Sarah Bernhardt Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.