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The Dirty Halo: On Sarah Bernhardt | The Nation

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The Dirty Halo: On Sarah Bernhardt

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"The trade of a celebrity, pure and simple, had been invented, I think, before she came to London," wrote Henry James of Sarah Bernhardt's mobbed arrival in England, with the Comédie-Française, in the summer of 1879. "If it had not been, it is certain she would have discovered it." Speculating on the rumor that she was planning a tour of the United States, James couldn't resist a deeper thrust of his rapier: "She is too American not to succeed in America. The people who have brought to the highest development the arts and graces of publicity will recognize a kindred spirit in a figure so admirably adapted for conspicuity." From there it was a small thing to finish her off: "Charming as are some of her gifts, peculiar and picturesque as is her whole artistic personality, it cannot in the least be said that she is a consummate actress."

Sarah
The Life of Sarah Bernhardt.
By Robert Gottlieb.
Buy this book

A Short History of Celebrity
By Fred Inglis.
Buy this book
 

About the Author

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

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It's a familiar turn, the curdling of the critic's enthusiasms. Two years earlier, catching Bernhardt in Paris in the daunting role of the widow of Hector in Racine's Andromaque, James had been surprised, moved, provoked to think, and he tingled: "This part is a poor one; it is narrow and monotonous, and offers few brilliant opportunities. But [the actress] knows how to make opportunities.... Her rendering of the part is one more proof of her singular intelligence—of the vivacity of her artistic nature."

Somewhere in the span of those two years (or maybe during passage on a Channel steamer) Bernhardt had mutated from "artist" to "celebrity"—just in James's mind, of course; by 1877 her fame was indisputable—and so she called for a different critical approach. His prediction about America was certainly acute; his sneers about Bernhardt's acting, though, were not exceptional. Bernhardt's vastly energetic, peripatetic fifty-year career drew tributes from serious, season-making critics like Francisque Sarcey but was also trailed by a swarm of howling reviews, caricatures, parodies, merchandising blitzes and rancorous memoirs by former friends. James was hardly alone in crowning Bernhardt with the dirty halo of celebrity.

Contemporary accounts of her performances sketch a drastic, volatile figure. In reviving Victor Hugo's play Hernani as the tragic and triply desired Doña Sol, Bernhardt becomes "the prey of a kind of daemonic impulse which masters her completely, and hurls her into an attitude of almost cataleptic excellence and impressiveness," wrote one critic. Her gestures are "febrile" and "often instinct with passion." Her speech is all but consumed by inner turmoil and thus emerges sounding "monotonously lovely." Aroused to anger, "she is hysterical and guttural, and her voice becomes broken and hoarse." Elsewhere James expressed astonishment at "how it is that, to simulate blindness, she contrives for half an hour at a time to show only the whites of her eyes." One of her signature moves was to turn her back to the audience and direct her lines upstage.

In short, she worked to be "discordant" and "disconcerting," as the historian John Stokes writes in his elegant study The French Actress and Her English Audience (2005). The exoticism of her style—Jewish, petite even by twenty-first-century standards, with a penchant for eccentric fashion statements like low-slung belts, encrustations of jewels and the famous chapeau topped with a stuffed bat—added sexual allure to a presence that could appear quite violent onstage. Bernhardt's persona sizzled with more novelty than our blockbuster-blasted brains can easily appreciate. Lytton Strachey, more sympathetically attuned to Bernhardt than his fellow Anglo-Saxon James, evoked her artistry with a clear understanding of where and when it developed:

Every age has its own way of dealing with these matters; and the nineteenth century made up for the high tone of its literature and the decorum of its behaviour by the luscious intensity of its theatrical displays. Strict husbands in icy shirt-fronts and lovely epitomes of all the domestic virtues in bustles would sit for hours thrilling with frenzied raptures over intimate and elaborate presentments of passion in its most feverish forms.

 

What can still astonish is the way Bernhardt's melodramatic roles seemed to determine her personal course rather than the other way around—and this is one of the wonders heightened, with vigor and obvious affection, by Robert Gottlieb in his biography Sarah. The book's trimness, coming after numerous biographies of much wider girth, plus the celebrity's own memoir and those of several family members, serves it very well: Gottlieb whips the picaresque life into a brisk gallop, and it's probably at this pace—skipping minutiae but never failing to iris in on telling episodes—that Sarah in all her workaholic, mythmaking, passionate but unsentimental force can best be seen.

* * *

It is a tale, essentially, of how a woman of the Victorian era harnessed the currents of the Romantic—the high, weird emotional pitch of characters like Coleridge's Christabel and Geraldine and the self-fashioning mystique of anyone (but mostly men) from Lord Byron to Kaspar Hauser—to fabulate herself and by the same stroke bring a new jolt of excitement to a slightly moribund theatrical tradition. Bernhardt seems to have felt things Romantically from the time she could talk. Her mother, Youle, was Jewish, the daughter of an oculist from Amsterdam, and she'd left home in her early teens after her own mother's death and father's remarriage. In Le Havre, at around 15, Youle gave birth to twin girls who died within days. Not long afterward she was in Paris and pregnant with Sarah. It's likely that the same man—a naval officer from Le Havre named Morel—fathered all three infants.

"Does it matter who Sarah's father actually was?" Gottlieb asks in a characteristically perceptive and dry paragraph:

Yes, because it mattered to her. Family mattered to her. She named her son Maurice after her grandfather;... she was compulsively attentive to her mother and her two half-sisters as long as they lived; and Maurice was, from first to last, the most important person in her life. (One of her biographers explains that strong attachment to family is a well-known Jewish characteristic.) Her father, whoever he was, clearly did not share this characteristic, but then no one has ever suggested that he was Jewish.

Bernhardt's appetite for family is all the more remarkable given the treatment she received at the hands of her own. By age 3 she was "essentially a foster child," having been shuffled off to a nurse in Brittany and rarely visited (her first language was not French but Breton). One possibly apocryphal story has the child simply misplaced when her nurse remarries and moves apartments. Running into her aunt by sheer accident, Sarah flings herself in front of the lady's carriage for fear of being abandoned again, breaking her arm and spending the next two years recovering. "The heightened fictions Sarah indulged in," Gottlieb observes, "also masked an intense emotional reality." Whatever actually happened to her in the 1840s and 1850s, by the time she wrote it down at the turn of the century (and told it to others who wrote it down again, in different versions), those early miseries and outbursts were unfailingly described as leading to physical collapse—fevers, fits, burns, broken bones, pneumonia and day upon day of bed rest. She cast her young self as the original hysteric.

It was the Duc de Morny—a member of Youle's "relaxed salon" in Paris and the half brother of the Emperor Louis-Napoléon—who, well aware of the emotional Siberia between Youle and her eldest, decided to use his contacts to help install the 15-year-old Sarah at the Conservatoire. (By now she had been educated and baptized at a tony convent school in Versailles.) Two years later he helped get her a spot at the Comédie-Française. As if adhering to a sturdy dramatic structure for her life, her first three "debuts," in 1862, failed to thrill the critics—"That Mlle Bernhardt should be insignificant doesn't really matter very much"—and their casual cuts were salted by the reliably nasty Youle: "See! The whole world calls you stupid, and the whole world knows that you're my child!" The performance that got the public's attention took place in early 1863—offstage. Sarah's younger sister Régine had tagged along to the theater with her, and backstage the child accidentally stepped on the train of a senior actress, Mme Nathalie, who shoved her against a pillar hard enough to draw blood. "You miserable bitch," Sarah screamed, and slapped Nathalie on both cheeks. Afterward, despite threats from the management, Sarah refused to apologize and a few days later "stormed out of the theater, tearing up her contract." Gottlieb calls it "the first publicity coup of her career—the first of many."

Immediately booked elsewhere, Bernhardt spent the next year in bit parts and the year after that, at about 19, pregnant with Maurice (the father, though never officially acknowledged as such, was the Belgian Prince de Ligne). In 1866 Bernhardt pulled her own strings to get back on the stage, enlisting a well-placed family friend to recommend her for a spot at the Odéon. But the impression she made on one of the theater's new directors, Félix Duquesnel, was all her own: "She wasn't just pretty, she was more dangerous than that," he wrote thirty years later. It was at the Odéon, Gottlieb suggests, that Bernhardt "inaugurated her lifelong habit of automatically sleeping with her leading men." By this time she had also absorbed the wisdom of Youle's example in one regard: assembling a circle of cultivated, amiable paying customers. They seem to have appreciated her brains and charm—as deployed in the white-satin ambience of her salon—as much as her sexual favors. Apparently she told a friend: "What's odd is how well they get along together. They never quarrel and they seem to adore one another. I sometimes think that if I were to disappear, my menagerie would go on congregating in my apartment with the greatest of pleasure."

Her first onstage triumph came in a trouser role—a tradition that had been around since the eighteenth century—in a new and forgettable play called Le Passant, which Bernhardt had championed because she saw its potential to display her histrionic gifts. She would make herself into a man in many plays over the next forty years: "It's not that I prefer male roles," she said; "it's that I prefer male minds." Following her triumphant turn in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas (and apparently an affair with Hugo, who was then 70 to her 27), she got the offer, nine years after her walkout, to return to the Comédie-Française. Her career had reached its zenith; in 1874 she would have her greatest triumph with Racine's Phèdre, despite getting only four days to prepare for the part.

One secret to Bernhardt's success, besides a famous work ethic that shied from no aspect of putting on a show, was her bullish misreading of some of the great plays whose star parts she made her own (and the strategic choice of certain other lemons that answered her stagy needs). Of Hamlet, another male role she played to great success in France and abroad, she remarked in 1898: "I think his character is a perfectly simple one. He is brought face to face with a duty, and he is determined to carry it out.... His resolution swerves, but immediately returns to the channel he has marked out for it. I know this view is heterodox, but I maintain it." Hesitation, ambiguity and doubt were not on her palette, so Hamlet would simply have to pull up his socks. Audiences loved it. (One thinks of Kenneth Branagh's thudding, Wagnerian prince.) To see how audiences could be won over by such interpretations, it's best to turn again to Lytton Strachey:

This extraordinary genius was really to be seen at her most characteristic in plays of inferior quality. They gave her what she wanted.... In them the whole of her enormous virtuosity in the representation of passion had full play; she could contrive thrill after thrill, she could seize and tear the nerves of her audience.... Above all, she could ply her personality to the utmost.

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.

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.

* * *

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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