Celebrating transgressive celebrity

Victoria Duckett Victoria Duckett is a film historian and Director of the Bachelor in Entertainment Production at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has published extensively in the areas of performance, gender, and film history. She is on the editorial board of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film and Feminist Media Histories. She is coeditor of the special dossier “Women and the Silent Screen” (Screening the Past, 2015), “Archives and Archivists” (Feminist Media Histories, 2016), and coeditor of Researching Women in Silent Film: New Findings and Perspectives (University of Bologna, 2013). Her book Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film (2015) was recently published by the University of Illinois Press.


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Sarah Bernhardt (born Sara-Marie-Henriette Bernard, 1844-1923) was the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century. Celebrated for her golden voice, for her use of the spiral as the building block for movement on the theatrical stage, for an innovative use of costume and jewellery, for her patronage emerging artists, and for the business acumen that saw her fast become a household name across the globe, she was the progenitor of celebrity as we know it today. Performing in her native French across Europe, North America, and as far afield as South America and Australia, Bernhardt was feted by audiences for over half a century. Her fame was both international and intergenerational. Today, a growing number of exhibitions, catalogues, and books attest to her continuing renown. As Robert Gottlieb reminds us, “[Bernhardt’s] name remains the paradigm for “Great Actress”…She is still the most famous of all Frenchwomen after Joan of Arc and the most famous French personality of the nineteenth century after Napoléon.” [1]

But is she dangerous?

A photograph commonly used to personify Bernhardt shows her in a medium close up [Figure 1]. She is looking calmly off into the distance against an unadorned backdrop. Her hair is a short mane of thick dark curls. Her shoulders are exposed in a wrap of material folding busily around her plunging neck and collarbone. Her face rests languidly on her right hand.

There are at least three of these images, each slightly different (in placement, in costume). All were taken by Félix Nadar in his studio in Paris, circa 1860. Was Bernhardt, at the age of about 16, already famous in France? No. This is a photograph of the illegitimate daughter of Youle van Hard, a Dutch Jew who ran a modest salon as a courtesan in Paris. Bernhardt is the child of a nineteenth century demi-mondaine, a youth whose favours were gained through patronage and prostitution. Indeed, in 1859 it is the Duc de Morny (the illegitimate half brother of Emperor Napoleon III and a client of her mother’s) who procures Bernhardt entrance to the prestigious and premier acting school in France, the Conservatoire.

An outsider to respectable middle class values, entering a profession that was associated with loose morals, Bernhardt is a marginal figure in a rigid and class-bound world. Is she photographed by Nadar for her youth and beauty? Or is she photographed for her mother’s renown? As Carol Ockman states, “We can easily imagine the loosely wrapped drapery coming undone, making literal the sexual availability of the model and would-be actress.” [2] Bernhardt is sexually available, perhaps, but still wilful and hardly demure: she leaves the Comédie Française, the most prestigious theatre in France, after just 8 months of residence in 1862. Departing on the heels of a dispute with a senior sociétare, Bernhardt’s departure is “the first publicity coup of her career.” Overnight, she is an object of interest in Paris. [3]

Her unusual action is remarkable because it unsettles hierarchies. This young woman is not bound by protocol or convention. She is transgressive. She is even shocking: in 1864, Bernhardt gives birth to an illegitimate son (Maurice Bernhardt) in Spain. Maurice’s birth occurs soon after these portraits are taken.

Five years later, in 1869 (at the age of 25), Bernhardt enjoys her first success in the travesti role of Zanetto–the wandering Florentine minstrel–in François Coppée’s Le Passant. Performing at the Odéon theatre, Bernhardt draws to her the students, artisans and workers of the left bank. These audience members are vocal in support of the actress. They are attracted to her voice, a voice that sang Coppée’s verse like “a strange music.” [4] They also like her masculine costume, fashioned on Paul Dubois’s statue, A Fifteenth Century Florentine Singer. [Figure 2] Attendant audiences knew that Bernhardt dressed in a style that recalls a statue that had won a medal at the Salon of 1865 and that is installed in the Musée du Luxembourg (where the leading collection of modern painting and sculpture in Paris is housed), and is mass produced in in bronze and porcelain by the Barbedienne foundry and the Manufacture de Sèvres.

In 1869, at the age of 25, Bernhardt is consequently an emblem of youth fashioning her appearance on a modern art work that was industrially reproduced. She is supported by youths who yell themselves hoarse during her performances. Les Saradoteurs, as this audience is called, are a new presence in the established theatre, behaving in new ways in the theatre (they yell, they scream, they stomp and clap). Les Saradoteurs see Bernhardt as their beacon.

Is Bernhardt dangerous? Yes. She is a social, artistic, and political leader. She is a young actress who motivates change. Later, she plays Lorenzaccio in Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio (in 1896), Hamlet in her newly commissioned translation of Hamlet (Marcel Schwob and Eugène Morand, 1899), and is the Eaglet in Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon (1901). Demanding male roles she laments the lack of intelligent roles for women on the stage. [5] Sword in hand, Bernhardt makes ghosts of tradition, convention and protocol.

In 1872 Bernhardt is instead the Spanish Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. The theatre had been converted into a makeshift hospital during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Ruy Blas is the work that opens the Odéon theatre after its closure, linking Bernhardt to the theme of social reform. Perhaps more importantly, Ruy Blas inaugurates comments about Bernhardt’s physical gestures and actions on the stage. “When she rises, when she makes a half turn, when she exits, the long folds of her silver spangled dress arrange themselves around her with poetic grace,” writes Francisque Sarcey in his weekly “Chronique Théatrale” in Le Temps. [6] Today we associate art nouveau with material objects, overlooking the impact that Bernhardt made when she introduces her turning torso as the principle for action on the stage.

Well before Hector Guimard’s entrances to the Paris Métro, the furniture shops of Louis Majorelle, the art objects and interior design of Siegfried Bing’s eponymous Maison de l’Art Nouveau, the ‘pliant, tangled-root lines’ of Loie Fuller’s dance or even the typographic ‘AB’ of the Biograph film company’s trademark, [7] [Fig. 3] Bernhardt is using the spiral as a physical principle in movement on stage. Turning her back on audiences and challenging theatrical tradition which asked that actors did not do this, she makes the female body an active motif, the founding principle, for what we today identify as art nouveau. Is Bernhardt dangerous? Yes. Merely by moving, she makes her body an impetus for artistic and social change.

Malleable and moving, we cannot pin her down. She is again a royal subject in Phèdre in 1874, in Hernani in 1877. In 1880, however, fresh on the heels of her second and final departure from the Comédie Française, she chooses to play Marguerite, the 16 year old courtesan of Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias. A woman who threatens established conventions by leaving the premier theatre company in France launches herself across America in a role that challenges middle class mores. One commentator describes the play as a “moral monstrosity.” [8] Bernhardt takes the role to England the following year, the first actress to perform La Dame aux Camélias on the English stage.

Transgressive in her choice of role, Bernhardt plays the part in a new and (literally) remarkable way. In the climatic death scene, where Marguerite dies of consumption in her lover’s arms, Bernhardt dies standing, pivoting to the floor. At its opening in London, The Times comments:

…Mdlle. Bernhardt introduces a curious novelty. She dies standing. Madame Doche, whose name is identified with the part of Marguerite, was accustomed to sink down upon a couch and die holding her lover’s hand, but Mdlle. Bernhardt remains standing till the last, and falls forward upon the bosom of her lover, who, with a cry of alarm, lays her down straight and stiff upon the floor. It may be presumed that Mdlle. Bernhardt has fortified herself with some physiological authority for this unusual action. [9]

Bernhardt plays this 16 year old courtesan in her 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, she brings La Dame aux Camélias to new and expanding audiences. When Bernhardt suffers from the pain that will later see her right leg amputated in 1915, she performs this role as a single Act on the Vaudeville stage in North America and on the Music Hall stage in England. Indeed, by 1910 she performs her plays in pieces, presenting the famous death scene of La Dame aux Camélias as fragment among other famous fragments on stage. Is Bernhardt dangerous? Yes, because she refuses invisibility in old age, and disability. Yes, because even when she could no longer walk freely, she changed the context and content of a play so that she could continue to spiral to her death.

Bernhardt adapts her physical performances so that she remains public and visible. A canny businesswoman, she is already circulating through photographs, posters and the phonograph. In 1900 she is also among the first celebrities be filmed, forming part of Paul Decauville’s program for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition [Fig. 4]. Playing Hamlet in a one-minute extract that pictures Hamlet’s death [Fig 5], she is the first woman to appear in cross dress on film, the first woman to die on film, the first woman to commission her own role on film, the first woman to perform sport (a fencing match) on film. Is Bernhardt dangerous? Yes, because she constantly acquires new audiences and conquers new media. Yes, because she makes herself available through images and recordings to people whom she will never know. Through film, she conquers the world in new ways.

Film allows Bernhardt to be seen in some of her most famous roles–in La Tosca (1908), La Dame aux Camélias (1911), and Adrienne Lecouvreur (1913). These are made when Bernhardt is in her 60s and unable to travel as she once did. They are longer narrative works shot when Bernhardt was appearing in single acts on stage. They also introduce new achievements to us–Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth (1912) helps to open the market for legitimate motion picture theatre exhibition in the US. [Fig. 6, Fig. 7] Sarah Bernhardt Intime (1915) is an early home movie that shows Bernhardt writing and sculpting. [Fig. 8] Jeanne Doré (1916) explores the impact of gambling addiction on family and youth. Mères Française (1917) is a propaganda film that allows Bernhardt to promote the Allied cause in America. There is also Greetings from Madame Sarah Bernhardt (1920), Madame Sarah in “Daniel (1920), and La Voyante (1923). [10]

Is Bernhardt dangerous on film? Yes, because Nadar’s anonymous model is now a mature woman who materially changes the production of culture. Is Bernhardt a “Great Actress”? Is she second only to Napoléon’s personality in the nineteenth century? Bernhardt is far more than that. Modern celebrity was inaugurated by a woman who clearly transgresses even contemporary definitions of “female achievement”.



[1] Robert Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2010), p. 219.

[2] Carol Ockman, “Was she magnificent? Sarah Bernhardt’s Reach”, in Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver (ed.), Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2005), p. 28.

[3] Gottlieb, op. cit., p.36.

[4] Suze Rueff, I Knew Sarah Bernhardt, (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1951), p. 48-49. See also Bernhardt’s comments about this “‘band of students’ called the “Saradoteurs”” in Paris in Sarah Bernhardt, Ma Double Vie: Mémoires de Sarah Bernhardt, (Paris: Eugène Fasquelle, 1923), p. 290.

[5] See Sarah Bernhardt, “Men’s Roles as Played by Women,” Harper’s Bazaar, vol. XXXIII 50 (December 15, 1900): 2113-5.

[6] Le Temps, February 26, 1872, 2.

[7] David Mayer, “Acting in Silent Cinema: Which legacy of the theatre?” in Screen Acting (ed. Alan Lovell and Peter Krämer), (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 22.

[8] Grace Greenwood (Sarah Jane Clarke), “Five Camilles”, The New York Times, 21 February, 1875, p. 7.

[9] “The French Plays,” The Times, June 13, 1881, 13.

[10] See for a detailed discussion of these films Victoria Duckett, Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film, (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2015).