A talk by Jonathan Croall, author of a new biography of Dame Sybil Thorndike, given at The Art Workers' Guild, on the 22nd October, 2008
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
(this is the full report: a transcript of the event)
The speaker was introduced by Sir Donald Sinden who recollected working with Mr Croall's father John Stuart, who was a star of the early British cinema,. Mr Croall's mother was also an actress and became a teacher and leading vocal coach. Mr Croall was formerly a publisher's editor and is the author of a number of books, including the authorised biography of John Gielgud. He for many years edited magazines published by the National Theatre and now edits the programmes for the Old Vic.
Sir Donald promised his own stories about Dame Sybil later but remembering her insistence on actors being heard quoted a diction and projection exercise taught him by an old actor. Like the warm up artist before a top act he soon got the whole audience repeating: 'Hip bath, lavatory, bidet, douche!' which left them in a very receptive mood for Mr Croall.
The role which made Sybil Thorndike's name in the theatre, and with which she was forever after associated, was Saint Joan. Shaw wrote the part especially for her, and afterwards gave her a copy of the play, inscribing it 'To Saint Sybil Thorndike from Saint Bernard Shaw'. Sybil was of course a woman much loved by both the public and the profession, for her warmth, her generosity and her public spirit. But was 'Saint Sybil' really a suitable description? Was her sixty-year relationship on and off stage with her husband and fellow-actor Lewis Casson quite the model theatrical partnership it seemed?
These were just two of the questions I set out to answer in researching Sybil's long and extraordinarily rich life. I wanted to find the real person behind the ebullient, famously worthy public personality, whom John Gielgud described as 'the most loved and admired English actress since Ellen Terry'. To do so I talked to nearly two hundred people who had known or worked with her. They included family and friends, and many of the actors, directors and playwrights whose careers intertwined with hers over the decades. Not surprisingly, their vivid personal memories revealed an infinitely more complex and interesting woman than the word 'saint' might suggest.
For a biographer, Sybil was a dream subject. To begin with, she was dead. This might seem a drawback when you're writing a person's life, since it cuts you off from your number-one source. But on balance, having battled to write a biography of John Gielgud during his lifetime, I think it is actually an advantage, since it gives you much greater freedom to tell the truth as you find it. Elizabeth Sprigge's biography of Sybil, published in 1971 during her lifetime, underlines the problem. It was based on lengthy sessions with Sybil herself, but was much too reverential and adoring, and quite failed to catch the tougher elements in her character. As Sybil herself put it in a foreword to the book: 'Elizabeth is a generous friend, and sees few faults where there are many.'
That biography was one of four I read before embarking on my research. None of them I felt did full justice to Sybil's remarkable career. Her brother Russell Thorndike provided a delightful account of their childhood and Sybil's struggles to establish herself as an actress, but his book only takes the story up to 1930, and is anyway not the most reliable of sources. Her eldest son John Casson's 1972 memoir Lewis and Sybil is an entertaining and intelligent account of his parents' life, but is inevitably written from a narrow perspective. Sheridan Morley's illustrated chronicle, published immediately after her death, is no more than a superficial jaunt through her career, using only existing sources. None of these books drew in any significant way on the memories of Sybil's contemporaries.
There were two other books I found especially useful. In 1955 the critic J C Trewin wrote a monograph on Sybil's career, full of interesting memories and opinions about her performances in the theatre. Then there was A Speaking Part, Diana Devlin's excellent book about her grandfather Lewis Casson. It's a delightful portrait of him and Sybil, and also an authoritative account of the theatre of their time.
Many biographers find that their subject's family, as guardians of the shrine, can be a major problem, even when they are allowed to call themselves the authorised biographer, as I was. But here I was lucky: Sybil's eldest daughter Mary, who's still going strong at ninety-four, as well Sybil's ten grandchildren, and various nephews and nieces, were wonderfully cooperative. They talked to me at length and in depth about Sybil, made letters and other material available to me and, most importantly, placed no restriction on what I could write.
Another advantage for me was that, unlike many actresses of the day, Sybil had a rich life outside the theatre. This meant that I needed to set her in the political and social context of her time. This is something I like to do anyway, and I think it makes for a much more satisfying book. Too many theatrical biographies or memoirs leave out this important element, ending up with a disappointingly narrow focus, the worst examples being little more than a wearying succession of stage triumphs and disasters.
It was impossible to fall into this trap with Sybil, who was a public figure offstage as well as on. She spoke on countless platforms, holding forth passionately on the burning issues of the day, from Votes for Women in her suffragette years before the first world war, to nuclear disarmament in her eighties. As a committed pacifist she marched for peace; as a socialist she was actively involved in helping refugee children who were victims of the Spanish Civil War. She fought and spoke up for many groups struggling against their government, whether they were, miners in the General Strike of 1926, native blacks in apartheid South Africa during the 1930s, or conscientious objectors during the second world war.
As a result of all her political activities and her popularity she was on Hitler's notorious blacklist of individuals to be eliminated once Germany had invaded Britain. Yet her passionate desire for a better world was not just confined to her public speaking, and her support for innumerable good causes, big and small. She visited leper colonies in England and Hong Kong, and held the hands of dying children in the newly liberated concentration camp at Belsen. She was also one of the founders of her profession's trade union, Equity. It was for all this, as much as for her great theatrical achievements, that the writer A. P. Herbert aptly described her as 'a star of life', and that I used the phrase for the title of my biography.
I want to talk in a moment about some of the delights I experienced and the problems I encountered during the seven years I spent writing and researching Sybil's life. But first, for the benefit of those who may know little or nothing about her, let me briefly summarise her remarkable career.
She was brought up in Rochester in Kent, the daughter of a vicar and a very musical and ambitious mother. Both parents were passionately fond of the theatre. From early childhood she and her brother Russell wrote and acted out plays in their home, and Sybil became involved in amateur dramatics in the parish. As a young girl she also showed great talent as a pianist: by the age of eleven she was playing at concerts, including one at the Wigmore Hall; and at thirteen she was being regularly tutored by an eminent professor at the Guildhall School of Music in London. But her dreams of becoming a concert pianist were shattered by a wrist injury brought on by over-practising, and at twenty she was advised to give up the piano for a year. She was in despair, until her brother Russell suggested they try to get into the theatre together.
The two of them attended Ben Greet's acting academy in London. Sybil then spent three apprentice years barnstorming round North America with one of Greet's touring companies, starting as a super understudy and ending up playing no less than 112 Shakespearean parts. Subsequently she spent three seasons at the Gaiety in Manchester, a pioneering repertory theatre run by Annie Horniman, where she had a taste of the new realist drama. Here she met and married Lewis Casson, who was to direct her over the next 60 years in more than a hundred productions.
Throughout the first world war she was Lilian Baylis' leading lady at the Old Vic, for the famous theatre's first seasons as the home of Shakespeare in London. During these four years, as the bombs rained down and many actors joined the forces, she played most of the main Shakespearean heroines. But because of the shortage of men she also tackled several male parts, including Prince Hal, the Fool in King Lear, Ferdinand, Lancelot Gobbo and Puck.
She was finally hailed as a star actress in the early 1920s in Greek tragedy, as Medea and as Hecuba in The Trojan Women, in which she gave performances of great intensity. She went on to play a huge variety of parts in two seasons of Grand Guignol.
Then came Saint Joan, the role of a lifetime, which she played with all the warrior-like fervour and heartfelt conviction of her deeply held religious faith. Later in the decade she was acclaimed for her fine performances in Shaw's Major Barbara and Ibsen's Ghosts. She also played Lady Macbeth, first opposite Henry Ainley in the West End, and soon afterwards with Lewis on tour. There is a 1930 recording of her and Lewis playing the murder scene, which I think shows clearly her power as an actress.
[Dame Sybil as Lady Macbeth appears on Actors Playing Their Parts - Pavilion Records LC 1836 (link to Google results)].
Though she was a West End star for most of her career, she preferred working in simpler theatrical conditions. During the second world war she and Lewis Casson toured towns and villages in Wales and the industrial north, staging fit-up productions of Macbeth and Medea in miners' institutes and village halls, almost like the strolling players of old. Unlike many leading actors and actresses of her day she loved touring, especially when it enabled her to play to audiences unaccustomed to theatre. Towards the end of the war she appeared with Olivier and Richardson in two celebrated seasons of the Old Vic company at the New theatre, and afterwards toured with the company under the ENSA banner around a Europe devastated by the conflict.
In later years she turned in a series of graceful, humorous and subtly effective portraits of contemporary women, in plays such as The Linden Tree by J B Priestley, The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams, Clemence Dane's Eighty in the Shade, two plays by N C Hunter - A Day by the Sea and Waters of the Moon - T S Eliot's A Family Reunion, Graham Greene's The Potting Shed, and Waiting in the Wings by Noel Coward. Some of you may remember the famous 1962 Olivier production in Chichester of Uncle Vanya, in which she gave a touching performance as Marina the Nurse. At eighty she appeared in her first musical, Vanity Fair, and at eighty-seven she played her final starring role - as a bag lady, in the theatre named after her in Leatherhead. In general she was too large a personality to succeed on film, although she appeared in a couple of dozen. For me her finest roles were Edith Cavell in the silent film Dawn, the Salvation Army General in Major Barbara, and the Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Showgirl, with Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. She is also remembered for her hugely popular recitals, which in their later years she and Lewis performed all over the world, so indulging their great passion for travel. The programme usually consisted of poems and excerpts from plays, especially those for which Sybil was best known, such as Medea and Saint Joan.
Sybil was a great lover of poetry. Indeed when she was ninety published an anthology called Favourites. She was especially fond of old ballads, and the works of Shelley, Tennyson, Hopkins and Browning. She liked to perform poems which told a story, that were in effect mini-dramas. I'd like now to play part of a recording she made of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott.
Available on The Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson - Harper Collins HCA 460 (link to heathbooks.co.uk)]
Sybil was on the stage for sixty-five years. During that time she played well over three hundred parts. It's an astonishing record, an indication of her remarkable versatility, and her continual desire to tackle every kind of role. As you can imagine, researching her life was a formidable challenge, though it was also an extremely enjoyable one. It meant first of all having to spend many days in libraries and archives around the country, tracking down cast lists, reviews, newspaper articles and other relevant material. Here the excellent Mander and Mitcheson Theatre Collection in Greenwich was an absolute godsend, not just for its collection of memorabilia but also for its excellent theatre history library, and the invaluable knowledge of its administrator, Richard Mangan.
Other excellent sources were more unexpected. Through one of Sybil's nieces I came across Megan Jones, a teacher in Wiltshire who had amassed a comprehensive collection of what she called Memorasybilia. This was a stunning collection of magazines, newspaper cuttings, programmes, playbills, audio and video tapes, records and letters, covering Sybil's entire career, and all meticulously catalogued. This is the kind of lucky break that saves a biographer many hours of more fragmented research. Not that I'm complaining: the detective element in investigating a person's life is one of its great pleasures.
My greatest resource was Sybil's family. Of her four children, only her daughter Mary is still alive. Fortunately for me she has a razor-sharp memory, a great sense of humour, and is also delightful company. Her childhood was dominated by the theatre: at seven she appeared on stage with Sybil in The Trojan Women, and as a young actress she played Wendy in Peter Pan at Christmas for several years running, once with Gerald du Maurier as Captain Hook. During the many hours I spent talking to her, she provided some wonderfully vivid memories of family life, of how it was to be brought up by such famous and formidable parents as Sybil and Lewis. She also came up with many helpful and colourful details of well-known theatre people who were part of her parents' circle.
These kind of reminiscences are invaluable when you want to get a rounded picture of someone's character. Most of Sybil's ten grandchildren at one time or another were also involved with the theatre in some way. Their memories were very useful in establishing another generation's view of her, first as children of a larger than life grandmother, then as adults, when they developed opinions about her as an actress. I also got a very different perspective from her sister Eileen's surviving children, Phyllis Walshaw and Sybil Mitchell, both in their 80s but with clear memories of their childhoods, and of the relationship between Sybil and their mother.
Another long-living member of that generation is Daniel Thorndike, Russell's son, who offered me an amusing and honest portrait of his father. One of the biographer's task is to try to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to try and get as near as possible to the truth. In this respect Russell presented a special problem. He was a successful actor for a while, a leading man in the 1920s at the Old Vic, where he played Peer Gynt in the first-ever English production of Ibsen's play. He was a successful novelist, the author of the Dr Syn stories which remain popular today - one was recently read on the radio by Rufus Sewell. As well as his entertaining biography of Sybil, he collaborated with her on an affectionate joint memoir of Lilian Baylis. The problem is that, as Daniel admitted, his father was a great story-teller - in both senses of the word. So I had to treat his account of his and Sybil's Rochester childhood and her early career with several doses of salt.
I also had to make judgements about two potentially sensational allegations made about Sybil. One theatre director told me that she had been arrested during a suffragette march, that she had thrown a stone through the window and killed someone. This seemed to me extremely unlikely, first of all because it would undoubtedly have been reported in the press at the time, and would therefore have been public knowledge. Besides, although Sybil possessed violent emotions, she was not a violent person physically, and always made clear her disagreement with the actions of the more militant suffragettes such as her friends the Pankhursts. But what finally convinced me the story was untrue was that its source was another theatrical biographer notorious for his unreliability.
The other matter concerned the actress Tallulah Bankhead. According to one writer, she and Sybil were lovers. Now it was true that the controversial Hollywood star put herself about with both sexes. It's also true that Sybil stayed in the same hotel as her while she was playing in The Distaff Side on Broadway in 1934, and sometimes went to her parties. And Sybil certainly had very intense relationships with her close women friends, including Ellen Terry's daughter Edy Craig, the playwright Florence Bell, and the American actress Elizabeth Robins. But I found it impossible to believe that they were sexual relationships. Nevertheless I wrote to the writer concerned, asking what evidence he had for his allegation. There was no reply, so that was that.
I mentioned earlier Russell Thorndike's biography. Happily for me, it contained many letters from Sybil to the family which might otherwise have been lost. They contain wonderfully fresh and lively accounts of her time as a novice actress in America. They also include her first impressions of Annie Horniman and Lilian Baylis; of being directed by Granville-Barker; and of her first encounters with Lewis Casson in their courting days in Manchester. I want to read you an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Russell during her first American tour in 1904/5, when she was just 22. The company had reached San Francisco, where they were to stage Hamlet in its entirety, in the open-air Greek theatre in the University of California at Burkley. Ben Greet was playing Hamlet - a part incidentally that Sybil herself always wanted to play.
'I'm terribly depressed,' she wrote to Russell. 'I feel all disgraced and most miserable. We all started to rehearse, and after the first court scene - I'm a lady in that - and Hamlet has his long soliloquy, I was sitting taking it all in, just how Ben Greet was doing it, and planning what I'd do when I play it, when I overheard a story Etic was telling Frank, and I suddenly burst out laughing at the top of my voice - it was such a surprisingly funny story I was taken off my guard - my dear, right in the middle of the Hamlet speech - wasn't it contemptible of me? - dried poor Ben Greet right up and made him furious. He turned on me and called me all sorts of things - not very bad things but they sounded bad to me. He called me a giggling schoolgirl - wasn't it too appalling? I feel I've put myself back quite a lot by being such a little fool.'
I'm not sure if Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing was among the many roles she played during these three tours in America. But she certainly played her a decade later at the Old Vic, and would sometimes use one of her speeches in a recital. Here is a live recording of one such recital, with Sybil now in her eighties. In this scene Beatrice is making makes clear her resistance to taking on a husband. [This recording was supplied by the Thorndike family. The maker of the recording is not known.]
Letters of course are invaluable, the best kind of primary source, not least because they pin down an exact time and place for your subject. Here I had an early disappointment. During the first world war, when Lewis was away fighting in France, he and Sybil, who remained an inveterate letter-writer, corresponded almost every day. She kept his letters all her life, but after her death the package somehow got lost. What a collection that would have been, Sybil reporting on the eccentric Lilian Baylis and her work at the Old Vic, Lewis on the harsh reality of life at the Front.
But with other letters I struck lucky. When Sybil was with the Old Vic company immediately after the war, she wrote regularly to Lewis. In these letters, which happily survived, she describes the appalling conditions in Europe, the impact of the Old Vic productions of Peer Gynt, Arms and the Man and Richard III on the audiences of troops, and her arguments with Olivier and Nicholas Hannen, both staunch Conservatives, about the forthcoming general election in Britain. They also include several very moving passages in which she passionately reaffirms her love for Lewis.
Sybil was the one who liked to keep everyone in the family in touch with everyone else, who delighted being at the centre of the family network, which gradually extended to Canada, Ireland and Australia. Her son John went to live in Melbourne in the early 1950s, and over the next two decades Sybil wrote regularly to him about once a week. These letters proved a rich mixture, full of family news and gossip, sharp observations on people and plays, and reflections on philosophical, political and religious matters. The same applied to the many letters written to Mary's daughter Diana Devlin, when Diana was in America. Sadly, those she wrote to her daughter Ann, who married the actor Douglas Campbell and emigrated to Canada, have apparently not survived.
As a biographer you're always looking for buried treasure. Mine came in the form of two totally unexpected caches of letters hidden in libraries in America, and one precious jewel in Oxford. The first was a fascinating collection of letters which Sybil wrote to Elizabeth Robins, a famous American actress of her day and a pioneer in the staging of Ibsen in England. After seeing Sybil in the Greek tragedies, she sent her an appreciative note, and they became friends. They corresponded for thirty years, Sybil's letters revealing in great detail her thoughts about various plays and parts, and her views on interpretations of Ibsen.
The second find was a substantial collection of letters she had written from the 1920s onwards to the actor John Sayer Crawley, whom she had met on the first Ben Greet tour in America, and his second wife Mary Ward. These are much more light-hearted and jolly, and deal mostly with family matters, giving useful details of what Sybil's children are up to, and what she thinks of them. Especially valuable are the ones which she writes during and immediately after the second world war, which give a vivid picture of a country living through hardship and austerity.
The jewel I found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where I had come to read some valuable letters that Sybil had written to Gilbert Murray, professor of Greek at Oxford. Murray had not only translated the Greek tragedies of Euripides in which Sybil had made such a sensation, but had also become a friend: Sybil later described him as one of the three mentors in her life, the other two being Shaw and Lewis. In the Bodleian I was not allowed to make photocopies of the material. This meant copying out the letters by hand, and aftersix hours of this I was flagging. Then at the bottom of the list which the librarian had helpfully supplied I saw two further items, marked Bickersteth. Who was Bickersteth? When I opened the relevant file I could hardly believe my eyes: there were two letters from Sybil aged fourteen to the best friend of her childhood Kitty Jelf, who had later married a Monier Bickersteth.
The poorly punctuated letters catch the zest and enthusiasm of young Sybil, as well as provide early evidence of her ability to work ferociously hard in her determination to succeed. 'Last Saturday I went out for a bike ride with Margie she has just learnt she rides very well wobbles occasionally but that's nothing. I had to be home at six o'clock because I was slack about practising and Mother was rather annoyed about it you know. I have been such a wretch last week I practised abominably and was altogether low, but on Monday I made a fresh start and practised my five hours quite well. I'm going to tell you that secret today, so don't tell, it's in the Private Letter.'
And there, in an envelope marked Quite Private/Miss Kitty, was the second letter, in which she wrote: 'Don't tell Russell, I am composing a play, Little Red Riding Hood. I'm doing the music and both words and dances. Now give advice.' She then sets out her ideal cast, which included Russell Thorndike as the Woodcutter and Eileen Thorndike as an Attendant Fairy. She ends: 'Do you think that will do, it would be a lark wouldn't it.'
A biographer's task is never finished: you always think there's another gem around the corner. Just a few months ago, when I had almost finished my final draft, The Guardian and The Observer opened their archive. It covers the whole of Sybil's life, so I thought I should just check in case there was anything I had missed. Under Sybil's name I was astonished to find no less than 200 items: articles, letter to the press, reports of speeches she had made. Many were new to me, and proved invaluable, enabling me to extend my coverage of her more public activities.
This material, and the Elizabeth Robins and Crawley letters, I found through the internet, which is of course is a fantastic tool for any researcher. When I first put the name Sybil Thorndike into Google, almost the first item I found was the transcript of a ten-thousand-word speech that she had given in 1935 in Canada, in which she passionately argued the case for live theatre against the relatively new medium of the talking pictures. I also found a quantity of letters to Vera Brittain, a fellow-peace campaigner, with whom Sybil often shared a platform, and to her husband George Caitlin. When Lewis died in 1969, Caitlin wrote a letter of condolence to Sybil, adding: 'Shirley says that if she had another choice she would wish to be you'.
This of course was Shirley Williams. Intrigued, I sent her a copy of her father's letter, and she agreed to be interviewed. She was indeed a great admirer of Sybil, whom she first met as a teenager when she was cycling around Chelsea distributing leaflets for the local Labour Party. At Oxford she was very keen on the theatre, and had many conversations with Sybil about acting and plays. But for me she was particularly useful on Sybil's involvement with her mother's work after the war, raising money to help feed children suffering from malnutrition in the devastated European countries.
Of course the internet has come a long way since the time I worked on my biography of John Gielgud more than a decade ago. I remember towards the end of my researches I was in an office at the National Theatre, and someone suggested I might find some useful material online. I was dubious, never having used the facility before - I just had an Amstrad at home. But I thought I might as well give it a try. The first item I clicked on was billed as a kind of home page for Gielgud. There I read something like the following: 'Hi there - my name is Arthur John Gielgud. If you want to learn about my awesome career as a major movie star, and my friendship with Sir Olivier, please mail me.' So I looked no further. Now, when I'm starting work on a second edition of the book, I'm uncovering a brilliant assortment of letters and other documents from places like the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas or the Performing Arts Collection in the New York Public Library.
The internet also gives you access to films and recordings that would otherwise be extremely difficult to track down, or would be unavailable. But chance encounters can still play their part. A few months ago I bumped into the actor Benjamin Whitrow at the Finborough Theatre. We got talking in the bar, and he suddenly remembered he had somewhere in his attic a tape of Sybil and Lewis reading poems by Tennyson. It was one I had given up hope of finding, so I was thrilled when he sent it to me. That was the tape which included The Lady of Shallott.
Other theatrical biographers also proved an excellent resource. I was impressed with how generous they were with their help and advice. A conversation with Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies' biographer Martial Rose put me in touch with a college library in Winchester, where I found an extensive collection of letters from Sybil to Gwen, who were good friends. Michael Redgrave's biographer Alan Strachan pointed me in the direction of the collection at the Theatre Museum, even providing me with the relevant reference numbers of Sybil's letters to his subject. Katherine Cockin did me a similar favour in relation to Sybil's letters to Ellen Terry and Edy Craig.
My book would not be the same without the memories and opinions of the many people I interviewed. I think it's a tribute to the love and affection in which Sybil was held that no one refused my request for help. Leaving aside the invaluable family memories, the earliest one I had was from the British director Roy Ward Baker, who in 1936 was third assistant on Tudor Rose, one of Sybil's early films. But I was also lucky to catch members of the Old Vic company who played in the famous 1944 and 1945 seasons at the New theatre, among them Joyce Redman, Peter Howell - who played a troll in Peer Gynt - and Peter Copley, who gave me a memorable account of Sybil on the that postwar tour of Europe.
As many of you will know, Peter Copley died earlier this month. Many others who provided me with valuable recollections of Sybil are also gone: Frith Banbury, Tanya Moisiewitch, Christopher Fry, John Mills, Margaret Wolfit, Julian Slade, Richard Bebb, Judy Campbell, Robert Lang, and several others. Most though not all were of an advanced age. I was lucky to be able to talk to them while I could, but it was not entirely due to luck. As a biographer you have to be somewhat cold-blooded about this matter. When I started looking at Sybil's life I drew up a list of people I hoped to interview, ranked precisely in order of age. It wasn't of course an infallible guide, and I have to admit that there were occasions when someone on my list died before I had made contact, my first selfish thought was: You're not supposed to die yet!
I thought it would be appropriate to let Sybil bring this part of the evening to an end. Saint Joan of course was her most famous role, and one she continued to perform until 1941, when she was approaching sixty. In 1965 she recorded scenes from the play for the BBC, as part of a radio Sybil Thorndike Festival. The programme planners were initially very dubious about a woman of eighty-four playing Joan, even on the radio. When I talked to Graham Gauld, her producer, he recalled watching her from the control room when she made the recording: 'She was amazing: her voice was astounding, her face was lit up, she was shining, she was eighteen.'
In this recording she is in her ninetieth year, and giving a recital with her son John and grand-daughter Jane at the Shaw theatre in London. It's the speech in the cathedral before the trial, in which Joan refuses to deny her voices, beginning 'Where would you all have been now if I had heeded that sort of truth?' Sybil here narrates a little bit of the story before launching into the speech.
[This appears on the LP An Evening with Sybil Thorndike - Argo/Decca ZPL 1186.]
(Link to Google results.)
One of the first people I talked to about Sybil was Donald Sinden. In a moment he's going to entertain us with his own memories of Sybil. After that there will be a chance for you to ask questions, or indeed contribute your own memories of her. At the end of the evening I'll be happy to sign copies of my book for anyone who cares to buy it. The publishers have generously agreed to make it available at a 20% discount just for this occasion.
Meanwhile, thank you very much for listening.
Before opening up the floor for questions and contributions from the audience Sir Donald shared some of his own memories of Dame Sybil, including the occasion when, playing gently on the piano at the end of Act 2 of Waters of the Moon she heard Wendy Hiller downstage, usually extolling 'beautiful, beautiful Perrier-Jouét 1943' change the vintage to 1934 and changed her playing to a much more agitated piece. He also passed on a story of John Casson's who, remembering that his mother had always wanted to outlive Sir Lewis (who died aged ninety-three), visiting her on the day after she reached his age and on it being pointed out to her she cocked a snook at Lewis, delighted to have achieved her aim.
Among stories from the floor was one from Iain Mackintosh, who mentioned the decision to name a new theatre in Leatherhead in her honour, the day the very conservative board made the announcement an article by Dame Sybil appeared in the national press headed 'Why I am a Socialist.' The board rapidly called another meeting, but the name stayed the Thorndike Theatre (though sadly it is no longer in operation as a playhouse).
Another member of the audience who, when a very worried music student, had met Dame Sybil at the Royal Academy of Music and recalled her concern and her advice: 'Calm down,' she said, 'You'll find it helps if every morning you play a little Bach' - something which she herself always did.
David Horovitch recalled a time at RADA when Dame Sybil visited a mime class, during which two students carried an imaginary piano up an imaginary flight of stairs. She watched this without intervention, until they reached the bend, whereupon she jumped up, most agitated, and declared, "No, no, you'll never get it round the corner like that," before getting up on the stage and helping them. She was eighty at the time.
There were many other contributions - some of which need sound and vision to make their points - and Mr Croall dealt with several questions. Much more than can be detailed here is dealt with in his new biography.
Current Lecture Programme
Lecture Programme Archive
15th December 2008