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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews



  Sarah: the Life of Sarah Bernhardt, Yale University Press, $25.00

So far there are three subjects in publisher Yale University Press’ short but eclectic series of biographies titled Jewish Lives. Two of them are baseball Hank Greenberg and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But judging from the number of biographies published about these giants of their field, neither has made an impression on the cultural consciousness as deep as the third subject in the series, the one and only Sarah Bernhardt
And yet it is the small in body, though big in heart French Bernhardt – a name associated on stage with great acting in the melodramatic 19th century style (and off stage, great acting-up in the diva style) – about whom there remains the most mystery. 
This is partly Bernhardt’s doing. Her own memoirs often provided a rose tinted view of a life most people living in 19th century Paris would have been ashamed of. Her mother was a courtesan, her father was absent, though is thought to be a naval officer. Yet Bernhardt never hid these embarrassing facts, nor that her son Maurice was, like herself, illegitimate. 
This was typical. Although Bernhardt was baptised – partly to aid her introduction into Parisian society where it was intended she would follow her mother’s footsteps – nor did she hide her Jewish origins. 
Indeed, when the infamous Dreyfus affair broke, Bernhardt – by now the grande dame of French and world theatre – cut off her son for choosing the wrong side, albeit temporarily. 
The will to live life on her own terms revealed itself early on. As a child she would defy her guardian – usually not her mother, who gave her little love and attention – by throwing herself from a window or under a carriage. And as an adult, Bernhardt allowed impulse to rule many an action. She slapped the senior actress at France’s most illustrious theatre the Comédie-Francaise for pushing Bernhardt’s younger sister. The result was that the young actress left her first job under a scandal and would later return as the most innovative actor of the age. 
The Comédie-Francaise’s long-suffering theatre manager was tormented by the refusal of his greatest talent – who had earlier fired – for following house rules. Like every theatre at which Bernhardt performed, they needed her more than she needed them. 
There was no convention, whether theatrical or societal, which Bernhardt was not prepared to break. And she was brave too. During the Franco/Prussian war, instead of fleeing Paris, Bernhardt used her high society contacts to set up a hospital and even ventured out into the battle to bring back wounded soldiers. 
Her instinct for self-publicity and her art led her to male roles including Hamlet; she slept in a coffin; her lovers – Victor Hugo among them – were said to be drawn from both genders. 
But if there is no accounting for talent, there is no accounting for taste either. In later life Bernhardt became so obsessed with a Greek aristocrat, whom she later married, she bankrolled the playboy parasite’s doomed acting career. Bram Stoker, it seems was a better judge of character. He used the Greek as a model for Count Dracula
Gottlieb – a former editor of the New Yorker – is a sure-footed guide through the facts, exaggerations and often anti-Semitic slurs that constructed Bernhardt’s reputa


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