Theatre of the Damned Blog

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Friday, 14 January 2011

Dame Sybil Thorndike - London's Queen of Screams

As supper is cleared from the table, and their parents relax into the evening, the young Sybil Thorndike and her brother Russell are staging a play. The makeshift theatre they have erected in a spare room of their house in Gainsborough gives Sybil her first taste of the stage, with a gathered audience of household servants, happy to indulge the passions of the two precocious children. It is a play of Sybil’s own devising, a bloody little shocker called The Dentist’s Cure, or, Saw Their Silly Heads Off, consciously or unconsciously cribbed from overheard fragments of Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls, with a cruel tooth-puller in place of macabre Sweeney Todd. Quietly, the maids pray that there will be less murder in this one than in weeks previous, the bloodstains from earlier performances of the similarly improvised The Blood on the Bedpost, The Murder of the White Mice and The Nun’s Revenge having caused some consternation with the mistress of the house. So it was that the future Dame Sybil Thorndike, who would become perhaps the most respected and revered British actress of her age, together with her similarly vaunted brother, displayed her early but enduring enthusiasm for horror on the stage. In 1921 she was quoted as declaring ‘Horrors have been my meat and drink day and night since I was a tiny child’, her comment published in the Grand Guignol Annual Review, the record created by the London theatre in which she starred, where her work and dedication played a major role in its success. This article will examine Sybil’s involvement with London’s Grand Guignol, José Levy’s bold transplantation of the Parisian form to London’s Little Theatre, considering her motives for joining the company, her work within it, the work of her husband, noted director Sir Lewis Casson, and her brother who completed what was a truly family affair, as well as the significance of her participation in the wider cultural history of the Grand Guignol.

There are a number of famous names associated with London’s Grand Guignol, writers such as Noël Coward and Joseph Conrad, names to conjure with, or to grant a fleeting respectability to a much maligned and controversial project. Sybil Thorndike (together with Russell and Casson) stands apart from the others, however, in both the depth and importance of her involvement. Noël Coward produced only one play, a somewhat forgettable farce called The Better Half, which played for 29 performances in the theatre’s eighth and final series in May-June 1922, and that written largely for financial reasons in his first flush of youth. Conrad fares even worse, having enthusiastically knocked out Laughing Anne for one of Levy’s early seasons, which was then rejected by the producer, owing, according to Conrad to the necessary complications in staging its second act (“too much darkness; too much shooting”). Sybil, however, played in seven out of the eight series, usually performing in three or four of the six or so pieces presented each evening. She expressed nothing but the greatest enthusiasm for Levy’s project, defending it in the strongest and most terms from accusations of morbidity or immorality, and rhapsodising over the thrill of performing the more than 20 roles she undertook over the two years of her involvement.

Sybil’s involvement in the Grand Guignol began at a crucial and difficult stage in her career. Having won great acclaim for her performance of Hecuba in Euripides The Trojan Women at the Old Vic theatre in 1919, a matinee season at the Holborn Empire booked by Sybil, her brother and her husband had proved a critical and commercial failure. This season, which combined a revival of Sybil’s Hecuba, with her performance of eponymous roles in Medea and future champion George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, but also contained such misfires as John Burley’s North country farce Tom Trouble, fell on critics either concerned with the repetitive nature of the roles Sybil was afforded, or complained that she was unsuited to anything but tragedy. There is a definite moral undertone, a condescension towards anything but the “highest” of art in these notices: as Russell notes in his charming, rambling biography of his sister: ‘The critics laid down the law, and it was that of the Medes and the Persians. “No. This young woman is a tragedienne of the grand order. She shall not be permitted to play anything else.”’ This concept of theatrical etiquette, of a cultural class system in which the finest actors are expected to shun roles in “low” comedy or melodrama is one which would return with renewed vociferousness when Sybil the tragedienne would nail her flag to Levy’s blood-spattered mast.

Sybil Thorndike as Hecuba
with her daughter Anne Casson as Astyanax in The Trojan Women,
Old Vic, 1919


The husband and wife team therefore found themselves at the conclusion of an expensive failed experiment, and with Sybil’s great success in Shaw’s Saint Joan still four years distant, in one of the toughest patches of their respective careers. They, along with their growing family, had recently moved to a new home at 6 Carlyle Square, Chelsea, and were generally in perilous finances, and without management. The first half of 1920 found Sybil taking on a role in Gaston Leroux’s shoddy and muddled melodrama, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, where though her performance attracted typically glowing reviews, the script was denounced as incomprehensible rubbish. The Times remarked ‘how human and at times really pathetic Miss Sybil Thorndike can be as the heroine of a theatrical “shocker”’, and Sybil herself professed great enjoyment at the experience, remarking with characteristic good temper and optimism that she loved ‘any sort of play if it’s played for all it’s worth’. The play was something of a success, the theatrical climate of the period displaying a yearning for the thriller, however daft, and it ran for four months.

While The Mystery of the Yellow Room was confusing its audience at the St James’ Theatre, José Levy had secured the rental of the Little Theatre in London’s Strand district, and made it his first order of business to secure what he believed to be ‘the most brilliant theatrical family now working upon the English speaking stage’. Determined to obtain Sybil, who he lionized as the ‘best emotional actress of her time’, and Casson, ‘the most consistently excellent producer’, Sybil refused to accept unless Russell was to be included. According to his account, his sister had declared ‘But it’s just what Russell and I have always wanted, and if you don’t have him, you won’t get me, because if you want horrors, he’s got a mind like a ghost-story in a Morgue.’ Casson was installed as director, Russell took on a great many of the male leads, and Sybil fulfilled the roles which Paula Maxa, Paris’s scream queen, was bringing to shrieking life across the channel. Gainsborough’s Grand Guignol of the back bedroom was to ride again, and as Russell recalls: ‘here starts one of the happiest and thrillingest chapters of Sybil’s career.’

The curtain rose on Levy’s Grand Guignol on September 1st 1920 at 8pm, to a house filled with critics attracted by the erstwhile mistress of Greek tragedy, and thrill-seeking audiences aware of its Parisian sister’s horrific reputation. Thirty minutes later, when G.H.Q Love, the second of the evening’s short plays began, Sybil had her first taste of the controversy her new position would generate. The play, translated from Pierre Rehm’s French original by Sewell Collins, is set immediately outside the toilets of a restaurant, with the inexcusably vulgar signs for ‘Messieurs’ and ‘Dammes’ visible for all to see. The critics leapt upon it as an exemplary case of the French pollution of English mores, and predictably, as Russell recalls: ‘The much discussed ‘Lavatory’ play brought us a tremendous cheap advertisement’ as it was attacked by ‘the Purity Brigade’, who ran about London registering their disgust, and booking their tickets. Later that evening Sybil played opposite the actor George Bealby, another of Levy’s regulars-to-be, in The Hand of Death, a classic of the French Grand Guignol by the Prince of Terror André de Lorde and his frequent collaborator Alfred Binet. Each performance closed with a witty meta-theatrical revuette, Oh, Hell!!!, which Russell wrote in collaboration with Reginald Arknell. Both plays were great successes, the latter allowing Sybil to demonstrate her skill in burlesque, a far cry from the agonies and wailing of Hecuba and Medea.

Subsequent series would see Sybil expanding her repertoire to ever more diverse and complex roles. Russell described her performance as Judy in his own The Tragedy of Mr Punch as ‘so gloriously wooden and hideous that none would believe it was she’, and that the contrast between her performances first in Maurice Level’s The Kill, and then Max Maurey’s The Chemist, which followed one another at the climax of Levy’s third series in March 1921 was truly miraculous. The voluptuous wife of Level’s shocker, a ‘beautiful Rossetti figure’ then re-emerged as an ‘idiot girl comic’ in the role of the chemist’s customer; Sybil embodied both, and took apparent glee in the challenges the transformation created. Her work at the Grand Guignol also encompassed roles of considerable seriousness and pathos that reflected her earlier successes as a tragedienne.  In Amends by Crawshay Williams, she performed the ex-lover of a now dismal and desperate artist, who obligingly ends his life with a flick of the gas taps in a final act of devotion. Euthanasia was a common and controversial theme in the Parisian Grand Guignol, and her involvement in Williams’ piece demonstrates both Levy’s and her own willingness to engage with potent political issues of the time. In her brother’s estimation, her finest performance was as the conflicted war widow in St John Irvine’s Progress, where she is forced to commit fratricide to prevent her brother from developing a particularly deadly new explosive. Russell effusively praised her as equal to a ‘picture of grief in a Whistler etching’, and it was with a small section of this play that she made her first short film. Sybil never denigrated her work for the Grand Guignol, emphasising the backstage laughter that counterbalanced the onstage horror, the sense of family which she felt with her brother, husband, fond friend Levy and the other members of the intimate company.

As with Paula Maxa, the variety of brutal tortures and deaths Sybil endured are gleefully recorded; ‘She was variously murdered and stuffed in a trunk, had her eyes gouged out, was strangled, poisoned and asphyxiated, encased in plaster, and crushed with her lover under a moveable ceiling’. Sybil took on Maxas roles, including perhaps the most terrible of all, that of Louise in De Lorde and Binet’s Un crime dans une maison de fous, under the title which Christopher Holland gave his translation: The Old Women. Menaced by Athene Seyler and Barbara Gott, who portrayed the two insane hags who prepare Louise for the entrance of One Eye, the terrible witch, Russell recalls that ‘Sybil’s terror of them was soul-shuddering, and when I came on as the old lady maniac with the bodkin [Mme Robin], I longed to shout a brotherly warning so that Sybil could jump over the footlights and take refuge in the Savage Club, and thus save her eyes from being gouged out.’

Russell also relates a genuinely frightening incident, when the lines between fantasy and real horror coalesced. It was during the dress rehearsal of Crime, ‘a nasty play, in which he and Bealby played broke and brutal gamblers who murder a young coquette named Chou-Chou (played by Sybil) for her bag of banknotes, and stuff her corpse into a trunk. Owing to a mix up with their travel arrangements, they are then forced to remain in the room all weekend, with the trunk and decomposing corpse as constant reminders of their guilt. Russell’s character eventually gives the game away in a nervous altercation with a gentleman who arrives to make an inventory of the furniture, and the grisly corpse is revealed. During the dress rehearsal, the omission of air holes within the stuffy trunk came close to suffocating Sybil, and when her desperate knocking was finally heard and the men rushed to release her, she fainted dead away. Usually so sanguine in the face of horror, Sybil later confessed that each evening she would genuinely fear for her life as they closed the trunk.

Despite this unlucky mishap, which no doubt added a certain frisson to Sybil’s performance in the role, she approached her work in the Grand Guignol with great seriousness and conviction. She took the greatest of relish in playing the most villainous or mentally abstracted of characters, and even made trips to the Bethlehem Hospital in Lambeth (formally the infamous Bedlam) in order to gain a greater insight into the parts she was called to play. Her correspondence records that she believed her work with Levy was strengthening her talent, and that, in her own estimation, her understanding of parts such as Hecuba was increasing with the practise and training the Grand Guignol afforded her. Certainly, the performances she gave during her occasional breaks from the Little Theatre, including the ghastly Mother Sawyer in Rowley, Dekker and Ford’s The Witch of Edmonton at the Lyric Hammermith met with great acclaim.  There was a personal angle to this enthusiasm too, she described performing in the Grand Guignol as ‘like a confessional, only more satisfying’, and defended horror as a genre with her conviction that ‘Horror is one of the big emotions, and to rule out any emotion deprives the healthy, God-fearing citizen of a legitimate outlet for his violent nature.’ In Sybil’s estimation, the Grand Guignol provided more than a diversion, it was an important cathartic release valve, and for her own sake, her immersion in a fantastic world of murderers and monsters had cured her fear of the dark and released her from her night terrors. Never shy of hyperbole, Sybil even responded to one critic who took exception to The Old Women by claiming that It is a beautiful play, perfectly worked out. The only thing to which it can be adequately compared is the music of Mozart’.

Such a defense of the theatre, and her participation in it, became increasingly important during her second season, when both came under considerable criticism. The question of theatrical etiquette was raised time and time again, The Observer asking ‘Should Hecuba to be doing these things?’, conservative critics clearly disturbed by the image of a great tragedienne dragging her name through the blood of the Little Theatre. As was frequently the case in the Parisian Grand Guignol, even the most hostile notices would include an exception for Sybil, or for the standard of acting in general; Play Pictorial denigrated G.H.Q Love as ‘nasty without any redeeming artistic feature’, save of course ‘the acting of Sybil Thorndike’.

This was often intended as criticism rather than praise, however, as The Times suggested that Sybil’s skill and sense of style ‘lend these shockers an artistic dignity which they do not intrinsically possess. You feel that the actress is too good for the work, and yet so fine in it that you couldn’t bear the thought of her absence.’ The collision of what were then considered high and low forms, which of course the Little Theatre even displayed in microcosm with its blending of pathetic drama and burlesque, was too much for many critics to take, but was an essentially revolutionary impulse. Sybil refused to make the distinction between high and low art, caring only for the impulse of enthusiasm and talent which brought it to the stage, for the dedication of the team and their love of the theatre.

Sybil finally left the Grand Guignol at the conclusion of its seventh series in May 1922. Her brother had left for Peer Gynt at the Old Vic a season previously, and it had become increasingly clear that Levy’s project was coming to an end. Sybil’s involvement with the Grand Guignol, and her outspoken enthusiasm for it, however, was not over. Sybil and Casson’s next project was a typically brave and foolhardy plan to create a means for more adventurous and progressive work to make it to the West End. This project was no easier then than it would be now, with Shaftesbury Avenue even then choked with soulless musical theatre and safe commercial prospects. Sybil was convinced that the strictures of English stage censorship were to a major degree responsible for the craven programming in the major houses. Her determination in this was fired partly by her experiences of dealing with the Lord Chamberlain while working at the Little Theatre, and she was quoted in The Observer in 1922 complaining of an author who had written four ‘brilliant and wonderful’ plays for the Grand Guignol, each one of which had been banned by the censor. This is almost certainly Fredrick Witney, who was forced to wait until the 1940’s before his Grand Guignol plays received their public premiere. Sybil laments: ‘Any one of them France or Germany might envy, but there does not seem to be a chance of his work ever being programmed in England, because he writes in very strong terms.’ Sybil would remain a staunch defender of artistic liberty and freedom of speech for her entire career, and frequently reference London’s Grand Guignol as a prime example of censorship stifling artistic brilliance.

The great emotional power Levy had found and exploited in Sybil was soon to be harnessed by a more influential theatre figure, as a mere few months after leaving the Grand Guignol, she performed Percy Shelley’s The Cenci to an audience including George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was enraptured by Sybil’s performance of the trial scene, her blending of pathos and dignity, frailty and inner-strength, and set about writing his Joan of Arc play with her in mind for the lead. Saint Joan, which Sybil joined in 1924, was to become the defining moment of her career.

Levy’s project had already folded by this time, and he had struggled to find figures with the necessary public and critical cache that the Thorndikes and Casson had brought, but it cannot be denied that they played a crucial role in the success of the venture. Sybil broke with theatrical convention in refusing to be pigeonholed or trapped artistically by her early successes. Together with Casson she was to have a vast impact on the development of London theatre in the early 20th century, and it is somehow fitting that she should have played so central a role in one of its most fascinating and daring experiments.


- Stewart Pringle


Material drawn largely from Sybil Thorndike, by her brother Russell Thorndike, Sybil Thorndike - A Star of Life, by Jonathan Croall and London's Grand Guignol by Richard Hand and Michael Wilson. Fully referenced version available on request.



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