"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."
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: