Playing Hamlet is the peak of an actor’s career. But it’s also a canny celebrity move: a sure-fire way to win media attention.
The first Hamlet on film was a woman, Bernhardt herself
It was Sarah Bernhardt who arguably first truly rinsed it for its fame-stoking, headline-winning potential. She wasn’t the first woman to play it, but the French actress was well-aware of the fuss gender-blind casting would cause in 1899. It was “the most controversial move of all her ventures” according to Robert Gottlieb, the former New Yorker editor who wrote a biography of her in 2010. Bernhardt would make celluloid history in the part in 1900, too – rather gratifyingly, the first Hamlet on film was a woman.
But then, Bernhardt was not just any woman – she was the most famous actress in the world. And frankly, the field of her “controversial” ventures is a pretty crowded one.
The illegitimate daughter of a Jewish prostitute, she first achieved notoriety while still a teenager: she lost her first job with the prestigious Comédie-Française theatre, after refusing to apologise for slapping its star (the older actress had shoved Bernhardt’s little sister into a marble pillar for accidentally treading on her costume). Such ferocity in the face of perceived injustice would never be checked: later in life, Bernhardt also hit the headlines for chasing a fellow actress with a whip, furious about the scandalous biography she’d penned.
Sarah Bernhardt brought an emotional maximalism to her stage performances that made her the most acclaimed tragedienne of the 19th Century (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Yet Bernhardt was clearly also a loveable figure: she charmed audiences around the world, despite her impropriety. An unmarried mother, she was unabashedly promiscuous in an era of tight-laced morality; to play Bernhardt’s leading man was, essentially, to sign up to the same role between the sheets. Conquests also include Victor Hugo, Edward Prince of Wales, and Charles Haas, the inspiration for Proust’s Swann. Bernhardt herself inspired Proust’s Berma, Oscar Wilde wrote Salome for her, and she married Aristides Damala – the model for Dracula.
Bernhardt kept portraying young women in romantic melodramas as she aged, such as in this production of Camille in 1913 when she was 68 (Credit: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)
From humble beginnings to vast fame and fortune, it’s fair to say Bernhardt behaved rather like a child in a sweet shop. Or should that be pet shop? She collected a small zoo, including cheetahs, tiger and lion cubs, a monkey named Darwin and an alligator named Ali Gaga, that she used to sleep with until its untimely death due to a diet of milk and champagne. She wore a hat made of a stuffed bat; she dripped with jewels, and was draped with chinchilla and ocelot furs. It was all part of the Bernhardt travelling show – which also featured her coffin, which she always took on tour.
Truth from fiction
“We don’t have anybody like her. That’s something to think about – how famous, and how beloved, she was,” says American writer Theresa Rebeck, writer for the TV shows NYPD Blue and Smash, who’s written a new play about Bernhardt. “She was famously transgressive: she would have many, many affairs, and yet no-one turned on her. They didn’t even judge her for it; they loved her for it.”
Bernhardt’s doomed courtesan in Camille was her most iconic role, but she also played historic figures, such as the Byzantine empress Theodora (Credit: W & D Downey/Getty Images)
She was also a notorious liar, so working out what is fact isn’t always easy. The identity of her father is uncertain, and even her birthday is in doubt: maybe 22, or 23, October 1844.
“Her mother didn’t love her, and she had no father,” writes Gottlieb. “What she did have was her extraordinary will: to survive, to achieve and – most of all – to have her own way.” Still, you don’t exactly need to be Freud to guess why this rejected, neglected child might seek a lifetime of applause.
Bernhardt once got lost in a hot-air balloon
Her mother was desperate to get Sarah off her hands, and it was her lover, Charles de Morny, who suggested the tempestuous teen try acting. Half-brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, a word from him ensured Bernhardt won a place at first the conservatoire, and then the Comédie-Française.
Aged 55, Bernhardt debuted the role of Napoleon II, the emperor’s son who briefly was France’s de facto ruler in 1815 – she often played male roles (Credit: P Boyer/Getty Images)
The slapping incident got her sacked, but also made her an overnight celebrity. But she was no overnight acting success. Although quickly taken on by the Gymnase theatre, critics seemed more interested in how pale and skinny she was.
Following an affair with Belgian aristocrat Prince de Ligne in 1864, Bernhardt had a son, Maurice. Although unplanned and unclaimed, it was a life-changer: she applied all her fierce determination to providing for him. And in 1866, Bernhardt had a career breakthrough: she met the owner of the Odeon theatre, Félix Duquesnel. Much later, he wrote: “she wasn’t just pretty, she was more dangerous than that… a marvellously gifted creature of rare intelligence and limitless energy and willpower.”
Since Bernhardt often played male characters, she found herself in love scenes with other women, as in Pelléas and Mélisande (Photo by W & D Downey/Getty Images)
Apparently willing herself into a job, she found success in Le Passant by François Coppée, in her first “breeches” role, playing a boy. Her reputation grew – especially for her mellifluous “golden” voice. Critic Théodore de Banville left no cliché unturned in describing her: she spoke “the way nightingales sing, the way the wind sighs, the way brooks murmur.”
But it was during the Franco-Prussian war that she was to become the nation’s sweetheart: she turned the Odeon into a refuge for wounded soldiers, bullying the great and the good to donate food and clothing. Thereafter, her celebrity rose as fast as the hot air balloon she once got lost in (naturally, she further monetised that stunt by writing a lively account from the point of view of the balloon’s wicker chair, which became a small publishing sensation).
She is too American not to succeed in America – Henry James
In 1872, she starred in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, to such wild acclaim that the Comédie-Française finally asked her back. Bernhardt returned – no doubt insufferably smugly – and began a passionate on/off, on-stage/off-stage relationship with the ruggedly handsome Jean Mounet-Sully. But Mounet was as possessive as he was passionate, and couldn’t cope with her promiscuity. He wanted to tame her – and hadn’t a hope, naturally.
Fame and fortune
Professionally, however, all continued apace: a string of successful parts was topped by playing Racine’s Phèdre – Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey said that to watch her was to “plunge shuddering through infinite abysses”. In 1880, she did a six-week season at the Gaiety in London, where she was greeted as a huge celebrity. This led to a tour of America, taking on a role she’d go on to play thousands of times: La Dame aux Camélias.
Henry James wrote of the “insanity” her arrival provoked, declaring she had “advertising genius; she may, indeed, be called the muse of the newspaper… she is too American not to succeed in America.”
Clément Maurice’s film adaptation of Hamlet from 1900, starring Bernhardt in the title role, is believed to be the earliest put onscreen (Credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
So it proved. She may have exhibited a “revolutionary naturalism when compared to the strutting and bluster of the standard American acting of the period,” as Gottlieb puts it, but the crowds flocked to see her as her: an exotic creature in her own right.
The tour – and the many that followed, from Argentina to Austria to Australia – made her rich. But she was extravagant in her spending, with splashy tastes for jewels, couture and art (she was a sculptor herself). All of which meant she “ran through money all the time – but she could just go get more!” laughs Rebeck. Bernhardt by now had several bankable hits under her belt.
She lavished – some would say wasted – a good deal of cash on her son, and on her husband, Greek aristocrat Aristides Damala. Perhaps because she was so used to having whoever she wanted, Bernhardt became strangely obsessed with a man who had little interest in her. They married in 1882, but in the face of his womanising, gambling and cruel public scorning of her, it didn’t last long. Although he would burst back into her life in 1889, he would also die that year from morphine addiction.
More than 30,000 people attended her funeral in Paris on 29 March 1923 (Credit: Alamy)
Other men came and went, as did hit shows, not-so-hit shows, and endless tours. Then came Hamlet. “To me, it’s the turning point in her life,” says Rebeck, whose new play Bernhardt/Hamlet dramatises this moment. “She was done with ingénues; she was really looking to move on as an actor and to challenge herself. What else is she going to do – take smaller parts?”
Not likely. “And what do celebrity actors do? They take on Hamlet. It’s a rite of passage – and she coined it,” Rebeck adds. That said, Bernhardt did have a new, prose version of the play commissioned which, hardly surprisingly, not everyone loved. And her Hamlet was notably not a tortured soul, but – like Bernhardt herself – quick, energetic, and really rather resolute.
She continued to play masculine parts, because there just weren’t enough meaty roles for the older female performer – some things, it seems, never change. “It’s not that I prefer male roles, it’s that I prefer male minds,” she once commented, depressingly.
In 1906, Bernhardt injured her knee during Tosca, apparently leaping to her death – actually, leaping to a missing mattress that should have broken the fall. She never recovered, and in 1915, had most of her right leg amputated. Not that she let it stop her performing: this septuagenarian was still a sweetheart for French troops in World War One, carried in on a white palanquin.
She continued to act, in best-of shows of scenes from different plays – ones that didn’t require movement – and in early silent films, right up until her death in 1923. True, her acting style, which once seemed so poetic and fresh, now appeared excessively histrionic. But Bernhardt symbolised more than just acting by then: she was a monumental French figure, and her death prompted several days of public mourning.
Because there really was no one else quite like her. The sentiment was, perhaps, best summed up by Mark Twain: “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”
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