If you can imagine a combination of Madonna and Meryl Streep, you’ll get some idea of the spell cast by Sarah Bernhardt a hundred years ago. She was scandalous and supremely skilled; she was the world’s most seductive embodiment of the eternal feminine and the most consummate actress on the globe, a woman whose private life was as theatrical as her public profession. There’s no one remotely like her today; there wasn’t then, either.
Writing about great acting is like writing about great sex: You really had to have been there. In the Divine Sarah’s case, the analogy is particularly apt and the biographer’s case particularly tricky. Acting and sex were her twin obsessions, and no one was sure where one left off and the other began, least of all her hundreds of lovers. Robert Fizdale and the late Arthur Gold (Misia) have done their best in The Divine Sarah, which is good enough. The book is a confection of piquant anecdotes and shrewd quotations, floating in a suave, well-informed narrative with a minimum of analysis, let alone psychoanalysis (Freud makes an appearance, but only in the chorus of Bernhardt’s distinguished fans).
The quotations are in fact wonderful, both for what they reveal about Sarah and for what they reveal about her admirers (or in the puritanical case of G.B. Shaw and a few indignant bishops, her detractors). Here is D.H. Lawrence at 23, already sounding like himself (Sarah was 63 at the time): ”There she is, the incarnation of wild emotion which we share with all live things….She represents the primeval passions of woman….I could love such a woman myself, love her to madness; all for the pure wild passion of it.” And William James: ”The most race-horsey, high-mettled human being I’ve ever seen.”
Very famous people are usually most interesting before they become institutions. In a trajectory from struggling nobody to household name we can sort out the character, persistence, early mentors, and pure luck that made them remarkable. Especially in the case of Sarah, daughter of a Jewish courtesan from Amsterdam — her father, among her mother’s many patrons, remains a mystery. The energetic, tempestuous little girl looked like nothing but stupidity and trouble to her mother, who whisked her off to convent school outside Paris, where she decided to become a nun. Fortunately, one of the lovers, distracted from the mother by the daughter’s budding beauty, took her to the Comédie Française, and she experienced her one real conversion. But she floundered onstage at 16 and had to take up her mother’s horizontal line of work for years before she finally made her reputation as an actress (not that the two professions were clearly distinguished).
The rest is all here: world tours, receptions by royalty (sometimes while royalty was in bed), the coffin she slept in, the stuffed vampire bat in the bedroom, the pet cheetah, chameleons, and monkey (named Darwin), her illegitimate playboy son, her legitimate drug-addicted playboy husband, her lovers ardent and cynical, her steamy, pleading, and evasive letters to them. Baffled by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, she confined herself to the French classics, Shakespeare, and above all romantic melodrama. Her performances, though less stagy than the traditional manner, would seem stylized and elaborate to audiences now, but this book makes it certain that she would seduce us anyway — it’s something at which she never failed. A-