WHY THEY WENT WILD FOR THE DIVINE SARAH
Alphonse Mucha, color lithographs, from left: Tragique histoire d’Hamlet, 1899; La Samaritaine, 1897; Lorenzaccio, 1896.
When “the Divine Sarah” died in 1923 a million people lined the streets of Paris between the Madeleine and the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt to see her cortege wend its way to Pere-Lachaise: An impressive turnout for an actress in her seventy-ninth year. But a quarter century later, Marilyn Monroe, in “The Seven Year Itch,” would contemplate Bernhardt’s attendance records in relation to her own vital statistics. More people will view her character’s Dazzledent toothpaste ad on TV in one night, she says, than saw Bernhardt perform for her entire career. Still, muses Monroe, “I wish I were old enough to have seen Sarah Bernhardt. Was she magnificent?” This clip, on a continuous loop, is the dazzling first attraction in the Jewish Museum’s suitably extravagent tribute to the actress, “Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama,” the first exhibition of its kind in America.
Actually, Marilyn might not have done her math. Bernhardt’s performances reached phenomenal live audiences. On her 1905-06 tour of the United States (her sixth), when she traversed the continent in a private train, she visited 156 cities. Breaking the cartel of the Theatrical Syndicate, the Shubert brothers had her perform in such alternative spaces as circus tents and the gargantuan Hearst Greek Theatre where tens of thousands would watch her rendentions in French of Racine’s Phedre and such contemporary melodramas written with her in mind as Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca and Théodora, Edmond Rostond’s L’Aiglon, Jules Barbier’s Jeanne d’Arc, and La Dame aux camélias by Alexander Dumas *fils*.
Bernhardt was magnificent by many different standards: her own, for sure. The exhibition chronicles not only an extraordinary talent and beauty, but an ego to more than match. Then there’s the expectations of the masses who not only thronged performances but took home such souvenirs as serving utensils engraved with her personal motto, “Quand Même” whose handles evoked her initials and her legendary serpentine form, not to mention buttons and postcards. And finally, Bernhardt’s fan club numbered a roster of intellectuals including an impressionable young Sigmund Freud, in Paris to study with Charcot, an appreciative Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky, and of course Proust, who partly drew on Bernhardt for his character Berma in “A la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time).
Added to financial success, theatrical innovation, enduring legend and cult following, Bernhardt’s magnificence is also to be measured in terms of the way that her form and persona tangibly changed the course of the various arts with which she interacted: proving the point makes the Jewish Museum’s exhibition a visual treat, as well as a thought-provoking exercise in cultural history. Marilyn’s musings reflect the transience of theatrical reputation, especially before the advent of recording devices; even with them, however, dramatic accomplishments are arguably more friable than those in creative, as opposed to interpretative mediums: Whatever might have been timeless, say, about Bernhardt’s Camille, the doomed demimondaine of La dame aux camelias, by the time Greta Garbo took the same role, the Divine Sarah’s once heightened naturalism (already deemed over the top by Checkov and Shaw who preferred her rival Eleonora Duse) would have seemed absurdly dated in its artifice, as would Garbo’s method if it were applied on stage or screen today.
Bernhardt’s career actually straddles a technological divide. She was in a way the first movie star, performing in a number of early silents, including a staging of the duel scene of Hamlet, her most notorious trouser role on stage, as well as performances as Elizabeth of England and the first filmed Camille. On her 1880 trip to America she visited Thomas Edison to have one of her legendary declamations recorded on his newly invented phonograph. And she was extensively, often exquisitely photographed—the exhibition boasts around a dozen original albumen prints by Felix Nadar and his son Paul, lent by France’s Bibliotèque Nationale.
But she depended for her propaganda on original art in a way that is an anachronism for today’s stars—luckily for this exhibition, as it is what makes for such a lively, engaging show. It can so easily happen with historical exhibitions of this kind that the museum is merely a less than comfortable or practical surrogate for a book or documentary. The Jewish Museum show is rich in visual treats that advance an idea of how Bernhardt was perceived, and promoted herself: An exquisite Symbolist portrait by the British painter Dudley Hardy, a panel of 9-1/2 x 6-1/2 inches from 1889, captures in miniature her dusky eyes, red frizzy hair, and slinky physique. There is also a whole set of the highly stylised posters made under contract to Bernhardt by Alphonse Mucha which made the revolutionary young Czech’s career, a lithograph of Bernhardt as Phedre by Toulouse-Lautrec (one of his two images of the actress) and a pulsating, dynamic little woodcut by the British graphic artist and painter William Nicholson from 1897 which captures some sense of her charismatic stage presence, even in maturity.
Both Mucha and Nicholson demonstrate how Bernhardt and Art Nouveau were made for each other. The actress was notorious for—and exploited to the hilt—her serpentine form. Caricatures pick up on her extreme skinniness, aenemic complexion, and gaunt features. Early in her career these, along with Bernhardt’s Jewishness, were lampooned. Although baptized and sufficiently Catholic to have wanted to be nun before entering the Conservatoire and Comedie Francaise, her courtesan mother was a Dutch Jewess. Bernhardt blended a sense of otherness and Frenchness, playing on her exoticism in the roles she chose as much as the way she performed them, decorated her home and conducted her highly public personal life.
For the exhibition’s curators, scholars Carol Ockman and Kenneth Silver, the role of Jewishness in both her self and her imposed image was crucial to their initial interest in Bernhardt, as no doubt the Jewish Museum’s, linking to their groundbreaking 1987 exhibition on the Dreyfus Affair. But while some early caricatures, like André Gill’s “Sarah Bernhardt as a Sphinx,” published in La lune rousse, 1878, trade in antisemitic stereotypes—giving her a hooked nose actually alien to her features—by the time of the Affair she had become such an institution already that she was not singled out for further attack.
You could say Bernhardt was the Madonna of her age,—a Svengali of constant reinvention, a relentless self-promoter, an inveterate crosser of boundaries. These, like the Material Girl herself, included the divide between Judaism and Catholicism and between sexualities, as she was openly bisexual and prolific in trouser roles. Bernhardt also juggled high and low, as represented by Racine and Sardou, and to the chagrin of caricaturists, acting and creating, as she was an accomplished sculptor and painter, and as she was an active self-manager, producer, imprasario. The show includes key examples of her own artwork: her portrait bust of her lover, the painter Louise Abbéma, in a tame beaux-arts style, but also more inventive, Symbolist sculptures such as Fantastical Inkwell (Self-Portrait as a Sphinx) 1880 and Algae, 1900, an organic septre advanced in art nouveau style.
A regret of the show is that the voices that fill the space aren’t those of Bernhardt herself, despite Edison’s efforts, but her thespian descendents: Monroe; Julie Garland, imitating the actress in the 1941 Babes on Broadway; and Nicole Kidman in her Camille-eseque role as Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge. The svelte Ms. Kidman, with her frizzy red hair, demonically expressive eyes, and milky complexion, not to mention an at once naturalistic and stylised actorly genius, seems the reincarnation of Sarah Bernhardt. Kidman plus Madonna: no wonder the Nineteenth Century went crazy.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 8, 2005print