Adieu, madame

Terry Castle

  • Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb
    Yale, 233 pp, £18.99, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14127 6

Sarah Bernhardt’s strangest gift – or so it seems a hundred years after the fact – was her ability to make the most improbable people go cuckoo over her. An otherwise mopey young D.H. Lawrence, for example. In 1908, having seen her perform one of her signature roles – Marguerite, the doomed courtesan in La Dame aux camélias – Lawrence sounds like a decadent schoolgirl on heat: ‘Oh, to see her, and to hear her, a wild creature, a gazelle with a beautiful panther’s fascination and fury, sobbing and sighing like a deer sobs, wounded to death, and all the time with the sheen of silk, the glitter of diamonds … She represents the primeval passions of woman, and she is fascinating to an extraordinary degree.’ If you say so, Lorenzo – she was 63 at the time.

Ordinarily cool and spinsterish, Willa Cather lights up like a Christmas tree in the Divine One’s presence: Bernhardt’s ‘bursts of passion blind one by their vividness … It is like lightning, gone before you see enough of it, and indescribable in its brilliancy.’ The actress’s art, she declares, is sheer voluptuous ‘dissipation’ – ‘a sort of Bacchic orgy’. When one of the more dour and sober-sided American writers of the past century starts burbling on about Bacchic orgies and ‘indescribable’ brilliance, you know the pink candyfloss has started sticking to your face.

But what – most peculiar of all – to make of Freud? As a young man studying the aetiology of hysteria with Charcot in Paris in 1885, he saw Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s Théodora and gushed about it to his long-suffering fiancée, Martha Bernays:

How that Sarah plays! After the first words of her lovely, vibrant voice I felt I had known her for years. Nothing she could have said would have surprised me; I believed at once everything she said … I have never seen a more comical figure than Sarah in the second act, where she appears in a simple dress, and yet one soon stops laughing, for every inch of that little figure lives and bewitches. Then her flattering and imploring and embracing; it is incredible what postures she can assume and how every limb and joint acts with her.

What sort of ‘incredible’ postures? Poor Martha must have wondered. Elsewhere the newest Bernhardt fan complains that he can’t concentrate: the actress has left him ‘reeling’.

The reader may be reeling too at this point – at the sheer freaky incongruity of it all. Sarah and Sigmund: the imp-brain runs amok. Odd counterfactuals begin to form in the cerebrum. What if the inventor of psychoanalysis had ‘seen’ Bernhardt: not just in the theatre, but as a patient? He could have written her up like Anna O or the Rat Man! ‘Female Narcissism: The Case of Sarah B’. ‘Curtain Calls and Their Relation to the Unconscious’. ‘Stage Make-Up and Its Discontents’. ‘Théodora: A Case of Byzantine Hysteria’. He might even have named some crucial analytic concept after her: the Female Ovation Complex, perhaps.

And indeed, why not? As Robert Gottlieb’s concise yet stylish new biography reminds us, the great actress’s sumptuously chequered life would have presented even the most dimwitted Viennese shrink with a veritable orchestra pit of things to quiz her about. Consider, Herr Doktor, some of the diagnostic highlights:

1. The Family Romance. Shady Prostitute-Mother and Unknown Father. Precocious Sexual Enlightenment. Bernhardt’s mother, an elegant and pragmatic Dutch courtesan called Youle van Hard, trained her daughter from infancy for the life of a grande horizontale. Which is to say, Youle pimped for little Sarah high and low, though mostly in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. One of Youle’s well-connected gentlemen friends was responsible for the adolescent Bernhardt’s entry into the Conservatoire, the acting school run by the Comédie-Française, in 1860. Bernhardt’s father? Lost in the mists of etc. Youle was a single mother – and not an especially warm one either – but I guess you could say She Was Doing the Best She Could.

2. The First Rakish Lover-Patron. The dapper Prince Henri de Ligne, moustachioed Belgian man of the world and ‘fantastic swell’, who set Sarah on her way in the more Nana-like circles of Parisian high society. He seems to have picked her up in the Tuileries Gardens one day. Bernhardt always had at the ready a more romantic account of how they met – several of them in fact. She told her granddaughter late in life that she and Henri had met at a costume ball in Brussels. She had been dressed as Elizabeth I; he – appropriately enough for a prince – had been a slim, pomaded, unusually fetching Hamlet.

3. The Doted-On Wastrel Son. Prince Henri’s By-Blow, Most Likely. Bernhardt had him in 1864, when she was 20. She named him Maurice but she might as well have called him Oedipus: the actress would remain besotted with him for life. The prince, as putative father, was less enthused. When Bernhardt, improvident after her lying-in, asked him for money, he replied: ‘I know a woman named Bernhardt, but I do not know her child.’ Ferociously ambitious, or so the legend goes, Bernhardt thereafter determined to live by her wits and beauty and win financial independence – for her son’s sake – on her own rough and ready (or silky and satiny) terms. Maurice trailed around behind her for the rest of his life, wheedling money and gifts and expensive motor cars out of her.

4. The Early Narcissistic Wish-Fulfilment. Those First Astonishing Stage Triumphs. Bernhardt’s uncanny stage presence, thrilling voice and eerie beauty – her hair was naturally reddish and inclined to frizz up poetically under the lights – flabbergasted audiences everywhere. Though slight in build (almost anorexically thin at the start of her career) she combined a fine-edged classical technique with sultry, skronking, incendiary passion. A trill a minute, from one rockin’ tirade to the next: she left ’em limp and ravaged. Among the Bernhardt breakout roles: Doña Marie, the tragic Queen of Spain in Hugo’s Ruy Blas (1872); Racine’s Andromaque (1873) and Phèdre (1874); Doña Sol in Hugo’s Hernani (1877); Marguerite in La Dame aux camélias (1880); Adrienne Lecouvreur, in Scribe and Legouvé’s eponymous tear-jerker (also 1880); and Fédora, doomed title character in the first of several wildly popular melodramas – La Tosca and Théodora would follow – Sardou wrote for Bernhardt between 1882 and 1903. (Besides being the first of his ‘shabby little shockers’, as Sardou himself called them, Fédora also gave its name to the now once again ubiquitous hat: Bernhardt, playing an unfortunate Russian princess in love with a man whom she mistakenly believes is a nihilist, sported one, and it immediately became the craze – first for women, somewhat later for men. Gender outlaws, take note: tough-guy-hipster-fedora-favourers – Al Capone, Humphrey Bogart, J. Edgar Hoover, William S. Burroughs, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Depp – might all be considered unwitting imitators of Sarah Bernhardt.)

5. The Rampant (er … ) Erotomania. (One moment, Herr Doktor – cough cough – my throat is tickling me.) World famous by her late twenties, Bernhardt slept with virtually every other famous person she encountered. Sexual partners included most of her leading men, notably sexy beast Jean Mounet-Sully, her beefcake colleague at the Comédie-Française in the 1870s (later known for his priceless mot, ‘until I was 60 I thought it was a bone’); the geriatric but still game Victor Hugo (he had directed her in her first Ruy Blas); Hugo’s political arch-nemesis, Louis-Napoléon (politics aside, Bernhardt always had a soft spot, she said, for the entire Bonaparte family); Charles Haas (elegant model for Proust’s Swann); ‘Bertie’, the cuddly future Edward VII; the artist-engraver Gustave Doré; and at least one woman, the trouser-wearing sculptor Louise Abbéma. Gottlieb refers to Abbéma, somewhat ungallantly, as ‘mannish’ and ‘monkeylike’, and it’s true, the pint-sized Louise wasn’t exactly an oil painting. Having Susan Boyle eyebrows didn’t help. But she and Bernhardt – who studied sculpture with her (and achieved something rather more than mere amateur competence) – unquestionably had an amitié douce for life. Sometime in the late 1870s they posed for a goofy, mildly raunchy cabinet card photo in which Abbéma is dressed as an Ottoman pasha and Bernhardt, in the diaphanous costume of an Ingres odalisque, lies at her feet, mooning up at her lasciviously. So Draw Your Own Conclusions.

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