Sarah Bernhardt

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Sarah Bernhardt Bernhardt's signature

Sarah Bernhardt (born October 22, 1844 in Paris ; † March 26, 1923 there ; actually Marie Henriette Rosine Bernardt ) was a French actress . She is considered the most famous actress of her time and was one of the first world stars .


Memorial plaque on the house where Sarah Bernhardt was born on the occasion of her 100th birthday
Sarah Bernhardt around 1864 (portrait photo by Félix Nadar)

Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of Julie Bernardt, a Jewish Dutch woman and courtesan in Paris. Her father's identity is unknown. She was looked after by a nanny until she was eight , then she went to boarding school and, at ten, to a convent school in Versailles .

The Duc de Morny , a half-brother of Napoleon III. and her mother's lover at the time, arranged for the 14-year-old to be trained as an actress at the Comédie-Française ; this was considered a privilege. Four years later - she called herself now Sarah Bernhardt - she made her debut with the title role of Iphigénie by Racine . Her career threatened to fail after just a few months: After an argument with a colleague, Sarah was fired and for years could only play insignificant roles on small stages. In 1864 their son Maurice was born in Paris. Her father was the Belgian Prince Henri de Ligne , whom she had met in Brussels and who also wanted to marry her, but was prevented from doing so by his family.

The first great success came in 1868; Sarah Bernhardt played a role in Kean by Alexandre Dumas the Elder at the Odéon , a Parisian theater in the Jardin du Luxembourg . Ä. During the war with Germany in 1870/71 , when all theaters were closed, she cared for the wounded. After the war she was able to return to the Comédie Française . A quick, steep ascent began. Soon she was the most famous actress of her time, celebrated in France as la voix d'or , "the golden voice", or la divine , "the divine".

An essential part of her artistic work - and a prerequisite for her worldwide fame - were extensive guest tours. With her own acting company she performed in London in 1879. In 1880 a six-month tour of 51 cities in the USA followed. In 1881 she gave performances in Russia, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. England's Queen Victoria and the Russian Tsar Alexander III. were among their admirers.

Sarah Bernhardt , painting by Alfred Stevens , around 1882
Bernhardt as Théodora (1900) in the drama of the same name by Victorien Sardou

In 1882 she married a young attaché to the Greek embassy, Jacques Damala . Damala considered himself gifted enough to become an actor and stage partner of his famous wife. Sarah opened her own theater for him under the direction of her son Maurice. The company remained unsuccessful and was soon completely bankrupt, on the one hand because Damala looked ridiculous on the stage with his Greek accent, and on the other hand because he funded his passion for gambling and his addiction to morphine from the box office. The two separated in the year of their wedding. After a temporary reconciliation and a new rift, he died in 1889, at the age of 34, of the effects of morphine addiction.

After her husband financially ruined her in 1882, she had to tour Europe to make up for the losses. New guest appearances in the USA followed between 1886 and 1889, and then a world tour from 1891 to 1893. Sarah Bernhardt became a world star, revered all over Europe and America. As a French nationalist, she refused to appear in Germany. In between tours she was involved in Paris. In her hometown she directed several theaters in which she also appeared: from 1893 to 1899 the Théâtre de la Renaissance and from 1899 the former Théâtre des Nations , which she renamed the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt and directed until her death (current name: Théâtre de la Ville ).

She was considered an eccentric, often exaggerated and moody woman and had numerous lovers, including the bon vivant Charles Haas, the actor Jean Mounet-Sully and the painter and illustrator Gustave Doré . Bernhardt created a public image for herself through her eccentricity: she climbed into the sky above France in a Montgolfière and had photos sold showing how she is lying in a coffin studying her roles or sleeping. Her apartment housed a menagerie of domestic and exotic animals.

Sarah Bernhardt: Self-Portrait , 1910

In addition to novels and comedies, she wrote her memoirs ( Mein Doppelleben ) in 1907 . She thus inspired Marcel Proust , who in his novel In Search of Lost Time designed the character of the actress La Berma after Sarah Bernhardt and the main character Swann after her lover Charles Haas. In addition to writing, she also showed talent in painting and sculpture.

Sarah and Maurice Bernhardt's grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery

In 1906 she got a professorship at the Paris Conservatory , in 1914 she became a member of the French Legion of Honor .

In 1905 Bernhardt had to jump off a wall on stage in Victorien Sardous La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro , injuring her knee seriously. As a result, she suffered pain for years and because of the late effects of gangrene , her right leg had to be amputated below the hip in 1915. But even after that, the woman who had a prosthetic leg did not give up her job. Sarah Bernhardt got involved in looking after the troops during the First World War and played behind the front in tents, barns and hospitals on improvised stages. She even toured the United States again.

Sarah Bernhardt died in Paris on March 26, 1923. She is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery to the east of Paris.


Bernhardt in the title role of Lorenzaccio , poster by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Sarah Bernhardt was famous for her beautiful voice, the grace of her movements and her temperament.

“[…] Truly, it is worth all the excitement it has got the world into. The magic that emanates from their personality is indescribable. She […] is a beautiful woman so permeated with spirit that every movement of her soul becomes a light of the brightest beauty. You know that she has a talent for everything, she paints, she is a sculptor. I think so; for it is nothing other than the body of a woman who does not easily exist a second time, animated by a graceful and at the same time energetic genius, subservient to every warm impulse. [...] I only know that I have never seen anything more beautiful than the entirety of this appearance and these movements, to which the melting of the voice came, a melodious sound, far above all singing. [...] "

She perfectly represented a theatrical style that was also a thing of the past soon after her time, a romantic style of exuberant declamation and great gestures. She herself said about her work:

“I have often been asked how many hours I work each day. But I don't work out a role completely. I proceed mechanically, learn word for word by heart, turn and turn the text passages until I have absolutely mastered them even in a quick dialogue. Then, once I know my text very well [...], I don't think about it anymore. All that I have to show in pain, passion or joy comes from the course of the piece. […] One shouldn't look for a certain posture, for the way of an exclamation, by no means! You should find them on stage ... "

Bernhardt as Hamlet (1899)

Her talent for emotional acting gave her the opportunity to convince as a great tragedy in classical French dramas as well as in modern social plays. She had triumphant appearances as Phaedra in the tragedy of the same name by Jean Racine , but also in the romantic dramas Ruy Blas and as Dona Sol in Hernani by Victor Hugo . Her presentation of male roles was admired and admired . In 1896 she played the title role in the drama Lorenzaccio by Alfred de Musset and George Sand , in 1899 Hamlet in Shakespeare 's tragedy of the same name and in 1901 the Duke of Reichstadt in L'Aiglon ("The Young Eagle"); Edmond Rostand had written this piece about Napoleon's son especially for her.

Bernhardt in the title role of Lady of the
Camellias , poster by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

But the central role of her life was that of the lady of the camellias in the play by Alexandre Dumas the Younger . Sarah Bernhardt played the title role again and again from 1880 until old age. The painter and poster artist Alfons Mucha , with whom she had worked since 1894, created a poster for Sarah Bernhardt as a lady of the camellia in 1896 , which is widely regarded as one of the early highlights of Art Nouveau graphics.

In 1900 Sarah Bernhardt took on a first silent film role in Le Duel d'Hamlet , but then declared her violent aversion to the new technology. Nevertheless, she later designed other film roles, e.g. B. in La Tosca (1909), La Dame aux camélias (1911) and Queen Elizabeth of England (1912). All of her film appearances in the 1910s were directed by Louis Mercanton . Her voice is documented on some gramophone records and phonograph cylinders (see below).

Literary works (selection)

Sarah Bernhardt translated plays, wrote novels and a book about drama; she published her memoir as early as 1907.

  • Dans les nuages. Impressions d'une chaise Charpentier , 1878
    • German edition: In the clouds. The adventures of a chair. Translation from French by Inken Henkel. ConferencePoint Verlag, Hamburg 2018, ISBN 978-3-936406-54-2 .
  • L'Aveu. Drame en un acte en prose , 1888
  • Ma double vie. Mémoires . Charpentier et Fasquelle, Paris 1907
    • German edition: My double life. Memoirs. German by Franz Neubert and Dr. Good luck Küchler. Schulze & Co., Leipzig 1908
  • Adrienne Lecouvreur. Drame en six actes , Paris 1908
  • Un cœur d'homme. Pièce en quatre actes , 1911
  • You théâtre au champ d'honneur. Pièce en un acte , 1916 ( digitized in the Internet Archive )
  • Joli Sosie. Roman , Editions Nilsson, Paris 1920 ( digitized in the Internet Archive)
  • Petite idols , 1920
  • L'art du théâtre , Editions Nilsson, Paris 1923

Films (selection)

Bernhardt is one of the first artists to appear in the then newly emerging medium of film. Some of these are still preserved today.

Bernhardt's own life was the subject of the film The Incredible Sarah (1976), with Glenda Jackson in the title role.


  • Claudia Balk : theater goddesses. Staged femininity. Clara Ziegler - Sarah Bernhardt - Eleonora Duse. Stroemfeld, Basel a. a. 1994, ISBN 3-87877-485-0 .
  • Julian Barnes : Levels of Life . Translation from English by Gertraude Krueger. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2015, ISBN 978-3-462-04727-1 .
  • Henry Gidel : Sarah Bernhardt. Flammarion, Paris 2006, ISBN 978-2-08-068531-5 (French).
  • Robert Gottlieb : Sarah. The life of Sarah Bernhardt. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT et al. a. 2010, ISBN 978-0-300-14127-6 (English); German translation by Tanja Handels and Ursula Wulfekamp: The Divine: Sarah Bernhardt , Steidl, Göttingen 2012, ISBN 978-3-86930-471-7 .
  • Noëlle Guibert (Ed.): Portrait (s) de Sarah Bernhardt. In: Sarah Bernhardt ou le divin mensonge (exhibition catalog), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris 2000, ISBN 2-7177-2113-4 .
  • Cornelia Otis Skinner : Madame Sarah. The life of the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Translated from the American by Günther Danehl, Fischer TB 5669, Frankfurt am Main 1968, 1988, ISBN 3-596-25669-0 .
  • Claudia Thorun : Sarah Bernhardt. Staging of femininity in the fin de siècle . Olms, Hildesheim 2006, ISBN 3-487-13177-3 (= media and theater. NF, volume 8).
  • Josef Viktor Widmann : about Sarah Bernhardt in a feature section of the Bund from the 1880s, reprinted in: Josef Viktor Widmann. A picture of life. Second half of life. Written by Max Widmann. Huber, Frauenfeld u. Leipzig 1924, pp. 124-126.


  • Gladys Unger's play Starlight is loosely based on Bernhardt's career. In the film adaptation under the title The Divine Woman , Greta Garbo took on the role of Marianne.
  • The Lucky Luke album Sarah Bernardt (Volume 35) covers one of her nine tours through the United States.
  • The Bernhardt also inspired the German confectioners; they created a Sarah Bernhardt cake. This specialty was created by Hermann Bernhardt (1882–1962) in the former Café Bernhardt in Alpirsbach and is also available as a conical tart with an almond on top.
  • The ornamental plant breeder Victor Lemoine named a peony after her; Sarah Bernhardt in apple blossom pink with an intense fragrance is probably the best-selling cut flower peony worldwide.
  • The French writer Jules Verne met Sarah Bernhardt in the autumn of 1880 when she was visiting Nantes , the city of his birth . Jules Verne immortalized her in his novel The Foundling in the character of the actress Anna Walston.

Web links

Commons : Sarah Bernhardt  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Volker Klimpel: Famous amputees. In: Würzburger medical history reports 23, 2004, pp. 313–327; here: p. 322 f.
  2. From a feature section in the Bund from the 1880s, reprinted in: Josef Viktor Widmann. A picture of life. Second half of life. Written by Max Widmann. Huber, Frauenfeld u. Leipzig 1924, pp. 124-126.
  3. ^ Review by Walther Küchler at the German Digital Library
  4. Volker Dehs: Jules Verne. A critical biography . Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf and Zurich 2005, ISBN 3-538-07208-6 , pp. 79 .
  5. Meiko Richert, Volker Dehs: Fogg goes Media: The superstars of the stage world . In: Nautilus . No. 31 . Jules Verne Club, Bremerhaven 2017, p. 24 .