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Sarah Bernhardt

Act I: Ingenue

“Sarah is a difficult child, but she has a sweet and very spontaneous nature.” -- Edouard Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris, France on October 23, 1844 to an unwed mother and absent father. It is believed that she was named Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernard, but there is no surviving birth record to confirm this. Her mother, Julie Van Hard, was of Dutch-Jewish lineage who settled in Paris in a career as a courtesan. It is believed that Sarah’s father was Edouard Ker-Bernhardt, a French Catholic lawyer who played no role whatsoever in her life. Sarah was the first surviving daughter of three that Julie would have, the other two being Jeanne and Regine. Sarah, who in appearance looked nothing like her mother, was largely ignored by her in favor of Jeanne, who was pretty and blond like her mother. Beauty was not an asset Sarah was born with being of thin build, with an angular face and topped with a mass of unruly auburn hair. Having no real confirmed father and a mother who had little time for her gawky daughter, Sarah’s early years were spent with her nurse in a lonely atmosphere of abandonment.

In the fall of 1851 Sarah was sent to the Institution Fressard, a fashionable girls’ boarding school where she would spend the next two years getting an education in reading, writing and embroidery. Following the boarding school, in the fall of 1853 she was sent to Grandchamp, an Augustine convent school located near Versailles. It was here that Sarah first felt a sense of belonging, being taken under the wing of Mere Sainte-Sophie, the head of the school. But she was not always the ideal student. She “shocked the nuns with her foul language, slapped one sister who forced a comb through her tangled hair, and cursed another who doused her with holy water in the hope of exorcising the young heathen’s evil spirits.” (Gold, p. 21) Sainte-Sophie took it upon herself to tame and reform the wild child and managed to succeed in this capacity. By the time Sarah left the convent, she was seriously considering becoming a nun herself. But her mother had other plans for her, instead sending her to the Paris Conservatoire with the help of the future Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s half-brother, who was her mother’s paramour at the time. Sarah made her stage debut on August 11, 1862 at the Comedie Francaise in the role of Iphigenie. Needless to say, it was not an illustrious start to her future reign as actress supreme. The role did not define what she would later become, and she found the acting style taught at the Conservatoire rather antiquated and stifling. She would drop out of the school and enter the burlesque field of entertainment for a short while. France’s future greatest-known actress needed time to find herself as an individual and to add the letter “H” to both her first and last names. Gradually she would reinvent herself as a leading player of the stage, but first needed to experience a little bit of life in order to bring her presence to the theater.


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