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Book review:The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
By Ellen Schiff

Prof. Ellen Schiff holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; she is professor emerita at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She is the author of several books and dozens of chapters in books, essays, articles, reviews, and reference book entries in publications that range from the New York Times to the Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature. She edited the first-ever two-volume anthology of American Jewish plays. Schiff lectures nationally and internationally. She serves as advisor to the Jewish Theatre of Austria and as a consultant on theatre to the Foundation of Jewish Culture in New York. Email Address: efschiff@aol.com  

“The problem for all of Sarah’s biographers,” writes Robert Gottlieb, “has been to distinguish between the truth and slander.” Undaunted, Gottlieb, a distinguished editor and accomplished author, has read widely in Bernhardtiana: the scholarly, critical and interpretive studies, the opinionated recollections of many who knew her, and Sarah’s own memoirs, “unreliable but intensely readable.” He traces Bernhardt’s life as she “morphed from being a figure of scandal to being venerated as a great symbol of, and ambassador for France.” Without claiming to set the record straight, he puts some stories to rest: Sarah did not, as she reports, save the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln from falling down a staircase on the ship that was carrying them across the stormy Atlantic; they met briefly only upon disembarkation. But it is small wonder that a figure as extravagant and renowned as Bernhardt—she dominated the Western stage for sixty years--inspired passionate and contradictory responses. Gottlieb approaches his material even-handedly, sometimes telling both sides of a story, relating others with skepticism, occasionally recording what may not be verifiably true, but is too good an account to ignore (having persuaded a former lover, now a government administrator, to furnish ample supplies for her military hospital, she then relieved him of his fur-lined coat, but generously allowed him to keep his muffler.)

Bernhardt did not turn to acting to satisfy any early career aspirations, but rather to make her way out of the emotional and physical deprivations of her childhood. Youle, her far from stereotypical Jewish mother, was unloving, irresponsible, self-centered and promiscuous. She regarded her three daughters, of whom Sarah was the eldest, as commercial assets. Fortunately, Sarah was sent off to a convent school where she found a surrogate mother and learned upper-class manners and speech. Gottlieb theorizes that she was driven by the quest for maternal pride or praise, which were never forthcoming. He suggests that that unfulfilled need may have been the seed of the inner turmoil that animated Sarah’s most famous roles: Phedre, la Dame aux camellias, Tosca. It is surely not accidental that as the daughter of a withholding mother, Sarah prized family above all and doted on her only child, Maurice. She raised him as an aristocrat, with all the privileges and freedom from discipline and ambitions thereto appertaining.

Bernhardt early demonstrated histrionic reactions to disappointment and failure. A perceived indignity would send her to her bed for days She swallowed poison after her less than sensational debut at the Comedie Francaise. Yet somehow she turned into a plucky, hard-working individual whose personal motto was “quand meme” (“even so,” “nevertheless”). She early formed the lifetime practice of sleeping with her leading men, though her taste in lovers was hardly confined to the dressing room. The roster is staggering; it includes such eminences as Victor Hugo (who wept at her performance of his Hernani), Gustave Dore and Napoleon III. She surrounded herself with every luxury, kept a personal menagerie, not only of unusual animals (including a short-lived alligator who followed her around), but also of past and present lovers, whose affections she shared and who supported her extravagances, like the famous coffin she that apparently traveled with her. Gottlieb does not establish whether or not she actually slept in it.

These pages record much that is not commonly known about Bernhardt. She was generous, sometimes to a fault, readily making, spending and losing fortunes. She was a better than average sculptor who exhibited annually in the Salon for almost twenty-five years, although how she learned to sculpt and who her influences might have been escape mention here. She never learned a foreign language.

During the Franco-Prussian War, she turned the Odeon theatre into a military hospital. She drew on her wide network of admirers, like that fur-wearing prefect, for food, drink and supplies. During World War I, she insisted on going to the front to entertain troops despite the fact that she was in her seventies and had had her leg amputated. Miraculously, the amputation did not end her extensive touring and she found ingenious ways to compensate for her infirmity on stage—yet another testament to her will and thespian talents. To be sure, Bernhardt’s legendary stature and theatrical dominance were the fruits not only of extraordinary aptitude, but of her shrewdness in cultivating influential patrons, as well as her personal magnetism and convention-defying behavior on and off the stage. Gottlieb attributes her renown to “obsessive hard work applied to a unique combination of skills.”

Bernhardt knew who she was and how to present herself. Her style, of acting and of dress, was completely her own. Alphonse Mucha, who designed her clothes and ornaments, as well as the famous art nouveau posters, noted that “every fold of every dress was profoundly conditioned by her psychological needs.” Arguably the most touching truth she knew about herself was that she was driven by the quest for the elusive. “I am not made for happiness,” she wrote. There is evidence that her relentless pursuit of lovers was attributable to her inability to achieve orgasm, though surgery corrected the problem without altering her habits.

Bernhardt’s first trip to America in the 1880s was viewed as a triple threat. Her acting style contrasted negatively with the “strutting and bombast” that audiences were accustomed to. Her acting was invariably viewed through the lens of her unconventional life style, adjudged scandalous in puritanical America. She provoked overt anti-Semitism. “Quand meme,” she won the admiration of Thomas Edison and Cornelius Vanderbilt. She would make eight more American tours. She loved to travel. She regarded her first six-month European tour as a high point in her career, no doubt because she was offered the respect and adulation due royalty. “The crowned heads of Europe were at her feet (and possibly in her bed),” writes Gottlieb. While she toured tirelessly, sometimes for years at a time, her reception was not always so generous. In Australia, for example, the press was preoccupied with her Jewishness, unpersuaded by her baptism and convent school education. She failed to impress Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, pioneers of the realism and naturalism that would ultimately prevail over Sarah’s signature romanticism. Still, in 1916 she toured ninety-nine American cities in fourteen months with a program that included the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice; she alternated between Portia and a diabolical Shylock. She used this tour to encourage Americans to the Allied cause in World War I, as well as to speak out on racism and women’s rights. Curiously, about the same time, Sarah began to specialize in trouser roles—Lorenzaccio, Hamlet, Macbeth. “It is not that I prefer male roles,” she explained, it’s that I prefer men’s minds.”

Gottlieb observes that Sarah was outspoken on every subject save religion. She never denied her Jewish ancestry, but celebrated neither Judaism nor her professed Catholicism. A friend remarked that while she certainly believed in God, she was essentially “a spiritualist and a romantic idealist.” Still, anti-Semitism dealt her particularly painful blows. The Dreyfus Affair fed her vilification in the press. Worse, her adored and cosseted Maurice declared himself a committed anti-Dreyfusard, as did some of her friends, Jews among them. While ultimately Sarah and Maurice came to terms, the Affair remained a combustible issue between them.

Gottlieb usefully locates Bernhardt’s storied career in the progression of artistic styles. She followed Rachel, a classicist, and was eventually succeeded by Duse, a proponent of the new realism and naturalism. Sarah, whose very existence celebrated the extreme and extravagant, was not made for art that concentrates on the quotidian and ordinary.

The reader finishes Gottlieb’s book regretting that the only technological record of Bernhardt in performance is one very brief filmed scene as Hamlet dueling with Laertes, available on You Tube. While detailed descriptions of costumes, setting, décor and persuasive acting go as far as words possibly can to help the reader imagine the theatrical experience of Bernhardt, it would be worthwhile speculating how she succeeded in enchanting audiences all over the world when she performed exclusively in French—this well before simultaneous translation and projected subtitles. One would love to read her reviews from, say, Leavenworth, Kansas. While only scholars will miss the absence of footnotes and formal bibliography, the fuller inclusion of significant dates would make it easier to follow the chronology of her career.

Sarah is handsomely designed and very generously illustrated. There are dozens of pictures of Bernhard through the years and of many of those who populated her life. Most impressive is a sixteen-page portfolio of Sarah in her most famous stage roles. Gottlieb’s biography, part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, does honor to its legendary subject and its eminent author.
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SARAH: THE LIFE OF SARAH BERNHARDT by Robert Gottlieb. 233 pp. Yale University Press.

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  • Ellen Schiff

    Robert Gottlieb

    Sarah Bernahrdt (1844-1923)

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