Sarah Bernhardt: how to build a triumph, one defeat at a time.

In the sparkling Paris of the end of the Second Empire (1852-1870), a jew-born actress could flaunt, at just 24 years old, that she had stormed out, burning her bridges, of the Comédie-Française, the sacred temple of French theatre, and then that she had a great comeback – against all odds – on the Odéon’s stage, the beautiful theatre in the University district.

Her name was Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and her career would teach posterity that there is no fall you can’t get up from.

The Odéon Theatre is on the left bank of the Seine, in the middle of the University District.

(Read about how Sarah left the Comédie-Française after giving some good slapping in Sarah Bernhardt: women who persist are dangerous… because they triumph!)

At the time of that unexpected triumph, the Comédie Française had just changed director, and he still hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting the elusive Sarah.

The echo of that first, great success, inevitably came tickling his ear… and his pockets, bien-sûr!

The comeback was complete: the legendary company, founded by Moliére himself, that humiliated her, now wanted her back. Sara joined the ranks of the Comédie again, with a complete triumph!

The director couldn’t know the size of the fish he had chosen to fry. I gather he then did, around the time he chose to nickname her “Mademoiselle Révolte” (Miss Riot).

Sarah Bernhardt Ruy Blas
Sarah Bernhardt, in her thirties, playing Queen Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo.

Naturally, the dame who collects the credits from every success came knocking at Sarah’s door, like clockwork, and she would knock more than the postman. She’s called – and you know her well, I’m sure – Madame Envy.

The atmosphere Sarah breathed when she was with her colleagues of the Comédie – who were insulted by a half-full room only when she wasn’t in a show – had the sweet fragrance of arsenic.
To have a little taste of it, this is the warning she received on the eve of the ceremony honouring Moliére’s birth.

My poor skeleton,
you’d better not show your horrible jew nose at the ceremony, the day after tomorrow. I fear it could be a target for all the apples they’re cooking for you in fair Paris.

A lovely note, for sure. However, if the sender’s idea was to intimidate Sarah Bernhardt, he – or she – was sorely mistaken. Even if everyone had advised her against going, shouting “j’adore la bataille!” (“I love the fight!”) not only Sarah showed up at the ceremony, but she was the life of the party.

Everyone claimed she was the queen of the evening, and all the newspapers basically talked only about her.

Sarah drammatica
Sarah Bernhardt in one of her famous dramatic poses.

So, it’s easy to imagine that it couldn’t have been the terrible working environment created by her colleagues to drive a tiger-like Sarah away from the Comédie a second time, but rather her desperate need for professional independence.

Georges Clairin, Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (1884 -1902, Musée d’Orsay).

Sarah knew how to improve a show, she gave scene directions, gimmicks to charm the audience, but the Comédie never listened to her, just used her as a mean to attract viewers.

One day, she was given a part that didn’t fit her at all.

She protested. She was ignored. She was a no-show at the rehearsals, she was reprimanded. She asked for the debut date of the show to be moved on. They denied it.

It was a terrible failure. Sarah’s fury must have had the fiery proportions of the 79 a.c. Vesuvian eruption.

To make sure that her final decision couldn’t be prevented, the Divine sent her letter of resignation to the press even before sending it to the director of the ComédieFrançaise… who wasn’t happy about that and sued her.

Sarah Bernhardt’s coat of arms: the motto “Quand même” (’in spite of everything’ or ‘at any cost’, it’s difficult to find a fitting translation, but that’s the rough sense) slithers on her initials and has a tragic mask, a sword and a puppet over it.

The natural conclusion of this story should see her ruined, forgotten, kaput but – quand même! – Sarah took flight towards fame and fortune outside of France.

London, first, then Belgium, Denmark, even the United States, where The Divine held her hand out with grace, waiting for someone to kiss it, but only obtained very confusing American handshakes.

When she came back to Paris, she discovered that the Ville Lumière, still resentful for her betrayal, had forgotten her. Despair? Never! Sarah just needed to go back on a stage and, if no one would give her one, she would have taken one all by herself – as always – quand même!

The opportunity arose at the commemoration of the 14 of July at the Opéra, attended by the President of the Republic and the chief of government.

Between the various performances, an inevitable Marsellaise was listed. Madame Agar should have sung it. She was in her fifties then and madly in love with a gorgeous captain, much younger than her, serving at Tours, as Sarah – and anyone really – knew well.

Portrait of Mme Agar and her weak spot.

Stage left, enters Sarah, with the terrible – and completely bogus – news that the captain had fallen from his horse, and laid wounded in a bed, at Tours. Madame Agar, shocked, jumped in a carriage to get to her beloved, making her swear to inform the Opéra so they could quickly find an understudy.

We can picture dear, caring Sarah, waving her handkerchief at the carriage that takes off… while a nice stage costume peeks from her suitcase.

Obviously, the overall embarrassment when Sarah entered the Opéra stage was considerable.

Behind the scenes people were stammering, the audience was as silent as frozen in ice, someone surely laughed… but the scene that was going to develop would have hopelessly moved the patriotic spirit of the whole room, the president included: Sarah Bernhardt rose from her ashes, clad in the beloved French flag, and started to sing the first notes of the national anthem (wonderfully, truly!).

Score, Sarah! Triumph was inevitable: the star was born again, and this time, never to wane again!

Sarah Bernhardt and the many ways her peers used to call her. You could love her, or you could hate her, but you couldn’t do the only thing that could really defeat her: ignore her!

(Read about how Sarah Bernhardt shaped the image of the modern “diva”, making a constant show even of her private life in: Sarah Bernhardt: the show goes on behind the curtains!)