Exploring the life of a pioneer of female empowerment, the first woman to own her celebrity.
In 1884 Sigmund Freud went to the theatre. The play Theodora was showing in Paris. In response, Freud wrote, “I cannot say much for the play.” What interested him was who was playing Empress Theodora; “Her incredible positions, the manner in which she keeps silent, but each of her limbs and of her movements play the role for her! Strange creature!” Before the revolutionary celebrities we know today like Cher, Beyonce, Madonna, Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe, there was Sarah Bernhardt, a ‘strange creature’ who captivated the world on and off stage with her defiance, expressiveness and flamboyance. Freud wasn’t the only one who praised her; Oscar Wilde (who wrote a play, Salome, specifically for Bernhardt), Anton Chekhov (to an extent), Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Victor Hugo etc were all vocal fans. She really was the rising golden star of her day, inspiring not only other wild divas who came after her but a whole new wave of modernism, art, and female empowerment.
Bernhardt initially wanted to, in her youth, become a nun and was horrified at the idea of becoming an actress before she stepped inside a theatre. But in 1857, when she was finally taken to the Comédie Française to see Britannicus, she was so moved by the play that she burst into tears, disturbing everyone else in the theatre. From this moment she knew she was destined for the stage, along with her accomplice Alexandre Dumas, calling Bernhardt “my little star”.
Sarah Bernhardt went on to act in 135 plays between the years 1862 and 1923, not including one-time performances or revivals.
Early in her career, she became irresistible to the world. Her movements on stage and her golden voice were highly praised and everyone knew her name. She moved with harmony and seduction. No one could look away. She had many notable performances such as Hamlet (playing multiple roles), Othello, King Lear, Macbeth by Shakespeare, Cléopâtre and La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, and more. (One man is reported to have said on his deathbed, “At least I won’t have to hear about Sarah Bernhardt any longer.”)
After playing many young beauties, Bernhardt chose roles to shock and delight audiences, venturing into areas of theatre previously unexplored by women. The most notable example is her performance of Hamlet in 1899 at age 55, where she bravely and brilliantly played Hamlet. Bernhardt thought that Hamlet thought too much and did very little, so she insisted on a rewrite where he was a man of action.
Cross-dressing was a controversial form of entertainment in 19th-century France, as we know, but Bernhardt transcended the concept and boundaries of gender. She played a man’s role in a man’s world and achieved this without losing any of her “tigerish passion and feline seduction”(Maurice Baring). Bernhardt said “Always, in the theatre, the parts played by men are the best parts. And yet theatre is the sole art where women can sometimes be superior to men.” Being a performer offered her a chance to carve out independence and power.
The more her success grew and the brighter her light became, there grew an insatiable sense of curiosity about the woman behind Hamlet. Not only did Bernhardt not mind this curiosity and invasion into her personal affairs, she encouraged it. She was the same diva on stage and off. There is a separation between personal and public that most performers have (Tom Cruise and the famous rumour of Scientology vs. Ethan Hunt).
But Bernhardt blurred those lines completely. She lived as dramatically as she performed.
The tales of flamboyance and her extraordinary performances made Sarah Bernhardt the embodiment of mystery and charm to everyone, a reputation that has endured even to this day. Never ashamed of her eccentricities, Bernhardt made a virtue out of them and encouraged a blurring between myth and truth, entrancing the media, seducing fans, and creating a cult of celebrity. Bernhardt was the first actress to promote herself. In 1894, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech émigré, was tasked with creating Bernhardt’s promotional posters. Mucha designed a poster filled with gold accents, and pastels on a long narrow poster with Bernhardt looking angelic, yet bold and independent, as if she stepped out of the ether. She was dressed in the style of the Byzantine mosaic murals. Her surname twirled above her head. This was the creation of Art Nouveau. Mucha, in working with Bernhardt, was now world-famous.
Bernhardt died at 79 on 26 March 1923, just over 100 years ago. Unlike many women of her time who saw success but could not attain autonomy or independence and drifted into obscurity, at her death she was still a star. 30,000 people attended her funeral with vast crowds following her coffin through the streets of Paris. Bernhardt’s influence in theatre and beyond is undeniable. She set the standard for how we see superstars today. Jules Renard, in his famous journal, writes, “At a sign from Sarah Bernhardt, I would follow her to the ends of the earth – with my wife.”