Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Playwright Theresa Rebeck about her work on Bernhardt/Hamlet.

Ted Sod: What inspired you to write Bernhardt/Hamlet? This play was commissioned by Roundabout—are there any specific challenges in writing a commissioned play? Theresa Rebeck: The inspiration happened during a trip to Prague. My family is from Czechia and Slovakia, so we went there to experience the culture for ourselves and encountered those gorgeous prints by Alphonse Mucha. You can actually buy full-size copies of his work at the Mucha museum! We got one of Sarah Bernhardt playing Medea, with her children’s bodies swimming at her feet, that still hangs next to my front door. It used to terrify my children, but they got over it. Her eyes really are so haunting in that poster. As a theatre artist, of course you’re always aware of Sarah Bernhardt, but that poster was the real inspiration for me to write a play about her. Jill Rafson approached me about writing a play for the Roundabout, and when I described my thoughts they immediately commissioned the play. I’m honored that the Roundabout has supported this play—a play about how difficult it is to mount a production in a professional theatre!—and commend them for giving new work an opportunity on the big stage.

TS: Will you give us a sense of the kind of research you had to do in order to write this play and how you went about doing it? TR: Unfortunately, film came around right at the end of Sarah’s career, and there’s only one video of her acting—and the video’s quality is really not great—but there is a wealth of resources about her out there (there’s even a book specifically about her playing Hamlet). In my research I also learned about her important collaborations with Edmond Rostand and their relationship. I also read a lot of her own writing and included some of it in the play. She was quite brilliant and had a lot to say about acting and celebrity, which is very much at the center of the play. But this isn’t a history play by any means. The truth of her playing Hamlet, the fundamental questions and ramifications of her character, isn’t located in the exact dates of performances and birthdays, or the specificities around what exactly she said and when she said it. The research I did was all in service of putting a character on the stage: what kind of person she was, what infuriated her, what made her rapturous, what are the essential questions of the event itself.

TS: Will you talk about the development process for this play? Do you expect to continue to rewrite throughout the upcoming RTC process? If so, what type of events usually motivate your revisions during rehearsals or previews? TR: I don’t anticipate any major rewrites. We’ve done several readings and a workshop of the play at the end of June; it feels ready for rehearsal. Even so, when someone comes up with a good idea, I tend to just write it in. Being in the room with bright, creative professionals really spurs the writing process and makes rewriting not only intellectually stimulating—really engaging with the play, finding ways to make it shine brighter and brighter—but an absolute blast as well.

Theresa Rebeck

TS: Janet McTeer has been cast in the role of Sarah Bernhardt and has been involved in various developmental readings. Can you tell us what that collaboration has been like? TR: It is an astonishing privilege to work with Janet McTeer. We knew going in that we would need someone who could not only portray the greatest actress of the 19th century, but also the greatest actress of the 19th century in the greatest production of Hamlet of the 19th century. She’s all of that and more. She’s funny, smart, vulnerable, frustrated, strong—she has so many colors, and she’s mercurial, dazzling. She’s thrown herself in head-first to discover this character, and from day one she made incredibly prescient observations about who this person was and what drove her. I’m incredibly grateful to have her onboard.

TS: Your play deals with how successful women are often vilified or penalized for having traits that are celebrated in men. How some women are criticized for prioritizing their career over being a parent. The play also makes some very salient points about gender and sexual politics. Why were you interested in writing about these subjects? TR: You know, it’s a topic that unfortunately just doesn’t seem to go away. She was certainly the greatest actor of her time, and even so, the questions all came up. She was getting a little too old for the ingénue parts, and the parts that she should have been offered when she was at the height of her powers just weren’t out there. She had no choice but to start playing men, and she walked straight into that old canard that men can play women but


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