I started this book months ago and read from it studiously every day, and yet I only finished it this week. I felt, every couple of pages, that I had read a complete book, for Mr. Croall's research is so thorough, and so well employed, that one feels at all times that one is actually in whatever theater season he's describing. And, since Sybil Thorndike started her career in 1907, that's a helluva lot of seasons.
I'm an American and, when Croall starts in again about how universally loved Sybil Thorndike was, it doesn't ring any bells, yet even if she were a fictional character, Croall would have done a great job in building her up from her components. She grew up desperately trying to distinguish herself (as did her beloved, erratic brother Russell, the author of "Dr. Syn") from the mass of clerical society she had grown up in, and at first she threw herself into a musical career, practicing the piano so avidly that she made herself ill doing so, and a stern doctor told her to rest her wrists for a year. When you're a young girl, a year is just about forever, so Sybil decided then to take Russell's advice and the two of them entered dramatic school. They did this at a time when becoming an actress, as Croall makes clear, was considered the equivalent of abdicating one's caste... She perhaps stood on the shoulders of her predecessors here: the actresses in the generation immediately before hers were the ones who were shunned by their families, or even institutionalized when they took to the stage.
Thorndike wasn't beautiful, either, but she was radiant and energetic. (Too energetic for some critics.) The parts she created on stage were many, but alas, laments Croall, she was too prodigal with her talents and she only created two great roles: Joan in Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN, and the schoolmistress Miss Moffat in Emlyn Williams' THE CORN IS GREEN. Personally I think that she had a third great part, as the retired star Lotta Bainridge in Noel Coward's autumnal masterpiece WAITING IN THE WINGS. Just about all of Thorndike's contemporary roles were overshadowed by her work in the classics: the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and the Jacobeans (Queen Katherine in HENRY VIII was among her own favorite parts), Ibsen, etc. (She played in Chekhov only once, at Olivier's insiatence. Her film career she regarded with ill favor, but she worked in some distinctive films, from Hitchcock's Stage Fright to Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirls.
On top of everything else she was a left-wing activist and a crusader, one who managed to combined politics with high art in a way that made everyone else look sort of tinsely. And she was a wife: she was married for sixty + years to an actor and director, Lewis Casson, whom Croall would have us think was a great, great theater artist, but somehow nothing he ever did in this book impressed me much. He seems rather to have squelched Thorndike's career to a certain extent, for she got so she wouldn't work without him, and any time someone else tried to direct her, Lewis would be squabbling and arguing with the director and telling Sybil to do things his way. Maybe this is unfair, but Croall also hints at extramarital affairs with Thorndike's contemporaries, the actresses Helen Hayes and Gladys Cooper. Bad Lewis! But no matter what, Sybil always took him back and, in the grand romantic tradition, she lingered on ony a little while after he died. Mac, does this sound like the sort of thing you would like to read?