The First Actress - A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt’s life was destined to grab headlines. The first actress of international acclaim, she drew eyes and plaudits – and controversy and criticism – wherever she trod the boards.
But Bernhardt’s life was also no picnic. Given to a stranger to be raised, she was the daughter of a high-class courtesan, her biological father aristocratic but distant – and eventually dead. Her mother never wanted her daughter in her life and soon sent her off to a convent boarding school, where Sarah discovered a talent for melodrama – and for acting. From there, given the option between marriage and acting, she became an actress, first the star of the Comédie-Française, later as a nationally known actress touring the world in triumph. From life as a single mother (echoing her own mother, with whom she fought bitterly) to a stint as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War, Sarah did it all during her lifetime.
Sarah’s life was long and storied, so it’s not surprising that Gortner chooses to focus in on her early life, ending the book with Bernhard’s triumphant performance of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias in 1880. In concentrating on the climb, however, Gortner completely ignores the back half of Bernhardt’s life. The love of her life and only husband, diplomat-turned-actor-turned-rogue-turned-doomed addict Jacques Damala, only merits notice in the author’s afterword; so does the amputation of Sarah’s leg in 1910. Her silent movie career, too, does not bear mention. This is tragic, because Gortner has a feeling for Bernhardt’s natural flare for melodrama and spitfire personality, and I couldn’t help but imagine what he could have done had he written about her association with Oscar Wilde, (Wilde wrote Salome for her, but sadly, she died before she could perform the role). Instead all of this is crammed into the author’s notes at the end.
Instead, Gortner focuses in on the boilerplate relationship between Sarah and her mother, one fraught with dislike and betrayal. The problem with that is that Julie, Sarah’s mother, comes off as utterly unlikable and cruel to the point of being unrealistic. Julie was a well-known courtesan with salons in France who was known for her beauty and charm. That we never see a good side to her – that she’s uniformly cold and cruel – does a disservice to her and fails to round her out into a full personality. While any woman who abandons her child to strangers instead of raising her is bound to be an imperfect woman, her every on-page act is wicked and villainous. She is even written as taking Bernhardt’s child and half-sister to Germany without telling Sarah, leading the actress on a wild goose chase in search of her family – an event that didn’t take place in real life. Thus, Julie remains flat throughout the book.
Other parts of Sarah’s life are, however, well-represented, from her sojourn across war-torn Europe during the Franco-Prussian conflict, to the small domestic dramas that drove her on. The act of becoming an actress, too, is carefully examined beneath Gortner’s pen. Of particular interest is the controversy which was aroused when Bernhardt chose to portray Hamlet onstage, the first of several cross-dressing performances that both showed her range and outraged the theater world.
The tender capturing of life in convent school for Sarah, too, goes a step beyond, building a community against which the young actress was able to develop.
These moments help buoy The First Actress toward a recommendation. Although it’s not the absolute best representation of Bernhardt’s life, it manages to successfully capture her essence and entertain without getting too soapy about things.