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Sarah Bernhardt. Photo: 1890

Defying convention

Award-winning author and educator Victoria Duckett has devoted 30 years to studying the great Sarah Bernhardt. Read on to discover why and how histories that include an eccentric maverick like Bernhardt prompt endless questions.

By Victoria Duckett

I first encountered Sarah Bernhardt in the mid-1990s, while studying film as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. We had to take one seminar from a field outside our own, and I chose to take a class with the Italian microhistorian, Carlo Ginzburg. Having differences in opinion about a suitable research topic – but agreeing that I could focus on performance and film – Ginzburg suggested that I look at the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. I had never heard of Sarah Bernhardt, knew nothing of the theatre and did not read French. Yet Ginzburg pronounced her name with such relish, and was so adamant that performance and Bernhardt were a mutual and natural pairing, that I dutifully headed to the library to begin my research.

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A vintage engraving of Sarah Bernhardt at home in the 19th century. Photo: 1890

By the conclusion of the semester, I was fascinated with an actress who was anachronistic and camp, but also feminist and incredibly progressive. I told Ginzburg that I wanted to continue to work on Bernhardt. His curt response was to learn French. And so I did. Eighteen months later, I was therefore able to attend a class Ginzburg taught at the École des hautes études, having won UCLA’s Charles Boyer Award for research in Paris (Sorbonne, Paris III). The difficulty I confronted during my two years in Paris was no longer linguistic, but cultural. Staff at national libraries and archives across the city routinely expressed disbelief when I explained that I was conducting PhD research on Bernhardt and silent film. I was unsure if they were surprised that I joined an actress known for her ‘golden voice’ to silent film, or if they were merely surprised that a film student was conducting research in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In either instance, the effort to link the most famous actress of the late 19th century to the cinematic century that followed was regarded as anomalous.

While the cultural and academic landscape has thankfully changed, the relevance of Ginzburg to my research and teaching has not. I seek questions (and not answers) from history, particularly from histories that include eccentric mavericks like Bernhardt.


Sarah Bernhardt (born Sara-Marie-Henriette Bernard, 1844–1923) emerged from the social and cultural margins of Paris to become a global household name and progenitor of celebrity as we know it today. The eldest daughter of Youle van Hard, a Dutch Jew who ran a modest salon as a courtesan, Bernhardt gained entrance to the competitive French Conservatoire (the leading school of acting in France) in 1860. Two years later, on her graduation, she was accepted into the prestigious Comédie-Française. This theatre, described by the American theatre critic and writer James Brander Matthews as ‘a republic, protected by the state,’ was supported by an annual subvention from the French government, and was renowned across the world.

Rather than follow the traditional route to stage success, Bernhardt defied convention. In what is regarded as the first publicity coup of her life, Bernhardt quit the Comédie-Française after just 8 months to forge a career on her own. The attention this departure received in the French press characterised Bernhardt as wilful and youthfully independent. In 1864, she confirmed disregard for convention by giving birth to Maurice, her only child who was unapologetically given her surname.   

Bernhardt’s theatrical notoriety emerged in 1869. For the first time, a young and vociferous audience emerged in the legitimate theatre. Known as Les Saradoteurs (the ‘Sarah-doters’), these fans would stamp their feet, clap and shout during Bernhardt’s performances. Attracted by the music of her extraordinary voice and the fashion of her modern dress, Bernhardt drove popular fervour for theatre in late 19th-century France.


In 1872, Bernhardt’s theatrical notoriety was consolidated. She performed the Spanish Queen (Doña Maria de Neuborg) in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas to celebrate the return of Victor Hugo from two decades of political exile. The play was a resounding success. Celebrating Bernhardt’s performance, the influential French theatre critic Francisque Sarcey identified the poetry of her voice, as well as her use of the half-turn, as particularly innovative. Well before architect and designer Hector Guimard’s entrances to the Paris Métro, the furniture shops of Louis Majorelle, and Czech painter Alphonse Mucha’s spectacular posters, Bernhardt used the spiral as a principle of movement on stage. Turning her back on audiences (and therefore overturning theatrical tradition), she stood at the avant garde of what we would today identify as the art nouveau movement.   

On the heels of her success in Ruy Blas, Bernhardt was invited to return to the Comédie-Française. Touring with the company to London in 1879, Bernhardt differentiated herself from her peers by hiring a theatrical manager. Publicising and promoting her appearance, she was feted by English audiences. Realising her commercial value, Bernhardt left the Comédie-Française for a second and final time.

The outcome of Bernhardt’s decision to capitalise on her English fame was both financial and creative. At liberty to create her own theatrical company, to manage and direct her own theatre, to tour across Europe, England and America (and, eventually, to South America and Australia), Bernhardt was also free to select leading roles. In this early period of creative independence – in 1880 – Bernhardt adopted the role of the 16-year-old courtesan Marguerite Gautier, in Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camelias).

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La Dame aux Camélias theatrical poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1896. Photo: incamerstock/Alamy Stock Photo

La Dame aux Camélias, first adapted to the stage by Giuseppe Verdi (in his 1853 opera, La Traviata), depicts a love affair between a sex worker, serving her wealthy clients, and a young man from a reputable family. The story was named The Lady of the Camelias precisely because the colour of the flower which the sex worker wore determined her sexual availability: red, for the days she was menstruating, and white, for the days she would work. Although the story affirms that a mid-19th century sex worker could become the faithful lover of a respectable man, her early and dramatic death (by consumption) at the play’s end meant that a marriage between classes was never realised within the play. Nevertheless, in 1880 Bernhardt confirmed her rebellious spirit in America by choosing to perform this role that challenged middle-class mores. Taking La Dame aux Camélias to London the following year, Bernhardt became the first actress to perform this role (called a ‘moral monstrosity’ by fervent critics) on the English stage. What was particularly noted about her performance was the play’s concluding death scene. Instead of following convention and expiring on a couch, Bernhardt used her signature spiral to pivot from a standing position to her death on the floor. 


After 1880, Bernhardt was famous for her performance in cross-dress, also known as ‘trouser roles’. Bernhardt played Lorenzaccio in Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio (1896) and was the Eaglet in Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon (1901).

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Sarah Bernhardt in the famous graveyard scene of Hamlet, c. 1899. Photo: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo

And of course, Bernhardt played Hamlet in her newly commissioned translation of Hamlet by Marcel Schwob and Eugène Morand (1899). In Bernhardt/Hamlet, Theresa Rebeck imagines Bernhardt first asking Rostand to take on the challenge of rewriting the great play. When Bernhardt performed Hamlet in her Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in 1899, she was a globally renowned actress standing at the helm of ‘The Age of the Actress.’ Hamlet was a play she had not only commissioned, but a play in which she was the principle performer, director and producer. Bernhardt therefore claimed the right to self-representation, as well as the right to interpret things differently. She liberated Hamlet from his traditional characterisation as a melancholy prince, presenting him as a capricious youth. Speaking in prose and claiming a French literary antecedent to Shakespeare, Bernhardt also claimed Hamlet culturally and philologically. Importantly, Bernhardt staged her play with all of the spectacular scenes included – the Ghost, the mad scene, the grave yard scene, the fencing match and the death scene (where she again fell to her death). In doing so, her Hamlet was the most complete version ever presented, its performance running for over five hours. 

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Hamlet theatrical poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1899. Photo: Lodprice Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

When Bernhardt was criticised for reinterpreting the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by English critics, she responded in a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, stating:

I am reproached for being too lively [but] … I know that Hamlet is a scholar ... I am reproached for not being stunned and frightened enough when I see the ghost; but Hamlet went expressly to see the ghost, he went looking for it ... I am reproached for not being courteous enough to Polonius; but Shakespeare makes Hamlet say all sorts of stupidities to Polonius ... I am reproached for getting too close to the king in the chapel scene; but if Hamlet wishes to kill the king, it would be necessary for him to get close to him.

Making a case for the creative and interpretative choices she made, Bernhardt publicly and fearlessly defended her own work.

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Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet. The chair pictured has been replicated for our production. Photo:


In 1900, Bernhardt’s short film Hamlet was included in the program for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition. An experimentation joining the reproductive technologies of film and the phonograph, Bernhardt’s work was part of an eclectic program presented to an international audience. Filmed in the death scene, Bernhardt selected the spectacular conclusion to the play. In this way, the work pointed back to her recent theatrical achievements, just as it pointed forward to the technologies of the century to come.

At the same time that Bernhardt launched herself into film, she also appeared on the music hall stage. Performing excerpts from the most emotive acts of her most famous plays – the final death scene in La Dame aux Camélias, for example – she made her theatre affordable for popular audiences in America and England. There was, evidently, a financial and physical logic to her embrace of theatrical change. Film and the variety stage were less physically demanding than a lengthy play like Hamlet. They also generated money at point at which Bernhardt was older, less inclined to travel, and increasingly restricted in her physical movements. Particularly after the amputation of her right leg (in 1915), film and the variety stage guaranteed the actress both income and audience.

The celebration of Bernhardt today must take into account this range of Bernhardt’s projects. Bernhardt is remembered not because she was a great tragedian who declaimed on the French stage, but because she brought French theatre to countries as far away as Australia, and because she encouraged popular and middle-class audiences (notably, women) to embrace new technology such as film. On the centenary of her death, we would therefore do well to reflect on the advantage she made of age, particularly since she drove cultural change, well into her 60s and 70s.

I began this discussion by introducing you to how I chanced across Bernhardt in a history seminar at UCLA. What I hope I have highlighted is not only what I learned about Bernhardt across my subsequent 30 years of study, but what Ginzburg prompted me to ask. In a similar spirit, I propose that Bernhardt/Hamlet is significant because it encourages new questions. It prompts us to ask about histories of collaborative theatre-making, about the availability of nuanced and intelligent roles for professional actresses, as well as questions about why it has taken over a century to return Bernhardt to the Melburnian stage.

Performing here to great acclaim in 1891 – at a point at which she was renowned across the globe, and when actresses dominated the world’s theatres – Bernhardt/Hamlet invites us to reflect on a current wave of women who write for, speak from and boldly blitz audiences both locally and abroad. In my view, the most important question that Bernhardt/Hamlet poses is not that of historic representation or fidelity. It is whether we might speak of a second ‘Age of the Actress’. One in which other fierce and non-conforming theatrical women claim the margin as a site from which to speak, and carry Bernhardt’s baton forward.

Victoria Duckett, an international educator and author with 30 years of experience, is Associate Professor of Film and Associate Head of School, Partnerships and Engagement, in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Author of the award winning monograph, Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film, her forthcoming monograph – Transnational Trailblazers of Early Cinema: Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, and Mistinguett – will be available (Open Access) with the University of California Press in May, 2023.

Published on 28 February 2023

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