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Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film

Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film

by Victoria Duckett

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The most famous stage actress of the nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt enjoyed a surprising renaissance when the 1912 multi-reel film Queen Elizabeth vaulted her to international acclaim. The triumph capped her already lengthy involvement with cinema while enabling the indefatigable actress to reinvent herself in an era of technological and generational change. Placing Bernhardt at the center of the industry's first two decades, Victoria Duckett challenges the perception of her as an anachronism unable to appreciate film's qualities. Instead, cinema's substitution of translated title cards for her melodic French deciphered Bernhardt for Anglo-American audiences. It also allowed the aging actress to appear in the kinds of longer dramas she could no longer physically sustain onstage. As Duckett shows, Bernhardt contributed far more than star quality. Her theatrical practice on film influenced how the young medium changed the visual and performing arts. Her promoting of experimentation, meanwhile, shaped the ways audiences looked at and understood early cinema. A leading-edge reappraisal of a watershed era, Seeing Sarah Bernhardt tells the story of an icon who bridged two centuries--and changed the very act of watching film.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081163
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/09/2015
Series: Women & Film History International
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Victoria Duckett is a film historian and a lecturer in media studies at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is the coeditor of Researching Women in the Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives.

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Seeing Sarah Bernhardt

Performance and Silent Film

By Victoria Duckett


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09775-1


Nullius in Verba

Acting on Silent Film

Sarah Bernhardt is renowned for her golden voice. Literature tells us that it was her voice that helped her gain entrance to the Paris Conservatoire in 1859, her voice that helped her attract the enthusiasm of a young Parisian audience in the 1860s and 1870s, and her voice that ensures her enduring renown. Theater scholars have long discussed Bernhardt's vocal training, the development of her vocal skills, and the changes that travel, age, and different theatrical venues brought to her live vocal performances. While my work is grounded in the understanding that Bernhardt's voice is indeed important to a discussion of her fame, it asks questions about Bernhardt's transference to the screen. What happens when the most famous theatrical voice of the late nineteenth century is silenced on narrative film? How do audiences understand and interpret Bernhardt's acting when they have no voice to direct them to the emotional meaning of a gesture, series of gestures, or even a scene? How is emotion understood in the absence of words or vocal intonation? What is the role of music in supporting or developing silent gesture on screen?

It is my contention that while Bernhardt's voice was famous on the live stage her gestural acting was of equal importance to audiences. As I will demonstrate, reviews of her performances recognize the importance of her gestures and the unusual use she made of the spiral as a structuring device in her physical acting. I relate this use of the spiral to the development of art nouveau in France at the end of the nineteenth century and use it to show how Bernhardt's acting physicalized and embodied art nouveau's distinctive spiraling tendrils and curved forms. As I argue, Bernhardt's cinematized theater is an industrial art nouveau product that joined her spiraling body to a media that promoted both visual craftsmanship and mass production. Indeed, the very names of the companies with whom Bernhardt was first associated — the Film d'Art in France and the Famous Players Film Company in America — propose that contemporary art is inseparable from the development of modern industry. I argue that Bernhardt's early films join her distinctive theatrical style of acting to a wider art movement that saw artists newly mobilize materials and audiences through novel uses of modern industry.

While Bernhardt's films can be seen as art nouveau theatrical products circulating in a global market, they are also works that must today be interpreted. Rather than follow the traditional position and see Bernhardt silently mouthing her lines on screen in a genre of film usually dismissed as "filmed theater," I follow David Mayer in arguing that theatrical performance can be used to interpret early film. In an article entitled "Acting in Silent Cinema: Which Legacy of the Theatre?" Mayer states: "Conditioned as we are to performance through our late-twentieth-century experience of what we view as more-or-less realistic acting within a more-or-less realistic mise-en-scène, we are unable or unwilling to accept early actors' work as an effective means of explicating narrative, clarifying character relationships, expressing appropriate or valid emotion, or providing aesthetic pleasure. We are conditioned to the camera as an instrument for recording truth and the actor's performance as a means of validating that truth."

It is indeed the camera as "an instrument for recording truth" that we today focus on. This prevents us from seeing Bernhardt's films as anything but cinematographic failures whose unique value lies in their capacity to reveal Bernhardt's late-nineteenth-century stage action. I have entitled my chapter Nullius in Verba in order to contest this idea. Meaning "on the word of no-one," nullius in verba is the motto the Royal Society adopted in 1662. As I explain later, it was during the Enlightenment period that the Cartesian division between body and soul emerged. The body became the instrument for a universally intelligible language that subsequently made its way into visual literature. Works such as Charles Le Brun's Méthode pour apprendre á dessiner les passions (1702) emerged that depicted the passions in detail. Actors studied this work (and others) and used it to shape their expressions and gestures on the stage. When film emerged roughly three centuries later it carried with it this dual history: the idea that in silence the body can express universally intelligible emotions and the artistic practice of visually recording these. In this context, Bernhardt's engagement with the Film d'Art is not just evidence of an emerging art nouveau, it is also a new form of visual literature that, for the first time, can make itself available to a global audience. Bernhardt's use of a static camera and the reliance on the long distance shot is (to rephrase Mayer) a way to explore gesture as a universal language available to all. As the New York Times confirms, theatrical impresario Charles Frohman saw Bernhardt's Queen Elizabeth in terms of universal legibility and clear accessibility since he "considers his project analogous, to a certain extent, with the book Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, which provide for children their first and sometimes only really palatable taste of the bard." Bernhardt herself was aware of the availability and appeal of the cinema. When playing La Dame aux Camélias to a full theater alongside a full cinema showing her in the same role in America, she states that "in the one you paid only fifteen or twenty sous while in the other it cost fifteen or twenty francs."

With film we have the possibility of testing the legibility of gesture before a broad audience. We also have the possibility of bringing mechanical repetition and theatrical sameness to the definition of theatrical art. Rather than see this negatively, in terms of a loss of creative spontaneity or read this as a product of Bernhardt's repetitive commodification of plays, film allows us to see the theater reproduced in a new way. Bernhardt's films make her theater newly available for mass consumption. Further — and taking into account what Bernhardt said about film being affordable — Bernhardt's films give all spectators the same vantage of her acting, and it does this by presenting her in the same play. There is therefore no "best" seat in the house and no difference in the roles brought to different audiences. Nor is there a difference in the length or content of Bernhardt's performance since it can not be interrupted by applause, scenery changes, or her own idiosyncratic response to audience or venue. Finally, with narrative action now translated into lengthy English intertitles for English-speaking audiences, Bernhardt's body becomes the instrument through which emotions are expressed and empathy solicited. Although we know that musical accompaniment was variable, and that it changed according to the theater in which the film was projected (I discuss this later), music nevertheless retained the function it had on the live nineteenth-century stage. This was to support the emotional meaning of Bernhardt's physical performance. Again, it is her performing body that is brought to film and seen by a new cinema-going public.

Georges Michel, writing a review of Bernhardt's Camille in the Ciné-Journal in 1912 asks: "My God, what will this hectic cinema do to this gentle figure of charm and pleasure? What is it that Electricity will do to Gesture? to the beauty of gesture?" In response he states: "Admirable mime! Behind her vanishes the hanging sets, the carton furniture, the piano in black wood. Lips speak and if the public hears nothing, it nevertheless listens." An earlier editorial written by Dureau argues the same point. He states:

You think perhaps of the "Golden Voice," of the tirades of great scenes, and you say to me: What is there that remains on the screen? There remains this: that Madame Sarah Bernhardt carries the value of her role so well that its expression does not suffer by the silence. I have understood better than ever, seeing her leave the scene after the farewell letter written to Armand, the poignant emotion of her act and the depth of her love sacrificed for her lover. There is in her tender arms, in her kiss thrown to him in his absence, in her hurried flight, hesitant, held back, a minute of high tragedy which indicates better than words the dreadful torment of a feminine heart.

Moving Picture World reiterated this view when it explained that "The story is revealed as plain as print. 'Camille' was never more pitifully eloquent than in this dumb record." It is in this context that I argue that Bernhardt's films are not failures but instead frame the theater as a vibrant and developing art nouveau that brings Enlightenment thought to the cusp of a new century.

Establishing Physical Fame

As I mentioned earlier, Bernhardt was famous for her voice and gesture. Rather than see her films as silent records of a voice we cannot hear, we must recognize that her capacity to express herself physically through costume and gesture had facilitated her renown well before she entered silent film. Indeed, in the role that first shot her to popular as well as critical fame — the travesti role of Zanetto, the wandering Florentine minstrel, in François Coppée's Le Passant of 1869 — it was both her choice of costume and use of her voice that was noted by the influential French theater critic Francisque Sarcey. In his review of the opening night at the Odéon theater he praised the "exquisite elegance" of Coppée's verse and — even before discussing Bernhardt's vocal delivery — notes that she "recalls, by her costume, the Florentine singer by the sculptor Dubois."

Although Sarcey found Bernhardt's body unsuited to this dress, it is significant that he recognized the impact Bernhardt created by visually associating herself with a famous and popular sculpture, Paul Dubois' A Fifteenth Century Florentine Singer. This sculpture was identifiable to most in the Odéon audience since it had won a medal of honor just four years previously at the Salon of 1865, had been made into silvered bronze by order of the state, had been installed in the Musée du Luxembourg where the leading collection of modern painting and sculpture in Paris was then housed, and was mass produced (in different sizes) in bronze by the Barbedienne foundry and in porcelain by the Manufacture de Sèvres. As Richard Kendall suggests, A Fifteenth Century Florentine Singer was, at the time, "[a]rguably the most critically approved and popularly acclaimed emblem of youth." Bernhardt's own youth, as well as Coppée's status as a young and little-known poet, was therefore reinforced by a theatrical costume that joined physical youth, contemporary art, popular audiences, and industrial reproduction.

Noting that Bernhardt was "celebrated, given curtain calls, and cheered by an enraptured public," Sarcey indicates that Bernhardt was not only a critical success. She was also supported by a loud and vocal audience. In conclusion to his review — he also reviewed plays being performed contemporaneously at the Théâtre-Française and the Gaité — Sarcey defends what he calls "the true public of the theater." This was the public who cheered Bernhardt and who were often denied access to the legitimate theaters. Sincere, passionate, and intelligent arbiters of theatrical talent, they were the critical mass spearheading the growing taste for the theater in Paris. As he observes, their enthusiasm for a player heralded certain fame.

Sarcey's description of the new audience attending the Odéon theater is confirmed by Suze Rueff in her biography of Bernhardt, I Knew Sarah Bernhardt. Focusing on Le Passant as the turning point in Bernhardt's career, Rueff states that Le Passant

drew to the Odéon the students, the midinettes and the artisans of the rive gauche [who were] attracted by the strange music of that voice. These simple folk were among the first to adopt the young Sarah Bernhardt for their own ... if at any time the press had not been kind to their favorite, these newly-won adherents, les Saradoteurs, as Parisians soon designated them, would clap, stamp, and shout themselves hoarse to demonstrate they were of a different opinion.

In this sense, Bernhardt was not only physically representative of youth, she was also part of a youthful engagement in the French theater that brought with it new playwrights, new costumes, new audiences, and new mores to the theater. In her book, L'Art du Théâtre, Bernhardt makes much of the comparison between the spectators at the Odéon and the conservatism that still haunted the Comédie-Française. She explains that her supporters at the Odéon were the "poets, dreamers, students, neurasthenics and young girls" while those who attended the Comédie-Française were the "big bankers and hedonists." As Sarcey later remarked in a different context but to the same effect, "theatre is not made for the pensionnaires."

When Bernhardt entered film a generation later she was no longer a young actress supported by a youthful audience but an established actress who courted different generations, classes, and nationalities. Film was a commercial product that brought a genuinely diverse public together to watch and consume a single physical performance. Reiterating film's theatrical roots in its advertising campaign, the Film d'Art would cement its connection to the traditional theater by explaining that La Dame aux Camélias was "THE TRIUMPH of the Season." Joining the cinema's "theatrical season" to the idea that the cinema might facilitate its own touring road shows through simultaneously different cities, the Film d'Art also publicized Bernhardt's appearance in Bulgaria, Monte Negro, Bucharest, Romania, and Serbia. An audience that might once have been split along class lines and seated in different theaters in urban Paris had become, through film and mass consumption, a global audience that together celebrated Bernhardt's famous acting.

A Signature Spiral

It was Bernhardt's performance as the Spanish Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas at the Odéon in 1872 that confirmed her celebrity within Paris. Performed as the opening work after the theater's closure during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 (during this time, the theater had been converted into a makeshift hospital), Ruy Blas linked Bernhardt to the theme of social reform. The play, which focuses on a commoner who is politically savvy, emotionally sincere, and who kills for social vengeance, troubled the ruling class in Paris when it debuted in the Renaissance theater in 1838. Although now performed to celebrate the return of Victor Hugo from two decades of political exile, it was still considered socially inflammatory. In a note published in Le Temps before the play's debut, Sarcey therefore urged the public to listen to it "without political passion" and to see it simply as the "debut of a beautiful work and not a political event."

Sarcey's own review of Ruy Blas some days later illustrated this approach. Saying nothing of the political symbolism and metaphor in the work, Sarcey celebrates Hugo's poetic skill and describes Edmond Geffroy (playing Don Salluste) as "a true choirmaster." He then comments on Bernhardt's acting. Stating that her movements are "noble and harmonious" he explains: "When she rises, when she makes a half turn, when she exits, the long folds of her silver spangled dress arrange themselves around her with poetic grace." Although Sarcey then gives his review over to a description of her voice ("Never has delicious poetry been so sweetly spoken," he states), he isolates Bernhardt's use of costume as a key feature of her performance. His attention to the half-turn, a movement that makes Bernhardt's costume spiral around her, indicates the way in which art nouveau literally materializes itself through costume even after being worked physically through Bernhardt's spiraling gestures on the stage.

In 1880, when Bernhardt adopted the role of Marguerite Gautier in Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camélias — a role which would go on to become her most performed role in the theater — this signature spiral was newly worked into the play's concluding death scene. When Sarcey saw the play performed in 1881 in London he reported that instead of saying her last words in a soporific murmur while seated (as was traditionally the case), Bernhardt remains standing, defying death. Suddenly she reels, turns her body on a half-pivot, and collapses in "the most elegant and poetic pose imaginable." A few years later, when Louis Ganderax describes Bernhardt's performance in Théodora in Revue des Deux Mondes, Bernhardt's spiraling turns were as characteristically a part of her performance as her voice. Ganderax states: "[I]t is Madame Sarah Bernhardt, more than Theodora, who twists and turns like a serpent upon the cushions of her throne; it is her who seduces and moves us by the charm and expression of her gestures, as much as by the music and shouts of her voice." In a booklet for a performance of La Dame aux Camélias at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in 1908 a bill for the play includes a description of each act. Here, we are told that in the fifth act, Marguerite dies "in the arms of her lover." Action that was once considered original has thus been written into the play itself. Moreover, the booklet states that Bernhardt "aroused the enthusiasm of the crowds of all races, who were captivated and delighted" by her Marguerite.


Excerpted from Seeing Sarah Bernhardt by Victoria Duckett. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1. Nullius in Verba: Acting on Silent Film, 27,
2. Hamlet: A Short Film, 1900, 50,
3. Camille: The Ladies of the Camellias, 71,
4. Queen Elizabeth: A Moving Picture, 1912, 100,
5. Sarah Bernhardt at Home: Cinema and the Home, ca. 1915, 136,
6. Mothers of France: World War I, Film, and Propaganda, 163,
Conclusion, 188,
Notes, 195,
Index, 227,

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