The Dirty Halo: On Sarah Bernhardt | The Nation


The Dirty Halo: On Sarah Bernhardt

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Do Bernhardt's bravura impositions of her "personality" mark the moment when celebrity merged with the art of acting? The French actresses of previous generations whose roles she reinvented—primarily the tragedienne Rachel Félix; but before her, Mlle Mars—had inherited a theater in the first half of the nineteenth century ruled by conventional poses and a declamatory style aimed directly over the footlights. One of Goethe's "Rules for Actors" of 1803: "For the player must always divide his attention between two objects: that is, between the person to whom he is speaking and his audience." Rachel redirected theater history when she made her presence the center of the show; John Stokes quotes a contemporary critic who wrote: "Speaking or listening she is wholly absorbed in her character. The effect of this is incalculable. You never take your eyes off from her; because she is so much in earnest, you are so interested." Stokes describes Rachel as "austere, alienating, implacable, more Medusa than Circe." This still suggests that a classical interpretation of the old tragedies drove her style; but with Bernhardt, it was her style that drove the interpretation, and that was the great thrill.

The Life of Sarah Bernhardt.
By Robert Gottlieb.
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A Short History of Celebrity
By Fred Inglis.
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About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

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Gottlieb recounts how the Franco-Prussian War interrupted Bernhardt's earliest stage triumphs. As Paris was evacuated she stayed behind and made a self-sufficient soldiers' hospital out of the temporarily shut Odéon theater, where she had recently starred in a play by George Sand. (In her journal Sand remarked: "I'm afraid Mlle Sarah is cuckoo, but everyone says she's going to be fine." In the end the critics agreed that she was.) During the siege of Paris in 1870 Bernhardt requisitioned supplies, pressed her cook into service in the makeshift kitchen, slept at the theater and nursed the soldiers. "It was a role she was playing," Gottlieb writes, "but it was a role she believed in."

Her dedication to this cause (and her sheer endurance) forged what we still assume to be the dimensions of the celebrity's role in society. Compared with this the wartime sacrifices of stars entertaining troops with singalongs and stand-up comedy may look a bit weak—Jimmy Stewart may be the last actor to also qualify as a war hero—but the notion of the actor as our social conscience, above politics but on the side of the people, originated with Bernhardt. Perhaps the personality who embodies these contradictions most blazingly today, if on a pettier scale, is Angelina Jolie: UN ambassador, devoted mother, star of execrable dramas and thrillers, home wrecker and tabloid fodder. Her plunge into worldwide fame also arrived, like Bernhardt's backstage slap of a senior actress, thanks to an impetuous gesture that had nothing to do with acting, maybe—when she celebrated her Oscar win in 2000 by declaring her love for her brother and kissing him on the mouth while cameras rolled.

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How at once contemporary and old-fashioned seems Bernhardt's kind of stardom, which feeds the star's personality into every role, and the resulting fame into the gossip columns. Fred Inglis's excitement about this by-now-old phenomenon is evident on each page of A Short History of Celebrity—"Hollywood brought to birth the sacred infant of the century, the star," "celebrity was called onstage to enact the constellation of ideas"—but Inglis seems confused about the shape and jurisdiction of his subject. His book plays a kind of hectic scherzo on a very general theme that all of us already know too generally. "The category itself is disorientingly large," he writes early on. Halfway through the book he admits, "There is the danger in all this of sliding into a sort of slack-jawed functionalism, whereby any celebrity can be taken as a useful necessity for corroborating the relevant social meaning knocking about the culture." At that point he is arguing strenuously for the celebrity status of the twentieth century's great dictators, unfortunately presenting few insights about their mass appeal and how it relates to more benign forms of fame. Part of the problem is that Inglis skates around the agents and causes of the historical processes he aims to describe. Of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler: "the evil trinity left deep deposits in all cultural sensibilities." At one point he makes a basic distinction:

Fame was and remains either the reward of social achievement in the public field or the tribute necessarily paid to power, wealth, and privilege.... Celebrity, by contrast, is either won or conferred by the mere fact of a person's being popularly acknowledged, familiarly recognised, attended to, selected as a topic for gossip, speculation, emulation, envy, groundless affection, or dislike.

Elsewhere he barges through his own gate to announce that "celebrity is a natural award to such men as Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow, Richard Dimbleby and William Hardcastle." In the end the distinction collapses between solid fame and the gaseous celebrated-for-being-celebrated kind. For Inglis there is no cultural or political figure of the past 250 years, notorious or vaguely known to you and me, who does not deserve to be breathlessly asked for an autograph.

The first half of the book challenges little of our understanding about how urbanization, industrialization and the growth of the press pulled and stretched "fame" from a commodity available only to the noble classes to one that could be snatched by any commoner with a talent for being on display. He calls his project an "amiable gradualism...proposing its moves from eighteenth-century reciprocities, to Romantic passion, to the early modern intensity of reflectiveness, to the contemporary practices of feeling-postponement and the carceral solitude of life-puzzlement." The book cans itself, as it were, and then arranges potted versions of Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness and Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, among others—always with attribution; but one begins to crave the scent of cut grasses and original ideas. In the midst of a cheeky sort of boilerplate on American politics—the "Constitution retains a religious force and lends politics its numinous glow, even to shopworn old senators and Supreme Court judges long past their best"—it would have been nice to hear a word about how the photogenic star power of Sarah Palin fits into all this. If our infatuation with glossy, unflappable figures left what Palin likes to call an "open door" for her degraded political slapstick to come sashaying through, should subscribers to Us Weekly consider a twelve-step program?

Perhaps it's inevitable that Inglis's honest enthusiasm for his subject often tips into glibness. Of Bernhardt he mentions that she was the model for Henry James's heroine Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse and then adds in parenthesis: "Now there is lasting celebrity for you!" And we hear no more about it. Before the advent of film, one of the minor themes of the novel was the evanescent art of the stage, and Sarah Bernhardt—about whom more books have been written than any other French actress—owes much of her shadowy, posthumous image to the characters that she (and a few others) inspired in the fictions of Proust (Bernhardt as Berma), Charlotte Brontë (Rachel as Vashti in Villette) and, of course, James.

Some ten years after coolly dismissing Bernhardt's artistry, James was still dwelling on the question. He put his ambivalence into the mouths of two characters in The Tragic Muse, a novel about acting (and other kinds of performance) that he finished just as he was turning to writing plays. The book serves as the critic's expiation—lovingly setting in motion the effects that made an actress like Bernhardt so irresistible—and further provocation at once. It reads at times like a parody, in the subtlest prose, of the grindingly cyclical nature of stage melodrama: grand confessions and renunciations of love and art alternate across hundreds of pages. Early in the book its resident aesthete and wit, Gabriel Nash, announces, "We must feel everything, everything that we can. We're here for that." Feeling, for the other characters, comes pretty directly through observation of Miriam Rooth, the aspiring actress James modeled on Bernhardt. Seeing her perform for the first time, the perceptive but quite proper Biddy Dormer "was immensely struck; she grew flushed and absorbed in proportion as Miriam, at her best moments, became pale and fatal."

It's hard to imagine an actor today giving the same kind of pleasure, wringing such pure feeling from an audience. We are all critics now of entertainers and an entertainment industry that would baffle the old biddies; we're continually watching ourselves watching the performer, on the lookout for the moment when we can take our own photo and post it on Facebook. What we grasp without effort is how the great actress behaves once fame has put her on top: Miriam "struck [her friend] Nick as less strenuous than she had been hitherto, as making even an aggressive show of inevitable laxities...he had a dim vision that some effect of that sort, some irritation of his curiosity, was what she desired to produce. She would perhaps have liked, for reasons best known to herself, to look as if she were throwing herself away." There's an echo here of James's censure when Bernhardt swanned into London in 1879; only now it's presented with compassion, as though the novelist were winking at the critic and offering an insight he's learned in his time with the character: if the actress behaves like a crude celebrity, more "personality" than artist, that too might be part of the consummate performance.

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