Title: Sarah Bernhardt The Divine and Dazzling Life of the World's First Superstar
By: Catherine Reef
Call #: YA B Bernh.S Reef.CThroughou
Throughout the years, and in fact through the centuries, the stars of stage and screen have captured the public’s imagination. One such star was France’s own Sarah Bernhardt, who transcended the boundaries of the French language to become an international star. Sarah also transcended what was not a very promising beginning in life. Her mother was active at the higher levels of the sex trade. Her clients included members of the aristocracy and upper classes. Although Sarah’s birth father was never publicly identified, he contributed financially to her support until his death, after which his mother, Sarah’s grandmother, contributed to give her financial support. Sarah’s future destiny as an actor was determined by a conference called by her mother, which included her mother’s most trusted clientele. Sarah’s mother was most in favor of finding a husband for Sarah, and she had three interested candidates lined up for her 15 year old daughter. Sarah was horrified by this prospect. It was suggested that she pursue acting. One of her mother’s friends wrote a recommendation for acting school for Sarah and her destiny was set.
Sarah was educated in the traditional acting style, which featured broad gestures and physical movement, and a somewhat stilted rendition of lines. French writer Edmond Rostand called Sarah, “the queen of attitude and the princess of gestures.” The story lines of most of the plays in which she acted were heroic: she portrayed queens and noble ladies, most of whom died on stage , for love or country. Sarah made eleven films, starting in 1900, and this classical form of acting can be seen in these films. As an actor, Sarah declared: “What I am trying to show you is human nature as it has shown itself to me.” The time came when Sarah realized that an artist can only learn so much from teachers: “To master any kind of creative work, a person must make a solitary journey.” Sarah tried to absorb every element of the character, as she saw it, so that her characterizations would strike the audience as a real person. Sarah portrayed many male characters in plays, including Hamlet, and France’s Napoleon II, because she felt that once she had completely internalized the character, she could represent a male character as well as a female.
Sarah was an actor, but she was also a patriotic French woman. She toured the United States more than half a dozen times. The first time, she toured the United States, it was with a political objective. She, like many other Europeans, wanted the Americans to join the Europeans in fighting World War I. Sarah contributed to urging Americans to join the war effort and her attempts helped to persuade the Americans to engage in that conflict. For the rest of her life, Sarah sought to avoid the sidelines. She remained a dynamic character in her own life, although her style of acting and the plays she had acted in were being superseded by more psychological dramas by authors such as Chekhov and Ibsen, and more subtle acting techniques. But despite that even today, many years after her passing, Sarah Bernhardt is remembered as a great actress and an icon of her times.