One of the first great "stars" of the world stage, Sarah Bernhardt, known as "The Divine Sarah" (1844-1923), dominated the theatrical scenes of both Europe and America for over half a century. In addition to being considered one of the greatest actors of all time, she was noted for her "larger than life personality" and extravagant lifestyle.
Sarah Bernhardt was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard into the Parisian demi-monde of courtesans and affluent gentlemen on October 23, 1844. She did not know her father, a Parisian who never married her Dutch Jewish mother, a woman who had little time or inclination to raise a young child in the social whirl of the Paris salon set. After a tumultuous childhood, Bernhardt was ready to commit herself to a religious life when a place was secured for her to study acting in the Paris Conservatoire (1859 to 1862). She debuted professionally in 1862 in Racine's Iphigenie, in which she displayed little of the talent that would propel her to stardom in just a few years.
Physically, Bernhardt was somewhat boyish in her physique; she also suffered from bouts of ill health that plagued her from childhood. Her most noted qualities as an actor were her "voice of gold" and her ability to breathe emotional life into classic roles and melodramatic heroines, lifting the former from the stultifying effects of tradition and lending nobility and depth to the latter. Bernhardt's professional career began in earnest in 1866 as a member of the theater company at the Odéon. Her first major successes came as a member of France's greatest theater company, the Comédie Française, starting in 1872. After a triumphant tour of England with members of the Comédie in 1878, she broke what was considered to be a lifetime contract with the company to pursue her own successes in 1880.
Bernhardt excelled in emotionally overwrought roles in the classical vein, such as the queen in Hugo's Ruy Blas (1879), the title role in Racine's Phèdre (1874), and Doña Sol in Hernani (1877). She also played several "breeches" roles (male parts played by women) throughout her career, such as Hamlet and the title role in Rostand's L'Aiglon (The Eaglet, about Napoleon's son), which was written especially for her. She is perhaps remembered most often for her portrayal of Marguerite Gauthier, the courtesan stricken with consumption, in Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias (Camilleto most English-speaking audiences).
Her off-stage life was often just as harrowing as that of the characters she portrayed, with frequent bouts of physical ailments, financial difficulties, and numerous love affairs. Journalists of the day frequently painted her as an eccentric, and this contributed to her fame as much as her acting talent did. It is true that she sometimes slept in a coffin; whether she was at home or traveling Bernhardt always kept a large coterie of friends and admirers about her, as well as servants and a menagerie of exotic animals. She was a visual as well as theatrical artist, and many of her paintings and sculptures were popular. To her credit, she also had a weakness for humanitarian causes. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 she established a military hospital in the closed Odéon theater, and during World War I she contributed both money and fund-raising activities to support the war effort.
Bernhardt is best known in America for her famous "farewell tours" that she made between 1880 and 1918. The nine tours she made in America often had a financial rather than artistic motivation behind them. During one such tour she teamed with France's greatest male actor of the day, the comedian Constant-Benoît Coquelin (the only person to ever leave the Comédie Française, until Bernhardt), to perform Edmund de Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, among other plays.
Bernhardt also took a progressive approach to the new medium of film (which was looked down upon by the legitimate theater), unabashedly appearing in several films in her lifetime, including La Dame aux Camélias (1911), Queen Elizabeth (1912), and Adrienne Lecouvreur (1913). The success of Queen Elizabeth in America, one of the first dramatic silent features, enabled producer Adolph Zukor to start the Famous Players production company, which eventually became Paramount Pictures.
In 1894 she started her own resident theater company. She opened the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in 1899. Her leg was amputated in 1911 because of a chronic knee condition brought on by several injuries. However, she continued to perform, even though she was constrained to perform excerpts of her most famous roles lying in a prone position or propped up by an artfully-designed set piece. Her hotel room in Paris had been converted to a film set for La Voyante, but she died on March 26, 1923, at the age of 79 before the film was completed.
Bernhardt never performed any of her parts in anything but French, but she was hailed and revered as a great actress on both sides of the Atlantic regardless of her audiences' abilities to comprehend the language. This popularity is a testament to both her emotional and vocal power as an actress, as well as her contribution to the modern stage as a singular star rather than as a member of a company.
The life and work of Sarah Bernhardt is well-documented, sensationalized, and fictionalized in numerous books. The most prominent biographies in English are: The Divine Sarah by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold (1991), Being Divine by Brandon (1991), Sarah Bernhardt by Emboden (1975), and Madame Sarah by Skinner (1967). "The Divine Sarah" herself speaks in Memories of My Life (1907, 1968) and a later edited version of her memoirs and the novella Dans les nuages in The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt (1977), edited by Lesberg. Among the "personal glimpses" are The Real Sarah Bernhardt: whom her audiences never knew, told to her friend Mme. Pierre Berton (1924) and I Knew Sarah Bernhardt (1960). For information about Bernhardt and the theater of her day, see Sarah Bernhardt and Her World (1977), Sarah Bernhardt: French Actress on the English Stage (1989), Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: the actress in her time (1988), and Bernhardt and the Theatre of Her Time (1984). Finally, two novels utilize Bernhardt as their subject matter: Sarah by Joel Gross (1987), and Dear Sarah Bernhardt by Françoise Sagan. For a cinematic account of Bernhardt's life, see The Incredible Sarah starring Glenda Jackson in the title role (United Kingdom, 1976).
Bernhardt, Sarah, My double life: the memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, London: Owen, 1977.
Brandon, Ruth, Being divine: a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, London: Mandarin, 1992.
Hathorn, Ramon, Our lady of the snows: Sarah Bernhardt in Canada, New York: P. Lang, 1996.
Richardson, Joanna, Sarah Bernhardt and her world, New York: Putnam, 1977; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
Skinner, Cornelia Otis, Madame Sarah, New York: Paragon House, 1988, 1966.
Stokes, John, Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: the actress in her time, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. □
BERNHARDT, SARAH (1844–1923), French stage actor.
The most famous woman in the world at the height of her popularity around 1900, Sarah Bernhardt (originally Henriette Rosine Bernard) was the most widely acclaimed stage actor who ever lived. Although many details of her life remain sketchy, she was almost certainly born in Paris in October 1844 to an unmarried Jewish woman from Amsterdam; her father may have been a French naval officer from Le Havre. Bernhardt's childhood was difficult; her mother, a courtesan, was an intermittent presence in her life. Baptized at the age of twelve, Sarah was educated in a convent school and considered becoming a nun; in 1860, with the help of a family friend, she entered France's great drama school, the Paris Conservatoire.
Bernhardt's career was slow to take off. Her 1862 debut at the Comédie Française, France's most prestigious theatrical troupe, went largely unnoticed, and the following year Bernhardt, known for her temper and moodiness, left the company because of a dispute with a more established actress. After the birth in 1864 of her only son, Maurice, probably fathered by a Belgian aristocrat, in 1866 Bernhardt joined the Odéon Theater, where she had her first great successes in Dumas's Kean (1868) and especially François Coppée's Le Passant (1869). But it was not until after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), during which she ran a clinic for wounded soldiers, that Bernhardt became a sensation, playing the Queen of Spain in the 1872 revival of Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas.
That same year Bernhardt was invited to rejoin the Comédie Française, where she received her first acclaim for classical roles, playing the title characters of the great French tragedian Racine's Andromaque (1873) and Phèdre (1874). After the triumphant 1877 revival of Hugo's Hernani, she became increasingly restless, and in 1879 she signed a contract with the American theatrical agent Edward Jarrett, who booked private engagements for her during a Comédie Française tour in London, where Bernhardt became the toast of the town. Upon returning to Paris she again resigned from the Comédie Française and in 1880 embarked upon a long series of foreign tours. Her travels in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, which continued intermittently until she was in her late seventies, earned unimaginable sums of money and raised her fame to unprecedented heights.
Back in Paris Bernhardt founded and directed several theatrical troupes, including L'Ambigu (1882), Porte Saint-Martin (1883), and Renaissance (1893). In 1898 she opened the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, henceforth her sole theatrical venue in Paris until her death in 1923. In 1915 her right leg was amputated because of chronic knee pain, but she continued to perform using a special chair. Among the roles associated with Bernhardt are Marguerite Gautier in Dumas's La Dame aux camélias, Joan in Paul Jules Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc, and several masculine roles, including Lorenzo de' Medici in Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio and Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Known as "the Golden Voice" for her extraordinary ability to deliver lines, Bernhardt also mesmerized audiences with her unsettling beauty and graceful movements. Legendary for her unfashionable thinness, she took on ingenue roles even as an elderly woman, and at sixty-five played teenager Joan of Arc. Afflicted with a strange combination of sickliness—she may have suffered from tuberculosis—and hyperactivity, Bernhardt was also a sculptor and painter; she was also, arguably, the world's first media star, cultivating her image as a charismatic, unpredictable trendsetter. Fans were eager to hear about every aspect of her personal and professional life, including her numerous (often famous) lovers, her extravagant taste in clothing and furniture, and her countless idiosyncrasies. From an early age she sometimes slept in
the silk-lined coffin in which she was ultimately buried, and she had herself photographed in it; she wrote a book about a balloon ride she took; and her menagerie of exotic pets included a monkey named Darwin.
Since the late twentieth century Bernhardt's career has been revisited especially by feminists. Some see her as a throwback figure of the seductress profiting from her feminine charms, while others consider her an example of the fin-de-siècle New Woman, the independent, self-supporting female. In 1882 Bernhardt did marry, but her husband, a Greek man named Jacques Damala, was a drug addict who died several years later, and in spite of the many men—and, probably, women—in her life, Bernhardt always retained her independence. A skillful self-promoter and master of publicity and "spin," Bernhardt earned—and spent—immense sums throughout her life. She is an early example of not only the marriage of entertainment and high capitalism, but also the commodification of a fabricated and carefully managed personal image.
Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Translated by Victoria Tietze Larson. Albany, N.Y., 1999.
Brandon, Ruth. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London, 1991.
Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York, 1991.
Roberts, Mary Louise. "The Fantastic Sarah Bernhardt." In her Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France, 165–219. Chicago, 2002.
Richard E. Goodkin
BERNHARDT, SARAH (Rosine Bernard; 1844–1923), French actress. Fathered by a Frenchman (Edouard Bernard), she was the eldest of three illegitimate daughters born to Judith Van Hard, a Dutch-Jewish music teacher. When Sarah was ten years old she was sent to the convent of Versailles and baptized. However, she remained proud of her Jewish heritage. She made her debut at the Comédie Française in 1862 as Iphigénie in Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide. She acted at the Odéon from 1866 to 1872, and achieved popular acclaim in Coppée's Le Passant as the page Zanetto, her first male role. Returning to the Comédie Française, she became one of the greatest interpreters of Racine, playing Andromaque in 1873 and Phèdre in 1874. Temperament and impatience with authority ended her career at the Comédie in 1879. She embarked on a series of tours abroad and drew crowds wherever she appeared. She acted in a London season almost annually until as late as 1922. She visited the U.S. nine times, and acted in Germany, Russia, Latin America, and Australia. Everywhere she conquered her audience with La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Forming her own company, she appeared in both classical and modern works, and excelled in Sardou's Fédora (1882), Théodora (1884), and La Tosca (1889), all of which he wrote for her. Almost every role she acted became her personal triumph. In Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon she played the part of Napoleon's 21-year-old son when she was herself 55. In 1899 she took over a large Paris theater, renamed it Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, and directed it until her death. Here she presentedHamlet and herself played the title role. A neglected knee injury resulted in complications, and in 1914 Bernhardt was obliged to have her right leg amputated. She continued to appear in roles which permitted her to sit, such as Racine's Athalie. The "Divine Sarah," as she was called by Victor Hugo, died while at work on a film. Her autobiography Ma Double Vie was published in 1907.
L. Verneuil, Fabulous Life of Sarah Bernhardt (1942); J. Agate, Madame Sarah (Eng., 1945); J. Richardson, Sarah Bernhardt (Eng., 1959); C.O. Skinner, Madame Sarah (Eng., 1967).