1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bernhardt, Sarah
BERNHARDT, SARAH (Rosine Bernard) (1845- ), French actress, was born in Paris on the 22nd of October 1845, of mixed French and Dutch parentage, and of Jewish descent. She was, however, baptized at the age of twelve and brought up in a convent. At thirteen she entered the Conservatoire, where she gained the second prize for tragedy in 1861 and for comedy in 1862. Her début was made at the Comédie Française on the 11th of August 1862, in a minor part in Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide, without any marked success, nor did she do much better in burlesque at the Porte St-Martin and Gymnase. In 1867 she became a member of the company at the Odéon, where she made her first definite successes as Cordelia in a French translation of King Lear, as the queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, and, above all, as Zanetto in François Coppée’s Le Passant (1869). When peace was restored after the Franco-German War she left the Odéon for the Comédie Française, thereby incurring a considerable monetary forfeit. From that time she steadily increased her reputation, two of the most definite steps in her progress being her performances of Phèdre in Racine’s play (1874) and of Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1877). In 1879 she had a famous season at the Gaiety in London. By this time her position as the greatest actress of her day was securely established. Her amazing power of emotional acting, the extraordinary realism and pathos of her death-scenes, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her “voix d’or,” made the public tolerant of her occasional caprices. She had developed some skill as a sculptor, and exhibited at the Salon at various times between 1876 (honourable mention) and 1881. She also exhibited a painting there in 1880. In 1878 she published a prose sketch, Dans les nuages; les impressions d’une chaise. Her comedy L’Aveu was produced in 1888 at the Odéon without much success. Her relations with the other sociétaires of the Comédie Française having become somewhat strained, a crisis arrived in 1880, when, enraged by an unfavourable criticism of her acting, she threw up her position on the day following the first performance of Emile Augier’s L’Aventurière. This obliged her to pay a forfeit of £4000 for breach of contract. Immediately after the rupture she gave a series of performances in London, relying chiefly upon Scribe and Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur and Meilhac and Halévy’s Frou Frou. These were followed by tours in Denmark, America and Russia, during 1880 and 1881, with La Dame aux camélias as the principal attraction. In 1882 she married Jacques Damala, a Greek, in London, but separated from him at the end of the following year. After a fresh triumph in Paris with Sardou’s Fédora at the Vaudeville she became proprietress of the Porte St-Martin. Jean Richepin’s Nana Sahib (1883), Sardou’s Théodora (1884) and La Tosca (1887), Jules Barbier’s Jeanne d’Arc (1890) and Sardou and Moreau’s Cléopâtre (1890) were among her most conspicuous successes here, where she remained till she became proprietress of the Renaissance theatre in 1893. During those ten years she made several extended tours, including visits to America in 1886-1887 and 1888-1889. Between 1891 and 1893 she again visited America (North and South), Australia, and the chief European capitals. In November 1893 she opened the Renaissance with Les Rois by Jules Lemaitre, which was followed by Sylvestre and Morand’s Izeyl (1894), Sardou’s Gismonda (1894) and Edmond Rostand’s La Princesse lointaine (1895). In 1895 she also appeared with conspicuous success as Magda in a French translation of Sudermann’s Heimat. For the next few years she visited London almost annually, and America in 1896. In that year she made a success with an adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio. In Easter week of 1897 she played in a religious drama, La Samaritaine, by Rostand. In December 1896 an elaborate fête was organized in Paris in her honour; and the value of this public recognition of her position at the head of her profession was enhanced by cordial greetings from all parts of the world. By this time she had played one hundred and twelve parts, thirty-eight of which she had created. Early in 1899 she removed from the Renaissance to the Théâtre des Nations, a larger house, which she opened with a revival of La Tosca. In the same year she made the bold experiment of a French production of Hamlet, in which she played the title part. She repeated the impersonation in London not long afterwards, where she also appeared (1901) as the fate-ridden son of Napoleon I., in Rostand’s L’Aiglon, which had been produced in Paris the year before. Of the successful productions of her later years perhaps none was more remarkable than her impersonation of La Tisbé in Victor Hugo’s romantic drama Angelo (1905).
See Jules Huret, Sarah Bernhardt (1889); and her own volume of autobiography (1907).