Sarah Bernhardt 1844-1923
(Pseudonym of Henriette Rosine Bernard) French actress, autobiographer, novelist, dramatist, and nonfiction writer.
Bernhardt is considered one of the greatest actresses ever to work on the French stage, famous in particular for her perfect elocution and the captivating effect she had on her audiences. Offstage, she was known for her independent, extravagant lifestyle, the details of which were publicized around the world and in her memoirs. Not content solely with life on the stage, Bernhardt also gained success as a writer, sculptor, painter, business-woman, and campaigner for charity. Her fame as a popular culture personality has been compared to the cult-like status of such later performers as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
Bernhardt was born to Youle Bernard, an unmarried Jewish-Dutch seamstress and courtesan, in Paris in 1844. Despite her Jewish background, Bernhardt attended a Catholic convent school as a child. An unconventional woman in her own right, Bernhardt's mother introduced the young girl to the Odéon Theatre in Paris, where Bernhardt would later spend much of her illustrious stage career. According to some accounts, her mother abandoned Bernhardt soon afterward, and the girl subsequently began training at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen. She made her debut with the Comédie Française in 1862 with a small part in Racine's Iphigenie. Bernhardt's work was at the time considered unremarkable, and she left the Comédie Française in only six months after an altercation with another actor. She worked as a burlesque singer until 1869, when she appeared at the Odéon in François Coppée's Le passant, a performance that sparked strong interest in both Bernhardt and Coppée. Bernhardt had a child in 1864, Maurice, allegedly the son of Prince Henri de Ligne of Belgium. She and her son were constant companions throughout her life, and managed several successful theatre companies together, although one of their business ventures eventually led to bankruptcy. Around 1870 Bernhardt took up painting and sculpture, and experienced moderate success with her exhibitions. In 1872 she returned to the Comédie Française as the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas; her performance cemented her reputation as a significant actress, and she rose to prominence in the company. In 1877 Bernhardt appeared in one of the most acclaimed roles of her career, the title character in Racine's Phèdre. By this time, she was an international sensation, with a reputation as a brilliant, temperamental, and sometimes eccentric actress. Bernhardt became frustrated with the scope of the Comédie Française and left the troupe in 1879, moving on to London, where she caused an uproar with her performance of Phèdre. She toured the United States for the first time in 1880, keeping company with numerous American celebrities, including Thomas Edison, with whom she made a recording of Phèdre. A year later she acted in another of her most famous roles, that of Marguerite in La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Bernhardt married a fellow actor, Jacques Damala, in 1882; it was a disastrous union that ended less than a year later. From that point on, Bernhardt devoted most of her time to touring around the world. She began managing her own career, and chose plays largely as vehicles to showcase her talent; she also frequently advised playwrights on their work. In the 1890s Bernhardt took over the Théâtre de Nations, renaming it the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. Here, in 1899, she created her most defining role: Hamlet. Bernhardt had not been the first woman to play Hamlet; the tradition of travesti-women playing men's roles and men playing women's-dates back to the beginnings of theatre. But her interpretation of the character was considered revolutionary, in particular because she was at the time a fifty-five year old woman playing a young man's part, and because Shakespearean plays had rarely received acclaim in France until Bernhardt's Hamlet. Bernhardt continued touring and acting for the rest of her life, even after the amputation of her right leg at the age of seventy. Details of her life-her many liaisons with men, rumors that she slept in a coffin, the wild animals she kept as pets-were pored over in gossip columns even after her death. Known for her charitable work as well as her eccentricities, she had turned the Odéon Theatre into a hospital for soldiers during the Siege of Paris in 1870, and during World War I campaigned to raise money for the wounded. In advanced age, she began a career in the budding film industry, often reviving her stage roles in such silent films as Tosca, La Dame aux Camélias, Queen Elizabeth, and Adrienne Lecouvreur. Never able, or willing, to escape the spotlight, she was allegedly filmed on her deathbed in 1923 in Paris, where she was acting in the movie La Voyante.
Although best known for her commanding performances in such plays as Hamlet, Phèdre, and La dame aux camélias and for her remarkable life, Bernhardt also wrote in a variety of genres. She began her writing career in 1878 with the publication of a children's book: Dans les nuages; impressions d'une chaise; recit recueilli par Sarah Bernhardt (translated as In the Clouds). As a veteran of the stage, Bernhardt forayed into writing plays beginning in 1888, with the one-act work L'Aveu. In 1907 she had much success with her six-act play Adrienne Lecouvreur, in which she played the title character; later in life she revived the role in a silent film. She again wrote and starred in a play in 1911, Un Coeur d'homme. Bernhardt turned to novel-writing in 1920, when she published La Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris). Her second novel, Jolie Sosie, was published in 1922. Both were romantic adventures featuring, it was assumed, accounts of Bernhardt's own escapades. Throughout her career, Bernhardt wrote theatre criticism, short stories, and essays, which were published in French, American, and English newspapers and periodicals. In 1924 Bernhardt's monograph on the theatre, L'Art du Theatre, was published. Although considered a highly individualized study of theatrical techniques, the book was well-received both for its theory and for the insight it provided into Bernhardt's thoughts. But it was her memoirs, first published as Ma double vie: memoires de Sarah Bernhardt in 1907, that attracted the most attention. A shrewd handler of the media and of her image, Bernhardt frequently circulated stories about herself to maintain the almost hysterical interest the public had in her. Her memoirs were no exception, comprising as they did a mix of truth and fiction designed to uphold her legend. Bernhardt's memoirs continue to be read both for her reflections on her extraordinary life and talent, and for the glimpse they provide into fin de siècle life and culture.
Dans les nuages; impressions d'une chaise; recit recueilli par Sarah Bernhardt [In the Clouds] [illustrated by Georges Clairin] (juvenilia) 1878
L'Aveu (drama) 1888
*Adrienne Lecouvreur (drama) 1907 [first publication]
Ma double vie: memoires de Sarah Bernhardt [My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt] (memoirs) 1907
Un Coeur d'homme (drama) 1911
Petite Idole [The Idol of Paris] (novel) 1920
Jolie Sosie (novel) 1922
L'Art du Théâtre [The Art of the Theatre] (nonfiction) 1924
*This work was adapted from the play Adrienne Lecouvreur (1852) by Eugene Scribe and Gabriel-Jean-Marie-Baptiste Legouvé.
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SOURCE: "Our Theatres in the Nineties: Duse and Bernhardt," in Selected Prose, selected by Diarmuid Russell, Dodd, Mead & Company, March, 1952, pp. 426-32.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1895, Shaw contrasts performances of Bernhardt with those of Italian actress Eleonora Duse.]
Mr William Archer's defence of the dramatic critics against Mr Street's indictment of them for their indifference to acting appears to be falling through. Mr Archer pleads that whereas Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt had frequent opportunities of comparing ambitious actors in famous parts, the modern dramatic critic spends his life in contemplating "good acting plays" without any real people in them, and performers who do not create or interpret characters, but simply lend their pretty or popular persons, for a consideration, to fill up the parts. Mr Archer might have added another reason which applies to nearly all modern works: to wit, the operation of our copyright laws, whereby actors and actresses acquire the right not only to perform new plays but to prevent anyone else from performing them. Nevertheless we critics can now at last outdo Hazlitt and Leight Hunt if we have a mind to; for we have just had two Mrs Ebbsmiths to compare, besides a fourth Fedora, and Duse and Sarah Bernhardt playing La Dame aux Camellias and Sudermann's Heimat against one another at Daly's Theatre and at Drury Lane. Clearly now or...
(The entire section is 2632 words.)
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SOURCE: "Hamlet, Princess of Denmark," in Around Theatres, Alfred A. Knopf, 1930, pp. 46-9.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1899, Beerbohm finds Bernhardt's Hamlet to be a comic spectacle and takes issue with the French prose translation of the play.]
I cannot, on my heart, take Sarah's Hamlet seriously. I cannot even imagine any one capable of more than a hollow pretence at taking it seriously. However, the truly great are apt, in matters concerning themselves, to lose that sense of fitness which is usually called sense of humour, and I did not notice that Sarah was once hindered in her performance by any irresistible desire to burst out laughing. Her solemnity was politely fostered by the Adelphi audience. From first to last no one smiled. If any one had so far relaxed himself as to smile, he would have been bound to laugh. One laugh in that dangerous atmosphere, and the whole structure of polite solemnity would have toppled down, burying beneath its ruins the national reputation for good manners. I, therefore, like every one else, kept an iron control upon the corners of my lips. It was not until I was half-way home and well out of earshot of the Adelphi, that I unsealed the accumulations of my merriment.
I had controlled myself merely in deference to Sarah herself, not because I regarded the French prose-version of Hamlet as an important tribute to...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)
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SOURCE: "A She Hamlet," in Literature and Life, Kennikat Press, Inc., 1968, pp.
[In the following essay, Howells offers a negative review of Bernhardt's Hamlet, arguing that a woman in the title role is a perversion of the integrity of the drama.]
The other night as I sat before the curtain of the Garden Theatre and waited for it to rise upon the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt, a thrill of the rich expectation which cannot fail to precede the rise of any curtain upon any Hamlet passed through my eager frame. There is, indeed, no scene of drama which is of a finer horror (eighteenth-century horror) than that which opens the great tragedy. The sentry pacing up and down upon the platform at Elsinore under the winter night; the greeting between him and the comrade arriving to relieve him, with its hints of the bitter cold; the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus to these before they can part; the mention of the ghost, and, while the soldiers are in the act of protesting it a veridical phantom, the apparition of the ghost, taking the word from their lips and hushing all into a pulseless awe: what could be more simply and sublimely real, more naturally supernatural? What promise of high mystical things to come there is in the mere syllabling of the noble verse, and how it enlarges us from ourselves, for that time at least, to a disembodied unity with the troubled soul whose martyry seems foreboded in the solemn...
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SOURCE: "Sarah," in Around Theatres, Rupert Hart-Davis, July 9, 1904, pp. 331-3.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1904, Beerbohm praises Bernhardt's later work, considering her an important cultural institution in her older age.]
It is our instinct to revere old age. In this reverence, if we analyse it, we find two constituent emotions—the emotion of pity, and the emotion of envy. Opposite though they are, both are caused by one thing. It is sad that so brief a span remains, but it must be delightful to have accomplished so long a span. Any moment may be our last. A flash of lightning, a side-slip, a falling brick—always some imprevisible chance that may precipitate us into the unknown. And how foolish we should look then—we with so little to our account! Certainly, it is enviable to have accumulated so much as have those elders, and to know, as they know, that no power can steal it away. Romantic awe is stirred in us by the contemplation of anything that has been going on for a long time. Ruins are apt to leave us cold; but any upstanding and habitable old building must touch and warm our imagination. Undefeated by time, any old building, however humble and obscure, becomes for us majestic. But greater, of course, and more haunting, the majesty of an old castle or cathedral. To have towered illustriously through the ages, a centre of significance and pomp, and to be towering thus...
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SOURCE: A review of Memories of My Life by Sarah Bernhardt, in The Nation, Vol. 85, No. 2209, October 31, 1907, pp. 403-4.
[In the following essay, the anonymous reviewer praises Bernhardt's Memories of My Life, noting that it deftly portrays the actress, but adds that the memoir adds little to common knowledge of Bernhardt's life.]
If it be the main object of an autobiography to make a complete and merciless exposure of the character of the writer … [Memories of My Life by] Sarah Bernhardt constitute[s] one of the most successful books ever written—and the revelation is so utterly unconscious, so vivid and so consistent in all its elaborate complexity as to leave no room for doubt or speculation. Herein lies the value of this rhapsodical but interesting apologia pro vita sua that it exhibits the true woman in clearer relief than it does the largely mythical superwoman whom it labors to depict. Rich as it is in minor details and vivacious descriptions it adds but little to the common knowledge of the career of the best advertised actress in the world. In fact, it is studiously reticent concerning many essential facts, including those of parentage and pedigree, about which the curious in such matters would like to be better informed. Apparently, there is no foundation for the stories, long prevalent, that her youth was passed in poverty.
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SOURCE: "'Sarah's' Memoirs," in Around Theatres, Rupert Hart-Davis, December 7, 1907, pp. 485-8.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1907, Beerbohm praises the skill with which Bernhardt wrote her Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, noting, however, that it was typical of Bernhardt to practice all her endeavors with unusual skill and knowledge.]
I wish I had read this book [Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt] before I left London. In a very small and simple village on the coast of Italy I find it over-exciting. Gray and gentle are the olive-trees around me; and the Mediterranean mildly laps the shore, with never a puff of wind for the fishermen, whose mothers and wives and daughters sit plying their bobbins all day long in the shade of the piazza. In mellow undertones they are gossiping, these women at their work, all day long, and day after day. Gossiping of what, in this place where nothing perceptibly happens? The stranger here loses his sense of life. A trance softly envelops him. Imagine a somnambulist awakening to find himself peering down into the crater of a volcano, and you will realise how startling Mme Sarah Bernhardt's book has been to me.
Hers is a volcanic nature, as we know, and hers has been a volcanic career; and nothing of this volcanicism is lost in her description of it. It has been doubted whether she really wrote the book herself. The vividness of...
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SOURCE: "Sarah Bernhardt's Memoirs," in The Bookman, Vol. 33, No. 195, December, 1907, pp. 129-30.
[In the following essay, Bettany praises My Double Life: Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, but adds that the book contributes no new information on Bernhardt' s life.]
Their serial publication in the French press has robbed [My Double Life: Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt] of most of their freshness. That was only to be expected. Sarah Bernhardt is not only the most popular actress of two continents, she is also a figure of world-wide celebrity, round whose name has gathered a whole cycle of legends. Hers is one of those commanding personalities that impress themselves on the imagination of the public; like Gladstone, Bismarck, Garibaldi, the Kaiser, the American President, Tolstoi and Patti, to quote a heterogeneous list of famous persons of modern times, she has become a household word, alike in Europe and America. There must be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people who have never seen the actress in any of her best-known parts—Phèdre or Fédora, Marguerite Gautier or the heroine of Frou-Frou, Magda or Adrienne Lecouvreur—and yet are profoundly interested in Sarah Bernhardt the woman. Her incalculable temperament, her eccentricities and caprices, her violent outbursts of rage, her quarrels and her reconciliations, her travels and her hairbreadth escapes from perils, her...
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SOURCE: "Sarah Bernhardt: A Postscript," in Alarums and Excursions, Grant Richards Ltd., 1922, pp. 34-61.
[In the following essay, Agate reflects on Bernhardt's body of work and popular reaction to her.]
Those who like myself have cherished a feeling for the actor's art akin to reverence must have rubbed their eyes on seeing a whole front page of a popular newspaper devoted to the personal affairs of little Miss Mary Pickford and a bare half-dozen lines to the announcement that Madame Sarah Bernhardt had appeared in Athalie: "The famous actress is in her seventy-sixth year. The rôle may be described as of the recumbent order." Shudder though one may at blithe enormity, it is useless to cavil at the editorial sense of news-values. To the whole uneducated world it really does matter what Miss Pickford eats, wears, and thinks. We were once mountebank-mad; we are now tied to the grimace. Miss Pickford is very pretty and quite a good maker of babyish faces. She brings to many "escape from their creditors and a free field for emotions they dare not indulge in real life." She gives pleasure to millions who have never heard of the great actress, or having heard that she is an old lady of seventy-six, desire not to see her.
Oh, it offends me to the very soul when old age is treated so! The hey-day of a great spirit knows no passing; there is that in this old artist which shall please our...
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SOURCE: "Sarah Berhardt," in Characters and Commentaries, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933, pp. 255-60.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1923, Strachey comments on Bernhardt's natural genius for acting, noting that she did not necessarily understand either great drama or the craft of theatre, but was instead primarily concerned with her extraordinary ability to create and develop memorable characters.]
There are many paradoxes in the art of acting. One of them—the discrepancy between the real feelings of the actor and those which he represents—was discussed by Diderot in a famous dialogue. Another—the singular divergence between the art of the stage and the art of the drama—was illustrated very completely by the career of Sarah Bernhardt.
It is clear that the primary business of the actor is to interpret the conception of the dramatist; but it is none the less true that, after a certain degree of excellence has been reached, the merits of an actor have no necessary dependence upon his grasp of the dramatist's meaning. To be a moderately good actor one must understand, more or less, what one's author is up to; but the achievements of Sarah Bernhardt proved conclusively that it was possible to be a very good actor indeed without having the faintest notion, not only of the intentions of particular dramatists, but of the very rudiments of the dramatic art....
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SOURCE: "Sarah Bernhardt," in Fantasies and Impromptus, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923, pp. 33-52.
[In the following essay, Agate offers a critical assessment of Bernhardt's body of work on the occasion of her death.]
For some whose business it is to write of the theatre it is as though Beauty had veiled her face; so determinate, so utterly beyond repair is the sense of loss. It is not that the stock of loveliness is diminished for a time, as the blossoming earth is subdued by winter: there will be other flowers, but the rose is gone for ever. Those who would charge me here with phrase-making can have known nothing of Bernhardt; she can have meant little to them, and their praise was lip-service. To them such a line as—
Elle avait un petit diadème en dentelle
brings up no picture the like of which they will not see again; for them Ruy Blas can find other Queens, and to spare. Our worlds are different, that is all; those who have not known our ecstasy cannot know our loss. Beauty, in her remainder catalogue, has nothing by which Bernhardt can be measured or imagined.
Even so, I hear it objected that this great actress has been dead, in all that matters, these twenty, thirty years; that she outlived even the memory of her splendours. They would have her...
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SOURCE: "Sarah Bernhardt," "Sarah Bernhardt in Phedre," and "Pelleas and Melisande," in Punch and Judy & Other Essays, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923, pp. 25-42; 322-6
[In the following essay, Baring provides an overview of Bernhardt's career.]
"Sans doute il est trop tard pour parler encor d'elle. " So Alfred de Musset began his beautiful poem to La Malibran, in which he said almost all there is to be said about the death of one of the queens of the stage. Only, in the case of La Malibran, the world's regret, which found so lovely an echo in the song of the poet, was all the more poignant because La Malibran died in the flower of her youth.
Sarah Bernhardt, according to standards which we should apply to any one else, was an old woman when she died; old, and full of glory, "having seen, borne, and achieved more than most men on record," and yet when the news of her death flashed through the world it seemed an incredible thing, and the blackness and the void that the disappearance of her presence left behind were felt by the whole world. The world seemed a duller and a greyer place without her:
She, she is dead; she's dead: when thou knowst this,
Thou knowst how wan a ghost this our world is.
That was the feeling we had when the news of her death came. It came...
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SOURCE: "Sarah Bernhardt," in Contemporary Portraits, Grant Richards Ltd., 1924, pp. 294-302.
[In the following essay, Harris eulogizes Bernhardt and provides a personal recollection of her.]
Sarah, la divine, as the French called her, is dead, and the authorities have given her a gorgeous funeral: to tell truth, the finest funeral I've ever seen, even in Paris, except perhaps the funeral given to Victor Hugo some forty years ago.
But even at Hugo's funeral there were not such masses of flowers as at Sarah's: two huge van-loads, besides wreaths uncountable.
The poet had made an immense reputation: judge him how you will, condemn his rhetoric here and his theatrical effects everywhere, and there yet remains a residuum of astonishing poetry. He was a singer like Swinburne; and just as Swinburne brought new cadences, unknown harmonies, into our English verse, so did Hugo into French verse: a verbal magician of the first rank. But what had Sarah Bernhardt done to be honoured in like fashion? Nothing, it seems to me; nothing whatever of enduring value. Very early Matthew Arnold said of her that Rachel began where Sarah Bernhardt left off; and, if one can explain this by noting that Arnold saw Rachel as a young man and Sarah in his maturity, still he suggests a doubt of Sarah's power, which I feel was justified. I thought more could be made even of Phèdre than...
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SOURCE: "Bernhardt," in Enchanted Aisles, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1924, pp. 10-8.
[In the following essay Woolcott eulogizes Bernhardt and remembers his last encounters with her.]
It was to "pauvre Rachel" that Bernhardt's thoughts flew as her boat pulled away from these shores after her first glittering tour more than forty years ago. A generation before that her forerunner in the French theater had, in a humiliating and grotesquely disastrous tour, found us a less hospitable, less civilized and less understanding land and had known the agony of playing her great scenes of tempest and woe to the whirr and rustle of a thousand turning pages, each head in the audience bent earnestly but disconcertingly over a translation of the play. "Pauvre Rachel" and the "Divine Sarah" are in the same company to-day—the illustrious company that lies in Père Lachaise, the sloping crowded cemetery, marooned now in a dreary part of Paris where elevated trains roar by and there is an unending rattle of trucks and trams on the streets all about.
It had been Bernhardt's plan to lie buried in a tomb cut deep into the seawashed rock of her own Belle Ile, that little, white edged island which lies just off the ugly port of Saint Nazaire and which, in the morning sunlight, was the first glimpse of France that greeted the soldiers from America who sailed in the first contingent in the half forgotten excitement...
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SOURCE: "Sarah," in Still More Prejudice, Alfred A. Knopf, 1925, pp. 7-10.
[In the following essay, Walkley contrasts the Bernhardt he knew with the "legend" of Bernhardt.]
We say Sarah as our forefathers said Rachel. It is a tribute to greatness, as you call a pope Innocent or a king George. There have been greater actresses, but Sarah was without peer as a great institution. Her prestige was world-wide and, as her countrymen say, legendary. Too much of it was bluff and claptrap—pet panthers, coffins to sleep in, and the rest of the Sarah caprices—but these things the legend exaggerated; they were the touch of romance which popular imagination expects from great institutions. Doubtless, however, she was capricious by nature. There is corroboration of this in Daudet's sketch of her girlhood in one of his novels. There is further evidence in her behaviour during the visit of the Comédie Française to London in 1879, when she was no longer a girl. It is from this year that her prestige dates. There was a sort of rivalry between her and Croizette. The London public took sides and Sarah became first favourite. Soon afterwards she became the institution that we have all seen and admired, or, at any rate, marvelled at.
It was not done single-handed, but was a collaboration between Sarah and Sardou. The author wrote, or rather, manufactured, plays "round" the actress. These were destined...
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SOURCE: "Eve in the Spotlight: Sarah Bernhardt," in Daughters of Eve, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 241-82.
[In the following essay Bradford surveys Bernhardt's life and works.]
Sarah Bernhardt's superbly characteristic motto was, Quand même—Even if—What if it does—No matter. Take the sweet of life, crowd it full of beauty and splendor, make a tumultuous riot and revel of it. No matter if disasters come, and diseases, and decay, no matter if crooked fortune does her spitefulest, you will have had your hour and made the most of it—Quand même.
Assuredly no career could be more startling or more picturesque. Born in Paris, in 1844, of dubious paternity, Jewish in origin, Catholic and conventual in training, sometimes fondled and petted by her mother, sometimes neglected and abandoned for months together, the child was finally flung into the whirlpool of the Parisian theater. For years she struggled perilously, escaping disaster by miracle, but her genius and her magnificent courage and persistence brought her to the top, not only of Paris, but of the world, and made her one of the most known and notable figures of her day. When she died, at eighty, she was still a superbly creative spirit, capable of weaving life out of her vitals with a gorgeous sheen of silken splendor.
My concern is not so much with Sarah...
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SOURCE: "Paris in the Bernhardt Era," in Women and Literature 1779-1982: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbook, Vol 2., The Harvester Press, 1982, pp. 69-80.
[In the following essay, Bradbrook examines Bernhardt' s social and artistic standing in Paris during her time.]
At the service of thanksgiving for 'the greatest actress whom I have called friend'—Edith Evans—her biographer told how he, seeing that she was rapidly failing, took aside his little daughter and prepared her by telling her that Dame Edith was very old and was going to die. The child paused in deep thought, then confidently replied, 'No, I don't think she's going to die. She's not the sort!'
Sarah Bernhardt's words to Ellen Terry, 'There are two people who will never be old. You and I, darling', were echoed when Maurice Rostand wrote her epitaph
Sarah Bernhardt, like Edith Evans, was not classically beautiful; the stage self is something that comes when their craftsmanship, so exact and scrupulous, flowers; and 'the god was there', as Sarah said. They served.
I know what wages beauty gives
How hard a life her servant lives,
sang Yeats, who fell in love with beauty, and married a plain woman. Even Sarah's detractors conceded...
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SOURCE: "Bernhardt on the London Stage," in Bernhardt and the Theatre of Her Time, edited by Eric Salmon, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 111-31.
[In the following essay, Trewin discusses London's reaction to Bernhardt and her reaction to the city.]
I would like to move selectively across Sarah's visits to a city that—in spite of Bernard Shaw—she loved; and midway, to unveil (for a moment only) a personal King Charles's Head.
May I begin by dropping into poetry?—not my own, but that of the nearly forgotten Stephen Phillips, dramatist of the golden shuttle and the violet wool, the dreaming keels of Greece, the souls that flashed together in one flame. The year was 1912. Sarah Bernhardt, aged sixty-five, was appearing at—of all theatres—the London Coliseum, today an opera house, then the most celebrated music-hall in Britain. Hardly, I would say, a citadel of the classical stage—though that may not have troubled Sarah, with her admiration for Marie Lloyd: two rather different splendours of the Theatre Theatrical (it is a phrase that, in such a book as this, the reader will surely forgive me for repeating).
A distant cousin of Frank Benson, and trained as an actor in Benson's touring university of the stage—the supreme company of what, in my part of England, we call "the pomping folk"—Stephen Phillips was the shooting-star of verse...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Response to Bernhardt," in Bernhardt and the Theatre of Her Time, edited by Eric Salmon, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 165-79.
[In the following essay, Senelick discusses Bernhardt's acceptance by critics and Anton Chekhov's opinion of the actress.']
Biographers of Sarah Bernhardt spend little time on her three Russian tours (1881, 1892, and 1908). For the most part, they are taken to be stations of the triumphal procession through barbaric provinces that followed her success at the Odéon. The American tours have been productive of the most anecdotes; the English tours have been exhaustively covered by memoir literature. But Bernhardt's first visit to Russia in 1881-1882 may be worth closer examination than it has received, both for what it tells us of the development of Russian taste a decade before the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre, and because of the comment made upon it by Antosha Chekhonte, a young journalist who was to become better known under his real name, Anton Chekhov.
In seeking a new audience in Russia, Bernhardt was following a long tradition of European artists who saw in that exotic hinterland illimitable largess waiting to be tapped. Politically, Franco-Russian relations were growing more cordial and would result, at the height of the entente, in a mass purchase of Russian bonds by French capitalists, an investment that they would rue well before...
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SOURCE: "Two-a-Day Redemptions and Truncated Camilles: the Vaudeville Repertoire of Sarah Bernhardt," in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 37, February, 1994, pp. 11-23.
[In the following essay, Woods analyzes Bernhardt's roles on the American vaudeville stage, contending that her portrayals of complex and conflicted women produced a significant marriage of high and low cultures and allowed Bernhardt to continue performing despite illness and advanced age.]
Sarah Bernhardt's forays into American vaudeville came in lengthy tours while the form was at its height, in 1912-13 and 1917-18, essentially at the same time as the heyday of the British music hall—in which Bernhardt also toured half a dozen times between 1910 and 1920. For her, these tours involved escapes, of a sort, from a legitimate theatre that could no longer easily accommodate her advancing age and worsening health.
Bernhardt's repertoire in vaudeville, although borrowed in part from her legitimate career, is striking for its departure from the generally light tone which the producers and audiences of vaudeville typically favoured. In aggregate, her vaudeville productions offered a grim view of female experience in reiterated and, as time went on, increasingly ritual-like images of masochism and self-destruction.
In what follows, I shall first examine several contexts around Bernhardt's appearances in...
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SOURCE: "The Context: Literary, Theatrical, Cultural," in The Bernhardt Hamlet: Culture and Context, Peter Lang Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 67-111.
[In the following essay, Taranow provides a critical overview of the literary and theatrical influences and historical background of Bernhardt's Hamlet.]
Following the première of May 20, 1899, at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, a number of comments appeared in the press affirming the originality of the Bernhardt Hamlet. To Catulle Mendés, the evening represented the first production of Hamlet ever to have taken place in France; to Robert de Flers, it seemed like the first production of Hamlet anywhere; and to A.-Ferdinand Herold, it became the initial performance in Paris, not merely of Hamlet, but of any Shakespearean play. The originality of Bernhardt's approach explains the critical euphoria for, according to Herold, Sarah Bernhardt recognized that "Shakespeare was not a writer from the 1830's and that the characters in his plays could not be interpreted as if they were heroes in romantic drama." In place of the procrastinator that dominated the nineteenth-century stage, Bernhardt presented an avenger with his roots in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre of his origins.
As the revenge play developed in the Elizabethan theatre, it represented a type of drama to which Hamlet belonged and with...
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Agate, May. Madame Sarah. London and Edinburgh: Home & Van Thal, Ltd., 1945, 223 p.
Biography of Bernhardt by an English actress trained by her; includes personal reflections of time spent with Bernhardt.
Baring, Maurice. Sarah Bernhardt. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1934, 163 p.
Personal reflections on Bernhardt's life and work.
Brandon, Ruth. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991, 466 p.
Biography that seeks to analyze the wider impact of the "phenomenon" of Sarah Bernhardt on acting, popular culture, and the changing place of women in society.
Emboden, William. Sarah Bernhardt. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, 176 p.
Biography of Bernhardt that includes an introduction by Sir John Gielgud.
Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, 352 p.
Biography of Bernhardt focusing on the spell she was able to cast on her audiences and the impression she created of herself.
Richardson, Joanna. Sarah Bernhardt and Her World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, 232 p.
Biography that examines the "cult and legend" of Bernhardt....
(The entire section is 379 words.)