Tuesday, February 6, 2018

"My God, What a Woman!" Sarah Bernhardt Revisited

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Floria Tosca in an 1887 stage production of Victorien Sardou's La Tosca.

The great – and inimitable – Sarah Bernhardt was a bird of many colours. Once the reigning symbol of France, she was the daughter of a courtesan, herself trained in the silken ways of harlotry. An art nouveau icon (vividly immortalized by the painter Alphonse Mucha) whose first ambition was to be a nun, she wore pants and played men's roles, though she was eminently feminine. An actress who was also a writer, a painter and a sculptor, she was the first international superstar.

The Divine Sarah, as she is called in the dazzling biography The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt (Knoft, 1991) by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale (a former piano duo turned biographers, both now deceased), was the greatest performer of her day. Following an excellent convent education secured for her by her mother Julie (Youle) Bernard, a Jewish demimonde from Amsterdam who bore Sarah and her two younger sisters illegitimately, Bernhardt (the name is derived from grandfather Bernard and grandmother Hart) trained at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she was born in 1844. She started her career at the Comédie-Française, but was fired after only three years because of her outrageous temper.

Unemployed, she turned to the streets which, Gold and Fizdale say, taught her more than the academy could about veiled gestures and simulated passion: "To heighten reality is the actor's task, to mine the vein of experience his obligation. And so, subtly but surely, Sarah's frivolous, promiscuous years contributed to the fascination of her stage presence."

During her whoring days, Bernhardt gave birth to her only son, Maurice, at age 20. Abandoned by the boy's princely father, she begged for forgiveness, and in 1866 was reinstated at the theatre. Nurtured on the classics, Bernhardt imbued the highly artificial declamatory style of the Comédie-Française with the spirit of her own passionate personality. Bernhardt was a true Romantic, who gave all of herself to the theatre.

She performed as she lived: dramatically, fully. She was said to be painfully thin and frail; she pushed herself in performance so hard she spat blood. Her leading men had to support her during curtain calls for fear she'd collapse. But she was also a raging femme fatale who drained men dry. She never tired of sex. Her list of lovers was long: Victor Hugo; Gustave Doré ; the Prince of Wales; painter George Clairin; actor Jean Mounet-Sully; the lesbian artist Louise Abbéma; and the lothario Aristidis (aka Jacques) Damala, briefly her husband (he died at 33 from morphine addiction).

Sarah Bernhardt as "Camille" in the first film adaptation of La dame aux camélias, aka Camille (1912).

Her performances were fired by her insatiable sexual energy; observers called them emotionally intense, and physically intoxicating. Critics loved her. "A force of nature, a fiery soul, a marvellous intelligence," remarked Francisque Sarcey of Paris. "Never has she displayed . . . her rare gift for feeling profoundly ... with so personal a touch," wrote novelist Alphonse Daudet. "Her body was not the prisoner of our soul, but its shadow. She is always a miracle," said the English actress, Ellen Terry. "My God, what a woman!" declared poet Pierre Louÿs.

But while innovative, Bernhardt was not natural enough for those who, by the end of the century, interpreted her style as excessive, old-fashioned. Among the new school was George Bernard Shaw, who as a young critic denounced Bernhardt after seeing one of her numerous performances in London: "She is beautiful with the beauty of her school. The dress, the title of the play, the order of the words may vary, but the woman is always the same. She does not enter into the leading character; she substitutes herself for it."

Shaw called a flaw what others had called "marvellous intelligence." The world was changing, but Bernhardt was not to change with it. She refused to perform Ibsen and Chekov; she snubbed the new wave of psychological drama as les norderies ("that northern stuff"). She became trapped inside her own legend.

Gold and Fizdale (who in 1980 also penned a biography about Misia Sert, an intimate of Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev) do allow for criticisms of their divine diva. But being so obviously in love with her, they tend to gloss over the reasons behind her artistic demise. They are loathe to call her ridiculous. That’s their book’s only flaw.

Bernhardt, in the end, never knew when to quit. Even at age 74, her right leg amputated, she continued to perform, her declamatory style a vestige of a bygone era. In silent films made before her death in 1923, Bernhardt can be seen madly thumping her breast and bulging her eyes in melodramatic gestures of grief. Her baroque performance is startling to audiences accustomed to the understated acting style of today's cinema, the art of the common man.

Bernhardt, haughty and imperious, was above the common man, unless, as in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a fellow Jew persecuted because his religion, he awakened in her a dramatic sense of injustice. She yearned to be queen and queen she was. When she died, thousands lined the streets of Paris to pay their respects. "Vive Sarah Bernhardt!" they cried. Always eager to leave a lasting impression, the actress must have paid heed. Her legend does live on.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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