Bernhardt, Sarah (1844–1923)

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Bernhardt, Sarah (1844–1923)

French actress, generally considered her country's greatest, whose ego, extravagance, eccentricities, numerous affairs, immense talent, magnetism, energy, will, and courage made her one of the most famous women of her time. Name variations: The, or, La Divine Sarah. Pronunciation: (Fr.) Bare-NAHR; (Eng.) BEARN-hart. Born (Sarah-Marie-?) Henriette-Rosine Bernard, or Bernardt, or Bernhardt, probably on October 22 or 23, 1844 (born between 1841 and 1845, with 1844 the preferred choice) in Paris; adopted the name Sarah Bernhardt in her early teens; died in Paris of uremia on March 26, 1923; buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery; daughter of Judith ("Youle") Van Hard (a.k.a. Julie Bernard, or Bernardt, or Bernhardt, a Dutch-Jewish courtesan) and an unknown French father; educated at Grand-Champs convent school (Versailles) and the Paris Conservatoire (1860–62); married Ambroise-Aristide (a.k.a. Jacques) Damala, 1882–89; children: (with Prince Henri de Ligne) son, Maurice Bernhardt (b. 1864).

Appeared at the Comédie-Française (1862–63), but contract was canceled for misbehavior; became well-known at the Odéon (1866–72), where she ran a hospital during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71); returned and starred at the Comédie (1872–80); left the Comédie to strike out on her own after sensational appearances in London (1879); initiated the first of nine tours in North America (1880–81), followed by numerous European tours and nearly annual seasons in London established an immense international reputation; leased and produced and acted at the Porte Saint-Martin theater (1883–93), the Théâtre de la Renaissance (1893–98), and the Théâtre de la Nation, renamed the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt (1899–1923); made gigantic world tour to Europe, the Americas, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and Dakar, Africa (1891–93); honored by a "Day of Glorification" gala (1896); made last grand tour of Europe (1908–09); offered a National Tribute by the English (1912); awarded the Legion of Honor (1914); right leg amputated (1915); made last American tour (1916–18); returned to the Paris stage after a six-year absence (1920); gave her last performance, in Turin, Italy (1922).

Most notable roles, date of debut:

Zacherie in Racine's Athalie (1867); Anna Damby in Dumas père's Kean (1868); Zanetto in Coppée's Le Passant (1869); Queen Maria in Hugo's Ruy Blas (1872); Voltaire's Zaïre (1874); Racine's Phèdre (1874); Doña Sol in Hugo's Hernani (1877); Scribe and Legouvé's Adrienne Lecouvreur (1880); Gilberte in Meilhac and Halévy's Froufrou (1880); Marguerite Gautier in Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camélias (1880); Sardou's Fédora (1882), Théodora (1884), and Floria Tosca in La Tosca (1887); Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc (1890); Sardou's Cléopatre (1890) and Gismonda (1894); Melissinde in Rostand's La Princesse lointaine (1895); de Musset's Lorenzaccio (1896); Photine in Rostand's La Samaritaine (1897); Shakespeare-Schwon-Morand's Hamlet (1899); Duc de Reichstadt in Rostand's L'Aiglon (1900); Zoraya in Sardou's La Sorcière (1903); Pelléas in Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Melisande (1905); Moreau's Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1909); La Reine Elisabeth and La Dame aux Camélias (silent films, 1911); Strasbourg in Morand's Les Cathédrales (1915); Athalie (Racine, 1920); Verneuil's Daniel (1920).

Except for Britain's Queen Victoria (1819–1901), who reigned over a quarter of the world's population, French actress Sarah Bernhardt was the best-known woman in the world at the turn of the 20th century. She was probably the first "superstar," a word invented two years after she died and not commonly used until the late-1960s. The massive publicity that made her superstar status possible was disseminated by the linotype machine, the rotary printing press, and the telegraph, telephone, radio, phonograph, and motion-picture camera. Save for the earlier telegraph, all these inventions appeared during her career. Her personality was ideally fitted to exploit this historic opportunity, for she craved attention, loved to be talked about, and was driven by a boundless ambition for fame. She had an unerring instinct for publicity—an actress who was forever "on stage"—but her behavior also provided fodder for a legion of critics who snidely damned her as "Sarah Barnum," after the notorious American showman P.T. Barnum. Still, even they would usually admit that she was truly a great actress, one of the greatest who ever lived. Floods of publicity she had, but also an ocean of talent.

Bernhardt was not a conventionally beautiful woman, even in her physical prime. A fellow actress wrote, "One could no more have said that this face was pretty than affirm it was ugly." Her hair was a frizzy, golden-red mop. Her liquid eyes, one of the most compelling features of a face capable of a great range of expressions, were wide-set and seemed to change color with her moods, green when angry, dark blue when content. She had a strong nose, fairly thin lips over beautiful white teeth, and a firm, laterally creased chin. Of barely average height, she was exceedingly slim and small-busted, thus contradicting the current ideal, which favored plumpness, an ideal her example did much to change. It was her magnificent carriage and fluid grace of movement which redeemed any bodily defects. She seemed to float about effortlessly and especially liked to present a spiral effect by wearing clinging gowns that masked the thinness of her limbs while enhancing their graceful movement. The vision of her making an entrance down a staircase seldom failed to evoke ecstatic oohs and aahs.

A final feature, perhaps the most commented upon, was her voice. Writers struggled to put its qualities into words. Usually they described it as "golden," but "silvery" was closer to the mark. It lacked the power generated by her great predecessor Rachel (1821–1858), making her less suited to some of the classical roles. But it was sparklingly clear, penetrating enough to be readily audible, and infinitely charming, even bewitching. Needless to say, her pronunciation and articulation were flawless, honed in her youth by the venerable exercises taught at the Paris Conservatoire.

Bernhardt was nearly 30 before she became a star, an unusually long delay for an actress in those days. Much about her origins is unclear. She was the eldest of three daughters born to Julia Van Hard (variously known as Julie or "Youle" Bernard or Bernardt or Bernhardt), a Jewish Dutch girl of uncertain ancestry from Haarlem or Amsterdam, who, with her sister Rosine, set off looking for adventure and ended up in Paris pregnant with Sarah. Undaunted, Julia would become one of the most prominent courtesans in town, the paid mistress of a string of wealthy, influential men. Sarah's father was probably either an aristocratic naval officer, Paul Morel, or (more likely) a law student, Edouard Bernhardt, who became a notable Le Havre attorney but died fairly young in 1857. She was probably born between 1841 and 1845, with 1844 the preferred choice; the certificate disappeared when the Hôtel de Ville was burned during the Paris Commune (1871).

Sarah, who was at first called Rosine after her aunt, was an inconvenience, so Julie left her to be raised by friends or relatives, finally depositing her at Grand-Champs, a Catholic boarding school in Versailles. During all these years, Julie or Aunt Rosine would stop by occasionally on their travels with or between lovers and promise to come and get her, but they seldom kept their word. Sarah—high-strung, temperamental, imaginative, and frequently ill—grew up desperately wanting love and attention and devised ways of getting it through headstrong behavior.

At Grand-Champs, she became entranced with Catholic ritual, found a caring soul in the Mother Superior, Sainte-Sophie , and resolved to become a nun. One of Julie's patrons, the Duc de Morny, the most powerful man in France save for his half-brother Emperor Napoleon III, ended the discussion by suggesting, perhaps seriously, that the already theatrical girl really belonged at the Conservatoire, the state training school for the stage. That very evening, she later wrote, she witnessed her first play at France's most prestigious theater, the Comédie-Française, as a guest of Morny and the novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas père. Enthralled, she watched the great red curtain go up: "It was as though the curtain of my future life was being raised."

Sarah's qualities may have impressed the admission jury at the Conservatoire, but it is likely that Morny's influence turned the trick. And a word from him helped again when she graduated (1862) after two years of rigorous training, for the Comédie signed her despite her having

won only second prizes. Barely seven months after an unremarkable debut (August 11, 1862), she was fired. A formidable senior actress, Madame Nathalie , had shoved Sarah's youngest sister, Régine , against a pillar backstage for stepping on her train. Sarah, enraged, had slapped Mme Nathalie's face and then refused all appeals to apologize.

Determined to establish her independence, Sarah resisted family pressure to marry a rich, elderly suitor. But she still needed Julie's connections, which got her a position for a year at the fashionable Théâtre du Gymnase (1863–64). Bernhardt alleged that she left because she disliked a scheduled role. She apparently went to Spain and Belgium for awhile, but until August 1866, when she began at the Odéon, her exact movements are obscure. What is certain is that on December 22, 1864, she gave birth to a son, Mauríce, whose father was a young Belgian aristocrat, Henri, Prince de Ligne. For him to marry an actress was out of the question: at that time, they were only a little more "respectable" than courtesans since they were mostly poorly paid and thus expected to be supported by wealthy patrons in return for their "favors." Sarah lavished on her son Maurice all the love she had wanted from her mother; for the rest of her life, she backed his runaway spending without complaint, even when it meant selling her personal possessions.

It was at the Théâtre de l'Odéon (1866–72), France's second theater, that she finally became a star. She had sought out Camille Doucet, minister of fine arts and friend of Morny. After she promised to behave herself, he introduced her to Félix Duquesnel, the Odéon's associate director. Overcome by her charm, Duquesnel persuaded his skeptical chief, Charles de Chilly, and the contract was hers. She soon began drawing notice in plays by George Sand , who befriended her, became the toast of the Latin Quarter students while appearing in Dumas père's Kean, and had all Paris raving about her performance as a young male minstrel in François Coppée's oneact poetic reverie Le Passant (January 14, 1869). When the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) closed the theaters, Sarah quelled murmurings about her German name and ancestry by espousing a fervent patriotism (to which she remained true for life) and converting the Odéon into a military hospital with herself as head nurse during the siege of Paris. On stage again by October 1871, she saw her star status sealed when Victor Hugo chose her to play the queen in a revival of his Ruy Blas and knelt to kiss her hand after her sensational debut (February 19, 1872).

Swallowing the company's pride, the Comédie's director, Emile Perrin, now induced her to break her Odéon contract. Although she was a junior member of the staid temple of French drama and hence often obliged to accept secondary roles or plays ill-suited to her, she became for the public the Comédie's brightest light, blazing in Hugo's Hernani (November 21, 1877) and Racine's Phèdre (December 21, 1874), that supreme test for French dramatic actresses, which became one of her staples.

Her off-stage life, meanwhile, sated the press with stories of her many lovers, extravagant spending, eccentricities, tantrums, forays (quite respectable) into painting and sculpture, and escapades. (Perrin, to his shock and outrage, looked up one day during the Exposition of 1878 to behold his top box-office draw sailing out of Paris with two men in a balloon.) Her notoriety preceded her across the Channel and prepared the way for the June 2–July 12, 1879, London engagement of the Comédie. It was the turning point of her career. The English public could not get enough of Sarah. Despite Perrin's heated objections, she even gave lucrative private performances, which a formidable American impresario, Edward Jarrett, booked for her. The London triumph opened her eyes to the possibility of striking out on her own. On April 18, 1880, she finally resigned from the Comédie—which sued her and won a queenly 100,000 francs. She now embarked on an unprecedented career of acting and management in her own theater in Paris and making nearly annual tours abroad with her own company, beginning with a return to London, trips to Brussels, Copenhagen, and the French provinces, and an extensive tour in the U.S. and Canada organized by Jarrett (October 15, 1880–May 4, 1881).

In Paris, she performed exclusively at a succession of theaters she leased: the Porte Saint-Martin (1883–93), the Renaissance (1893–98), and the 1,700-seat theater at the Place du Châtelet, modestly renamed the "Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt" (1899–1923). She supervised every facet of their operation and acted, produced, and directed, doing it all with high professional skill. Being a woman in unaccustomed roles bothered her not a whit. As for the tours, she loved them, even if sometimes (especially in America) she had to perform in arenas or tents; besides, they were highly profitable and helped cover the occasional huge losses of failed Paris productions. These tours were veritable royal progresses. Her troupe with props and vast wardrobe usually traveled by special train with a private car for the star and her current leading man. She made nine tours in the United States between October 1880 and November 1918, sometimes with side tours in Canada and Latin America; the last four were billed as "farewell" tours. Interspersed were short and long tours in Europe and vacations of a few weeks at her island estate off the coast of Brittany. An ability (like Napoleon's) to fall asleep instantly and wake fully refreshed in half an hour helped her sustain this unrelenting activity to the end of her life.

And so did will power. "You ask me my theory of life? It is represented by the word will." Early in life, she adopted a motto, "Quand même" ("No matter what"), even though ill health often plagued her. On October 9, 1905, she injured her right knee and greatly aggravated it in a performance of La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, when a stagehand forgot to put a pad on the floor to cushion her suicide leap at the end. Until February 22, 1915, when the leg was amputated, she acted despite acute pain. The amputation did not deter her. She adapted roles so she could stand supported or sit and was skillful enough to make audiences forget her handicap. Off stage, she was carried about in a sedan chair.

Given her background, Bernhardt grew up with little concern for the sexual conventions of Victorian society and roundly ignored them. She had a score of lovers which legend, abetted by former intimate friend Marie Colombier 's sensationally scabrous Mémoires de Sarah Barnum (1883), multiplied beyond measure. Unlike her mother's, her liaisons, mainly with men in the theater and literary worlds, were for emotional and sexual satisfaction (rather than money) which apparently she never fully found. Still, most of her ex-lovers remained her friends. Her sole marriage was a disaster. Jacques Damala, 12 years her junior, was a strikingly handsome Greek soldier, diplomat, Don Juan, and morphine addict. They married in London on April 4, 1882. She (if few others) thought he had acting talent and even bought him a theater to appease his jealousy and conceit. He soon walked out, she obtained a separation in 1883, and he died of drug abuse in 1889. Bernhardt kept a bust of him in her home and would not speak ill of him. Later (1910–13), she again discovered supposed talent in another smashingly handsome adventurer, Lou Tellegen, but did not marry him. After two American tours, he left her for silent-film stardom and married the opera diva Geraldine Farrar .

Bernhardt worked to the end. She suffered a short uremic coma while rehearsing Sacha Guitry's Un Sujet de roman in December 1922 and never again appeared on stage. On March 15, 1923, while filming Guitry's La Voyante at her exotic Paris mansion, she collapsed in another attack of uremia, which finally killed her on March 26. A vast throng escorted her to burial at Père-Lachaise. Her stone states simply, as if no more were needed: sarah bernhardt.

Bernhardt did not lack detractors among theater critics, notably George Bernard Shaw, who much preferred her Italian rival Eleanora Duse (1859–1924). Many, suspicious of huge commercial success and scorning the veritable cult surrounding her, charged that her flagrant self-promotion prostituted her art for applause and money. (Anti-Semitism also raised its head; she met it by proudly and simply affirming that she was "a Roman Catholic and a member of the great Jewish race.") It is true she had a keen sense of what the public liked and gave it to them without worrying overmuch if it qualified as high art. At the same time, she never descended to the merely cheap or vulgar. Certainly she was not infallible in choosing plays or judging her ability to succeed in them. She was ready to try new works and methods but also was a shrewd manager, ready to trot out old warhorses to pay the bills piled up by flops. In short, "art for art's sake" was not what she lived for; staging a first-class production, giving the audience a memorable serving of "la Divine Sarah" and (usually) a good cry—and making a ton of money at it—was.

As for Bernhardt's place in theater history, she epitomized the spirit of romanticism and more than anyone else infused it into the playing of French classical roles. Her Phèdre was a real woman torn by lust and guilt, not the noble, sexless demi-goddess enshrined by two centuries of tradition. As the pope of French critics, Francisque Sarcey, sensed upon her return to the Comédie in 1872, the event was "serious and violently revolutionary: it is the wolf in the fold." At the same time, her classical training enabled her later, as a critic wrote, to "elevate the most worthless melodrama to the height of tragic grandeur." Her style thus blended the Comédie with the much freer Boulevard theater.

A long debate over whether her method was emotionalist or anti-emotionalist was fueled by contradictions between her statements favoring the former and her highly polished technique. She made intense efforts to become the characters she portrayed and wrote in L'Art du théâtre, "When the average audience is moved to tears by an actor's suffering, the actor will know that he has achieved his artistic goals." On the other hand, she knew all the tricks. An actress (May Agate ) testified that "she could simulate tears and conduct a conversation about something else." When a young pupil complained she could not perform a scene in a certain way because she didn't "feel" it that way, Madame Sarah replied firmly, "If you're going to be an actress, you've got to be able to do it that way or any other way." At her death, a critic offered an apt synthesis: "Though intoxicated, she remains lucid in her intoxication."

Bernhardt's repertoire was vast—over 130 roles, most of them leads; she memorized them in four or five concentrated readings and thereafter almost never forgot a line. She studied them thoroughly and worked hard to avoid mere stereotypical interpretation. While her range of characters was broad, her repertorial range was mostly classical and romantic French; she had no feel for the new "realistic" school of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and Shaw, with their "problem" plays and neurotic, sex-starved, middle-class heroines—"that northern stuff" ("des norderies"), as she called it. She had striking successes in young male (travesti) roles. Traditional in the French theater but a novelty for her English-speaking audiences, they were also a means to disguise her aging, which she dreaded and denied. She argued that roles like Hamlet or Napoleon's son (L' Aiglon) portray youths of 20 with the minds of men of 40; hence, unlike the older actors usually assigned, "the woman more readily looks the part and yet has the maturity of mind to grasp it."

It was above all in romantic melodrama portraying women in love that Bernhardt excelled. Victorien Sardou supplied her with a string of highly popular vehicles. Her most-performed role, however, was as Marguerite Gautier , a courtesan redeemed by love but heroically giving up her lover before dying of consumption, in Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camélias (oddly known to English-speaking audiences as "Camille"). Bernhardt projected a "chaste sensuality" which Victorian audiences found irresistible. They also wanted tears, and she could bring them up as nobody before or since, with death scenes her specialty. The critic Jules Lemaître noted that she broke new acting ground in two respects: the use of her entire body, and her display of femininity. She exuded sex and portrayed it unmistakably, challenging repressive Victorian conventions. But she never crossed the line into cheapness or obscenity: more important to her even than passion was beauty—which stamped her as a true romantic. It must be added, however, that an element of titillation also entered her audiences' experience, for everyone knew that almost always her stage lover was playing that role offstage too.

Finally, Bernhardt made the grand tour de rigueur well into the 20th century for anyone wishing to be a great star. The device was "invented" by Adelaide Ristori (1822–1906) with her American tours, but Bernhardt revealed its potential to produce deluges of money and fame. Remarkably, she performed abroad only in French yet drew huge crowds; audiences received a translation or a plot summary as at an opera. Despite the often circus-like atmosphere of the tours, she took the business seriously. When responding to a great formal celebration offered her in 1896, she said, "I have planted the dramatic literature of France in foreign hearts. That is my proudest achievement." And she continued to do and to believe so. Even though the French government decorated her (finally) in 1914, neither it nor the French people ever fully appreciated how very much she had done to win renewed respect for France and French culture abroad in the wake of the defeat of 1870–71, and most especially to help prepare the people of England and the United States to come to suffering France's aid during the First World War (1914–18).

There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.

—Mark Twain, c. 1912

Sarah Bernhardt was an endless entertainer and a fount of contradictions, as vain, demanding, and all-around "impossible" as the most stereotypical great star, yet also a generous, sensitive woman who kept a host of friends for life. Perhaps her most impressive quality, aside from sheer magnetism, was her courageous will—in surmounting childhood neglect; in following the call of her talent despite early failures and devastating attacks of stage fright throughout her life; in fighting through pain and disability in order to perform as contracted and at the level expected of her; and, most strikingly, in defying the myriad conventions of her time enforcing the helplessness of women in order to make herself a truly independent woman "no matter what."


Aston, Elaine. Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage. Oxford: Berg, 1989.

Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. London: William Heinemann, 1907.

Castelot, André. Ensorcelant Sarah Bernhardt. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1961.

Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Richardson, Joanna. Sarah Bernhardt. London: M. Reinhardt, 1959.

——. Sarah Bernhardt and Her World. NY: Putnam, 1977.

Salmon, Eric, ed. Bernhardt and the Theater of Her Time. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Skinner, Cornelia Otis. Madame Sarah. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Taranow, Gerda. Sarah Bernhardt: The Art Within the Legend. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

suggested reading:

Agate, May. Madame Sarah. NY: Benjamin Blom, 1945, 1969.

Baring, Maurice. Sarah Bernhardt. NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1934.

Bernhardt, Lysiane. Sarah Bernhardt: My Grandmother. Translation. NY: Hurst & Blackett, 1945.

Bernhardt, Sarah. The Art of the Theater. Translated by H.J. Stenning. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1924.

—— and Sandy Lesberg. The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. NY: Beekman House, 1977.

Berton, Thérèse. Sarah Bernhardt as I Knew Her: Memoirs of Mme. Pierre Berton as Told to Basil Woon. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1923.

Emboden, William. Sarah Bernhardt. London: Macmillan, 1974.

Hahn, Reynaldo. Sarah Bernhardt. Translation. London: Elkins, Matthews & Marrot, 1932.

Jullian, Philippe. Sarah Bernhardt. Paris: Editions Ballard, 1977.

Kobler, John. "Bernhardt in America," in American Heritage. Vol. 40, no. 5, 1989, pp. 52–65.

Rostand, Maurice. Sarah Bernhardt. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1950.

Verneuil, Louis. The Fabulous Life of Sarah Bernhardt. Translated by Ernest Boyd. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1942, 1972.


In Paris: Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Bibliothèque de la Comédie-Française, Bibliothèque Nationale, the Cinémathèque Française, and the Phonothèque Nationale. In New York: The New York Public Library of the Performing Arts.

related media:

"The Incredible Sarah," produced by Helen M. Strauss for Reader's Digest Films, 1976, starring Glenda Jackson , directed by Richard Fleischer.

"Sarah Bernhardt," Films for the Humanities and Sciences (FFH), No. PI–1840.

David S. Newhall , Professor of History, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky