In 2018, Glenda Jackson made headlines when she played the title role in Shakespeare’s King Lear. “Nobody ever mentioned that I was female and he was male,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I wasn’t interested in the gender battle. I just wanted to see if I could do the play.”
That’s almost precisely the attitude Sarah Bernhardt had when she decided to play Hamlet back in 1899. That groundbreaking moment in theatrical history comes back to life in Theresa Rebeck’s play Bernhardt/Hamlet. After running on Broadway in 2018, Bernhardt/Hamlet makes its Chicago premiere in September at the Goodman Theatre (September 14–October 20), arriving at a time when questions about gender are prominent in the public discussion. The show will star Terri McMahon, making her Goodman debut after acting in more than 50 productions over 23 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
At the end of the 19th century, Bernhardt was the world’s most famous female actor. “She was self-created,” Rebeck says, in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “She created the whole idea of celebrity. Where did she get the idea that she would be the most famous person in the world? That’s a mighty act of ego.”
In the 1890s, as Bernhardt entered her 50s, the celebrated French actress was looking for new challenges on the stage. “The parts for her were thinning out,” notes Rebeck. “She played ingénues for most of her life, but she was really sick of it. In the classical repertoire, which is mostly what she was doing, there are limited roles for women. She started doing breeches part. Every now and then, actresses would put on breeches.” With a laugh, Rebeck adds, “And it was seen as a really sexual gesture—because you could see their legs.”
No longer weighed down by the cumbersome dresses that were standard attire for women in that era, Bernhardt felt a sense of freedom as she moved around the stage wearing pants. After an initial foray into some of these roles, Bernhardt set her sights on something more ambitious. “Ultimately, if you are the biggest star in the world, Hamlet is the biggest part,” Rebeck says. “There’s something perfectly logical about the fact that she did it.”
The events in Bernhardt/Hamlet took place shortly after Bernhardt had opened her own theatre in Paris. She made her debut as Hamlet on May 20, 1899, but instead of playing the Danish prince in a direct translation of William Shakespeare’s play, she commissioned a new French prose adaptation. Although Rebeck’s script closely follows much of the actual history, it departs from the facts here. In this fictionalized version, Edmond Rostand—famed for writing Cyrano de Bergerac—creates a new take on Hamlet for Bernhardt to play. (In reality, it was written by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob.) This adds another layer to the audacity of Sarah Bernhardt. At a time when few women had any power or authority in society, it was daring for her to take on this male character. But it was also bold for her to assert that she saw flaws in the way Shakespeare had written the character.
Shakespeare’s script has sparked much debate about exactly how old Hamlet is supposed to be. Is he a youthful 19? Or closer to 30? Although Bernhardt was 55 when she put on pants and played the prince, she portrayed him in a boyish way. In a review at the time, actor Elizabeth Robins praised Bernhardt’s “amazing skill” at playing “a spirited boy with impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.”
What does it take to play Hamlet? Bernhardt argued that a mature woman has the experience necessary to understand what Hamlet was going through as a young man. “The Hamlet character,” suggests director Donna Feore (who’s making her Chicago debut with this Goodman production after winning praise for her work at Ontario Stratford Festival), “is someone who intensely witnesses what is going on in the world around him.
“He can’t not see,” she says. “That’s his problem. He sees everything.”
“On some level, he’s Shakespeare himself,” says Rebeck. “Bernhardt discovers that, unearthed in the character of Hamlet, is Shakespeare himself, rising with the questions that truly perturbed him. And that those are questions for all of us, beyond gender.”
From Rebeck’s perspective, Bernhardt helped to show the essential humanity of the Hamlet character, bringing out universal qualities that anyone can relate to, no matter what gender they are. “She would argue that is what happens when you step across gender and claim a role,” Rebeck says. “It’s very bold of her. Basically, she was one of the most sexual women to cross the stage, and was also wildly famous for all of the affairs she had. So she was hyper-defined as a very sexual female. And then she took that and tossed that, and walked into breeches roles. So she’s a mighty figure for the argument that we are all humans.”
Feore and Rebeck both wonder about the progress women have made in the century since Bernhardt played Hamlet. “I think we’re still in a world where, when a woman puts on a man’s costume, that’s what you see,” Rebeck says. “You don’t move past that.”
“Here’s what I find jaw-dropping,” shares Feore. “She commanded the respect and devotion and collaboration of a large number of talented and incredibly influential men. They’re all holding on to every word she says. Did we go backwards from Sarah Bernhardt? We should have flown.”
Look back at the Broadway production from Roundabout Theatre Company: