October 23, 1844 – March 26, 1923
Prologue: The World’s a Stage
“The existence of Sarah Bernhardt remains the supreme marvel of the nineteenth century.” -- Edmond Rostand
During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, Sarah Bernhardt was probably the most famous personality to walk the earth. She commanded the world’s stage, whether she was literally on it or not. Her name was known virtually everywhere in the civilized world, no matter if one was a theater aficionado or not. It is hard to comprehend, with a twenty-first century mind, how this woman was able to command such favor with so many people. There is little left today to remind us of how talented and far-reaching an individual she was. There are some primitive recordings of her voice speaking the lines she rendered on the stage and some silent movie reels showing her acting style. But in truth, we find this evidence weak in fully understanding the talent that she brought to her audience. The pioneering methods of media and time have shadowed the talent that was Sarah Bernhardt. Her style of acting is, by today’s standards, very emotive and stagy. She was not, even by her day’s standards, considered a beauty. Yet her contemporaries rhapsodized about her character, whether on stage or off, to a degree not even seen by our celebrities today. What we are lacking in evaluating this woman is her presence, which cannot by conveyed through photographs, recordings or film reels. We are consigned to looking at her through faded media fragments and writings of those who gloried in her real presence.