The National Theatre has seen its fair share of global stars pass across the stage, yet few rival the magnitude of the “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt was the defining celebrity of her day. In fact, Bernhardt is often credited with laying the groundwork for the modern superstar. Some have compared her to Madonna and Lady Gaga, brilliant performers whose larger than life personas only increased their power. These stars and more can thank trailblazer Bernhardt, who cleverly wielded the power of the press and the collective fascination of the crowd to her advantage, all while living a life as large as it was provocative.
Like a lot of details of her life, the exact date of Sarah Bernhardt’s birth is difficult to determine, though the best estimates place it in the middle of the year 1844. Her mother was a Jewish courtesan in Paris who had difficult relationships with the men in her life; the exact identity of her father was unknown. Despite having a largely unfulfilling family life, Bernhardt was able to gain quality conservatory training before joining the company at le Comedie-Francaise, France’s most prestigious theatre. Her flair for the controversial was evident early on when she slapped a fellow actress in outrage during a rehearsal, which resulted in her expulsion from the company. While this may have proved a fatal setback to other actresses, Bernhardt’s life on the stage was only just beginning. She soon found a home at the famous Odeon Theatre and later had a major breakthrough playing the lead role in Jean Racine’s neoclassical tragedy Phedre. This established her as a leading lady of great renown and led to her return to le Comedie, where her star really began to rise. Bernhardt’s first major international success was a six-week stint at the Gaeity Theatre in London, which in turn led to the first of many tours to the United States. She toured extensively throughout her career, playing major roles in the Western canon. Her most famous was the lead in La Dame aux Camelias, a play by Alexander Dumas fils, but she also gained fame in so-called “breeches” roles, or male parts played by women. Like many great actresses, including Charlotte Cushman, Bernhardt sought out breeches roles partly because compelling, complex roles for women were so scarce. Ironically, Bernhardt’s performances in Hamlet were so beloved that in 1900, she became the first to play the role on film.
Like Jenny Lind before her, excitement for Bernhardt’s American 1881 debut was high. Unlike Lind, who was renowned for being kind and demure, Bernhardt’s had a famously salacious reputation, driven in part by rumors of her extravagant lifestyle, peculiar ways, and promiscuity (she was already traveling with an illegitimate son). Despite, or perhaps because of this, Bernhardt’s arrival was greeted by huge crowds, and her work on the stage was praised by critics for its ease and naturalism in comparison to the bombastic American acting of the day. Naturally, Bernhardt’s extensive touring brought her to Washington, where she was a consistent hit at The National Theatre. Her first appearance came in her inaugural American tour of 1881, in which she performed leading roles in Camille and Frou-Frou. After the immediate success of her first tour, Bernhardt returned to The National on four more occasions between 1887 and 1916, always flexing her dramatic talents by playing multiple shows in repertory (when one cast performs multiple plays on alternating nights), including favorites La Dame aux Camelias and Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s worth noting, too, as Robert Gottlieb does in his biography Sarah, that Bernhardt’s first touring repertoire included six death scenes out of eight total plays, suggesting a flair for the dramatic and an astute understanding of the sort of drama audiences craved.
Throughout her long career, Bernhardt attracted adoration and scandal in almost equal measure. There were many, many male admirers and love affairs; indeed, legend has it being her leading man on stage meant playing a similar role in the bedroom, a fact that angered certain conservative factions of society. The press scrutinized her every move, as they do the celebrities of today, often focusing on her slight stature and distinctively thin frame. As a Jew, she found herself the target of anti-Semitism and general disregard, even despite her status. Nevertheless, she continued to excel, and as her stature grew, so did her financial clout. She returned from her first tour of the United States with the ability to rent her own theatres, hire her own fellow performers, and commission her own plays, making her a singularly powerful performer. Money fueled many of her most curious tastes, including for exotic animals, unusual clothes, and lavish parties. In fact, Bernhardt seemed to actively cultivate a bizarre reputation; she even brought a coffin with her on tour, and supposedly slept in it most nights. Despite being the prototype for today’s audacious, lavish celebrity – and being dismissed by a handful of other notable giants of the Western theatre, including playwrights Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw – Bernhardt was genuinely loved by much of the public in her native France. During the Franco-Prussian War, she helped turned the Odeon Theatre into a refuge for wounded soldiers and pushed the wealthy and decent people of France to donate food and clothing. During World War I, when she was in her 70s, she remained a sweetheart of the troops, and often performed for them.
Bernhardt enjoyed a long career and tempestuous personal life, and eventually died an icon. After giving birth to a son out of wedlock, she entered a brief and contentious marriage with Aristides Damala, a fellow actor. In 1915, most of her right leg was amputated after a stage fall went wrong, which limited her range of motion. Despite this, she continued to tour throughout World War I, partly by choosing roles that allowed her to remain seated, and embarked on a career in silent films. By the time she died in 1923, she was effectively a living monument to the French people. When news of her death reached the Paris theatre that bore her name, the show stopped, the audience filed out, and the actors walked together to her home to wish her goodbye.
From the Archive
The National Theatre Archive holds a number of programs and documents from major productions, including several from Sarah Bernhardt’s visit. Here you’ll find the complete program from her turn in Fedora, dated March of 1887.
Altschuler, Glenn C. “Sarah Bernhardt’s Dramatic Life, Onstage and Off.” NPR Online. National Public Radio, 24 September, 2010, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129879698.
Gottlieb, Robert. Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Marcus, Sharon. “The First Modern Celebrity Was Born 175 Years Ago.” Vox. Vox Media, 26 June, 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/11/18644296/sarah-bernhardt-celebrity-fame.
Williams, Holly. “Sarah Bernhardt: Was She the First ‘A-List’ Actress?” BBC Online. British Broadcast Corporation, 15 December, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171214-sarah-bernhardt-was-she-the-first-a-list-actress.