Dr Syn Legends

Russell Thorndike 1885-1972

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                     Obituary The Times
 Russell Thorndike, the actor and writer, who died on November 7 1972 at the age of 87, was the younger brother of Dame Sybil Thorndike.  Of the two Russell was (in the opinion of Dame Sybils husband Lewis Casson*) the born actor, but he seems to have been lacking in just those qualities and power of application, which, to quote Casson again, enabled Sybil to reach the top of the profession that she turned to on giving up piano playing.  Russell’s first love was writing, and to this he devoted more and more time after service in the First World War had handicapped him physically for the prosecution of his stage career.Two and a half years younger than Sybil, Arthur Russell Thorndike was born on February 6, 1885, at Rochester, where their father had recently taken up residence as a minor canon.  He was educated at St Georges School, Windsor Castle, being a chorister of the Chapel Royal.  When Sybil was advised on the grounds of health temporarily to stop work as a pianist, Russell made the inspired suggestion that they both go on to the stage.In 1903 they were fellow students at Ben Greets Academy and two years later fellow-members of his company on a North American tour.  He remained in all three and a half years with the company, once giving three performances as Hamlet in three different versions of the text on the same day.  After accompanying Matheson Lang to South Africa and Asia, he was for a time reunited with Sybil, who had married Lewis Casson in 1908, in Miss Hornimans Manchester based repertory company, and he had finished writing a novel of romantic adventure on Romney marsh, Dr Syn, when he was called up in 1914 as a trooper in the 1st Westminster Dragoons.  Together with his brother Frank, who had also gone on the stage, he sailed for Egypt, leaving Sybil to throw in her lot with Lilian Baylis and Ben Greet in the formers new enterprise of presenting Shakespeare at the Old Vic.  Severely wounded at Gallipoli and invalided out of the army with a dislocated spine, he joined Greet and his sister at the Old Vic in 1916.  In the course of two wartime seasons he was the first man to play King John, Richard II, and King Lear for Miss Bayliss-he and Sybil as Lear’s Fool did the storm scene on the first night against the background of an air raid-and he was leading man and joint director of plays with an Old Bensonian named Charles Warburton for the 1919-20 season.  Thereafter he went to the little theatre in John Adam Street to support the Cassons and Jose Levy in their attempt to establish an English Grand Guignol.  He acted there in six consecutive programmes of plays, collaborating with Reginald Arkell in writing two of them, and making his chief success as an actor in Reginald Berkeleys Eight O’clock, a drama set in the condemned dell during a prisoners last half hour.  He was released to appear in Peer Gynt in what was said to be the first fully professional production of Ibsens play in London, at the Old Vic in 1922 under the direction of Robert Atkins.  No subsequent performance of his aroused so much interest, though he continued for nearly 40 years to work on the stage.  During that time he was seen as W.G. Wills Charles I and Tennysons’ Thomas Becket, roles “created” by Henry Irving; as Hamlet at Irvings old theatre at a matinee in aid of the Sadlers Wells Fund; in many roles in Shakespeare on tour with Greets company, and in Regents Park with Robert Atkins; as his own Dr Syn, and as a character in another play of his, in which Dame Sybil acted with him during the Second World War; and as Smee the Non-conformist pirate in 10 revivals of Peter Pan.  For the most part these were no doubt sound performances, but with the coming of middle age, with the establishment of the Cassons in partnership with Bronson Albery in the West End, and with the arrival of a younger generation at the Old Vic, it was as though he felt that the adventure of life in the theatre was over for him.  It seemed doubtful whether his heart was in stage work that had ceased to be pioneering.  It was, however, open to the born romancer to turn himself into a writer of romances, and the author of The Slype and other novels appearing in succession to Dr Syn, a film version of which was made by George Arliss, did this with some success; “anything may happen; anything does happen; Mr Thorndikes masterly plot is indescribable”, wrote a reviewer in The Times of his The House of Jeffreys.  Thorndike married in 1918 Rosemary Dowson, a daughter of the well-known actress Rosina Filippi. 

November 9 1972