Sarah Bernhardt Criticism - Essay

George Bernard Shaw (essay date 1895)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.)