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Sarah Bernhardt – the most famous actress of her day

Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Theatre on Thursday, 28 February 2013

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This edited article about Sarah Bernhardt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 166 published on 20 March 1965.

Sarah Bernhardt, picture, image, illustration

‘La Tosca’ – Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca in the play by Sardou

Although it seemed to Sarah Bernhardt that her acting career had been full of exciting climaxes, surely nothing would ever surpass the glittering triumphs of the past few weeks. Sitting there in the railway carriage as it rattled over the bridge spanning the raging waters of the St. Louis Bay, she recalled some of the many wonderful highlights of her tour of America and Canada.

Montreal, perhaps, remained most vividly in her mind. She had stepped off the train in a temperature of 22 degrees below zero, to the sound of cheering mingling with the singing of the Marseillaise, which had immediately faded away as a hundred students holding lanterns surrounded her to hear an ode of welcome read.

It was the students, too, who had charmed her during the performance, by sending doves bearing poems fluttering down from the gallery. And it was the students, mostly, after her last performance, who had unharnessed the horses of her carriage, and pulled her back in triumph to her hotel.

Sarah’s thoughts were distracted by the violent rocking of the train as it gathered speed, and for the first time she realized that she was taking part in a piece of monumental folly, which she had engineered herself. Informed that the bridge was in danger of collapse, and therefore not usable, she had bribed the engine driver to take her and her company across.

Now, she began to wish she had taken the detour that had been suggested, or had at least waited until the waters had subsided. The train raced on, showering sparks from its funnel, and then, blessedly, they had reached the other bank. Almost in the same instant, a portion of the bridge collapsed!

Sarah Bernhardt, considered the greatest actress of her time, had literally missed death by inches.

Sarah was a cult and a legend in her lifetime, which spanned from her birth on October 22, 1844, until her death in Paris on March 26, 1923.

Her long and almost uninterrupted career on the stage was a fantastically successful one, even though the critics of her time did not always share in the public’s enthusiasm for her performances. She survives as an important name in theatrical history because she was in the tradition of the great performers, who used the play, often an indifferent one, as a vehicle for their own particular talents.

In Sarah Bernhardt’s case, nothing became her more than dying. At the height of her career, it was more or less expected that she would meet a violent “death” in the last act. It was also predictable that there would be a long exit speech in which the great actress would run through the whole gamut of emotions before finally expiring before the hypnotized audience.

Despite all the lush melodramas in which she performed, Sarah was trained in the great tradition of the French theatre, first at the Paris Conservatoire, from where she graduated with honours, and then at the Comedie Francaise, where so many actors and actresses have made their name acting in the French classical roles.

In 1880, after a quarrel with the Comedie Francaise, she began a series of tours in which she literally conquered the world. The critics, it is true, sometimes questioned the value of her performances, but all of them were captivated by her personality and by the beauty of her golden voice.

Always conscious of the public’s unswerving loyalty, she in turn tried to see that it was not betrayed by an indifferent performance. A dedicated actress, anyway, she would often perform until midnight, and then rehearse her company until 5 a.m. in the morning.

Understandably, therefore, her knowledge of certain subjects was somewhat restricted. During one of her tours in England she was taken for a drive in the country, where she suddenly came across a football match in progress. Stopping the carriage, she watched the match for some time with avid interest. In the middle of it, she turned to her companion and remarked: “I adore cricket!”

Life continued to be kind to Sarah Bernhardt right up to 1905, when she met with what seemed at the time, a minor accident. It was to turn out to be the one major tragedy of her life.

The accident occurred in Rio de Janeiro during the performance of a play in which she was supposed to commit suicide by leaping off a parapet. The stage behind the parapet was always covered with mattresses to break her fall, but for some unknown reason on this evening the mattresses had not been put in place, and Sarah fell heavily on her right knee. Refusing to have it treated, she continued with her tour.

The knee injury steadily grew worse over the years until 1915, when she was informed that her leg would have to be amputated. Although she was then over seventy, she received the news calmly.

The phase of her life that followed the operation was remarkable for her display of courage that never flagged. Although she could no longer walk or stand unaided, she gave charity matinees, entertained the French troops at the Front, toured America, and went to London to appear in a play in which she played a part where she remained motionless throughout.

Brave and indomitable to the last, she died in her Paris home, regretting that she would be unable to appear in a new play for which she had been rehearsing. She had always loved flowers, and those who came to pay their last respects to her had to walk through a house that was almost impassable for the flowers that had been sent by her admirers.

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