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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  Wherever you lived,  on whatever continent—except for Antarctica—Sarah’s feet would have touched it and she would have died on it. People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.

 

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Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter the World War One

 

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

 

 

A sighting of Sarah Bernhardt in all her glory was a memorable event:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about, there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Everyone, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Excerpt from the memoir of the American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux

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Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.

 

 

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One of the reasons for Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.

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Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.

 

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Poster of Sarah as Hamlet. Sarah was not afraid to show her legs in a male hero’s role. She was not afraid of anything. Be it a trip in an air balloon or a crocodile chase, she’d say “yes” to an exciting proposition. Ever aware of the power of advertising, Sarah chose an artistic association with the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha whose posters are still on sale today

 

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:

 

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The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

 

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.

 

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Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

 

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and an exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.

 

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Sarah during one of her overseas travels

 

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In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

 

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from an excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.

 

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Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

 

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.

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And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

 

 

 

 

Related post:

The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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