This past fall Theresa Rebeck's new play, Bernhardt/Hamlet, reinvigorated the entertainment community’s thirst for the actor Oscar Wilde called, “The Incomparable One”—so much so that a new movie about Bernhardt, Playing to the Gods, based on Peter Rader’s novel about the feud between Bernhardt and fellow actor Eleonora Duse, is now in the works.
But in Bernhardt Hamlet, which starred Janet McTeer, Bernhardt muses on the impermanence of the actor’s art. Although the work of many of Bernhardt’s contemporaries are now largely forgotten, Bernhardt is still long-remembered. (It was Mark Twain who said, “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”) And, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York City is especially rich in artifacts that document Bernhardt’s renowned career.
Take a look at six genuine relics from Bernhardt’s past:
1. Program for American tour of Hamlet
Rebeck’s play dramatizes the origin of the 1899 production of Hamlet in which Bernhardt played the title role. The following year, Bernhardt played Hamlet on a “farewell tour” of America. In a bound volume of programs of early 20th century productions of Hamlet, I found this documentation of a 1900 tour stop at the theatre that was then at Madison Square Garden. The gravedigger (here known in French as the “Fossoyeur”) was played by Benoît-Constant Coquelin who appeared with Bernhardt throughout the tour (also as Cyrano de Bergerac to her Roxanne). He appeared in a very short film of the duel scene from this production which was accompanied by a sound recording on a wax cylinder (likely the first sound film ever released).
2. Curler advertisement
Also in the program is an advertisement for the Sarah Bernhardt hair curler. Bernhardt was known for her naturally curly hair, which became so fashionable it inspired this new product. In her memoirs, Bernhardt wrote that before her examination at the conservatory of the Comédie-Française, her mother took her to her own hairdresser who tried to straighten it.
The Library preserves several scrapbooks of photographs and newspaper/magazine articles about Bernhardt. One preserves this caricature that portrays Bernhardt as traveling across the English channel from France to England where she was to appear at London Gaiety Theatre. Her eccentricities are highlighted: she travels with a coffin, which she was rumored to sleep in, and is depicted smoking (a habit thought to be unladylike). This caricature exaggerates her features in a way that reflects the anti-Semitism of the time and place (Bernhardt’s mother was Jewish though she herself was raised Catholic).
The Billy Rose Theatre Division likely has the largest collection of theatre photographs in the world. We have the full collections of negatives and prints of White Studio, Florence Vandamm, Martha Swope, Kenn Duncan, Dixie Sheridan, and many others. We also preserve photographs that came to us as individual donations. This “carte de visite,” a small format photograph popular at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, shows Sarah Bernhardt in her signature dress, the same depicted in the earlier caricature. The photographer here is British, so it's likely this photograph was taken for the visit to the Gaiety Theatre in London.
5. Mucha poster
In Bernhardt/Hamlet, the poster artist Alphonse Mucha (played by Matthew Saldivar), plays an important role as one who helps to define the image Sarah Bernhardt. The real life Mucha did the same. His posters helped to advance the cult of “the divine Sarah” and quickly became valuable collectors items. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts preserves two of his posters (La Dame Aux Camelias and his first Bernhardt poster, Gismonda). The posters are roughly six feet tall, depicting the five-foot-two Bernhardt within the frame as close to her actual height.
6. The Bernhardt Belt
Most of the material collected by the Theatre Division is “flat”: papers, designs, film, and photographs, etc. We typically don't collect costumes or props. However, over the years a few three-dimensional objects have come to us. One of the most intriguing is this belt which is in a box with a label that suggests it was worn by Bernhardt in Cleopatra. We have little paperwork documenting how this item came to the Library, and in our photographs of Bernhardt in the role she appears to wear a very different costume, but it is certainly possible that Bernhardt wore this in a scene or a production not documented in photographs.
If the exact history of the belt, like the production in which it was used, is now a lost memory, the belt itself, like all the items in our collections, remains as a tangible reminder of the performance that once was, but is now mostly lost except through the evidence of the tangible evidence preserved in archives. These materials can now serve as the source material for new works of art like Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet.
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.