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'The Art of High Drama'

April 13, 2006 By:
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Sarah Bernhardt. For anyone enamored of the theater, hers is a mythic name. And for anyone with the added love of Proust, Bernhardt is twice mythic, as she appears in the French novelist's great seven-part work, In Search of Lost Time, as the adored Berma; in fact, the novel's central character, Marcel, evokes her example many times as the paragon of artistry.

But Bernhardt is now so much a creature of a distant past - especially so to our media-saturated world - that her name may also be a bit musty and in need of refurbishing. Just such an act of redefinition appears to have been the goal of Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, a catalogue, published by Yale University Press, that accompanies an exhibition that ran until just recently at New York's Jewish Museum.

The work of Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, with additional contributions by Janis Bergman-Carton, Karen Levitov and Suzanne Schwarz Zuber, the volume is not only an abundantly illustrated art book, but a highly readable one as well. It is also particularly eye-opening for those with a fixed idea of this monumental artist. She was one of the first international celebrities taken up by the then-burgeoning and ever-more-pervasive newspaper culture, which was just beginning to feel its oats in the latter part of the 19th century, when Bernhardt reigned on the European stage.

According to Ockman and Silver's introductory essay, titled "The Mythic Sarah Bernhardt," the actress - who by the dawn of the 20th century would be beloved throughout the world, and not just on the continent - was the daughter of a courtesan and born in Paris in 1844. As the child of such a well-placed woman, Bernhardt was introduced to most of the influential aristocrats in Europe.

"Through her mother's connections," the authors write, "she entered the Conservatoire; admission to the elite acting school enabled her to join the company of the Comédie Française, the most revered theater in France. No sooner had she been elevated to the pinnacle of this artistic pantheon than she up and left for the fame and fortune of popular theaters and international tours. Notoriously promiscuous, Bernhardt had a son out of wedlock years before her short-lived marriage to a mediocre actor who was addicted to morphine."

To complicate matters even further, Bernhardt's mother was Jewish. According to Ockman and Silver, this fact became both a blessing and a curse. "In biblical roles such as Photine, the heroine of Edmond Rostand's La Samaritaine, she turned her Semitic exoticism into an alluring attribute. In the poster by Alphonse Mucha for the play, the Hebrew inscription 'Jahweh' appears behind Bernhardt's head, while 'Shaddai,' another Hebrew word for God, accompanies the inset figure. Playing to the public's appetite for beautiful Jewesses redeemed by their conversion to Christianity, Bernhardt in the role of the Samaritan woman adheres to a faith resembling pre-rabbinical Judaism. Almost Jewish, but not quite, Photine is a sort of surrogate for Bernhardt and her equivocal religious identity."

As it turned out, Bernhardt was baptized when young and raised as a Catholic, though the authors make clear that this fact did not shield her from anti-Semitic attacks. In fact, that may be the most fascinating, though shocking, element of the book - that someone so beloved, whose fans sent one another colored postcards of the actress in her most famous roles, a woman whose visage was reproduced an inordinate number of times - could also be so vilified so vituperatively. That is why, in my judgment, the most interesting section of the book is the chapter titled "Sarah Bernhardt and the Theatrics of French Nationalism: From Roland's Daughter to Napoleon's Son," the work of Silver alone.

Here one sees the extent of the attacks on Bernhardt and how this all played out during the notorious Dreyfus Affair - and, in addition, how Proust made use of it in his portrait of the actress Berma. (Not surprisingly, for a novel that deals with the question of identity, the Dreyfus Affair plays a central role in In Search of Lost Time.) As Silverman notes, Bernhardt was "an interpreter of national figures, a centrist Republican and a great French patriot." But many of the French could not let her forget that she'd been born of a Jewish mother, despite the fact that she'd been baptized.

But the real glory of Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama are its wondrous illustrations. Everything is pictured: Bernhardt's daily wardrobe, the costumes she used on stage, fan letters written to her by other illustrious artists, all of the various and sundry advertisements and memorabilia that carried her likeness, the posters and oil paintings she posed for, the photographs of her that were mass produced and, yes, many examples of the vicious caricatures that filled both the arts pages of mainstream newspapers and countless anti-Semitic publications. It's a wealth of material, fascinating in and of itself, all of it splendidly reproduced.

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