Born illegitimately to a Jewish courtesan in 1844 and baptized just before she turned 12, the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt was stereotyped throughout her career for her Jewish origins, which became an essential element in her mystique. Now, Bernhardt returns to the stage in Theresa Rebeck’s new gender-bending play, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” based loosely on the period in the actress’ life when she took on one of her most controversial roles, that is, the most legendary — and many would say the most challenging — man’s role in theater. The play opened this week at the Roundabout Theatre starring Tony-winning actress Janet McTeer (“A Doll’s House”) as Bernhardt.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand to God,” “Present Laughter”), “Bernhardt/Hamlet” begins with the actress rehearsing the role of the Danish prince three centuries after Shakespeare created him. (During the Romantic era, Hamlet had been as a sighing, indecisive, melancholic victim, but Bernhardt made him a masculine, strong-willed avenger.) As she gradually conquers the role, she finds herself drawn erotically to the married playwright, Edmond Rostand, who is adapting Shakespeare’s text for her production. At the same time, she has an even deeper influence on Alphonse Mucha, the Art Nouveau poster designer who attempts to capture her essence in his art.
Rebeck, who has written more than two dozen plays, as well as many screenplays for film and television, told The Jewish Week that the play is not strictly biographical; she compared it to “Amadeus” and “Shakespeare in Love” in that much of it is invented. For example, Rebeck fabricated the detail that Bernhardt, who never knew her own father (who was a French Catholic), feels a kinship with Hamlet, who struggles with his murdered father’s absence.
Bernhardt is notoriously “hard to capture,” Rebeck said. Although the actress wrote a great deal about her life and career, she frequently embellished, or even outright changed the details. “She was a mercurial figure,” Rebeck said, “and an apocryphal one even in her own time.” Moreover, there was a “different morality and ethos in terms of how she was written about” in her time, in that her contemporaries built up the legends that surrounded her, which included her keeping wild animals and sleeping in a coffin. She was also extremely attractive to both men and women, as one sees in the play. “To know her was to sleep with her,” Rebeck observed wryly.
Bernhardt’s Jewish identity is not an overt theme of the play. It is only mentioned, in fact, in connection with her 1897 role in Rostand’s “Le Samaritaine” (The Woman from Samaria), in which she played Photina, a figure from the New Testament who converted her people to Christianity. But her Jewishness has been a focus of considerable scholarly attention in recent years, beginning with the 2005 opening of “Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama” at The Jewish Museum, and continuing in Robert Gottlieb’s 2010 biography, “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt,” published by Yale University Press in its “Jewish Lives” series.
Indeed, Bernhardt’s portrayals of both Photina and Hamlet played out against the backdrop of the Dreyfus Affair (Bernhardt sided with Dreyfus, while her son, Maurice, was convinced of the French officer’s guilt, opening up a deep rift between them). Given the sheer number of anti-Semitic novels and treatises that were published in France during that time period, it was impossible for audiences not to view her through the prism of Jewish identity. As Francois Bernand and Raphael Viau contended in their 1898 book, “Les Femmes d’Israel” (The Jewish Women), “whether initiated into the worship of God by Gemara or the catechism, Sarah Bernhardt is neither more nor less than a Jewess, and nothing but a Jewess.” These jabs followed Bernhardt throughout her career, whether she was playing male (she donned a beard to play Shylock) or female roles. Similarly, the novelist and journalist William Dean Howells noted in 1902 that while watching Bernhardt play Hamlet in New York at the Garden Theatre, he never for a moment forgot that it was a French Jewish woman playing the role.
The actress herself never denied that she was Jewish; accused of “sounding like a Jew,” she responded that she was a “daughter of the great Jewish race” and attributed her “somewhat uncultivated language” to the “outcome of our enforced wanderings.” (Interestingly, Bernhardt followed in the footsteps of another great French Jewish actress, Rachel Felix, who was hailed for reviving the classic French tragedies of Racine and Corneille and does not seem to have attracted as much anti-Semitic sentiment.)
According to Stuelpnagel, Bernhardt’s real contribution was that she pioneered a new, more naturalistic style of acting that eventually morphed into the “method acting” of the 20th century — in some ways, Bernhardt set the stage for the careers of Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. But it was the spectacle of a woman playing one of Shakespeare’s most iconic male characters, Stuelpnagel said, that disturbed critics and audience members alike. “She was being irreverent to Shakespeare’s greatest play,” he said. But nowadays, he observed, women frequently play Shakespearean male figures; Glenda Jackson will appear as King Lear on Broadway in the spring. In the end, von Stuelpnagel pointed out, “these productions are really about how we view gender, and if we can accept a woman’s tragedy in the same way as a man’s tragedy.”
This issue of gender extends to the playwright as well. As Eric Grode pointed out in a recent profile of Rebeck in The New York Times, she has received a mixed critical reception for her work; some think that it is because she is held to a higher standard than if she were a male playwright. As she told Grode, “I can’t help but wonder if the fact that audiences like my plays is held against me. Some people don’t like the word ‘accessible’ any more. Why?”
Sarah Bernhardt might very well have asked the same question, as she coped with legions of critics for whom both her gender and her ethnic background hindered their ability to enjoy seeing one of the greatest performers of all time ply her craft.
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs through Nov. 11 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org. $49-14