Sarah Bernhardt

Definition

Theater

  • (Henriette Rosine Bernard; 1844 - 1923) One of the stage'smost admired and tempestuous actresses. Born in Paris, the illegitimatedaughter of a courtesan, Sarah was a sickly tubercular child, whoconsidered becoming a nun. She changed her mind after being takento the Comédie-Française to see Racine's Britannicusand subsequently spent two years training at the Conservatoire. Shemade her stage debut in 1862, taking the lead in Racine's Iphigénieat the Comédie-Française. Always difficult, she wasdismissed for fighting with an actress backstage. Sarah, noted forher romantic looks and melodious voice, began a series of love affairswith famous men, including Prince Henri de Ligne, who gave her a son.

    Her first great triumph came in 1868, when she played in Dumas'sKean at Paris's odeon Theatre. Admirers would assemble outsidethe theater to unfasten the horses from her carriage and pull herhome themselves. She was becoming the most talked-about woman in Parisand her parties drew such guests as the Prince of Wales and OscarWilde, who wrote Salomé (in French) for her.

    This growing renown led to Bernhardt's reinstatement at the Comédie-Française,where in 1874 she gave the most sublime performance of her careeras Racine's Phèdre. She was one of the stage's most versatileactresses, even playing Hamlet. Other famous roles included MargueriteGautier in Dumas's La dame aux camélias.

    Sarah gave her first London performance in 1879 at the GaietyTheatre, where she thrilled the British audience as Cleopatra. Thiswas despite taking opium for a fever one evening and forgetting 200lines. In 1880 she likewise conquered America, giving 157 performancesin 51 cities from Montreal to New Orleans. At the age of 71 she hada diseased leg amputated but continued to act, performing as the 18-year-oldJoan of Arc with a wooden leg.

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