To watch Janet McTeer play Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet is enthralling. Pulitzer finalist Rebeck’s new play chronicles the backstage realm at the time the legendary Bernhardt decided to tackle Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Hamlet. With all of the fuss made by the men in Paris at the time—as depicted in the play—audiences might think this was the first time Bernhardt, or any woman, had taken on a man’s role in the theatre. But no. This was simply the first time a woman opted to lead in this particular role: the Holy Grail of theatre. Extraordinarily, in an era when women did not yet have the right to vote in France, Great Britain, or the United States, Sarah Bernhardt flouted gender roles internationally, portraying men—young and old—all over the world. What other male roles did the great Bernhardt assay?
1. Zacharie in Athalie, 1867
Her first “trouser” part appears to have also been her first fledgling success as a young actress at the Théâtre de L’Odéon, France’s number two theatre (behind the Comédie-Française). The year was 1867, Bernhardt was in her early 20s and the role was that of a ten-year-old boy named Zacharie in Jean Racine’s Athalie. “The public, charmed by the sweetness of my voice and its crystal purity, encored the spoken choruses and I was rewarded by three bursts of applause,” Bernhardt later recalled, with characteristic modesty, in her memoirs.
2. Zanetto in Le Passant, 1869
The first all-out triumph of her nascent career also transpired in pants. Le Passant (The Passerby) was a two-character one-act written by a young civil servant with no professional experience named François Coppée, who happened to be the lover of an older Odéon actor. Playing opposite this lady, Bernhardt was Zanetto, a Renaissance boy troubadour, who passes one night with an aging courtesan. The performance, in 1868, made Bernhardt the most talked about actor in Paris, virtually overnight.
3. Chérubin in Le Mariage de Figaro, 1873
Next came Chérubin in Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ Le Marriage de Figaro, undertaken after Bernhardt jettisoned the Odéon and ascended to the Comédie-Française in 1872 (or, rather, returned to it, having ignominiously failed in her first brief stint there as an inexperienced neophyte years earlier). She soon shed the Comédie-Française too, in 1880, to pursue superstardom solo.
4. Lorenzaccio in Lorenzaccio, 1896
In her own theatre in Paris and on her many ensuing world tours, Bernhardt revived a number of her trademark trouser roles. She also added new ones. In 1896, she took on the title role in Lorenzaccio, by Alfred de Musset, an 1834 drama so unwieldy it had never before been staged.
5. Hamlet in Hamlet,1899
Her most controversial act of cross-dressing, as McTeer and Rebeck make clear, proved a triumph.
6. Duc de Reichstadt in L’Aiglon, 1900
Playwright Edmond Rostand—infamous author of Cyrano de Bergerac, and the lover whom Rebeck deploys as Bernhardt’s love interest in Bernhardt/Hamlet—then provided one of the defining male roles of Bernhardt’s career with L’Aiglon, in 1900, the tragic saga of Napoleon’s exiled, dying, 20-year-old son, the Duc de Reichstadt. Bernhardt was 56.
7. Werther in Werther, 1903
“It’s not that I prefer male roles, it’s that I prefer male minds,” she was quoted as saying around this time, having recently played Young Werther in a verse adaptation of Goethe’s classic.
There was also the scandalous sculptress suit that Bernhardt adopted after taking up sculpting, with some success, in the 1870s. A gloriously mannish, white silk jacket and pants ensemble, the sculptress suit has outdistanced all of Bernhardt’s voluminous Victorian scarves and dresses as the most timeless costume creation that she ever wore, or, at least, was photographed wearing.
8. King Ahasuerus in Esther, 1905
Bernhardt’s latter years yielded two transcendent male roles, which simultaneously confronted her much commented upon half-Jewish ancestry. In 1905 she starred in Racine’s Esther. Derived from the Jewish Book of Esther, the title character was the Persian Jewish princess who saves her people from the murderous visier, Haman, by marrying Persia’s King Ahasuerus. Bernhardt chose to play Ahasuerus.
9. Portia in The Merchant of Venice, 1916
Then, in 1916, on a 99-city tour of the U.S., she undertook the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, alternating as Portia and Shylock. She did so literally on one leg, having endured the amputation of her chronically injured right leg in 1914. “It is a fiendishly cruel and vengeful Jew,” observed a reviewer for the Brooklyn Eagle of her Shylock. “It glares with diabolic hatred at the Christian merchant, eyes glistening...in anticipation of his gory vengeance.”
10. Daniel Arnaud in Daniel, 1920
Bernhardt’s final male theatrical adventure came in 1920, at the age of approximately 75. She portrayed a 30-year-old male drug addict in a new play called Daniel by her grandson-in-law Louis Verneuil. She accomplished this transformation virtually without leaving her bed. “Propped with pillows, in bed, she was dying,” the legendary stage and film director Rouben Mamoulian would recollect. “Any other actress dying in this particular scene would have fallen back into the pillows...Not so with Bernhardt. Unexpectedly, with a shock that made you sit up and quiver in your chair, she fell forward like a figure of lead, heavy and limp...There was death—stark, final, unpremeditated.”
Bernhardt’s own death followed three years later. Actual and unreviewable. For the ages.
Note: All quotes cited courtesy of Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb.