AN ADDRESS BY DAME SYBIL THORNDIKE, C.B.E.
Thursday, February, 21, 1935
Dame Sybil Thorndike was introduced by Mr. Dana, Porter, President of The Empire Club.
MR. DANA PORTER: At one time it was the fashion to make gold watches thick and always to make sure that the works would be heard. Now, it is the fashion to make them so thin and silent that they create the illusion that there are no works whatever to make the watch go.
At one time on the stage it was the fashion to go in for glorious rant and when an actor or an actress died, it would really be necessary to do it in such a way that you would see and hear the various stages by which the process of decay set in.
Now, however, in the person of our guest of honour today, we have, perhaps, the greatest living example of the very best of the modern tendencies in the art of the stage and we have a technique which is so perfect that it conceals the machinery by which it conveys the illusions which are eventually put across.
Indeed, unless you have an opportunity of seeing Dame Sybil Thorndike in more than one play you may miss the perfection which is created, but if you see her in, for instance, a Greek tragedy, such as the "Medea," which is rather a sustained portrayal of woe, as I remember it, and then you see her as Queen Catherine in "Henry, the Eighth," followed, perhaps, by some lighter piece in which she plays the part of a bally dancer or a film star, you will then realize that although it seems to be a different person who is taking the role in these various plays, nevertheless she does it so effectively that without seeing the technique, the illusion is perfectly created in each case.
So, we have her in Toronto in a play which is different in type from all those I have mentioned--"The Distaff Side," and in that play, again, she is so perfect that perhaps we hardly realize the magnificence of the acting which she is presenting to us.
It is with very great pleasure that I introduce Dame Sybil Thorndike.
DAME SYBIL THORNDIKE: Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: It is with the greatest pleasure, though with somewhat of a pain inside my middle that I appear here today. It is a great joy to be able to meet the men and women of Canada, of Toronto, who are doing things in this land. I have had, of late years, a great pleasure and joy in travelling around the world, visiting the various nations which belong to our Empire and I have had a year and a half in Australia and New Zealand, a year in South Africa and in our smaller sort of mandated territories T have been; and Canada which was the first of our Dominions that I visited has not been seen by me for such a long time, so you may imagine how excited and pleased I have been to come here and take up old threads and meet with some of the good friends I knew before and friends from the other side. It is a very great joy and pleasure and somehow or other, links one with those other nations where I have been in these last few years, and we need some linking these days.
I have not come here to talk about that sort of linking. I have come here today because I want to say one or two words about the theatre. The theatre wants a few things said about it at the moment. The theatre in my knowledge and in my short, comparative, life on the stage of thirty-one years--that is not my own age; that is the time I have been on the stage; I shan't give the rest away--(laughter) the theatre during my time has always been said to be in a dying condition and, well, always being prepared for the funeral.
Now, the interesting thing to me is this: that since the coming of another great rival, since the coming of the cinema, we have been told that the theatre was finished entirely and that in a few years it would see our end.
Now, the cinema, first of all, before I say some other things about it, I want to talk about the theatre and the cinema together today. The cinema has had this wonderful effect on our nation and on the world: it has brought into a place of entertainment a great number of people that would never have been brought together in that sort of way at all. People say the cinema has taken away the people from the theatre and they now go some where else. I do not think that is wholly true. I think the cinema has touched a lot of people, probably never touched by the theatre at all, certainly in this generation; for money or various other reasons, they have not bothered with the theatre, but the cinema has given entertainment and has given people a sort of knowledge of what it is to join together in an entertainment.
The great need of human beings is some sort of personal expression„ some sort of expression which is in communion with his fellow men, and it is a joy to be able to go to some place where a thing is being performed and there go through certain curves of emotion, certain intellectual things, certain feelings in common with our fellow men. It gives you a great feeling of understanding for the people you are suffering or laughing with. It gives you a knowledge of human beings that you can only get in a mob. There are certain parts of us which only open, which only respond when we sink our own personality in a larger personality.
It used to be so in the churches. They say people don't go to church now. Of course, that is not true in England because the churches are fuller than they have ever been in their life, I think. Churches did provide that to a large extent-provided some means of feeling with you fellow men. Well the theatre started out with that, primarily. That is the function of the theatre, to interpret human !beings to each other, to interpret human beings from A to Z. Audiences will impersonate themselves in the very actors that are playing and the whole crowd together will feel and respond en masse, and that has value, we believe and we have been taught and told in the old saying of the Gospels-"where two or three are gathered together"-when there is an instinct for some fine thing, there is a spirit present which will lead men away from their personal selves and sink them, or rather raise them up into a larger self, the self of his community, the self of his country, the self of something larger than just his own little personality.
But now, I want to lead on from that application to what the theatre does stand for, as distinct from the cinema. Now, we are in this present age, almost slaves of machinery. We are glad that there is such a thing as machinery to give us our regular everyday, common or garden needs. We are grateful for things that have been done in machines so that human effort may be released from frightful drudgery and may turn to things, better things of the mind, and things which will raise them higher. That good thing has been and is being perverted. We find, with our entertainment throughout the world, a tendency and more than a tendency-it is a thing that has almost become a settled fact- to let everybody else do the work for us.
We have these two great mechanized things, the cinema, the radio, gramaphones, and all sorts of second hand art is handed to us, which requires no personal effort on the part of the person or the audience, on the person who is supposed to. be participating in that art. No personal effort is required at all.
Now, there is no art, worthy the name of art, that does not require from the listener, from the participator, some personal effort. A man said to me the other day, a man in New York, a very fine, intelligent man, he said: "Do you know, I can't tolerate this theatre much more. It seems to me such a childish thing."
I said, "Yes, that is a terrific reproach. A childish thing. And I think we have become quite childish in lots of things we do put forward in the theater, but the thing which is a terrific reproach td the child, the thing which means an intolerable thing, the thing which is selfish, which wants things for itself, we call childish. The thing which belongs to the child, which we know is the very finest thing we can have, the child-like thing, is imagination, a power of seeing some things of the spirit which we grow too odd to see, we in the world."
It always strikes me as a very wonderful sentence in a book of G. K. Chesterton's--he was talking about the lovely surprise of God. He made a flowery thought and he said, "How lovely". "I must make another one. We men get tired; we men get bored with doing the same thing day after day, for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we." And it strikes me that that is a very fine text for the theatre. The theatre stands for something which is to keep our childlikeness, our youth.
Now, if you want to keep a thing which is young, if you want to keep a thing which is youthful, you have to make some effort about it. The tendency of the whole of our personal lives is to get older, to get more settled, to get less bodily free and we who are in the middle age, know how we have to struggle quite hard to keep our bodies and our selves fit so we may do the much more work that comes on us as we get to that middle age. The sort of thing we have to prevent is the 'middle age spread'--the great effort people will take after bath in the morning and other times of the day, a real effort to keep something which is childlike, to keep their youth in, their physical being.
Well, there is another part of us which is much more important than just that body which is only an outward expression of the inward thing and that is the most precious thing we have got, our imagination. And it is to keep your imagination childlike that the theatre exists. The theatre exists to keep us always surprised, always enquiring, always wanting to find some new aspect, always wanting to see some new point of view, to keep our minds, our mentalities, flexible, not willing to be settled.
I often think what we call the devil in life--you can call him by all sorts of different names--I think the devil is mainly seen in dullness and the devil-I call it the devil, you know what I mean--the devil wants to get us settled, to get us encrusted with something so we can't move--so different from the thing which is alert and excited and thrilling and always surprised, always ready to make new things, always ready to make the old things again and again, with little changes, little new views. Always, the whole of life is something that is trying to encrust us, trying to stunt us, trying to prevent growth, putting a fungus-the devil is another word for fungus to me--something which grows over you and prevents you being elastic, moving, growing large. And it is this thing which the theatre exists to combat.
Now, nothing of imagination is just of nature. If we leave imagination alone, the devil of dullness and encrusting will come and get over it. So many people have said to me, "Why, this fuss about things like the theatre? Why can't we just go to the theatre when we feel like it and sit more or less dozily, or just as we like. Why do you make all this fuss about it?" Because you will never get what you want from an art which has that valuing. You will never get from it anything that will be of real value unless effort is made, unless a real vigorous effort is made, and that is the main difference between the art of the theatre and the art of the cinema. The cinema has pandered to this devil of dullness. It has pandered to this thing which wants us to make no effort, which wants us to sit still.
Look at any growing thing you leave out in the sun. Leave it anywhere where things grow quickly. Before long a delicate tender thing will be crushed over by things. There is nothing that we want to grow beautiful that has not to be made 'an effort over, that has not to be cared for,, nurtured tenderly, and our imagination is one thing which we can get just crushed and stifled.
Now, the cinema and the gramophone, all these mechanical things, are the most wonderful aids to our becoming old men and women„ (applause) to losing that power which is of a child, which wants to make effort, which doesn't want to sit on its haunches on a chair and say, "Go on, amuse me. Go on, amuse me." That sort of thing is the beginning of death and if a child sits on a chair and says, "Go on, show me something," or doesn't say anything at all but sits like a piece of suet, we think, "Poor darling, what is the matter with it?" There is something wrong if it doesn't ask questions; something is wrong if it doesn't find out and pick about in all sorts of unexplored corners and something is very definitely wrong with a man or woman who wants entertainment without effort. (Applause.)
I do see at the head, the logical conclusion of this cinema machine, effortless making world that we are coming into, a most ghastly, ghastly finish, a most boring, deadly finish. Our lovely games you are all so keen on, you will see played-well, it is coming that way, very vigorously--you see the games played on a sheet and you watch your football games--or whatever you do watch being performed on a sheet. You don't sometimes, have to go to the field to watch it--you don't make that much effort! I have seen people sitting watching our test matches,--sitting in a chair, frightfully comfortable in front of a thing which is asserting that so-and-so made these many runs. Very nice--if they haven't got legs. Lovely. But it seems to me the most frightful thing that we should want everything without locomotion. If we don't want personal locomotion and metaphorical locomotion in our spirit„ somehow, something that makes us want to probe and find out ourselves, that would be all right.
Now, the cinema knows what the public wants. So does the radio. All of them know what we want. On the face of us, what we want is comfort, and. if we don't watch all the time, I think anybody would feel that way. With me--I am a pretty alive person, physically, but I know what it is to feel, "What an effort; what a nuisance to do this! How lovely if I could just have it in my room at the moment." That is something one definitely has to fight, something which is lethargic, the most awful monster of death and it comes and seizes on us and gives us all sorts of lovely excuses, such as, "O, well, I am fifty.
I don't see why I should have to do this." In Heaven's name, after you have had fifty years of making your body free and your mind free, you ought to be more alert and able to do more, instead of getting all stodgy and encrusted and cabined. It is this thing we have to watch continuously and continuously, to see that it doesn't encroach and eat us up. The cinema has done this lovely thing for us: it will start a programme early in the morning and will go on, perhaps, solidly, all day long, so you don't even have to make the effort of being in time.
The main essential of dramatic performance, which is a rite,, if found in the deepest instincts in man, that thing which once symbolized some deep feeling of its own, symbolized in humans, symbolized in dramatic shape--the Greeks knew it so well and used it as a public releasing of its people, a great mind-releasing thing--the essence of a public performance of drama is that it is a rite--a r-i-t-e rite--a thing which is performed at the moment. It is participated in by the audience at the moment, and the element of surprise that is in it is missing in the cinema-the thing which is a danger. Any moment, somebody in the gallery may throw a rotten egg on the stage. That is only a little, tiny thing that might happen. There are all sorts of surprises that might happen. Something can quicken an actor so much in the audience that he will give a performance he didn't know he had it in him to give. Something may happen of such devastating awfulness in an audience that there will be complete collapse. It is a thing of danger, being held in sort of balance--it may go over, it may be entirely wrecked, it may be the most superb thing. Without that element of danger, the main thing which makes a dramatic performance is missing. You may throw any amount of eggs you like at a screen, but nothing happens, except that the screen gets a little dirty. It goes on in the same way. The actress goes through her lovely love scenes and all goes on just the same; instead, when the egg is thrown at you on the stage, a metaphorical egg, and you rise and give something huge. You have something roused in you which only the egg roused, perhaps, and you give something else. They go out, having a bath, not perhaps of the egg, but some emotion created between you all, and you will be raised, lifted, released and bathed and somewhat freed from this thing which goes on in the same little, stodgy, everyday way, the thing which happens to be at the moment the thing which has got to be watched and guarded against.
There must discipline if a thing is going to give you as much as the theatre can give you, a thing which is going to develop and release something in you which may have gone dead. It is a very easy thing to say the theatre is for childish people-it does belong to something of children. It does belong to youth and that thing which is enquiring and which longs to probe, but without being as children we don't get anywhere. We don't get to see the things we are hoping to see. Our eyes aren't opened and this thing which happens at the moment is our own performance. That is what you don't get with a cinema. You never get your own performance. The thing we give, that we feel as actors in the performance of "The Distaff Side" in Toronto is different to what we give in Boston. Something that Toronto gives to us we are handing back to Toronto; something that Boston gives us we hand back to Boston. They are different things. Now, when you have your lovely Greta Garbos and your Ronald Colemans, and the beautiful stars who do such lovely work--and I just adore their work--there is not one thing you do here in Toronto that will have its effect on them. They don't take into their work something that Toronto is giving because actors don't come only to give, they don't come only to give to you, they come to take too. So, the sum makes up something-we come to perform a rite. We come to interpret something and in our, interpretation is only half' of what a dramatic performance is. We give our interpretation and you give same essentials of yours which makes it a different thing, not only a different thing here in Toronto from New York, but in Toronto a different thing, every single night. There is not two performances we give, one like ours at the moment, for instance, that we give exactly the same way. There is something in the audience that it is giving us differently. You could hear us when we come off the stage, night after night, "Wasn't it difficult to get that line? They didn't see that at all tonight. Last night they got it quickly and we were given something to carry it on and give the other thought out quickly. Funny, tonight something seems to draw us out." Another night: "I feel fifteen feet tall tonight." Those people are giving them something bigger than they expected to get. That is the essence of dramatic performance; that is the power the theatre has in the world. We are all in the world now, wanting to get in tune with each other. That is the great problem of nations at the moment-trying to find something which makes us understand our fellow nations, our brothers and sisters of various kinds and colours. The theatre is one way and a very deep, instinctive way of being able to find something out about other people. I was talking to a man right up in the wilds of Queensland. He had come in from one o f the farms and there was a certain play we were playing and he said, "It is funny, I didn't realize that at all, that you people in England feel just the way we do right out here in the wilds. I never thought that; I thought we were a thing by ourselves up here in Queensland." He couldn't travel; he couldn't see anything. By dramatic performance you can give an essence of people„ show it to other people, make them see whether they are in tune with that and they will learn understanding.
There is that very, very good example--I have used this before, but I do think it is such a good one: The Irish people who express themselves in their plays, with the exception of the Russians, I should think, as no other people in the world express themselves--something of their very essence goes into their drama. It is almost their natural art--expression; at least it is expression that comes very nearly to them. We have learned, we people in our part of the British Empire, in England we have learned and are trying to understand something about the Irish people, which we should never have done by just newspaper talk and by our little antagonisms. We do have a lot of antagonisms because the Irish people and the English people are very different, tempermentally, but by an art, you go down to the fundamental, down into something which is deeply in tune with those human beings and it is in the excrescencies where you are far apart. In our outward expressions of life we may be a long way apart but right back in the centre, in the core, we are in tune.
In that play, "Juno and the Paycock"--they are purely Irish people. My goodness, isn't that us? Isn't that something, we do, too? Something you find in tune, and by your likenesses to people you learn to understand them and care for them. If you get that first, the something in common which is understanding, the outside thing, the excrescencies-the differences may amuse and entertain„ it is by our likenesses to people that we understand and care for them, and by our differences we are amused and that is true with other nations; there are things in us which deeply are the same as Japan and China and India, and Africa, all human beings have something which is deeply in common. It is our outsides that are different. We want to find a thing which is in common. Dramatic performance is a concentrated presenting of people to themselves.
It is a very queer thing, when I was over in this country years ago, in every place-this is particularly in the States 'because I didn't travel so extensively here, there weren't enough places where they took dramatic performances-in an enormous number of places in the States, small places which I visited then, there is now no theatre, no dramatic people allowed in at all. No theatres, possibly. We used to go and find big publics and good publics, and now there are very few that are playing at all. This is really quite a big loss.
The cinema and the radio and the gramaphones, they are all fine if they are leading us on to a personal art, leading us on to an art in which we actively participate.
I was talking to one of the gramaphone makers the other day and I said, "You ought to make a rule that nobody shall have any musical records who does not try and learn something about music." Nobody can get any real pleasure from an art unless they work at it themselves.
The other day I was playing up at Leeds and I went into a restaurant to get a poached egg before--my performance at night. I was sitting there and to my amazement, suddenly I heard a gramaphone or a programme from a radio station near, playing the Toccata in D, from Bach. People were clattering their cups, going on eating poached eggs and sausages, and the Toccata in D is being played and no one cares! It might be a stupid bit of ear-catching sound. I felt, what a terrible thing this is! What a dreadful thing it is, that we can let a thing be played in such a place, that one ought to go on one's knees and walk on one's knees a mile to hear and participate in what the Toccata in D can do' for you.
Christmas Day, my husband and I tuned in and heard a bit of Bach's Passion, from Dresden or Munich--I can't quite remember which--little odd bits of Bach's Passion. That radio could be switched on or off--you listened or you didn't. People were talking during it. When I thought of what the Bach's Passion meant, when I thought of what it meant to a musician, when one studied it and worked at every note and then the great day came when you could go and hear Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" what an experience it was! And here we have just allowed' it to be thrown off and on every occasion. Pearls in front of swine, it comes to. (applause). Ladies and Gentlemen, please don't think I am saying an offensive thing, because I say it to myself, most rigorously. It is a thing we have got to watch in the world, so very rigorously now, this paying nothing of ourselves for the beauties that we have got, and letting our children grow up--I wouldn't let my children have a gramaphone until they learned the piano and showed they were working at it. I wouldn't let them have the sound of a gramaphone. They have no right to, unless they are going to spend some effort themselves.
It is just the same way with the theatre. Nobody has any business to come to a theatre and sit as they do at the cinema, like suet, and sit and not move, not have every nerve out ready to be impressed, to be moved, and you will say, "O, yes, but look at the stuff you give us some times." True, we do give some stuff, sometimes, in the theatre, but there is not a single play, if you are atune--I speak as an actress and that is a little different, but everybody ought to be actors--there is not a single play that you can't find something in it of a door opened. It doesn't have to be, necessarily, intelligent because we have other things besides intelligence that want to be aroused and moved, and emotionally, we want stirring.
Do you know, it is lovely to see how spoon fed the public is in this art, how childishly they are treated, how they are so afraid their sensibilities are going to be hurt. I think, rather than being careful what they see, we should shock them! Shock them! Give them something that drives them up like bombs. I think that is what we want. We can't be cared for in that way. We care for ourselves far too much. We are much too eager not to be churned up, and, particularly us British people. For goodness' sake, don't make me feel! That is the cry of so many of our British people. It stands us in good stead, sometimes. That is what the theatre should do; it should churn us up, shock us, give us a new point of view and we think then what we can be. We don't attempt to solve problems on the stage or say that this is the line of conduct or that is the line of conduct. We say, this is life as we see it, some part of life as the artist is seeing it, and if it is a thing which is terrible, then it is the business of the church to come in and say, "Hello, what is this? This is an aspect of life we didn't know existed." Attack the cause, not the thing that is the expression of it. The expression of it is throwing it off.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I must stop, because it is dreadful, T know. This watch, you (The President) talked about, tears on. It has been a real pleasure to come and meet with people. I know there is a live public here and you have got in your midst a little theatre which is going to do things in the world, little Hart House which is going to show something of what life has thought and felt and discovered and expressed here in Toronto, something Toronto can give to the world, as what no other city in the world can give, something we in London, in Wales, wherever we are, have got, something to contribute, and we get nothing if we sit back without effort and don't participate. If there are failures, never mind, we can pick up the failures and criticize as much as we like. Criticism generally means that you stop going. Criticize as much as you like and the thing will grow, because it will be your own thing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much for listening patiently like this .and for giving me the opportunity to make these vague remarks. I feel that there is something in the theatre. I am very keen on it myself--there is something I love deeply in this theatre, that I have received from the theatre as a human being and I think every human being can receive something of quickening life, something that gives us understanding and growth.
Don't let it die away. Don't let it just fizzle--and it is in your power, I know.
Thank you so much for letting me come. It has been a real pleasure to meet you all. (Applause, prolonged).