Sara Bernhardt

THAT comparisons are odious some one said long before Shakespeare’s time, although, I believe, the saying has been traced no farther back; but the fact that it was used by his contemporaries and the form in which he puts it into the mouth of Dogberry show that it must have been well known when Much Ado about Nothing was written. Such odiousness as there is in comparison springs from a consciousness that men and women should be judged simply by what they are, liked or disliked for themselves, and not because they come near or fall short of the merit of some other person. There is reason in this feeling, unless comparison is provoked by imitation or by pretension ; and yet the very essence of criticism, itself merely the rationale of appreciation, is comparison, — comparison either with an ideal standard or with instances of long-established merit of high order.

In the criticism of literature and of art, both these comparisons are usually made and insensibly mingled. Comparison of this kind is inevitable, and within certain bounds it is fair. The temptation to carry it beyond reasonable bounds is very great in the case of an artist like the distinguished French-German-Hebrew actress who is now visiting this country professionally, and who had a French - Hebrew predecessor so eminent that the shadow of her great name stretches from beyond the tomb across the threshold of the Théatre Française. Nor has she been brought before us in such a manner as to disarm this sort of criticism.

When I took my seat in Booth’s theatre to assist at Mademoiselle Sara Bernhardt’s performance of Adrienne Lecouvreur, I was as thoroughly prejudiced against her as I ever allow myself to be against anybody or anything. First, there was my memory of Rachel, as fresh and clear and sharp as if I had seen her yesterday; and although I did not forget that nature is exhaustless, and that great phenomena, including great artists, are sure to be followed by other phenomena equally great, yet I could not but remember that in all the arts there have been periods peculiar in rich production followed by periods of corresponding barrenness, and I could not but doubt that the great mother had so soon brought forth one who was worthy to be named with Rachel, as I heard Mademoiselle Bernhardt named. Then there were the announcements of her coming, or rather of the coming of her toilettes, — of her gowns and her stockings, of the number and variety of which latter integuments the descriptions were instructive and highly edifying, — the publication of the particulars of her contract, and all the gossip and tattle that was kept a-going in the press about her most trivial actions. Nor was the conduct of our British cousins toward her without its depressing effect. Surely the general public and the high society of London have rarely appeared in a less admirable light than on this occasion. The extravagance of their behavior was quite equal to that of the people of New York on the first visit of Jenny Lind, with this difference : that in the latter case the object of the demonstration was not only of the highest distinction as an artist, but a person of estimable character and irreproachable life, and that no such attentions were offered her in New York by people of the best social position as were showered upon Mademoiselle Bernhardt, in a kind of frenzy, by people of the highest rank in London. The photograph of “ Mademoiselle Bernhardt et son fils ” has not yet, at least, proved to be a carte-de-visite that opened the doors of “ society ” in this country.

Then there were the portraits themselves, photographic and other. Surely nothing could be less likely to awaken a desire to see the original. Even the pencil of Bastien Le Page, the greatest portrait-painter of the French school, could do nothing to refine the lines and elevate the character of that face. And as I recollected in how comparatively modest and reserved a manner Rachel had made her entrance upon the American stage, the result of the reflection was anything but favorable to the actress who was brought forward as the worthy occupant of her vacant pedestal.

When, as I sat in this mood, Mademoiselle Bernhardt finally appeared, all my unfavorable impressions were deepened. A face which at the first glance appeared almost ignoble and quite incapable of lending itself to the expression of the finer and grander emotions ; a figure deplorably deficient in all womanly beauty ; a carriage equally without grace and dignity ; nothing worthy of remark but a flood of wavy golden-brown hair deliberately poured down her back, — this was the woman, this the tragedian, I had come to see. Her drapery hung upon her like bunting on a flagstaff on a breezeless day. Such curves as she had curved all the wrong way; and as a mere physical phenomenon it is somewhat startling to find concavity where convexity is the order of nature.

Fifteen minutes had hardly passed before I found my mental attitude toward the actress changing rapidly. While Mademoiselle Bernhardt remained in repose and was only herself in a somewhat grotesque and ill-borne costume, she was the least attractive person on the stage ; but when she began to speak and to move as Adrienne, under the influence of the incidents of the scene I found myself at once interested. When she recognized Michonnet, — her first manifestation of feeling, — and owned to the gossiping abbé her obligations to her humble master and adorer, I felt at once that she possessed the power both of nature and of art, that she could both know and do. At each step in the progress of the scene I became more and more absorbed in watching her manifestations of thought and feeling; and before the curtain fell upon the first act I felt and heartily acknowledged that I was in the presence of one of the most charming actresses I had ever seen, and one, moreover, the nature of whose power had not been worthily nor, it seemed to me, correctly set forth in any criticism of her that I had met with. This appreciation of her was heightened as the play proceeded, and confirmed by subsequent opportunities of observation.

Sara Bernhardt is not a great artist ; and I doubt that by any study or effort of which she is capable she will ever become a great artist. Perhaps, however, it would be more correct to say that she is not an artist in the grand style, and that by the limitations of her nature, moral and physical, she is incapable of that style. Her power, strange to say, is chiefly a personal power. Of intellectual force, or even of intellectual subtlety, she suggests but little; and her moral nature seems to be as thin and weak as her physique. You are interested in the feelings and in the experience of the woman : feelings which hardly rise to the dignity of emotions; experience which is hardly beyond the range of the occurrences of every-day life. Her exhibitions of love, of joy, of grief, of feminine petulance and feminine perplexity, of delight in life, of interest in all the little incidents which go to make up social intercourse, — these it is which make the charm of her acting: and in this department of her art the present day has not seen her superior, — hardly, I believe, her equal. Under the influence of these feelings her face becomes transformed, almost transfigured. I have never seen on the stage, or in real life, a countenance so changed and so elevated by passing from repose into action. The face which before seems like the faded picture of some other face, not lovely, becomes instinct with intelligence and charged, surcharged, with expression. You then see that her eyes are really fine; they become large and brilliant, full of meaning and of light; and her mouth has a sweet expressiveness which, when compared with the character of its lines in repose, is marvelous. No actress that I remember is her equal in the assumption of a look of ecstatic joy. Inspired and remoulded by the expression of this emotion, the eyes and lips of that mean and almost sordid visage, which defies the skill of painters and shames the art of photography, become angelic, worthy of Raphael’s conception of a cherub. Such a radiation of purity and tenderness, such an abandonment to simple, confiding, all-absorbing happiness, is rarely seen portrayed in any form of art, — rarely even in very nature. There is almost a childish naïveté in her look. When, as Adrienne, she throws herself into Maurice de Saxe’s arms, and putting her hands upon his shoulders looks up into his face, it is not the love of an actress of experiences that she expresses; it is that of a pure young girl in her first love, who in her first lover sees and worships a demi-god. When, as Frou Frou, she sits upon her father’s knee, and gives vent to her delight at the proposal of marriage that promises to remove her sister from the household in which she has usurped her place, it is less the relief of a jealous woman freed from the tormenting presence of her rival that we see than the delight of a nature which seems incapable of suspicion in the anticipation of a coming joy. And it is this light, sweet girlishness of her emotional expression which makes Frou Frou the most charming and completely satisfactory of her impersonations. She is fully capable of sounding the little rippling flood of Frou Frou’s thin and feeble but captivating nature, which “ like shallow streams, runs dimpling all the way.” When she gets into deeper waters her plummet is too short.

All through this play her action, that is, her movement on the stage, her gesture, the little tricks of her face, the management of her drapery, the very twisting of her wiry fingers, is full of significance. In all this detail the keeping of her impersonation approaches the marvelous. She charms and satisfies by doing that which a really great artist would not do, — that which a really great artist would be above, and which would therefore prevent a really great artist from assuming this part, which has not the boldness of outline, the largeness and simplicity which are required in the subject of great histrionic art. Frou Frou is a genre picture, and therefore properly and even necessarily descends to details that would be offensively impertinent in a heroic composition. The peculiar fitness of Mademoiselle Bernhardt for this department of her art is shown positively and negatively in Adrienne Lecouvreur. That play, poor as it is (and indeed, except in furnishing opportunities to actors, most modern French plays are very poor), demands for the representation of its principal personage a wide range of power. Adrienne is to love her hero with fervor and abandonment of self ; she is to love old Père Michonnet in a sweet, confiding, half child-like, half patronizing way, and this phase of the character Mademoiselle Bernhardt presented with a charmful skill which, with all my memories of the great Adrienne in mind, seemed to me quite unsurpassed, if, indeed, it were not unsurpassable ; for it left nothing imaginable to be desired. But Adrienne is also to be a great tragic actress, who sees herself robbed of her lover by a great lady, a princess, with whom she is brought into direct contact; she is to be jealous with the jealousy of Juno ; she is to stand on a plane above that to which any mere grande dame can mount, and look down thence upon her princely rival; she is to use the words of Phèdre to pour out scorn upon that rival in the presence of the husband whom she has dishonored. Here Mademoiselle Bernhardt, tried not by comparison with any other actress, but by the ideal standard which is formed upon an examination of the structure of the play, falls notably short of its requirements. She has not naturally the mien of a great tragic actress, nor can she assume it; her jealousy is fretful and distressing to see; she snaps and snarls at the princess as one cat snaps and snarls at another ; and in the scene from Phèdre she raves and shrieks, and shakes her finger in the princess’s face in a manner which is not only quite undignified, but which would not be tolerated; which is indeed peu convenable. There is no reserve in her action in this scene, no withering implication of more than she says, no concealment of the dagger which she means to make her rival feel; but, on the contrary, we see a screaming, impotent scold, who takes an opportunity to unpack her heart with words and give “ that woman ” a piece of her mind. To the representation of the nobler side of Adrienne’s character Mademoiselle Bernhardt is quite inadequate.

Of the grand, the heroic, the truly tragic in general, she is incapable ; not intellectually, perhaps, but morally and physically. She may have an intellectual perception of the heroic, but she lacks that breadth and strength and richness of soul, that firm and self-poised mien, the result of a complete physical soundness and stability (for it is not necessarily accompanied by physical force), without which the grand style is impossible, — without which, indeed, even dignity (not inner dignity of soul, but that dignity which impresses others) is impossible. The very same attitude which expresses dignity in the great blood-hound in Landseer’s well-known picture expresses impudence in the little terrier. Mademoiselle Bernhardt is over weighted by tragedy. Sharp-shooting is a fine art in arms, and is deadly business ; but in vain will you bombard a fortress with rifles.

Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s constitutional deficiency for certain departments of her art is, it need hardly be said, much more apparent in tragedy than in mere drame (to use a French term which means a realistic dramatic composition, not either tragedy or comedy, and which may have a serious catastrophe), more in the classic than in the romantic drama. Wherefore her Phèdre, the only classic tragedy in which she has appeared here at the time of the writing of this article, is the most inadequate of her impersonations, although it is one of the most interesting of her performances. It is interesting in a certain way and to certain people, because it embodies, although imperfectly, a fine conception, and is in a measure informed by the intelligence of a great histrionic genius. But as grand tragedy it is a conspicuous failure. It is Frou Frou playing Phèdre ; poor little Frou Frou in her private theatricals attempting the grand rôle of Rachel. I shall not censure Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s performance of this character ; for it is really not her fault that she cannot play it, no more than it is her fault that she cannot put up a fifty-six-pound weight. She has not the moral breadth of nature or the physical stamina for the part, which she plays like a love-sick Mabille girl in a consumption, and yet with constant suggestions of her great predecessor.

Rachel was slender, but she was not attenuated. She produced no impression of ill health or of feebleness. On the contrary, she was lithe, compact, and firm, and always looked well settled where she stood. It seems as if a puff of wind would blow Mademoiselle Bernhardt off the stage, as if a gust of auger or of derision would topple her morally in the dust. Hence chiefly her great unfitness for the impersonation of such a character as that of Phèdre, which to sustain it requires the force of a great personality. Phædra’s story is not quite so well known as that of some other noted Greek women ; for the poets have shunned it. Most of the readers of The Atlantic probably know the tale of lawless love and implacable revenge which Racine made the subject of this tragedy : how Phædra, the wife of Theseus, the legendary Greek hero, became enamored of Hippolytus, his son by a former marriage, and being repulsed by him accused him to his father of a hideous crime, and afterwards ended her own life by poison. Racine varied from the old story by making Phædra’s nurse Œnone, instead of the queen herself, accuse Hippolytus to Theseus of the guilty passion which she alone had felt, and has thus restored some sympathy to a heroine who needed all that she could command. The undertaking of such a character as Phèdre in the present day showed the audacity of Rachel’s genius ; for she restored it to the modern stage. If the tragedy were played as Racine wrote it to be played and saw it played, chains and bristling sentinels would be required to keep a modern audience in their seats during this dispensation of big-wigged tragedy. The Phèdre of Racine is little less than ridiculous ; yet the Phèdre of Rachel, speaking Racine’s words, was terrible. The fine, smooth verse which he wove so painfully and so prettily, she used only as a canvas, which she covered from our eyes with pictured scenes of passion. Her performance was in truth but a series of such scenes, somewhat disconnected. It has been called statuesque ; but her country has produced one great painter whose learning, whose severe classical taste and antique grace, took form in pictures to which her impersonations might be better compared ; for were the figures of Nicolas Poussin endowed with life, they would speak and move with the accents and the action of Rachel.

Phèdre is for one reason, if for no other, a character difficult and dangerous to attempt. The play opens on a high key. The heroine makes her first appearance before us with a soul consumed and a body shattered by her devouring passion and the wrestlings of her soul and sense. As Rachel tottered upon the stage we looked wonderingly forward in vague and vain conjecture as to what could be the end of such a beginning; for it seemed as if the climax were already reached. And so, in truth, it was ; but it was not ended. Her Phèdre was a prolonged climax of agony, through which she revealed the stages of passion and hope and hate and despair by which she had reached it. Her Phèdre died, indeed, but only that the tragedy might end. Her poison was needless. It was because her veins were burning with a fiercer, subtler venom that the tragedy began ; and she herself had begun to die before she confessed in our hearing the thought for which alone she lived. Rachel made us know and feel all this. When Rachel played characters like Lady Tartuffe, she looked like a thoroughly bad and utterly depraved woman ; when she played Phèdre she looked like a female fiend. And this not because of any change wrought in the lines of her face by “ making up,” but because of the expression she assumed. She did not look thus when she came off the stage in the course of an act, nor before she went on. This fiendishness of look made one near to shudder at the hell of mortal hate that flamed into her face as she shrieked, “ Œnone, qui I’eut cru ; j’avais une rivale ! ” Her cry, “ Aricie a son cœur, Aricie a sa foi! ” was like the utterance of the agony of a damned soul. When she cursed Œnone we did not wonder that the guilty nurse cowered before her, and fled to drown her memory of all this woe in death.

Of this grand, dreadful, almost painful impersonation Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s is a weak imitation, a pale, faded copy: whether a deliberate imitation or not I shall not say ; whether direct or not I cannot tell, for I do not know Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s age. But the traditions of Rachel’s Phèdre live in the criticism of her day; they live in Paris in the memories of all lovers of the drama who have reached middle age ; they live in sketches and in painted portraits; and above all they live in the foyer of the Théâtre Française. On those traditions Mademoiselle Bernhardt has formed her Phèdre; seeking, nevertheless, we may be sure, to give to the impersonation some individual traits of her own imagining. But in this respect she has been able to do very little. Nor is it at all surprising, or in the least to ber discredit, that her Phèdre is essentially a copy of Rachel’s. Rachel’s conception and impersonation of that character was not only grand and strong and vivid beyond that of any other actress who has attempted it, but it was the result of a perception of the only ideal of the character that made it tolerable in art. A Phedre in whom bad passion and deadly hate were aggrandized by an intensity and sublimation of fiendishness that made her a demi-goddess of the infernal sort was at least terrible and wonderful ; a Phèdre with a touch of true womanly feeling would be revolting. Phèdre must not need forgiveness ; she must be incapable of repentance. To admire Phedre, to endure her, we must have no sympathy with her. This was Rachel’s Phèdre, and thenceforward there can be no other.

As to Rachel’s Adrienne Leconvreur, I shall ask the indulgence of my readers for repeating here a passage from an article which I wrote on the night of her first performance of the part in this country, just twenty-five years ago. It will have at least the interest of showing the instant impression made by her in the character upon a young and comparatively inexperienced critic of the drama. “ The play is familiar in its scope and spirit, and genre painting, whether with pen or pencil, has always more admirers than falls to the lot of high art. Her impersonation of Adrienne was no less finished and youthful than of Camille [in Racine’s Les Horaces] or of Phèdre ; but for that very reason it was less grand, less imposing, less thrilling; indeed, the part is quite unworthy of Mademoiselle Rachel’s talent. True, in her scenes of jealousy there were some fine tragic touches ; but these were faint reflections of Phèdre’s consuming passion; and at the last, when Adrienne is dying by poison, although the acting was consummate, the effect was almost too dreadful to come within the legitimate aims of art, and the means were too physical and too imitative to be worthy of such an artist as Rachel. The bursts of jealousy and the struggles with death were, however, the telling points of the impersonation with the large audience which her fame in this character had assembled. But to us there was a far purer and more perfect enjoyment to be found in the more delicate exhibitions of her art which were scattered freely through the play : such, for instance, as the tone and manner and expression with which, when Maurice tells her that he had said that she expected him at the theatre, she replies, ' Imprudent, me compromettre ! ' — entire forgiveness and unutterable love being conveyed with the reproach, which yet is sadly earnest; or again, when, having knocked once in vain at the door where her unknown rival is concealed, and having repeated her summons with success, ' au nom de Maurice de Saxe,' she exclaims with such an outburst of adoring love and child-like confidence, ‘ Je savais hien que rien resisterait à ce talisman ! ’ ”

A criticism written at midnight, two miles from the writer’s home, to be published the next morning without revision in proof, may well be judged leniently as to its style and even as to its opinions. But in the latter respect I really find no reason for change or modification after this lapse of time. And here I find a censure which I made mentally while witnessing Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s performance of the same part, quite unconscious that I had already given it utterance in my long-unseen and quite forgotten article on Rachel’s Adrienne: it is that upon the death scene of the poisoned actress. This is dreadful, and should exclude the play from the repertory of an artist of high aims. I know that death scenes are in high favor with certain lovers of the drama; but when they are of this painful, this shocking character, they should be set apart exclusively for the entertainment of that sort of spectators to whom it was the crown of the evening’s enjoyment to “ see Kirby wrap himself up in the American flag and die all over the stage ” at the Bowery theaytre. We cannot expect such scenes as that which ends the sufferings of Lear, — “ Prithee, undo this button,” is a grand touch of simple pathos, possible only to one hand, — nor even such as those upon which the curtain falls in Hamlet and Othello, — the latter of which was grossly materialized, and therefore degraded, by Salvini; but the exhibition of a young woman in the combined agonies of despair and empoisonment is simply horrible ; and mere horror has no proper place in art. To hear this poor girl shrieking out, “ Je ne veux pas mourir ! ” and praying at the top of her voice, and in the midst of her physical agony, that she may be allowed to live, is a scene from which it should seem that the least sensitive nature would desire to flee. Nor is it truthful. There is set up for it the plea of realism; but it is no more real than it is ideal. Death does not come thus in nature. Adrienne dies screaming; and with the accents of frantic protest and entreaty and torment upon her lips she suddenly drops dead into her chair. A realistic conformity to nature would show her exhausted and silent for some time before she breathed her last breath. Judged from any point of view the scene ought to be hissed ; but the majority is against me, and it is applauded.

Here, as elsewhere in this play, Rachel was greatly superior to Sara Bernhardt ; for she managed the scene with consummate art and delicacy. But even she could not raise it to the level of great art; it is essentially too low and too material. I am not sure, however, that in the lighter, more joyful, and more playful scenes of this drama Sara Bernhardt is always the inferior. For Rachel, strong in intellect and in passion, was weakest in the expression of pure womanliness. In this she was like most French actresses, who, according to my observation, although they can be jealous with both fierceness and finesse, can play the grande dame, and excel in coquetry, fail in the portrayal of what we Anglo-Saxon folk mean by womanliness pure and simple. But, strangely enough, when we consider what she is, this is Sara Bernhardt’s forte. The expression of confiding love, of a sweet, tender joy, of purity, of all the little charms of woman’s ways which minister so much to the daily delight and happiness of those around her, are manifestly natural, or at least easy and pleasant, to this actress. Her facial capability seems here to find its true scope and almost its limit. In the simulation of any emotion grander or stronger she falls short of a high aim. There we see that she is merely trying to do what others have done before her, and to do it more or less as it was done by them. Briefly, Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s art is very fine, but its elements are simple and its range is narrow.

In the expression of pure womanliness, a great actress who has recently made her exit from the stage of life, Mrs. Charles Kean, who won her reputation as Ellen Tree, had probably no equal. I did not see her in the first flush of her womanly charms ; for she had become Mrs. Kean, and was on her second visit to this country, before my theatre-going days began. But even then, in the expression of the beauty of womanhood, she was peerless, — far beyond any other actress that I ever saw. The woman in her was so strong that whatever she played, through such a wide range as Viola, Queen Constance, and Lady Macbeth, that was the chief feeling to which she gave expression. She excited the respectful love, the devotion, of every man in her audience. In Twelfth Night, when as Viola, disguised in her page’s dress, she attended on the Duke Orsini, she filled the stage with the sense of her concealed love for him. As Constance, in King John, she had hardly more than one scene, —that in which the princess pours out her grief and love over her little son Prince Arthur ; but she made (if indeed Shakespeare before her had not made) that the great scene of the play, the one around which all the others centred, and she filled the hearts of men and women alike with sweet sympathy with her great maternal tenderness. And even in Lady Macbeth she managed to show — perhaps I should rather say that such was her nature that she could not help showing— that her womanly devotion to her husband, her hope for him, her ambition for him, were the springs of her action. This was more nature than art with her, more impulse than acting. When, in the banquet scene, which is interrupted by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, she begged the guests to withdraw, that they might not be too close witnesses of the king’s discomfiture, she descended from her dais, and passed down among them with a look upon her face, as she turned from one to another, in which troubled love and womanly anxiety struggled sorely and strangely with queenly dignity. She was one of the very few actresses that I have known personally ; and I spoke to her one day about the expression of her face in this scene. She listened with evidently unfeigned surprise, and said that she did not know of it, and had not heard of it before ; that the look was brought into her face unconsciously by the action of the scene. It was not what is queerly called among the actors “ business.” When I lauded her personation of Constance she replied, “ Why, I ’ve nothing to do but to cry over a baby.” I answered that she always brought tears to my eyes. She gently laid her hand on mine (she was old enough to be my mother), and said, “ I’m glad to hear that; for when I play that scene I always weep real tears myself.” In the Gamester—a drama now laid aside, I suppose, forever — she was the gamester’s wife : and the villain of the play, who sought her ruin as well as her husband’s, told her that her husband loved another woman. She turned, looked him in the face, and simply said, “I don’t believe it.” As she did this, her expression of wifely love and confidence was so radiantly beautiful that a thrill of delight touched every heart, and after a just perceptible instant of silent appreciation the house exploded in such a thunder of applause that the performance was interrupted for the moment. This presentation of the greatest charm of womanly nature I have never seen in a French actress. Rachel never approached it. Perhaps she would not condescend to it, finding it too tame for the purposes of her art; possibly it was foreign to her nature and beyond her ken. But it has seemed to me that Sara Bernhardt has it in her power to compass this department of her art, and that she would do well to abandon for it the realm of tragedy which nature has not fitted her to tread.

Richard Grant White.