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Sarah Bernhardt

From Women in European History

By Frank Cheng

Sarah Bernhardt as Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. Unknown photographer, dating from 1879.

Contents

Critical Biography


Introduction

The 19th Century

The 19th century saw an unprecedented widening of spheres. Economic, technological, and social power were diffusing through traditionally fixed boundaries, including class and gender. This paradigm shift had profound effects on existing institutions; adaptation to a newly emergent liberal mentality was a characteristic dynamic of the day. In particular, France was seeing these changes imposed for the first time. In the wake of the radical French Revolution, a more conservative, tolerant mentality towards class, politics, and gender was adopted. Whereas representative parliamentary rule and/or economic reform had already permeated much of the western world (Britain, Germany, the US), France still consisted of “a male elite, standing between the state and the mass of French citizens”. [1] Napoleon’s radical meritocratic example coupled with the rise of the Third Republic damaged this model irreparably, and shifted the focus of existing socially constraining mechanisms from class and gender to monetary and capital requirements.

French Theater

One major indicator of social change during this period is the theater. Out of an urban population of about four million, journalists of the day estimated that 1.5 million people attended a play each month. Parisians “lived with theater, by theater, and for theater”. [2] It is impossible to isolate the causal relationships between the entangled sets of social actors, motivations, and background variability, but we do know that the audience and the theater exhibited some kind of positive feedback. Whether the theater influenced its audience (play selection, interpretation), or the audience affected the theater (artistic inspiration from the real world that the audience lived in), we know that changes in French theater was correlated with changes in the French world at large. Therefore, we may proceed in using theater as a historical lighthouse in two ways. First, a close examination of an actresses’ typical evolution gives us clues about how changes throughout the period affected individuals. Second, a better understanding of the audience-theater dynamic can help us understand how these changes filtered through a positive feedback cycle through to the masses. Just as the audience's opinion affects how the theater operates, the theater's agenda can influence audience expectation. An examination of this cycle illuminates the many positive feedbacks in society. We will see that Sarah Bernhardt, despite being an outlier in terms of overall success, has many representative experiences that shed light on how the 19th century changed the available range of actions for women. Meanwhile, no single member of the theater was able to take advantage of so much positive feedback as Sarah. Sarah’s celebrity power is the first of its kind, and examining how she achieved this with respect to her constituency will clarify how ideas diffuse across discrete places and institutions.

Early Life

Family and Upbringing

Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris as Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernardt. She spent her formative years being brought up by a Breton nurse with sporadic visits from her Dutch courtesan mother, who was constantly “traveling from Spain to England, from London to Paris, from Paris to Berlin, and from there to Christiania”. [3] Her aunts also played an instrumental role in her upbringing. Sarah described them as “pretty visitors”, and along with her mother they created an environment full of independent women. [4] This was incongruous with her immediate rural habitat, which was dominated by hard labor and the subjugation of free will. Social roles were dependent primarily on survival; when Sarah’s foster father fell ill, his wife went out to harvest potatoes since “the over-damp soil was rotting them”. [5] The very nature of the nurse’s relationship with Sarah was based on survival; she provided milk and cared for her needs. Female, male, and class distinction was irrelevant in the face of such harsh living conditions.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s mother and aunts represented the other side of the coin. Due to their stature as attractive courtesans, they were able to outsource their biological needs, namely motherhood. Ironically, it is an appeal to classic feminine traits that allows for this freedom. It appears that even as mounting bourgeois pressure started to break down longstanding social convention, many social effects maintained a façade. Although the paradigm had shifted to a money based economy, some fixed gender aspects remained. In particular, the courtesan industry relied on previously established aristocratic gender models. This included submissiveness, dependence, interest in the arts (e.g. poetry recitation) and ornate dress. However, women such as Sarah’s mother subverted these residual aspects in order to emancipate themselves through the acquisition of capital. Courtesans effectively internalized the “woman” gender role with respect to a rapidly modernizing economy. This is in comparison to the previous regime in which many courtesans were either attached to specific sponsors or were eventually looking for marriage.[6] By forsaking the family concept completely, the new courtesans could lead lives free of traditionally bound gender roles. This is consistent with the fact that we never see a continuous paternal presence in Sarah’s upbringing. Her father was “handsome as a god”, and steps into her life just as some divine being might. [7]Only when Sarah’s mother fell ill and her aunts proved incompetent did her father step in and send her to a convent. After being responsible for this god-like displacement, Sarah “never saw him again”. [8]

This attitude created a void in Sarah’s upbringing. Instead of a self-consistent family unit, she had a series of deferred obligations made possible by excess wealth. This arrangement was really quite bourgeois in that everything seems to be part of a closed system bound by money. However, two key system failures affected Sarah quite profoundly.

First, Sarah’s mother sent Sarah “money, bon-bons, and toys” and would leave her for two years at a time. [9]This reinforced the disconnect between Sarah’s drab everyday life and the freedom of her mother and aunts. Attempting to resolve this failure, Sarah begged several times to “go with [her mother] at once”. [10]In addition, she begins to have a problem with authority, throwing fits whenever she feels that her independence is threatened. This independent streak would carry on into adulthood.

The second, and opposing, effect was emotional dependence and confusion. Sarah “could not understand why all these people should suddenly be so fond of me, when I had passed so many days and nights only cared for by one single person”. [11] There was seemingly no emotional basis for this attention; indeed, these bouts of caring usually occurred after some calamity had befallen her. It seemed inconsistent to Sarah for her mother to stay away for so long despite loving her. We know that Sarah’s mother was probably plying her trade as a courtesan and could not afford to take a child along with her. Indeed, the existence of a child impeded business significantly; we already know that in this increasingly bourgeois society the courtesan was selling a facade. This façade is based on the premise that the courtesan is completely unattached. However, little Sarah could only infer from data she had been given. She supposed that the attention she received, although not seemingly emotional, was the natural state of affairs. Attention became Sarah’s emotion-surrogate, and because it seemed that she only got attention when misfortune befell her, she began to tend towards self destructive behavior. She repeatedly fell into rages where she fantasized over harm bringing her the attention she lacked.

A characteristic family interaction is described by Sarah as follows:

“I felt very important. I was neither sad nor gay, but had just this feeling of importance which was quite enough for me. Everyone at table talked about me; my uncle kept stroking my hair, and my cousin from her end of the table threw me kisses. Suddenly my father's musical voice made me turn towards him. "Listen to me, Sarah," he said. "If you are very good at the convent, I will come in four years and fetch you away, and you shall travel with me and see some beautiful countries." "Oh, I will be good!" I exclaimed; "I'll be as good as Aunt Henriette!" Everybody smiled.” [12]

We notice the absence of real emotion; Sarah was happy just to be receiving attention. In addition, the promise of independence (equated with travel to foreign lands) held great import in influencing her. Even the harsh premise of having to wait fouryears was accepted immediately. Of course, Sarah never saw her father again, which gives new meaning to the smiles. It was well known to everyone that Sarah’s father could have nothing to do with this illegitimate progeny, but they thought it was touching that he would expend effort to comfort her.

Sarah’s independent streak and desire for attention would accompany her throughout her life. The interplay between these two traits defined how she reacted to outside stimuli. Taking this premise, we examine how different, changing institutions of the 19th century turned her into the first international celebrity.

Convent Life

During this period, Sarah’s independence is subjugated to her desire for attention. The self-sacrificing attitude purveyed by the Church fed into the “god complex” developed by Sarah as a child. Waiting for an absent parent’s approval was ideologically the same as waiting for God’s judgment to get into heaven. Indeed, Sarah saw baptism not as the next step in her life, but a chance to receive attention from the Archbishop. We again observe the emotion-surrogate at work: “I was trembling with emotion and pride as I kissed the old man’s ring”.[13] Sarah took this promise as a reason for living; in addition it was a connection far too personal to be religious. Sarah was never interested in any aspect of Christianity beyond the deferred reward system. This familiar promise of future attention was supplemented with an unfamiliar long term, emotionally supportive community that quickly found purchase.

These institutional policies stimulated a willingness to follow convent rules, and even a desire to become a nun. This is in contrast to Sarah’s previous environments in which physical (e.g., nurse) and intellectual (e.g., boarding school) needs were taken care of, but there was an emotional void. We can see the appeal here for a modernizing society; the same things that are left behind in the bourgeois revolution are taken care of and reinforced in the Church. In an economy where courtesans have commoditized love and family, the Church offers an alternative social platform that utilizes spiritual common ground as the binding mechanism. However, underlying this is still the dependence on capital; without money the convent could not function. It is this reality that forces Sarah away from the convent.

Life as an Actress

Call to the Stage

The immediate cause for Sarah being thrust into the world of theater was her dowry. Marriage was the only way for her to extract her dowry, as opposed to joining the convent, under which she would have to be a servant. Without marrying, she could have no access to the money left to her by her father. The Conservatorie was a way to signal her availability for a sexual contract. This was consistent with French culture at the time; it was expected of French men to “dream of having [actresses] as mistresses”. [14] Sarah, coming from a better established family, could expect men to offer marriage. This was common even among bourgeois of the time, and Sarah did get several marriage offers from various businessmen.

Alternatively, Sarah could embark on a completely independent career. And indeed, the dominant need at this point in her life was the freedom she always assumed her mother enjoyed. While the need for attention was what drove her to become a great actress, this was endogenized in the institution of the theater. Continued advancement and survival in the theater meant that one would receive accolades and attention from the public, and from other artists. On the other hand, independence was more a by-product of popularity than anything else, and even this was not guaranteed. Contracts were signed that placed employment at the discretion of the theater administration. The steady supply of new actresses and the interchangeability of roles made the incumbents less powerful. Administrators are given much responsibility in these institutions, and thus protocols govern the employees. Eventually, Sarah’s explosive individualism (manifested through an impromptu trip to Spain and slapping a senior actress for disturbing her sister) gets her kicked out of the more respected Comedie Francaise, forcing her to take up employment with the more intellectual Theatre Odeon.

Celebrity

Here we pause to explain the nature of celebrity. A celebrity is someone who offers a unique good that is scarce and irreproducible. Often this is achieved through careful manipulation of the mutual influence a celebrity has with a certain audience. Up to Sarah’s time, there had been very few celebrities in the theater. One possible explanation is that the motivations of the audience were too superficial. Men went to the theater to have an “erotic experience” and women went to observe the latest fashions.[15] Secondarily, the theater became a sort of status symbol. [16] For example, theater goers would pay a premium on tickets to have them classified as “complimentary”. [17]

All of these concerns did not lend themselves easily towards celebrity. In concert with the bourgeois revolution, consumption of entertainment was commoditized; actresses were interchangeable as far as their sexuality, and the theater itself held the underlying gravitas that the status was sold off of. There was no sub-culture that the actress could play off of; technical skill was an expectation and was alienated into the theater institution while an original interpretation was lost amidst the primary concern of sexuality.

Sarah Bernhardt succeeded in becoming a celebrity for both external and internal reasons. In the first place, her two defining characteristics play perfectly into the feedback cycle necessary for stardom. The desire for attention made her extremely sensitive to what her audience wanted from her. After every major performance, Sarah would review her own performance, as well as review what the critics had to say. In addition, she was a pioneer in using agents to scout and advertise for her ahead of time. At the same time, her independence emancipated her from expectation to some degree. It was like an elaborate training game she played with her audience; adapting to expectations was like throwing a bone while all the time she was trying to bend them to her will.

Of course, we already know this was difficult with her customary French upper class audience. Sarah had to find the right environment for her star to rise. The appropriate arenas turned out to be in the colleges and abroad. Colleges were naturally more amenable to new interpretations, and they had none of the status/sexual energy-fed expectation that crippled the main French market. Meanwhile, foreigners did have some preconceived notions of what an actress should be, and Sarah obliged these expectations somewhat. The episode in London is most illustrative.

London had already had its share of legendary French actresses; the most notable one being Rachel, who played the same role as Bernhardt in Phedre. Rachel’s phenotype was described as a panther, giving off an air of immeasurable power. Meanwhile, English audiences expected “to see on stage…the graces proper to women”. [18] Bernhardt’s response to this expectation was to “start on rather too high a note”, and she expended enormous energy maintaining this through the entire play. [19]Her own recollection was that “Mounet-Sully (her lead counterpart) picked me up unconscious and carried me to my dressing room”. [20] This entire episode was not premeditated; it was simply due to a fit of nerves in the dressing room. London interpreted this performance as “tender, soft and loveable”; in short they imposed their expectations onto what turned out to be a random fluke.[21] Meanwhile, the same performances given in France engendered visions of “a heathen idol one ought to worship”. We notice that something had changed on the way from France to England. Elsewhere, English society had been under the liberal thumb for a good century already. Sarah noticed this change in culture immediately, describing it as “the love of love enveloping life with an infinite charm”. [22] Up to this point, Sarah’s acting career had been marked by a dominance of free will over her desire for attention. She was able to hone her art thanks to the blind support of students, but her taste for publicity was dulled by the remnants of an aristocratic audience. More than her talent, she was known for a never-ending string of incidents pitting her against the new bourgeoisie establishment. She was an idol, but her antagonism towards the system made her unapproachable. Meanwhile, the English liberal ideal had evolved to transcend most of the bindings of aristocracy. This emancipated Sarah the artist; she was free to use her natural propensity for receiving feedback as well as her independent force of will. She had finally found an audience with a “broadness of ideas…thanks to which I have been the beloved and pampered artist for twenty-five years”. [23] The unnaturally high starting pitch may have been random, but the decision to push through and continue the performance at the same pitch was purely independent. Sarah Bernhardt the celebrity was complete.

Sarah in History

So where exactly does this leave us regarding women’s history? Sarah’s rise mirrored a parallel feminist movement whereby the image of an independent woman was fixed. Long considered the more social of the sexes, women throughout history had used their understanding of society to covertly pursue their own goals. Letter writing, bedroom influence, and familial power were all examples of this sensitivity. [24]The “shadow politic” of women that recurs throughout French history is another example. In particular, many women were blamed for the trauma of the French Revolution. However, women had never before defined what society should be for themselves. Their image was not “fixed”, it was merely a reflection of cultural restraints. Fixing this image took a radical liberalization of thought, the likes of which spurred Sarah into superstardom. This alignment of feedbacks both to and from Sarah was a precursor to women as a whole creating a true identity for the first time.

Notes


  1. Lenard R. Berlanstein. Cultural Change and the Acting Conservatory in Late Nineteenth-Century France. The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), p594
  2. Lenard R. Berlanstein. Cultural Change and the Acting Conservatory in Late Nineteenth-Century France. The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), p. 584
  3. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 3.
  4. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 5.
  5. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 3.
  6. Braun, Sidney D. The French Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 1946), pp. 161-166
  7. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 11.
  8. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 14.
  9. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 4.
  10. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 5.
  11. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 6.
  12. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 14.
  13. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 23.
  14. Lenard R. Berlanstein. Daughters of Eve. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001 p. 106.
  15. Lenard R. Berlanstein. Daughters of Eve. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001 p. 104.
  16. Lenard R. Berlanstein. Daughters of Eve. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001 p. 104.
  17. F.W.J. Hemmings. The Theatre Industry In Nineteenth-Century France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993 p. 26.
  18. John Stokes. Aspects of Bernhardt. The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 11, Literature and Its Audience, II Special Number (1981), p. 148.
  19. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 211
  20. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 212
  21. John Stokes. Aspects of Bernhardt. The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 11, Literature and Its Audience, II Special Number (1981), p. 146.
  22. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 209.
  23. Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999 p. 209.
  24. Palmer, Jennifer. Women in European Civilization.

Primary Source

Bernhardt, Sarah. My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Annotated Bibliography

John Stokes. Aspects of Bernhardt. The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 11, Literature and Its Audience, II Special Number (1981), pp. 143-160.

This academic article focuses on the audience/Sarah Bernhardt feedback cycle that "fixes" Sarah's image. Focus is given to acting technique, referring to both Sarah's choice/implementation and audience expectation. The text implies that Sarah's acting personality is defined by a break with Rachel's elemental Phedre, instilling a unique woman's sensitivity into the character. This is a calculated ploy; Sarah is reading British expectations and creating a feedback equilibrium. This characteristic image is then institutionalized, to the point where long-time observers come to see it as mechanical. The final result is a superstar persona that became the new paradigm, against which a new star, Duse, is contrasted . The irony is that things have come full circle; while Sarah created her image by being new and sensitive, by the end of the 19th century, Duse is seen as the new, sensitive actress against which the old Sarah regime stands.

Lenard R. Berlanstein. Daughters of Eve. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

This historical account explores the sexual nature of the actress. The most important takeaway is that actresses are seen by men as sexual objects; they were taken as mistresses by the aristocracy and were the stuff of sexual fantasy for the middle class. This is seen as a manhood-affirming mentality, and was encouraged socially. It is particularly interesting that the "consumer" is not blamed at all for this lust, but the actress' image begins to degrade in the face of political instability. This is due to the image of the independent woman: "la Parisienne". Bernhardt herself is a huge purveyor of this emerging stereotype with her masculine way of industry. These women are challengers of the two-gender model. When the government shows signs of opaqueness, the entertainer mistresses (opera singers, ballerinas, and actresses) are partially blamed as secret, shadowy, self-interested agents. This attitude reflects and is reinforced by the popularity of morally reprehensible female roles. We again see how the feedback loop between audience and actress can fix an image, this time of women as a "shadow body politic".

F.W.J. Hemmings. The Theatre Industry In Nineteenth-Century France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

This collection of academic articles examines both the theater-going culture and the social status of the theater community. The economics of gaining admission to the theater is discussed at length; in particular scalpers and the utility of getting complimentary tickets are described. Meanwhile, it is established that actresses are not seen as proper social partners. A large part of this comes from the fact that they are excommunicated by the church, one and all. It is illuminating that Sarah Bernhardt never discusses the religious fervor she picked up in the convent of her childhood after she joins the theater. Perhaps the theater has evolved itself in some way to compensate its employees for the fact that they are cut off from the Church. Or perhaps the natural social/fiscal freedom the actresses gain precedes religious devotion. It could even be that the Church is losing some of its power over the common people. In any case, actresses are seen as social pariahs, fit only to serve as mistresses. In addition, their background and industrial organization is discussed. We note in particular a fact that reinforces our reading of Sarah Bernhardt's memoirs: that most actors and actresses come from a working class background.

Lenard R. Berlanstein. Cultural Change and the Acting Conservatory in Late Nineteenth-Century France. The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 583-597.

This article gives empirical evidence of the shift in bohemian/parisienne stereotyping towards actresses. The average theater recruit by the end of the 19th century becomes a middling sort, up from the working class recruits earlier in the century. This reflects an overall shift in the general opinion of independent women. No longer are they slaves to their sexuality; they are seen as producing a valuable good. This comes concurrently with a bourgeois attitude of production above all. Bernhardt herself profits from this trend by doing "manly" things like running a theater and traveling the world.

Sidney D. Braun. The Courtesan in the French Theater (1831-1880): An Attempt at Classification. The French Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 1946), pp. 161-166.

This article gives us a portrait of how actresses and their ilk (courtesans of all kinds) are stereotyped by the public. Again, feedback is in effect as dramatists play on the prevailing views of the time to create an archetypal courtesan on stage. These archetypes may not be the whole truth, but they captures certain interesting qualities. First we have the grisette, the submissive mistress who makes a living servicing a lover. She is not particular about her lover, showing the same care and tenderness towards each one in succession. She is concerned only with the present. Then there is the lorette, who is a devious upstart, associated with new money. She is more playful and ambitious than the grisette. The mautresse is closer to the conventional woman, attaching herself to one lover and wanting a stake in his will. The demi-mordaine is the closest to convention; she is trying to make enough money to marry. It is instructive that these married-women-based distinctions fall away in favor of money-based distinctions by the end of the 19th century. This may be in response to the rise of the bourgeois class, taking the place of a socially charged economy. Bernhardt herself responds to this change by becoming a mass media icon.

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