The Drama of Sarah Bernhardt

Additional books on Sarah Bernhardt drawn on for this article

Sarah Bernhardt

by Henry Gidel
Paris: Flammarion, 401 pp., €23.00

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama

by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver
catalog of the 2006 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City
Jewish Museum/Yale University Press, 216 pp., $50.00

Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt

by Ruth Brandon
London: Secker and Warburg, 466 pp. (1991)

Dear Sarah Bernhardt

by Françoise Sagan, translated from the French by Sabine Destrée
Seaver, 232 pp. (1988)

Sarah Bernhardt

by Philippe Jullian
Paris: Balland, 271 pp. (1977)

Sarah Bernhardt and Her World

by Joanna Richardson
Putnam, 232 pp. (1977)

Madame Sarah

by Cornelia Otis Skinner
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pp. (1967)

Les Mémoires de Sarah Barnum

by Marie Colombier, with a preface by Paul Bonnetain
Paris, 332 pp. (1883)

Sarah Bernhardt won’t go away. She was born in 1844 and died in 1923, long past her glory days and well out of our reach. Her few silent films are awkward and off-putting. Yet she remains the most famous actress the world has ever known. Books about her, films, plays, dance works, documentaries, exhibitions, merchandise—they keep on coming. Only last year, a big new biography was published in France—respectable, but essentially going over the same old ground. Also last year, the Jewish Museum in New York staged an exemplary Bernhardt exhibition, which demonstrated, among other things, why Bernhardt was the priestess of Art Nouveau, with her elaborately rich costumes, her splendid ornaments of gem-studded precious metals, and—obvious in the portraits, the photographs, the caricatures—the way she almost always stood and sat: in a pure Art Nouveau spiral.

Among the scores of books on Bernhardt, there have been two major biographies in English: by Ruth Brandon (1991), particularly perceptive on Sarah’s emotional life, and by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold (also 1991), brilliant on her artistic and social surround. And let’s at least acknowledge Françoise Sagan’s bizarre contribution, Dear Sarah Bernhardt (1988), a fictional exchange of letters between Sagan and the long-gone Sarah. (It turns out they had a lot to say to each other.)

Other fiction? At least a dozen novels, beginning in the nineteenth century with Edmond de Goncourt’s mean-spirited La Faustin, Félicien Champsaur’s Dinah Samuel (Sarah as lesbian), and the sensational roman à clef The Memoirs of Sarah Barnum by her one-time intimate Marie Colombier. And, as recently as 2004, Adam Braver’s Divine Sarah, a confused fantasy of Bernhardt doing drugs in L.A.

The movie The Incredible Sarah starring Glenda Jackson? Flee it. The French TV documentary with English voice-over by Susan Sontag? Not very illuminating. Jacqulyn Buglisi’s modern-dance work Against All Odds (I saw it only a few weeks ago in New York)? Unconvincing. On the other hand, totally unlikely and highly amusing: her star turn in one of the “Lucky Luke” books (like Tintin and Astérix, a hugely successful French series of graphic novels for kids). Sarah is setting out on the Wild West leg of her first American tour and President Rutherford B. Hayes entrusts her safety to Cowboy Luke.

And then there’s her presence in a variety of Hollywood movies, from Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (“Every time I show my teeth on television, I’m appearing before more people than Sarah Bernhardt appeared before in her whole career”) to Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway to an aging Ginger Rogers as a very young Sarah, intoning “La Marseillaise” in The Barkleys of Broadway.

Merchandise? In the past few months eBay has brought me the 1986 “Dame aux Camélias” memorial plate (Limoges); one of several available embroidery patterns based on the famous Art Nouveau posters by Mucha; and a 1973 Mexican comic book called Sara, la Artista Dramática Más Famosa en la Historia del Teatro. So far I’ve resisted the book of Sarah…

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