Sybil Thorndike – Grand Dame of British Theatre

Day 170 of Colourisation Project – October 24

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

The black Belgian marble tombstone in Westminster Abbey bears the following inscription etched in white.

“Saint Joan or Hecuba, great actress of your age, all womanhood your part, the world your stage. To each good cause you lent your vigorous tongue, swept through the years the champion of the young. And now the scripts lie fading on the shelf, we celebrate your finest role — yourself; The calls, the lights grow dim but not this part, the Christian spirit, the great generous heart”

This dedication was especially composed by English novelist and playwright, J.B. Priestly, the first to be specially composed for an Abbey memorial for over a century, such was the high regard for the distinguished theatrical tragedienne, Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike.

Dame Sybil Thorndike

Photographer: Bassano Ltd  NPG London  –  Dame Sybil Thorndike  1934 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Born this day, 24 October 1882, Sybil Thorndike, as she was known, was considered by many critics to be one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century. In 1931 she was created a Dame of the British Empire (when her career was not even half over), and nearly forty years later in 1970 was made Companion of Honor to Queen Elizabeth. On the announcement of her second Royal honour she received a telegram from Sir Laurence Olivier declaring “I can’t imagine the Queen having a nicer companion.”

Making her stage debut in 1904 in a regional company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, her career spanned over 60 years.  She performed all over the world including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and both Western and Eastern Europe,  playing in over 300 roles.  Thorndike possessed remarkable versatility in her craft, performing in a diverse range of roles; modern and classical, comic and tragic, including some male parts, among them the Fool in King Lear.

Thorndike achieved her greatest success in the title role of Saint Joan, a play especially written for her by George Bernard Shaw in 1924. She regularly toured internationally in Shakespearean productions. In 1962 at the age of 80, she undertook an arduous tour of Australia, and made numerous stage appearances late in her life, including taxing roles in The Viaduct (1966) and There Was An Old Woman (1969)

Universally loved and admired for her performances on the stage, Thorndike’s popularity also stemmed from her performances on the human rights stage. Her commitment to advancing the causes of human rights from a feminist, socialist and pacifist standpoint, gained her wide respect from all quarters. Throughout her long life her commitment was for a better and more peaceful world. She took up the mantle to campaign on behalf of European refugees and to fight against the death penalty.  She was an active member of the Labour Party and in 1926 when a general strike cut short the run of Saint Joan, she remained strongly on the side of the strikers. She was a founding member of Actors’ Equity in Britain in 193o and was still turning up to meetings in her 70s and 80s.

During the Spanish Civil War, she was a supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain, which was fighting against the Nazi-supported forces of Francisco Franco. As a result of all her political activities, she was clearly a thorn in the side of the Nazi Party and as it was later discovered, she had been placed on Hitler’s notorious blacklist of individuals ‘to be eliminated’ once Germany had invaded Britain!

Although ambivalent about the cinema, Thorndike appeared in a large number of silent movies including versions of Bleak House, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and The Scarlet Letter.

In 1928 she played Nurse Edith Cavell in the silent British war film Dawn, one of the most controversial British films of the 1920s.  Cavell was a nurse who was executed by a German firing squad in Brussels, Belgium for assisting Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. Sparking international outrage, Dawn was censored because of its perceived brutal depiction of warfare and anti-German sentiments, after pressure from both the German Ambassador and the British Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain.

Other notable film roles were as General Baines in Major Barbara (1941), Mrs. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (1948), Queen Victoria in Melba (1952) and the Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, for which she was awarded the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Sybil Thorndike died of a heart attack in London, on June 9, 1976 at the age of 93.

Her ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.


“I think we all have the germ of every other person inside of us.”  –   Sybil Thorndike

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