An interview with world famous tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt, conducted in 1920 upon the occasion of her appearance, at the age of 78, in Racine's ATHALIE.


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 9. Howard Greer. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1920. p. 176, 224.

Sarah Bernhard in ATHALIESARAH BERNHARDT has returned to the stage.

It was not to be expected that the Divine Sarah had made her last stage-appearance, but it was a bit of a surprise to learn that she was contemplating a new rôle. However, Racine's four-act tragedy, "Athalie," has been produced with Madame Bernhardt in the title rôle, and again the famous tragedienne has evoked the praise of her Parisian public and proved that at seventy-eight Youth but begins to be eternal.

More than half a century ago she appeared in the same piece as Zacharie, a lad of ten. It is an interesting situation for her to be found in this recent revival as the blasphemous queen whose dialogue for the most part is carried on with another Zacharie, again played by a girl in her teens, whose acting must be as a dim reflection in the mirror of the past.

Madame Bernhardt has overthrown the conventional interpretation of the designing queen. She has given the character a feminine charm and subtle coquetry apparent even in moments of revolt and treachery. Her smiling lips, smouldering eyes and regal poise express both an innocent passion and the conscientious malevolence of an intriguing woman.

Throughout the action of the play the star makes but two appearances and remains seated upon her golden palanquin. She is carried upon the stage by four richly-armored slaves and reclines voluptuously on her cushions, depending solely upon her vibrant voice, the tilt of her jewel-swathed head and the expressive gestures of her long, slender arms for the portrayal of the character.

HER languid beauty seems not the least marred in these passing years. Hers is still the "golden voice."

After the first act upon the opening night I went back stage with a member of the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. At the door of the star's dressing room I was introduced to Monsieur Perrounet, her godson, through whose kindness I was presented to the star. She was seated before a wide dressing-table, still in the robes and head-dress of Athalie. Round about was the little court that is always to be found within calling distance -- the doctor, the lawyer, a companion and several servants. Before her, upon the surface of the make-up table, three tall mirrors opened fanwise.

Madame Bernhardt was gazing wistfully in the glass and toying with a long chain of emeralds that hung from her bare throat when we entered. We remained but a moment, and in that time Madame Sarah chatted interestedly in her sharp staccato tones, with always the wonderful smile upon her face.

We passed from her loge into an adjoining room, where a number of lesser servants and attendants were in waiting. Beyond were still other rooms. In all justice, the tragedienne's "dressing room" should be called a miniature apartment. The entrance door is a massive affair of oak panels and carved rose-garlands entwining the initials of its mistress. There is an entrance hall, several receiving rooms, a formal salon and a dining room, in which meals can be served between afternoon and evening performances.

It was my great honor to be asked to call at the home of the star upon the following day. Not more than a stone's throw from the wall of Paris in the direction of the Porte d'Asnières is the modest, typically Parisian house where Madame Bernhardt passes her days in town. A tug at a gleaming bronze knocker gains admittance into a long motor entrance leading to an open court beyond.

AT either side of the dim passageway are many doors, the intervening spaces hung with fur rugs and mounted antlers. The doors lead into various rooms and service corridors of the housee, and a steady stream of liveried servants whirls through the maze, chatting and laughing, with no attempt at restraint.

Madame Sarah, as she is called by the members of her household, spends her days in a sunlit room on the second floor. She never leaves her big chair. On leaving the house she is carried to the motor and carried up the broad flight of steps when she returns.

I was shown into a small, dark reception hall while my card was being taken to the sunlit room above. About me the atmosphere was suggestive of the mystery of an antique shop at dusk. A chandelier of venetian crystal threw a faint glow over the congested assortment of chairs, tapestries, heavy curtains and numerous art treasures. The faded carpets and mellowed canvasses gave forth the musty odor of a room long closed. I sank into a divan and stared at the fireplace before me, guarded defiantly by two polished dragons. Upon the mantle a glass case reached to the very ceiling, stuffed with countless dolls of all sizes and nationalities.

TO the left were high closed gates of wrought iron. Beyond, stretched a bigger, deeper room. A soft rose light from the expansive skylight played over the mélange of shadowy objects. There was the mystery and charm that breathes of the past. It was like standing upon the edge of roped-off partitions in the Palaces of Fontainbleau and Versailles, gazing upon the relics of departed kings and queens. At the far end a sprawling fireplace covered the wall. Over the mantle was one of the most famous paintings of Madam Sarah, depicting the suppleness of limb and panther-like grace that once was hers. To the right, a broad couch lay in the shadow of a purple and golden canopy.

In the centre of the studio, covered like a bierr by a scarf of old rose and silver, was a grand piano, and beside it an ancient music-stand supporting a book of lined parchment covered with the square heavy notes of the fifteenth century. A curiously fresh note in the surroundings -- and unexpected in such a confusion of antiquities -- came from mammoth bouquets of fragrant lilacs arranged in bowls, baskets and tall vases in every available spot.

The door behind me opened, and a little old lady with white hair and a pleasant smile greeted me.

"Madame will receive you," she announced. "Madame is sorry to have kept you waiting, but it was the afternoon of the little Delia's lesson, and she has been reposing for a bit since her departure."

I followed her out into the corridor and up the broad, winding staircase. Upon the first landing we turned to the right and entered an anteroom. My guard drew back a curtain and waited for me to pass. Entering after me she announced my presence to Madam Sarah.

The actress was seated in a high-backed chair before the window. The late afternoon light fell upon her simply-coiffured hair -- now quite white about the roots -- and upon her loosely-girdled, long-sleeved and high-collared robe of white. Upon her bodice was pinned the medal of the Legion of Honor. Over her knees was a rug of ermine. At her feet, supplementing the court which had been in attendance at the theatre, were a number of dogs. She turned her gaze from the window and smiled that grand sourire so dear to her country people. Extending her hand, she asked me to be seated and dismissed the little old lady who was still standing, smiling and bowing, at the entrance.

WE chatted for some time. I found that politics was one of Madame Sarah's favorite topics. No one could be more alive to the world situation, more au courant with the art, music and literature in other countries. It was as though Madame Sarah were the interviewer, and I the interviewed. She asked many questions about America, she inquired after the health of our President; she expressed an interest in the strikes and labor troubles; she was anxious to know what was happening in the world of the theatre "over there." Closing her eyes and tilting back her head, she concluded:

"Politics and governments -- they are more than I can understand. Present systems are corrupted by personal ambition. It is all so complicated and insincere. Conditions are much worse now than they were during the war. In 1914 we went into the fight without argument. We finished it with very little, but now, strangely enough, comes all the wrangling, the restrictions, the selfishness. And the sad part of it is, il n'en finit plus."

In recording the bits of conversation one is confronted with the difficulty of translating the phrases of Bernhardt into as sweet and delicate an English as they were spoken in French. A literal transcription makes them but trite expressions, yet as they came from her lips they were as exquisite lines of poetry with their gentle modulations and soft "nuances."

YES, I hope to visit America again," she said, in answer to a question, "I hope to make many more trips. If nothing prevents me, I will return early in the month of October. I shall be glad to see your country again, for it is always new to me. Its greatness is inspiring. Its energy holds me. I never cease to be amazed at its growth. And I am fond of America because of the friends I have there and because of the wonderful care during my illness. I was very near death during the war, and I feel I owe my life to the people who were about me. But I could not die at that time, for my France was suffering a thousandfold more than I, and still it lived on."

"In returning to America," I asked, "has Madame anything new for her repertoire?"

"No new plays," she replied, "but I hope to present the first act of 'Athalie,' with the chorus and music as you saw it last night at the theatre. I feel sure that Americans will understand it and like it. The first act is really the greatest in the piece.

"It is by Racine," she continued, "and many of my greatest rôles came from the pen of Racine. My first recognized success was in one of his tragedies. Long before that I played the little boy in the piece, the one with whom most of my scene takes place."

IN talking of America, Madame Sarah closed her eyes and rested her chin upon her clasped hands. For a moment she was lost in pleasant reminiscence.

"It is more than forty years ago that I first visited America," she said, softly. "Ah, what a long, long time ago it seems. And how different everything was at that time! How it has all changed! I am sure that I have been to every corner of America, and I have seen them all in their never-ending stages of development. I am fond of the West and I like New York. Paris -- of course -- I adore with all my heart and soul, and I miss its space and ease in New York, but the energy, the vibrations, even the towering buildings -- have become to me things of great beauty.

"It is sometimes said that you Americans are devoid of sentiment; that in affairs of the heart you are like birds who come in early spring and sing while the trees are in blossom, but who leave with no sign of regret at the first touch of Autumn. I do not believe that. Your sentiment is of another kind. You are younger than we as a race, you are perhaps barbaric, but what of it? You are still in the moulding. Your spirit is superb. It is what helped us win the war."

THE war! Madame Sarah sighed profoundly. She still has a thing or two to say concerning its many phases.

"After my last performance in 'Athalie,'" she told me, "I am going into Belgium for a short time."

"A tour?" I ventured.

"Ah, no," she answered smiling. "It is but one of our little 'ballades' -- scarcely more than a week-end trip. We do not call that a journey, even. I often go away just for the pure joy of coming back to my wonderful Paris. Hardships of traveling are nothing if I know that my Paris is waiting for me. Oh, how I adore it, the people, the buildings, everything in it! It is more to me than anything else in the world."

And when I left Madame Bernhardt it occurred to me that her unfeigned devotion was gloriously reciprocated by the love and homage of her Parisians.

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