The Divine Sarah: The most famous actress the world has ever known

george clairin - sarah bernhardt Portrait of French stage and early film actress Sarah Bernhardt in her role as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s “Ruy Blas”  (1879), by artist  George Clairin (1843-1919).  Over her full and fascinating career, Sarah’s close friends included several artists, such as Clairin and Gustave Doré as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Other notable artists she sat for include Art Nouveau poster and postcard artist Alphonse Mucha. Adding to the Bernhardt fascination, was the suggested relationship with French female Impressionist artist Louise Abbéma, whom was often referred to as her lover despite being some nine years younger than Bernhardt.

Sarah was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt, on 23 October, 1844. According to Wikipedia; she has often been described as “the most famous actress the world has ever known.” When Sarah was young her mother sent her to Grandchamp, to an Augustine convent school near Versailles. In 1860 she began attending the Conservatoire de Musique at Déclamation, Paris and became a student at the Comédie Française where she debuted in 1862 in Racine’s Iphigénie to lacklustre reviews. Around the same time, Bernhardt also began her working life as a courtesan in Paris. She became the mistress of Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), the son of Eugène, 8th Prince of Ligne, with whom she had her only child, Maurice Bernhardt who was born in 1864. Because Maurice’s birth was out of wedlock, the Prince’s family refused any proposition of marriage and forced Bernhardt to end their relationship.

Despite her personal life experiences, Bernhardt developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress earning the title “The Divine Sarah“; and was considered the most famous actress of the 19th Century. During this time she acquired her infamous coffin, in which she often slept in lieu of a bed – claiming that doing so helped her understand her many tragic roles portrayed in theatre.

  • She secured a contract at the Théâtre de L’Odéon where she began performing in 1866. Her most famous performance there was as the Florentine minstrel in François Coppé’s Le Passant (Jan. 1869).
  • One of her remarkable successes was in the title role of Voltaire’s Zaïre (1874).
  • She later married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (known in France by his stage name – Jacques Damala) in London in 1882, but the marriage ended upon his death in 1889 at age 34, due to his dependence on morphine.
  • It was around this time that she was said to have been involved in an affair with the future King Edward VII while he was still the Prince of Wales.
  • She traveled to Cuba and performed in the Sauto Theater in Matanzas (1887).
  • In between tours Sarah took over the lease of the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which she ran as producer-director-star from 1893-1899.
  • In 1899 she took over the former Théâtre des Nations on the Place du Châtelet, renaming it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt and opening on 21 January, 1900 in one of her most admired parts – the title role in Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca.

In 1910, Bernhardt was part of a scandalous production of “Judas” by John Wesley De Kay. It performed in New York’s Globe Theatre for only one night in December 1910 before it was banned. Its plot was considered extremely scandalous. It concerned Mary Magdalene, who was portrayed as a lover of Pontius Pilate; then later of Judas Iscariot; before becoming involved with Jesus. Its story suggested that Judas; after realizing that Mary Magdalene had given herself to Jesus; decided to betray his friend to the Romans. What shocked the audience the most, was the realization that the role of Judas was performed by Sarah Bernhardt. This production was also banned in Boston and Philadelphia.

Despite her continuing fame and notoriety, Bernhardt continued to direct the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris, until her death; when her son Maurice took over. After his death in 1928, the theatre retained the name until Occupation by the Germans in WW2 when the name changed to the Théâtre de la Cité  due to Bernhardt’s Jewish ancestry.

Despite living an exotic and controversial life, The Divine Sarah” – Sarah Bernhardt died on 26 March, 1923.

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