William Shakespeare. Credit: Library of Congress

The Problem, and the Impact
During Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) women were not allowed to appear onstage. Female characters were played by boys, usually young teenagers. Eighty-four percent of Shakespeare’s characters are male, likely because of his own cultural biases and the practical difficulty of finding young boys skilled enough to take on the roles of adult women.

Shakespeare is so widely produced today that the lack of female characters skews data on the availability of roles for women in American and British theatre. It also continues to normalize the lack of representation of women on stage and in film and television today: men received twice the screen time and twice the lines of women in the top-grossing films of 2014 and 2015.

“Unsex Me Here:” A Lack Of Good Roles
Women have appeared in Shakespeare’s plays since 1660, when an unnamed actress played Desdemona in a production of Othello in London. While Shakespeare’s heroines are sought-after roles, even the best female characters don’t offer the depth or challenge of his male protagonists. Rosalind in As You Like It speaks the most lines of any woman in Shakespeare, around 700. Hamlet varies slightly depending on the version of the text being used, but he generally has close to 1500 lines.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Hamlet for an actress of Sarah Bernhardt’s age and temperament. Bernhardt’s reasoning for taking on the role turned Elizabethan logic, which demanded that boys play women, inside out. As Rebeck’s Sarah argues, “a boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet.” He “does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman, who can combine the light carriage of youth with…mature thought.” Bernhardt’s critics disagreed, arguing that women were incapable of understanding a man’s thoughts and actions. On June 17, 1899, the Athenaeum declared: “A woman is positively no more capable of beating out the music of Hamlet than is a man of expressing the plaintive and half-accomplished surrender of Ophelia.”

Janet McTeer as Petruchio. Photo by Joan Marcus

Twenty-First Century Interpretations
Shakespeare’s characters, like all Elizabethan men and women, are bound to fulfill the roles assigned to them by gender and class. But gender is an ongoing discussion in his plays: what does it mean to be masculine? To be feminine? To challenge stereotypes? To disguise yourself as a boy? Many scholars believe that, even during Shakespeare’s time, seeing male actors play women heightened these questions for Elizabethan audiences. Contemporary directors are now pointedly using cross-gender casting to provoke questions of power within and around the plays.

British director Phyllida Lloyd recently helmed four all-female productions of Shakespeare plays: The Taming of the Shrew (with Janet McTeer as Petruchio), Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. Lloyd described her initial impulse in an interview, “It really began as jobs for the girls, unashamedly.” She continued, “I did not want my niece going to see any more classical plays thinking, ‘Oh, I'm the one in the corner, sort of mooning over the leading man.’ I wanted to feel that she could go to the theater and think, ‘My god, I could be in charge.’"

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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World of the Play: Paris in 1899

Posted on: September 11th, 2018 by Nick Mecikalski


Paris from a Balloon. Credit: Library of Congress

The real-life production of Hamlet that starred Sarah Bernhardt took place in 1899 in a theatre in Paris that Bernhardt owned, operated, and even named after herself: Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. While Bernhardt/Hamlet is mostly set in and around this theatre, an examination of the political and cultural climate outside its walls in the final decades of the 19th century can help us better understand the events of this play.

The Franco-Prussian War and the French Third Republic
Nearly thirty years before the events of Bernhardt/Hamlet, Emperor Napoleon III’s Second French Empire declared war against the Kingdom of Prussia, aiming to halt Prussia’s efforts to unify the independent German states of Europe into one German nation. This attempt to protect France’s political and military hegemony in Europe backfired, however, as Prussia responded with unexpected military prowess, invading France and driving Napoleon to a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. Soon thereafter, the Second French Empire was overthrown and replaced with the French Third Republic, which became France’s official system of government. In 1875, this Republican government enacted a set of constitutional laws, establishing a President of the Republic and a two-chamber legislative body, which would become France’s most democratic system of government to date. Under the Third Republic, the government instituted free public education, deepened the separation between church and state, established a railway system, and provided for inexpensive access to newspapers. The Third Republic remained through the end of World War II.

La Belle Époque
From the last decade of the 19th century until the outset of World War I, France experienced a golden age that came to be known as La Belle Époque (“Beautiful Era”). A time of relative peace in Europe overall, La Belle Époque coincided with the mass availability of electricity and saw an explosion of technological advancements, modern conveniences, and urban developments in France. With the rise of electric street lights, the Paris Métro (subway system), department stores, automobiles, and movies, Paris was transformed into a city of modernity and progress, and it was chosen as the host city for the 1878, 1889, and 1900 World’s Fairs, or Expositions Universelles. Though La Belle Époque was by no means enjoyed equally among all social classes, it would be remembered during the dark years of World War I as a time of optimism, glamor, and excitement.

The Pantheon and the rue Soufflot in Paris. Credit: Detroit Publishing Company

Theatre in the Third Republic
The expanded democracy and heightened cultural fervor of the late 1800s brought an increased demand for popular theatres. In 1864, the French government lifted a Napoleon-era restriction on the number of theatres allowed in Paris, and by 1882 the number of Parisian theatres had increased from 11 to 23. These theatres ranged in size from the massive Comédie-Française, a state theatre established in 1680 by King Louis XIV, to the People’s Theatre of the Cooperation of Ideas, a small establishment geared toward providing leisure and intellectual debate for working-class citizens. Theatre was a popular pastime for Paris residents; an 1888 report estimated that 500,000 Parisians visited the theatre at least once a week that year, and between 1 and 1.2 million visited at least once a month. (By comparison, in the 2016-17 season, only about 300,000 people attended a Broadway show once or more per month on average.) While the massive expansion of the theatre industry in Paris had levelled off by the end of the century, theatre remained a lucrative business. In addition to its French audience, Parisian theatres drew in citizens from neighboring countries, who travelled great distances to attend the latest show.

Romanticism, the reigning artistic movement of the day, established itself in French theatre in 1830 with Victor Hugo’s spectacularly successful Romantic drama Hernani. French Romanticism can generally be characterized as a reaction against Classicism, the major artistic philosophy of the previous centuries, which emphasized a tight balance between reason and emotion in art and strictly adhered to the standards of ancient Greek tragedy. Romanticism, on the other hand, leaned towards naturalistic narration and explored more deeply the complexities of the individual spirit. Romantic artists, though still interested in a well-structured composition of story, departed from the Greek unities, which set strict limits on the time, location, and action of a “proper” drama. With the Romantic movement came an increase in artistic freedom; as Victor Hugo wrote, “Romanticism is Liberalism in literature.”

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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The Life, Legends, and Legacy of Sarah Bernhardt

Posted on: September 4th, 2018 by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz


Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Credit: Library of Congress

Who Do You Think You Are, Sarah Bernhardt?

Who Sarah Bernhardt thought she was, or wanted the world to think she was, did not always align with the facts. Myth was her currency, and it certainly paid off. At the close of the 19th century, she was known as the most publicized and richest actress. She captivated the world with her larger than life personality and scandalous escapades. Her intuitive understanding of “brand management” plus her extraordinary success as an actor and entrepreneur established the blueprint for the stars of today.

Sarah the Actress

Bernhardt’s life did not start out auspiciously. While the official records of her birth were destroyed in a fire, it is confirmed that she was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in 1844, the fatherless daughter of a Dutch-Jewish courtesan.

Despite her Jewish lineage, she spent much of her childhood at convent school, even declaring that she wanted to become a nun. One of her mother’s lovers, Charles Duc de Morny, the illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, suggested that 16-year-old Sarah’s temperament was better suited for the theatre. He pulled some strings and paid for her to attend the Paris Conservatory. When she failed to impress her teachers, Morny again used his influence to secure Bernhardt a spot in the Comedie-Francaise, France’s prestigious national theatre company.

Bernhardt made her debut on August 31, 1862 in the title role of Racine’s Iphigénie. She was decidedly not a hit. After the curtain call, when she asked her teacher for forgiveness, he remarked, “I can forgive you, and you’ll eventually forgive yourself, but Racine in his grave never will.” Her poor performance, coupled with her constant stage fright and histrionics, led to an altercation in which she slapped a senior actress in the company. Thus, Bernhardt’s reputation as a diva was born.

Over the next few years she worked on her craft and in 1868 had a breakout hit with the revival of Alexandre Dumas’s play Kean. Her skill -- and box office draw -- was so great that Comedie-Francaise welcomed her back into the troupe in 1872.

Théâtre de la Ville

Théâtre de la Ville. Photo by George Moga

Bernhardt played at least 70 roles in 125 plays over the course of her career, both female and male. Most popular were her dramatic death scenes. She played 19-year-old Joan of Arc when she was 46. At 55, she signed a 25-year lease on a theatre in Paris, renaming it Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. She continued to tour the world late in life, even giving a recital at San Quentin Prison. After her right leg was amputated, she continued to perform on stage as well as for the troops on the battlefront of World War I. She did not use a prosthetic limb, instead relying upon strategically placed set pieces as she moved across the stage or being carried about upon a satin sedan chair in the style of Louis XV.

Always on the cutting edge, she starred in several silent films. Though she died in 1923 before talking movies were made, many consider her the most famous actress the world has ever known. A million people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu as her coffin made its way to Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Click to watch Bernhardt as Hamlet fencing with Laertes.

Learn more about The Comedie Francaise, one of the world’s oldest still-operating theatres.

A Mythic Life

Coffin bed. Taxidermied bat hat. Amputated leg. Lovers aplenty. Sarah Bernhardt was known for many things besides her onstage talents.

At the age of 20, her son Maurice was born, as was her reputation as a scandalous woman. It wasn’t until she was quite famous that Henri Prince de Ligne offered to formally recognize Maurice as his son. Maurice politely declined, explaining that he was content to be the son of Sarah Bernhardt.

In 1882, Bernhardt proposed to and married Aristides Damalas, a Greek military man, 11 years her junior. She hired him to perform with her, but he preferred spending her money, having affairs, and taking morphine. Though they separated, the pair stayed married until he died of a drug overdose in 1899.

Sarah Bernhardt. Credit: Houghten Library

Bernhardt wanted everything associated with the good life, including her exotic pet collection, which was said to include a boa constrictor, a lion, a parrot, a puma, two horses, a monkey named Darwin and an alligator named Ali Gaga whom she served milk and champagne, ultimately sending him to an early grave. Bernhardt also spent outrageous sums of money paying off the many gambling debts of her son, Maurice.

Over the course of her life, Sarah turned many more co-stars into lovers. She was also muse to many, including Oscar Wilde, Edmond Rostand, and Marcel Proust. She evolved from muse to maker, developing her talents in writing, painting, and sculpture. Louise Abbéma, an expressionist painter with whom Sarah had her most notable same-sex affair, was a fan of her work. Bernhardt still has many fans today—in 2017, a white marble relief of Ophelia made and signed by Bernhardt sold at auction for $385,444.

The World’s First Celebrity

Sarah Bernhardt seemed to understand that ubiquity enhanced celebrity. She posed for many artists, ensuring that her image would be seen all around the world in paintings, sculptures, photographs, and graphic designs, like Alphonse Mucha’s famous Art Nouveau posters. Victor Hugo, with whom she had an affair when he was 70 and she just 27, nicknamed her “The Golden Voice.” So, in 1910, she visited Thomas Edison in West Orange, New Jersey to record her most famous and moving tragic role, a scene from Jean Racine's 1677 tragedy Phèdre. She also loaned her name and image to real estate ventures in the Bronx and endorsed products from face powder to aperitifs.

Sarah Bernhardt developed one of the Western world’s first cults of personality. In 1906 the French breeder Monsieur Lemoine cultivated the Sarah Bernhardt Peony, the most showy variety. In 1960, Sarah was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2001, Martha Stewart shared a recipe for Sarah Bernhardt cookies, claiming they are as “multilayered as their namesake.”

Love her or hate her, everyone knew her name. Over 100 years later, people still do.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet

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