “It is only those who are hysterical who can play hysterical parts. She died on 9th June 1976 at the age of ninety-three and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
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