The Art of the Theatre by Sarah Bernhardt

I first became aware of Sarah Bernhardt back in art class.  She was the subject of many Art Nouveau playbill posters by Alphonse Mucha.  When I think of her, this is how I see her.

Theatre de la Renaissance

Over time, a more complete picture of the Belle Époque was formed for me through more art, music, and literature of the age.  Everywhere you look, right at the center of it all, is Sarah Bernhardt.  For those who don’t know, she is often considered to be the greatest actress of the stage who has ever lived — or will ever live, according to some.  For those with an interest in the era, the art of acting, or the Divine Sarah herself, we’re fortunate to have some of her later performances on (unfortunately) silent film and some of her recordings.  But even these paint a pale portrait of the actress and her world.  We’re even more grateful for the books she left behind.

This book was dictated in the last months of her life in the form of a Q&A that allowed her to answer any question in any given order as thought struck her, and then reassembled in book form shortly after her passing in 1923.

I have been bitten by the Shakespeare bug, and I find it invaluable to have the thoughts of those who have performed the Bard’s work.  Sarah has performed Shakespeare to adoring audiences the world over.  Consider some of these roles:

Cleopatra…

Bernhardt Cleopatra

Lady Macbeth…

Bernhardt Lady Macbeth

and even Hamlet.

Bernhardt Hamlet

This book offers insight into her work on the Bard, all too briefly, as her primary focus is on French works, but the whole of the book is an expansion on those ideas.  She discusses not only the stage of her time, which offers insights in to the stage of other times, but also the workings behind the stage.  There is wisdom and skill offered in abundance, and indeed this is what she set out to do, to leave such advice to future generations of aspiring actors and actresses.  She discusses the relationship of the writer to the actor.  The techniques of her craft are laid bare most intimately in a way that offers a great deal of insight into the actress herself.  It’s the closest anyone will get to a personal interview.

At first blush, someone could look at this and detect the notes of haughtiness or superiority.  Don’t let this put you off.  She is an acknowledged master of her craft.  She was a living legend, and she knew it, but this book wasn’t about ego.  It was about offering the benefits of what she learned the hard way.  The goddess stepped down from Olympus and handed us the secret of fire as though we are her equals for one shining moment.  Because of the time and place she wrote this, and of the history that she lived through, there are little historical curiosities here and there as well.  I particularly love how she describes Americans of merely 15 years ago as barbarians, and now we’re up and coming in the world of culture and civility.  Ah, the difference a little thing like a world war can make…

Even though this is most definitely of time and place, many of the things she has to say, however distasteful it may sound to the politically correct oriented, is spot-on with our own perceptions of celebrity, beauty, and grace.  We cover things up from time to time, and certainly our society is more open than hers ever was when it comes to such things.  But the entertainment industry and adoring audiences still love their beautiful people, and some of what she has to say on this front will hit a little too close to home in her candor.  She talks about how those involved in stagecraft can overcome certain limitations, but how sometimes those limitations will define the direction of the career.  She discusses the difference between being an artist and being a celebrity, about how it’s easy to get an audience to applaud, but how the true artist will keep moving towards an unattainable perfection.  Everything in this book is about transcending the self and improving on your art.  I dare say there’s not a single career in the world that couldn’t benefit on some level from the advice found here.

For those interested in the Belle Époque, she does some serious name-dropping, from people to plays and beyond.  There are plenty of bread crumbs dropped for those who enjoy a little rabbit hole research.

The narration by Kitty Hendrix on this audiobook is elegant and somewhat socially elevated in its tone, so while there’s no French accent to accompany it, the idea of Sarah Bernhardt is most definitely conveyed here.  The delivery is there to service the words as Sarah herself might say them.

4 stars

Bernhardt Art of the Theatre