"THE EXISTENCE OF SARAH BERNHARDT REMAINS THE SUPREME MARVEL OF THE 19TH CENTURY. THE ASTOUNDING RANGE SHE EXHIBITED AS AN ACTRESS
BAFFLED THE IMAGINATION OF HER PUBLIC.” - EDMOND ROSTAND
Romanticism, the reigning artistic movement of the day, established itself in French theatre in 1830 with Victor Hugo’s spectacularly successful Romantic drama Hernani. French Romanticism can generally be characterized as a reaction against Classicism, the major artistic philosophy of the previous centuries, which emphasized a tight balance between reason and emotion in art and strictly adhered to the standards of ancient Greek tragedy. Romanticism, on the other hand, leaned towards naturalistic narration and explored more deeply the complexities of the individual spirit. Romantic artists, though still interested in a well-structured composition of story, departed from the Greek unities, which set strict limits on the time, location, and action of a “proper” drama. With the Romantic movement came an increase in artistic freedom; as Victor Hugo wrote, “Romanticism is Liberalism in literature.”• .
The Palais Garnier opera house, photographed around 1900. The Palais Garnier, completed in 1875, was one of the theatres constructed during La Belle Époque.
A SELECTION OF BERNHARDT’S ROLES
LA DAME AUX CAMÉLIAS One of Bernhardt’s most popular roles was Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan with a heart of gold and a fatal case of consumption. Marguerite gives up the only man she ever loved to save his bourgeoisie family from scandal but reunites with him on her deathbed. Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, the 1852 play was an international success. Bernhardt first played Marguerite in 1880 and continued through 1913.
The sprawling 1834 play by Romantic poet and playwright Alfred de Musset was not produced until Bernhardt took it on in 1896. The male role of Lorenzo de Medici, who murders his tyrant cousin, seemed a promising vehicle for Bernhardt, but critics did not laud the play.
LA SAMARITAINE Edmond Rostand’s biblical drama initially had a short but successful
run during Easter of 1897. Rostand wrote the lead character Photina— an ancient Palestinian woman who becomes a follower of Jesus and converts her tribe to Christianity—for Bernhardt. It remained one of her favorite characters, and she revived the play several times.
CYRANO DE BERGERAC Set in 17th century Paris, Rostand’s verse drama features the large-nosed Cyrano, who gives his voice and poems to a handsome but inarticulate rival to woo beautiful Roxane, whom he secretly loves. The 1897 premiere received an hour-long ovation. Bernhardt did not originate Roxane but played her on tour in 1900.
In what would become a signature role, Bernhardt played the son of Napoleon I, whose nickname was “the little Eagle” or “Eaglet.” Rostand wrote the historic, six-act drama for Bernhardt in 1900, and she was
Alphonse Mucha’s poster for the 1896 production of La Dame aux Camélias was one of Bernhardt’s favorites.
praised by critics upon its premiere. The play exemplified Romanticism and celebrated the glory of Napoleon’s victories.
BERNHARDT/HAMLET UPSTAGE GUIDE
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