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.
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.”
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet