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

Few figures of the 19th century allured the public as much as actress and entrepreneur Sarah Bernhardt. While many actors struggled to gain employment, Bernhardt created her own opportunities and eventually opened her own theater, where she could play whatever roles she desired. Though she is best remembered for her acting, Bernhardt amplified her fame by creating a cult of personality and myth, creating a brand through photographs, gossip and an ostentatious lifestyle that followed no script.

Library Of Congress. Sarah Bernhardt (Hamlet) / Lafayette – photo – London.

Born in Paris in 1844 to a Dutch-Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt lived outside ofconvention from her earliest years: though she was “illegitimate,” her mother’s connections with wealthy clientele afforded the young Bernhardt education and opportunity. Despite her Jewish background, she attended a convent school, where she performed in her first play, then studied acting at the Paris Conservatory. Later, in her memoir My Double Life, she described her training, which focused heavily on diction and gesture: “the one I liked by far the best was Regnier’s. He was gentle, well-bred, and taught us to speak ‘true’…Provost taught us to act in the grand manner, with diction that was rather pompous but elevated. He especially preached amplitude of gesture and inflection….[Samson’s] voice was frail and piercing, his dignity was acquired but flawless. His method was to aim for simplicity.” Notably, Bernhardt’s training (and 19th century acting training, in general) involved little study of characters’ psychology or inner world; rather, actors focused on diction and gesture.

After studying for two years, Bernhardt made her debut at the Comédie-Française at age 18, playing the title role in Jean Racine’s Iphigénie. She suffered stage fright on opening night, prompting the critic Francisque Sarcey to opine, “She carries herself well and pronounces with perfect precision. That is all that can be said about her at the moment.”

Sarah Bernhardt in character as the Empress Theodora in Theodora:
A Drama in Five Acts and Eight Tableau (1885) by Victorien Sardou.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the young Bernhardt persisted, playing minor roles at several theaters in Paris and enjoying a robust social life. An affair with a Belgian aristocrat resulted in the birth of her son Maurice when Bernhardt was 20 years old; single motherhood gave the actress extra impetus to succeed financially. Throughout her 20s, Bernhardt gradually built a career, playing roles that ranged from Cordelia in King Lear to Zacharie, a young boy in Racine’s Athalie. At this time, women appearing in “trouser roles”—male youths—was common, since women’s lightness and high voices enabled them, in the eyes of 19th century theater practitioners and audiences, to easily slip into juvenile roles. (Even today, women are often cast in such roles as Peter Pan, and many audiences have no trouble accepting a 30-something adult as a boy who won’t grow up). By the time Bernhardt reached her mid-20s, financial success provided her and Maurice a seven-room apartment, where she employed household help and allowed pet turtles to amble freely from room to room. In 1872, at age 28, she played the title role in Racine’s Phaedra, delighting audiences and eliciting effusive commendation from Sarcey–the very critic who had once damned her with faint praise.

In addition to her acting, Bernhardt’s clever self-promotion catapulted her to fame—in France and beyond. At a time when photography was still in its infancy, Bernhardt often sat for portraits, and became known for her image. She also studied painting and sculpture, frequently exhibiting her works while cultivating a sharp visual aesthetic. This worldwide fame proved useful in 1879, when a disagreement with the managers of the Comédie-Française led to Bernhardt’s sudden resignation and sparked her tour of England and America. Before leaving, she assembled a company, selected plays and rehearsed them, assuming a managerial role in addition to starring in each of the eight plays her troupe performed. Though Bernhardt and her troupe performed in French, American audiences didn’t seem to mind. They turned out in droves in 51 cities, though the American press treated Bernhardt gingerly because of her scandalous personal life. After her seven month tour, Bernhardt returned to Paris with $194,000 (equivalent to about $4.8 million today). From this point on, Bernhardt often used her profits from touring to support her grandiose lifestyle; she not only enabled her son’s gambling habit, but also indulged her own taste for fine homes, jewels, servants and a menagerie that eventually grew to include cheetahs and an alligator.

French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Cleopatra,
photograph by Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896).

Upon her return to Paris, few theaters were eager to hire Bernhardt, so she purchased her own–the Théâtre de la Renaissance. From 1893 until 1899, she served as owner and artistic director, producing nine plays, including Princess Lointaine by Edmund Rostand. This young, unknown playwright would later go on to write Cyrano de Bergerac, and to collaborate extensively with Bernhardt.

In 1899, with debts mounting, Bernhardt leased a theater with a much larger capacity and opportunity for increased revenue. She changed its name to Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, and decorated the lobby with portraits of herself in famous roles. It was there, on May 20, 1899, that she first played the title role in Hamlet. Although some bristled at a woman taking on such an iconic male role, Bernhardt was not the first woman to do so: Englishwoman Sarah Siddons played the role more than a century earlier. The production proved a critical and popular success. The following year, in 1900, cameraman Clement Maurice requested to film the dueling scene between Hamlet and Laertes. He made a phonograph recording while filming so that both the film and the sound could be played together. The resulting film, Le Duel d’Hamlet, gives a sense of Bernhardt’s acting style, but poor quality and synchronization of the sound recording meant that Hollywood did not embrace this technique for making a film with sound.

Age presented no obstacle to an actress with no interest in realism, who believed that “in the theater, the natural is good, but the sublime is even better.” In her mid-fifties, Bernhardt presented Rostand’s play L’Aiglon, in which she played the young son of Napoleon Bonaparte; the actress playing her mother was 14 years her junior. While other actors started to turn towards more naturalistic performances as the new century dawned, Bernhardt’s allegiance to the earlier, melodramatic style allowed her to play roles that might today be considered inappropriate for her. She continued to act, always on her own terms, until shortly before her death in 1923. Some derided her style; playwright George Bernard Shaw 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.” But others fell captive to her magnetism; actress Ellen Terry remarked, “How marvelous Sarah Bernhardt was! She had the transparence of an azalea with even more delicacy, the lightness of a cloud with less thickness. Smoke from a burning paper describes her more nearly.”

Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg at Goodman Theatre.