BERNHARDT, SARAH (ROSINE BERNARD):
French actress; born at Paris Oct. 22, 1844, of Dutch Jewish parentage. She was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the request of her father. Her early years were spent at the Convent Grand-Champs, Versailles, where she remained until fourteen years old, when she was received into the Conservatoire, where she studied dramatic art under Prévost and Sanson. Though, like Rachel, naturally inclined to comedy, Bernhardt won a prize for her work in tragedy. On Aug. 11, 1862—four years after beginning her dramatic studies—she made her début at the Comédie Française in "Iphigénie." Her success was but partial; and the experiment—for such it really was—resulted in further study and a short trip to Spain. On her return to Paris the young actress went to the Théâtre du Gymnase, the Porte-Saint-Martin, and the Odéon (1864), and, a year later, back again to the Porte-Saint-Martin. There she appeared as Armande in "Les Femmes Savantes," as Cordelia in "King Lear," and in her first male rôle, Zanetto, in François Coppée's "Le Passant" (1869).
The outbreak of the Franco-German war interrupted her career for a time, the interval being spent in study and nursing the wounded. Her next appearance was on Nov. 6, 1872, when she played Mlle. de Belle-Isle at the Comédie Française. For the next seven years Bernhardt remained a member of this famous institution, of which she became a "sociétaire" in 1875. Her greatest artistic triumphs were achieved there in "Phèdre"; "Andromaque"; "Zaïre"; "Alcmène"; "Ruy Blas" (Marie de Neubourg); "La Fille de Roland" (Berthe); "Rome Vaincue" (Posthumia, the blind woman); "Le Sphinx"; "L'Etrangère"; and in the classic plays of Racine and Corneille.
In 1879 Bernhardt's eccentric behavior and temper led to a severance of her associations with the Comédie Française; and on a civil suit the actress was ordered to pay damages amounting to 100,000 francs. After a tour to London, Copenhagen, and America (1880-81) with a company of her own, Bernhardt returned to Paris, where she assumed the direction of the Théâtre Ambigu (1882). The same year she was married to the actor Jacques Damala (died 1889), and played Pierrot at the Trocadéro in a pantomime written by Richepin. She afterward leased the Théâtre Vaudeville, which she opened Dec. 11, 1882, with "Fédora," playing the title-rôle herself. Soon after, she returned to the Porte-Saint-Martin, which she opened Sept. 17, 1883, with "Frou-Frou." This was followed by "La Dame aux Camélias," "Nana Sahib," and "Théodora." During the season of 1886-87 she toured the United States, and on her return to the Porte-Saint-Martin appeared in "La Tosca." She revisited America in 1888-89, and on her return played at the Porte-Saint-Martin in "Jeanne d'Arc" and "Cléopatre" (1890).
Then followed an interval during which the actress toured Europe. Returning to Paris, she engaged in 1893 the Théâtre de la Renaissance, producing "La Femme de Claude," Lemaître's "Les Rois," Bardé's "Médée," "Magda," Rostand's "La Samaritaine" and his "La Princesse Lointaine" (1895), and Yzeil in D'Annunzio's "La Ville Morte" (1898). While leasing this house, Bernhardt gave the use of it to Duse, who played the French actress's rôle in "La Dame aux Camélias," while Bernhardt played the title-rôle in "Magda."
Her latest and most successful lease of a theater was when she took the Théâtre de l'Opéra Comique, formerly known as the Théâtre Municipal des Nations, and converted it at considerable cost into the Théâtre de Sarah Bernhardt (Jan. 18, 1899). Here she first essayed Hamlet and later the Duc de Reichstadt in Rostand's "L'Aiglon." In 1900-01 she again toured the United States, with Coquelin.
In addition to being an actress, Bernhardt is a dilettante sculptor and author. Her bust of Sardou attracted attention. Her writings consist of a book, "Dans les Nuages" (1878), and "L'Aveu," a play produced at the Odéon in 1888. She has also written a rather frank autobiography, evoked by Marie Colombier's attack on Bernhardt in her notorious pamphlet "Sarah Barnum."
As an actress, Sarah Bernhardt is the embodiment of the theatrical; every pose, every movement, every intonation of her voice being the result of careful, patient study. She belongs to the intellectual school of actors, splendidly intelligent, but rarely touching the heart. Bernhardt is always admirable, but never aught save Bernhardt. Her voice is remarkable for its flexibility and timbre, and her grace of movement is one of her chief attractions. Whether she plays the blind Posthumia, or Frou-Frou, or Hamlet, or the Duc de Reichstadt, her personality is always preponderant and she ever remains the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt.
- Westminster Review, lx. 301 et seq.;
- La Grande Encyclopédie, s.v.;
- The Critic, xxxv. 638-640;
- Fortnightly Review (new series), xlvi. 113-122;
- Harper's Magazine, iii. 63-68;
- Nouveau Larousse Illustre, ii. 35.