“the most famous actress the world has ever known” - On Sarah Bernhardt's Birthday

22 October 1844, Sarah Bernhardt, “the most famous actress the world has ever known”, was born in Paris.
“Once the curtain is raised, the actor ceases to belong to himself. He belongs to his character, to his author, to his public. He must do the impossible to identify himself with the first, not to betray the second, and not to disappoint the third. And to this end the actor must forget his personality and throw aside his joys and sorrows. He must present the public with the reality of a being who for him is only a fiction. With his own eyes, he must shed the tears of the other. With his own voice, he must groan the anguish of the other. His own heart beats as if it would burst, for it is the other's heart that beats in his heart. And when he retires from a tragic or dramatic scene, if he has properly rendered his character, he must be panting and exhausted.” (Sarah Bernhardt)
Sarah Bernhardt, portrayed in 1876 by the French painter Georges Clairin
(1843 – 1911)

When little Miss Henriette Rosine, one of the six children the Dutch Jewess Julie Hirsch had with the ganef Moritz Baruch Bernardt and raised under rather difficult conditions, finally had acquired a Europe-wide fame as an actress after the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the world had changed significantly. Before the Transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858, news took at least 30 days to travel from London and Paris to New York and at least 4 more weeks to reach San Francisco. Now, in the 1870s and 80s, it was a mere minutes. The railroad allowed comfortable traveling between the European capitals in days and White Star’s ocean liners crossed the broad Atlantic in under a week. Within two decades, the world moved closer together than ever before – the basic precondition for the phenomenon of world stars that came into existence during the second half of the 19th century.

Giovanni Boldini's portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (around 1880)

A paradigm change in musical and dramatic theory already had begun to relieve the profession of actors and singers from being pariah – as they were for centuries – into serious, artists and women like Jenny Lind, Nellie Melba, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt could celebrate stage successes that were unheard of before, some, like Jenny Lind, even at times when travel still meant stage coaches and sailing ships. Sarah Bernhardt, however, excelled them all. Liaisons with artists like Marcel Proust and Gustave Doré, flying over a Paris in a Montgolfière, sleeping in a coffin to empathise with tragic roles, keeping a pet zoo and dividing her time between Paris and international tours, every one of them a smashing success, Sarah Bernhardt really put on a show for her countless fans from all over the world, Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander III among them.

One of Alphonse Mucha's famous posters 
advertising Sarah Bernhardt,
Dame aux camélias, naturally

Alexandre Dumas fils, whose stage version of “la Dame aux camélias“ became Sarah’s signature tune, described her once as a notorious liar with a tendency to exaggerate and distort, nonetheless, her immense talent is beyond dispute. She scintillated in playing classical as well as contemporary roles, versatile to the point of convincingly impersonating Hamlet on stage and sticking in the memory of her audience especially with her rich voice and her gracefulness and her temperament, even until her advanced age, when she had lost a leg – and even she refused to get the limb exhibited by P.T. Barnum – and carried on to be simply incomparable. Her last performances were staged until her death in 1923 and, according to contemporary critics, she had lost nothing of her glamour.

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