Sarah Bernhardt Essay - Critical Essays

Bernhardt, Sarah


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.

Principal Works

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.


George Bernard Shaw (essay date 1895)

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...

(The entire section is 2632 words.)

Max Beerbohm (essay date 1899)

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...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)

William Dean Howells (essay date 1902)

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 entire section is 2701 words.)

Max Beerbohm (essay date 1904)

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...

(The entire section is 1229 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1907)

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...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)

Max Beerbohm (essay date 1907)

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...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)

James Agate (essay date 1922)

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...

(The entire section is 6757 words.)

Lytton Strachey (essay date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)

James Agate (essay date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 5100 words.)

Maurice Baring (essay date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 5251 words.)

Frank Harris (essay date 1924)

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,...

(The entire section is 2506 words.)

Alexander Woolcott (essay date 1924)

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...

(The entire section is 2024 words.)

A. B. Walkley (essay date 1925)

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...

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Gamaliel Bradford (essay date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 8744 words.)

Muriel Bradbrook (essay date 1982)

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!'...

(The entire section is 5020 words.)

J. C. Trewin (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 7535 words.)

Laurence Senelick (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 5509 words.)

Leigh Woods (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6157 words.)

Gerda Taranow (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 21490 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 379 words.)