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Great European Lives: Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt and her entourage arriving at St Pancras station, in London, 28 July 1894.. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images - Credit: SSPL via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on French actor and ‘queen of self-promotion’ Sarah Bernhardt’s Great European Life.

At 1pm on Thursday June 29, 1899, a private train pulled into the station at Stratford-upon-Avon to commence an afternoon unlike any seen before in the town of Shakespeare’s birth. On board was the French actor Sarah Bernhardt and her entourage numbering a shade over 100 who, having enjoyed a sumptuous four-course meal during the journey from London, were greeted on the platform by the mayor and assorted dignitaries behind whom were hundreds of townspeople craving a glimpse of the greatest theatrical star of the age.

The 55-year-old had effectively invited herself to Stratford, keen as she was to appear at the prestigious Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Among her retinue was a company of actors with whom Bernhardt had perfected a French language adaptation of Hamlet in which she played the lead role of the conflicted Danish prince.

Her stately progress through the town to the theatre was lined by cheering crowds and the single matinée performance, for which every seat had been taken for weeks in advance, was a triumph.

At its conclusion, after a long and generous ovation, despite most of the audience having understood barely a word, Bernhardt and her party were escorted first to the house in which the Bard was born then to his grave.

Finally, a triumphant procession bore her back to the railway station where, having been in Stratford for barely five hours, she set off home for Paris in a flurry of steam and pistons, blowing kisses to her admirers.

Not many actors could carry off booking themselves into Stratford’s leading theatre, giving a two-hour performance in a language other than English, bringing the entire town to a standstill and sweeping out of town on their own personal train, but not many actors have been Sarah Bernhardt.

Just how great an actor she really was is hard to define today, although Mark Twain’s analysis that ‘there are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses and then there is Sarah Bernhardt’ gives us a pretty good idea. One thing she certainly had was an unparalleled star quality.

Sarah Bernhardt was the queen of self-promotion. Almost as famous for her performances off the stage as on – she had a string of famous lovers – among her many quirks were wearing a hat fashioned from a dead bat, taking a coffin on tour in which she occasionally slept and keeping as a pet an alligator named Ali Gaga, who eventually died from a surfeit of milk and champagne.

Victor Hugo adored Bernhardt – he was one of her lovers – while Proust was so taken with her she inspired the creation of Berma in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu.

Oscar Wilde made extensive revisions to Salome with her in mind and said that she, along with Lily Langtry and Queen Victoria, was one of the three women he admired most, while Sigmund Freud gushed, ‘I cannot say much for the play but – this Sarah, how she played! From the moment I heard her first lines, pronounced in her vibrant and adorable voice, I had the feeling I had known her for years’.

Not everyone was so enamoured, however. For Anton Chekhov, writing in the Russian magazine Spectator, she employed ‘vulgar artifice, calculated trickery and exaggeration’, which were sentiments echoed by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote of the ‘childishly egotistical character of her acting, which is not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly and applaud her wildly when the curtain falls. It is the art of fooling you’.

She may have divided critical opinion but the public couldn’t get enough of Sarah Bernhardt, who worked for them like the proverbial trouper. In 1915, aged 71, she was forced to have a leg amputated after 10 years of pain from a knee injury sustained in 1905 when leaping to her death in La Tosca.

Within weeks she was performing for soldiers in draughty barns at the front, and less than a year after the operation she embarked on an 18-month tour of the United States, performing a series of scenes in which she could remain seated.

It is possible those who objected to her style of performance and inventive self-promotion were objecting just as much to their perception of her lifestyle and background.

She was the daughter of a Dutch courtesan who had settled in Paris and a father whose identity has never been conclusively established and was raised initially by foster parents in Brittany before being sent to a convent to be educated, apparently at her shadowy father’s insistence. From there she progressed to the Paris Conservatoire to study acting, with the encouragement of her mother’s lover Charles, Duke of Morny. Next Bernhardt joined the Comédie Francaise company. While she rose quickly through the ranks, within a few months she was dismissed, in January 1864, after slapping a leading actress known as Madame Nathalie when the older woman had pushed Bernhardt’s sister against a wall.

Briefly disillusioned by her apparently doomed theatrical prospects, Bernhardt travelled in Europe for a few months and, in Brussels, gave birth to a son, fathered by a Belgian aristocrat. Returning to acting in order to provide for young Maurice, Bernhardt landed a position at the Odéon theatre in Paris, a move that turned out to be the making of her. Her first major lead role was as Anna Damby in Kean by Alexandre Dumas in 1868 followed immediately by a much-praised Cordelia in King Lear. The following year she exploded into the public consciousness as the travelling musician Zanetto in Coppée’s Le Passant, a role she would reprise later for a command performance in front of Napoleon III himself.

As her career soared the only interruption was the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, during which Bernhardt had the Odéon converted into a temporary military hospital and persuaded her wealthy contacts and paramours to put up cash for food and medical supplies. By the end of the 1870s her reputation had reached its height, notably thanks to her near-legendary performances in the title role of Racine’s Phèdre. From 1880 she travelled the world with her own company, embarking on lengthy transcontinental tours that could last up to three years. She was arguably theatre’s first true global star.

Fired by her popularity, in 1899 she made the bold decision to take on the role of Hamlet, sparking the fiercest critical debate of her career. Bernhardt opened the Théatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in January 1899 and her Hamlet was one of its first productions. When that summer she brought the play to London and Stratford most British critics were aghast.

‘Creative power, the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility,’ blustered the influential Max Beerbohm. ‘Women are denied it: in so far as they practice art at all they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.’

Declaring a female Hamlet ‘a travesty’ even in principle meanwhile, the London newspaper the Era also sneered at Bernhardt’s expert self-promotion. ‘It lowers the dignity of the dramatic art when the leading actress of a nation descends to all the tricks of the show-woman,’ it grumbled, labelling her Hamlet ‘a cynical attempt to gull the easily-led crowd’ who ‘wanted to see Sarah Bernhardt in tights trying to do the impossible in an attempt to delight the unreflecting’.

Bernhardt answered the criticism the same way she always did, by shrugging and asking, ‘quand même?’ So what? The sell-out shows were the only vindication she needed.

It would have been easy for Bernhardt in her later years to go through the motions in a limited repertoire of a few popular roles, but to the end of her life she retained a keen eye for innovation. In Paris in 1900 she became the first Hamlet ever to be filmed, a two-and-a-half minute staging of the duel scene with Laertes, and she later appeared in a documentary about her home life as well as a 1917 French propaganda film designed to encourage the USA to join the war. A week before her death she had opened up her home to a film crew, who were using it as the set for La Voyante, in which she was due to take the lead.

‘They’re paying me 10,000 francs a day for seven days, you make the calculations,’ she shrugged to a reporter, remaining even until the end uncompromisingly, unabashedly herself.

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