The Dirty Halo: On Sarah Bernhardt | The Nation


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."

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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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.

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