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.
Further Reading on Sarah Bernhardt
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.
Gold, Arthur, The Divine Sarah: a life of Sarah Bernhardt, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1991; New York: Vintage Books, 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.