Form and Content
In Madame Sarah, Cornelia Otis Skinner uses the account of the life of Sarah Bernhardt to acquaint the reader with the major French political events from 1844 to 1923. These events are not simply mentioned in passing, but rather their impact on the personal life of Bernhardt is described in detail through her daily routine, the development of her goals, and the changes in her life that were brought about by these events.
Madame Sarah begins with background information about Bernhardt. The first chapter creates sympathy for a child whose mother had no love for her and was blind to any gifts that the child might possess. At the beginning of the second chapter, Bernhardt’s gift of natural and passionate theatrical performance is discovered by one of her mother’s friends, Charles Duc de Morny, through his observations of her. He is said to be responsible for launching Bernhardt’s career by setting up an audition with Esprit Auber, the director of the Conservatoire National de Musique et d’Art Dramatique.
The remaining ten chapters of Madame Sarah are a narrative of Bernhardt’s pro-fessional life as an actress. Bernhardt’s meetings and conversations with both political and social figures are detailed. Skinner describes the travels of Bernhardt’s acting company to England and the United States, using her subject’s point of view to illuminate the cultures of these two countries and to compare and contrast them to nineteenth century French society.
Midway through the book, twenty-seven photographic plates are arranged chronologically, depicting Bernhardt in costume, some of her leading men, her son, her husband, and a few caricatures of the actress. The book includes an extensive list of plays, authors, and the roles that Bernhardt performed throughout her sixty-year acting career. In addition to an extensive bibliography, the book includes a detailed index. The index contains page references for contemporaries who either had conversations with or communicated by letter to Bernhardt, as well as those individuals who made reference to the actress’ talent after seeing one of her performances.