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Sarah Bernhardt shines as much in her exhibition in Paris today as she did in Texas and Kansas in 1906
On a recent Parisian June morning, an enormous photo of Sarah Bernhardt in Dallas in front of a circus tent in 1906 hanging prominently in the exhibition room of the Petit Palais dedicated to her travels around the world pleasantly surprised me. Although I knew she had toured the United States a few times, this Francophile, who grew up in Dallas, had no idea before attending the Bernhardt exhibition, that she had performed there. Indeed, the actress – and sculptor, painter, playwright, and theatre owner – had performed before large crowds in Dallas twice during her 9 tours of America.
The Parisian friend I attended the exhibition with seemed more impressed that throngs of Americans flocked to see the “Divine Sarah” perform her favourite roles in French even though they did not speak the language. I, however, wondered why she had to perform under the Big Top.
It turns out that promoters had no trouble selling tickets to audiences who had heard about her legendary star presence, her dramatic gestures, and her electric delivery, but a theatre syndicate dispute locked her out of the largest venues in Texas during her March 1906 visit. Undeterred, Bernhardt agreed to perform with her troupe under a tent she had made in Kansas City during the first of four farewell tours she made to North America.
Bernhardt not only performed in Kansas City on four separate occasions, but as a 1906 Wichita Daily Eagle article states, she also even performed in Wichita, city of my birth, on April 5 before she headed to Topeka, the capital city where I teach university students, the following day. There she played Marguerite Gautier. The spectacle of her dying in her lover’s arms as the courtesan with a heart of gold in The Lady of the Camelias wowed the audience of “the best educated, most artistic people” in Topeka according to The Topeka Daily Herald review published two days after her performance. The audience “forgot it did not understand the words of the play and applauded the acting” according to the article, which also describes the theatregoers as “thoroughly appreciative.” They “encored Bernhardt to the point where more encores would have been tiresome to her.”
When she ran short on money, Sarah Bernhardt embarked on engagements abroad to refill her coffers, and purchase more exotic animals for her personal menagerie back in Paris. “While touring in the South, Madame went on an alligator hunt,” reported one Kansas farmer who travelled fifty miles to interview Bernhardt in her train car before her Topeka performance. “They captured an alligator” according to his interview in The Topeka Daily Capital (01 Jul 1906), “and Madame had it sent to her country house, near Paris.”
For lucky readers headed to Paris this summer, there is a little something for everyone at the “Sarah Bernhardt: Et la Femme Créa la Star” (And the Woman Created the Star) exposition. Visitors can search the interactive maps plotting her international tours to see if Bernhardt visited their hometowns, and fashionistas and theatre-lovers will delight in the displays of her elaborate, Byzantine costumes and jewellery created for her legendary roles as Theodora and Cleopatra. as LGBTQ members will smile at the photo of Bernhardt sporting a headpiece crowned with a stuffed bat (which sometimes served as a lesbian symbol) in the display dedicated to her “bizarre” tastes, film buffs will enjoy Bernhardt sword-fighting as Hamlet in 1900. Literature lovers will appreciate Bernhardt performing the final scene of The Lady of the Camelias. Filmed in 1911, this work is the first of over thirty film and television screen adaptations that have been made of Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel (1848), which he adapted for the theatre in 1852.
If you are not already a “Divine Sarah” aficionado, you will be by the end of the exhibition. You will understand why throngs of Parisians crowded the streets as the historical footage of her funeral procession attests when she died in 1923.
Sarah Bernhardt: Et la femme Créa la Star” runs through August 27, 2023, at Paris’s Petit Palais.
- Reserve tickets for the first showing on Sunday morning at 10AM to beat the crowds and score an outdoor table in the museum garden for a late-morning coffee and pastry or the dish of the day at lunch at the Café Le Jardin du Petit Palais if you linger longer at the displays.
- You can jockey for a deckchair in the shade of the exterior garden for a peaceful escape from the crowds and pavement. If you are as lucky as I was, a breeze will leave you feeling like you are on the beach.
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Courtney A. Sullivan is the author of ‘The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel: From de Chabrillan to Colette’ (2016). She is Professor of French at Washburn University (Topeka, Kansas), where she teaches French language and French and Francophone literature, film, and civilization.
Lead photo credit : Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Nadar, circa 1864 © Wiki Commons
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