Sarah Bernhardt… “La Divine”….

Sarah Bernhardt

Possibly… the most famous actress… the world has ever known…

Has… always been…

For… me…

A… fascination…

Excelling… at playing parts in various plays while at university…

I… imagined myself a…

Dramatic… actress…

On… stage…

I was transformed into an… ethereal being…

“Sans”… bounds…

“Sans”… boundaries…

I… could dream…

The… dream…

Fly… and soar…

Only… my acting career…

Did not… materialise…

But my deep interest… in acting and actors… theatre and stage continues unabated…

Walking down… rue de l’Ecole de Médecine…

I came “face-à-face”… with the Sarah Bernhardt plaque… marking her birthplace…

Sarah Bernhardt

“The Divine”… Sarah…

Half a million people lined the streets of Paris… when she died in 1923…

A drama queen… if ever there was one… the obituarist of the London “Times” described it thus…

“No temperament more histrionic than Mme. Bernhardt’s has, perhaps, ever existed… To read her memoirs is to live in a whirl of passions and adventures – floods of tears, tornadoes of rage, deathly sickness and incomparable health and energy”…

Robert Gottlieb… commented appropriately in his biography of her…

“She was a complete realist when dealing with her life… but a relentless fabulist when recounting it”.

Alexandre Dumas, fils… described her as a… “notorious liar”

“Au même temps”… he judged her deceitfulness as… “an essential part of her genius”

Bernhardt

A French stage… and early film actress… was born in Paris the 22nd of October 1844…

Daughter of Julie Bernhardt from Amsterdam… a Jewish mother… who was a wandering “demi-mondaine”… a kinder term for prostitute… specialising in wealthy men…

Sarah… was her third child after twin girls… all of whom were illegitimate.

She was sent to a respectable Catholic convent school in Versailles… where Sarah loved to be the centre of attention… behaving like an actress.  However her mother had other plans for her daughter… preparing her to follow into the seamier side of high society.  Having left school… her mother did succeed in becoming mistress of the Duc de Morny… the half brother of Emperor Napoleon III… who helped Sarah… enter the “Conservatoire d’Art dramatique de Paris” to learn acting…

After two years of “modest attainments”… she was admitted to the prestigious “Comédie-Française”… the bastion of classical drama.

Bernhardt… was sixteen years old… extremely thin, short, and according to description… “too obviously Jewish”…

There is substantial evidence that Bernhardt the actress… had a parallel career as a “demi-mondaine”…  She was more than encouraged by her mother to entertain wealthy old men at dinner parties… where she was cajoled to perform in… “somewhat questionable entertainments in the homes of titled acquaintances”.

A conversation was overheard in a Paris restaurant…

“The Sarah Bernhardt  family – now, there’s a family! The mother made whores of her daughters as soon as they turned thirteen.”

That gossip seems to have been true…  Sarah’s sister Régine died aged nineteen… “after a miserable life of neglect and prostitution”.

Sarah… on the other hand… had a clever more business-like attitude to the prostitution she was subjected to… by collecting a group of male admirers whom she called “stockholders”.  One of those wealthy investors might have been the father of her son Maurice…

By performing to an “intime” audience… she earned more money than she might have earned as an actress… thus enabling her to acquire an extravagant  apartment with a white-satin salon in rue Duphot… “juste à côté de la Madeleine”… one of the most “chichi” parts of Paris.

Sex and power continued to be a huge part of Bernhardt’s life… as a means of supplementing her income as well as for pleasure.  Even in the 1870’s… when she was already well known… high ranking customers… even members of parliament visited her… regularly showering her with money and expensive gifts.  Victor Hugo seems to have been one of many of her lovers… as he recorded his escapades with Sarah… in his secret diary.

Bernhardt’s “pleasureless promiscuity”… was the by-product of her inability to trust or to love.  A fatherless child… one can empathise that for her the stage was… “a form of natural therapy”.

When the extraordinary Bernhardt finally married… she chose someone… (as if punishing herself)… who did not love her… who also attempted to destroy her.  Aristides “Jacques” Damala… was a morphine addict… a “spendthrift, a gambler, an obsessive womaniser, and a bigot”…  A Greek aristocrat… who tortured his wife calling her… “that Jewess with the long nose”.

Bernhardt’s inexplicable love for the unsavoury Damala… was that he was the only man who could… “give her sexual satisfaction”…  A heavy price to pay for that pleasure…

Henry James said after watching her perform in London…

“The trade of a celebrity, pure and simple, has been invented… She has in a supreme degree what the French call, the ‘génie de la réclame’, the advertising genius… I strongly suspect that she will find a triumphant career in… America”.

Not only did Sarah succeed in America but globally… all over the world.

Although always performing in her native language… she “regularly reduced audiences who did not understand French… to a state of tearful ecstasy“…

Her audience came to see… Sarah Bernhardt… not the play…

Her “peculiar magic”… was impossible to recapture.

Graham Robb… in his review of Robert Gottlieb biography… states…

“Bernhardt’s breathless recital of Phaedra’s famous speech from Act Two of Racine’s “Phèdre” is more pedagogically than theatrically impressive: in her cavernous soprano voice, with a dying plunge in every line, she makes the obligatory liaisons, enunciates the correct number of syllables, draws out the vowels to the precise length required by the emotion”.

A clearer picture of the actress… emerges from some of the reviews of the time… as well as memoirs…

“Her talent for endowing immobility with excitement… her thrilling silences… the gestures that began at the shoulders and made full use of her long arms… her “face acting”… and “her clever use of cosmetics…”

“She sometimes rushed through certain passages… mumbling and chanting them in a monotone… then suddenly rasping out the crucial word or phrase”… was her particular talent…

Her powerful physical presence… and brilliance in acting… has never been equalled.  She believed that an artist’s personality must be left out of the performance… in her words…

“The actor cannot divide his personality between himself and his part; he loses his ego during the time he remains on the stage…”

However… during her spectacular performances…

“Her most enduring and successful affairs were always with her audience… and the dynamics of that relationship are almost impossible to recreate”.

She… performed as though…

“Each plot were a conduit for her own emotions and as though every play from Racine’s “Phèdre” to Dumas’ “La Dame aux camélias”… had been written… as a psychobiography of Sarah Bernhardt”.

Sarah Bernhardt

La Divine“… Sarah…

La Voixd’or“… “La Scandaleuse“…

Legendary… actress…

Icon…

Une comedienne… sublime

Magnifique“…

Magnificent…

a.

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