The Divine Sarah

The Art of the Theatre - Kitty Hendrix, Sarah Bernhardt
This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com: thank you.

I was quite interested to see Sarah Bernhardt’s Art of the Theatre in an email from AudiobookBlast. I’ve known bits and pieces about The Divine Sarah, it seems by osmosis, from the art of Alphonse Mucha to legends of her Hamlet and so forth. I was looking forward to learning about her. I hoped it would be some cross between memoir and art instruction; I was looking forward to learning more about the actress and her experience of theatre in the nineteenth century.

There was some of that. I had a glimpse into the life of Miss Bernhardt, but just a glimpse; I had a taste of what it was like to become a thespian, to work as a thespian, in Europe over a hundred years ago – but just a taste. I would have loved more about her education at the Conservatoire; it was delightful to hear about the deportment classes, like a ridiculous version of Kabuki. I would have loved more about her performances – more along the lines of the fact that she had horrific stage fright unless in front of a hostile audience (like in Germany, where she made some bad choices for her performance). I loved her discussion of the almost schizophrenic-sounding ability to split off the character she was set to portray from her own personality: “I would dismiss Sarah Bernhardt to a corner and leave her to be a spectator of my new me.” She felt that she literally left her self behind in the dressing room.

I perked up when the “three Hamlets” came up, but either Mlle Bernhardt assumed whoever was reading her book knew what she meant or… no, that’s probably what it was. (They are, for the record, to perhaps save someone the Google: the black Hamlet of Shakespeare, L’Aiglon, the white Hamlet of Rostand, and Lorenzaccio, the Florentine Hamlet of Alfred de Musset.) She mused a brief while on the role, but I had hoped for more. I do love the comment that Hamlets are generally too well-fed and comfortable … although, really, it’s not like a wealthy, privileged young man whose troubles are pretty recent would have had the chance to wither away too much...

The tales of her career are made a bit less than enthralling by heavy reference to people – actors, authors, playwrights, artists – who were huge in her day and in France, but are at best obscure here and now. Name-dropping is less impressive when nobody knows what you’re talking about.

It was a bit difficult to get past prejudices the lady built up within her time period and her experience. Stout women waddle. You can’t be an actor if your proportions aren’t right. God help you if you’re ugly. “If the sacred fire burns in you, you will succeed” – unless your arms aren’t long enough.

Going wider: “Although all new ideas are born in France, they are not readily adopted there.” Because France, of course, is the center and focus of the world. (America (which here includes Toronto)? *delicate shudder* Though I have to say,“despotic enthusiasm” isn’t the worst description I’ve ever heard for this country …) So is theatre the epicenter of everything: “Our art is the finest, the noblest, the most suggestive, for it is the synthesis of all the arts. Sculpture, painting, literature, elocution, architecture, and music are its natural tools.” Pardon me while I go find an actor to kowtow to, in my natural station as subservient former art student.

If she liked you, you were golden, and could do no wrong. If she disliked you, God help you. If she liked you and then was disillusioned … oh dear. The lady held very strong opinions, and was free with them; “There are actors devoid of talent who are very successful.”

I wonder if it’s actually true that “all sports are injurious to the voice, especially sailing”.

It seems possible that autograph-seeking was invented expressly for the Divine Sarah: “One lady had the idea of producing her pocketbook and asking me to write my name. The idea spread like lightning.” Without Sarah Bernhardt, Comic-Con would be but a shadow of what it is.

So, this isn’t quite a memoir, or a book of acting instruction, exactly, though elements of both exist. What it resembled most was pulling up a seat next to an elderly prima donna and trying to follow along as she vented her opinions on her schooling, and kids’ education these days, and people she knew thirty years ago, and that time in Germany… An outpouring of words which outline the shape of Sarah Bernhardt and the space she filled in theatre, without adding color or dimensionality to the outline. The gap I was looking to fill will probably be better served by a biography. I’ll have to look into it one day. This only served as an appetizer.

The narration was quite good, though there were some awkward pronunciations: “Marseillais” became “Marsellay”; “infinite”, "dross”, ”physiognomy” were all a bit off, and so on; “A” was always long. I believe one review complained about the narrator not being French, and I admit a genuine French accent might have enhanced the experience (given Miss Bernhardt’s ethnocentrism, especially).

While I couldn’t help raising eyebrows at some bits of the book, and was alternately fascinated and quite frankly bored in places, this quote was wonderful:

[The actor’s] walls are of cardboard and his mountains painted on canvas, his skies have their nights illuminated by a thousand little paper stars, suspended at the end of a thread and stirring with every puff of breath. His impregnable turrets are fashioned of millboard, and the axe which is laid to them and the bullet which pierces them are children’s toys. But the hand which holds these toys is the hand of a man electrified by splendid verse. The heart that rushes to the assault beats a charge as vigorous, as precipitate, as if a real enemy were in question. And for the public that is present, anxious, nervous, and transported, the turret might be of freestone; the sky the black firmament lit by its thousands of golden studs, and it is the faith of the actor holding the torch handed him by the poet that illumines every mind, every soul, and every sensibility.