Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Sarah Bernhardt

Episode Summary

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the most famous stage actress of the 19th century, and the first international stage star. Her unusual persona divided critics, and captured the adoration of fans around the world.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

This episode was brought to you by Black Benefactors, a giving circle based in Washington, DC whose mission is to enhance the well-being of Black children, youth and families by encouraging philanthropy, community service and advocacy in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. To make a donation, please visit https://www.blackbenefactors.org/.

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Correction: A previous version of this episode erroneously referred to WWII.

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

In case you’re just tuning in for the very first time, welcome! Here’s the deal. Every weekday we’re telling the stories of women from around the world and throughout history who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed. To start off season 2, this month we’re talking about Leading Ladies, women who dazzled on and off the small and large screens with their dramatic and/or comedic skills. 

Today we’re talking about the most famous stage actress of the 19th century, and the first international stage star. Her unusual persona divided critics, and captured the adoration of fans around the world. Let’s talk about Sarah Bernhardt. 

Sarah Bernhardt was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in late October of 1844 in Paris, France. Her mother was a Dutch courtesan for rich clients in the city, and her father’s identity is unknown. Sarah spent much of her childhood in either a French boarding school or a convent, to stay out of her mother’s work.

Sarah was a stubborn child and initially insisted she wanted to be a nun. Nevertheless, one of Sarah’s mothers’ lovers, the Duke de Morny, arranged for Sarah to enter a school of acting called the Paris Conservatoire. She was 16 years old.

There, Sarah was not considered particularly talented. The feelings of mediocrity were mutual. Sarah didn’t particularly care for the school’s teaching methods. In 1862, Sarah left and joined a national theater known as the Comédie-Française. After just one year, her contract was canceled when she slapped a senior actress for disrespecting Sarah’s younger sister.

Sarah found roles in another theater company for a while, including one as a Russian princess, before taking a break from acting. While away, she had the first of what would be many love affairs over the course of her life. This one was with Henri, prince de Ligne.  Sarah gave birth to her only child soon after. Throughout her life, Sarah would be linked to many famous men. 

By 1866, Sarah had returned to acting, and was performing at the Odeon theater.. This time, she captured the public’s adoration and the attention of critics. Her roles included Minstrel Zanetto in the play Le Passant (The Passerby). While performing that role, Napoleon III came to see Sarah in action.

Critics felt mixed about Sarah.  George Bernard Shaw called her acting “childishly egotistical.” Victor Hugo, on the other hand, loved her performances. Rumors claimed that Sarah and Victor also had an affair.

In 1872, Sarah returned to the Comédie-Française, increasingly playing larger parts and eventually earning critical acclaim She played the title characters in Voltaire’s Zaire and Jean Racine’s Phedre and she played Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. 

In 1880, Sarah formed her own acting troupe and embarked on many long international tours, traveling throughout Europe, the Americas, and Australia. 

Sarah had a unique charm both onstage and off. Many who wrote about her work mentioned her “silvery” voice, comparing it to a flute or bells. 

She was also famously unconventional off stage. She traveled with a horde of animals, including a cheetah, wolf, alligator, and boa-constrictor. She also claimed that she slept in a coffin, which she brought with her on her international tours. A widely shared photograph depicts  Sarah apparently sleeping in her coffin, surrounded by flowers. 

On top of all that, there were her rumored lovers! In addition to Victor Hugo, some claimed that she had an affair with the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII!

Sarah played one iconic role after another, packing theater after theater. In 1899, she played Hamlet in Paris and London, becoming one of the first women to do so. The same year, she started running the Théâtre des Nations, which she renamed the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt and managed until her death.

In 1905, Sarah injured her knee jumping off a parapet during a scene. A decade later, that leg had to be amputated due to gangrene. Sarah didn’t let that stop her career! She continued her international tours, and took roles she could play while sitting. Some playwrights wrote new roles specifically for Sarah.

In addition to acting, Sarah was also a writer. She wrote an autobiography, plays, and poetry throughout her career.  In 1920, she published a novel called Petite Idole, in which the heroine lived an idealized version of her own career. 

Sarah passed away on March 26, 1923. When news of her death spread, almost half a million people flooded the streets of Paris in tribute. 

All month we’re talking about leading ladies. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!