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In this issue's Right Now section:
The Marketspace of Ideas - Orbiting Other Suns - Lessons from the Diva - Chaos, Culture, Curiosity - E-mail and Web Information


Lessons from the Diva

Though she succumbed to an estimated 40,000 stage deaths before her own demise at the dawn of the film era, the celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) lives today. "Whether we're 20 or 70, she's embedded in our subconscious," says art historian Carol Ockman, a Bunting Institute fellow. Bernhardt's ways of representing female sexuality and ethnicity influenced performers such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbra Streisand; in the 1941 film Babes on Broadway, Judy Garland impersonated "the divine Sarah." Bernhardt's memoir, Ma Double Vie, admits that positioning herself for posterity was crucial--she was "in it for the long haul," Ockman says.

If Bernhardt succeeded in gaining cultural immortality, it may be partly because her career coincided with the rise of recording technologies--photography, gramophone, film--and partly because she was one of the first stars to attain "icon" status. Bernhardt was "like Madonna, only better," says Ockman, observing that Bernhardt may even have been a prototype for the self-reincarnating "bad girl" that Madonna exemplifies a century later.

In a "visual iconography," a work in progress titled Who Do You Think You Are, Sarah Bernhardt?, Ockman uses the actress to explore how icons are created, remembered, and reinvented. Popular icons are a species of sacred personage, public figures whose visibility lets them serve as projection screens for the loves, fears, anxieties, and dreams of the collective imagination. One key to iconic success, Ockman says, is to give audiences repeatedly what they want and expect while simultaneously rendering it new. Thus, Bernhardt satisfied audience appetites with oft-repeated roles such as Camille. Yet in later years she turned to male or "breeches" roles (not uncommon at the time), and at age 55 caused a stir with her portrayal of Hamlet. After having created an image of heightened female sexuality with her "womanly" interpretations, the cross-dressed performances made audiences long for the "real" Sarah Bernhardt. "She was creating a demand," Ockman says, "for precisely the female sexuality she was suppressing."

Dichotomies lie at the heart of icons: witness Madonna's early persona, combining suggestive attire with crucifixes, an overtly sexual manner with allusions to dubious virginal status. One polarity that Bernhardt embraced was high and popular culture: the actress established her reputation at France's premier legitimate theater, the Comédie Française, where, from 1862 through 1880, she offered romantic interpretations of classical roles like Racine's Phèdre. Yet, after two decades of success in what Ockman calls "the sacred precincts," Bernhardt left the legitimate stage--and earned iconic stature, along with vast sums of money--by spending the next 40 years in boulevard theater, popular vaudeville shows, and early film roles. In part because an actress like Bernhardt could straddle both worlds, and only gained in popularity by doing so, Ockman herself rejects the distinction between high and popular culture. "Multiple identities," she says, "enhance the possibilities for identification and desire."

Like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Bernhardt was unangelic, a besmirched or "dirty" star. She had her motto, "Quand Même" ("even so," or loosely, "against all odds") embroidered on linens, printed on visiting cards, engraved on her revolver, and even carved into the coffin that she may sometimes have used as a bed. Her fame did indeed confound probability: Bernhardt's personal history and behavior seemed almost designed to tar her with every possible nineteenth-century social stigma. The illegitimate daughter of a Dutch-Jewish mother and an absent French father, she clung to her Jewishness while practicing Catholicism. Early in life she was a pricey call girl, like her mother and aunt before her; she lived a sexually promiscuous life, taking innumerable male, and perhaps some female, lovers. Bernhardt became an unwed mother and took up side careers--sculptor, painter, author--generally considered reserved for males. Her thin body was quite out of fashion, while her illnesses (tuberculosis, neurasthenia) and the eventual amputation of a leg in 1915 were, says Ockman, further "indices of womanhood gone awry."

Yet none of these could suppress Bernhardt's popularity. In fact, her stigmata may have enhanced it. She could command the exorbitant salary of $7,000 per week--double that of other headliners--and was so wildly revered that the Barnum organization allegedly cabled her an offer of $10,000 to display her severed leg. After the amputation, she disdained prosthetic devices and crutches; bearers carried the divine Sarah around in a sedan chair.

In other words, like a royal personage. In a sense, that is what the actress was. Figures like Princess Diana are another type of icon: venerated individuals whose virtues and foibles are scrutinized, exposing them to both adoration and woe. Bernhardt's complexity--her ambivalent expressions of sexuality, for example--actually launched her toward the stars.

Today's mass media provide much richer rocket fuel. "Our capacities and technologies for greater communication raise questions about how we will create and define icons in the future," Ockman says. Bernhardt herself may have dimly foreseen what was to come. In 1880, newly arrived in the United States for a tour, she visited Thomas Alva Edison in New Jersey to record her voice via phonograph. "She didn't speak or sing," Ockman says. "She declaimed." Imagine the diva, standing beside this most amazing contraption, peering, clear-eyed, into our future.

~ Katrina Roberts

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