Sarah Bernhardt: Goddess with a golden voice

A century ago, Sarah Bernhardt was the world's most controversial actress. An exhibition shows she still has the power to shock
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The Independent Culture

The first major exhibition on Bernhardt's life and work, now at the Jewish Museum in New York City, introduces her to visitors with a clip from a Marilyn Monroe film of 1955. Monroe, playing an actress, is musing that more people will see a TV ad she's made in one evening than saw Bernhardt in her entire lifetime. She turns to her middle-aged co-star and sends his ego crashing by asking him what Bernhardt was like.

While comic, the question was not absurd. Born in 1844, Bernhardt kept acting right up to her death in 1923, letting neither old age nor the loss of her right leg in 1915 slow her down. Her motto, "Quand même" (all the same, despite everything), signified that, whatever happened, she would not be defeated. At 66, when she calmly stated her age playing the title role in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon, as 19 - the audience cheered. In the same year, she played, in a film, her most famous role, the consumptive courtesan Marguerite Gautier in La dame aux camélias; her Armand, young enough to be her grandson, was also her lover.

Bernhardt, who also played Hamlet, didn't confine her wearing of male attire to the stage. She was often photographed in the white trouser suit that she claimed to wear when she sculpted - her works, praised by critics of the time, were more traditional than her acting, but just as sensual. The bronze Algae by her in the show is wonderful.

Studying nature the better to imitate it was what set Bernhardt apart in her acting, too. The static, declamatory style had been challenged by Garrick in England a century before, but, in France, it still held sway. Bernhardt, who spent two years studying at the Paris Conservatoire, whose graduates entered the Comédie Française, said that it took her many more years to rid herself of its artifice. She was the first actress to use her entire body in her art. Theatregoers accustomed to actresses expressing passion only with the wrist and elbow were enthralled as she flung herself about in the usually stately roles of Phèdre and Andromaque.

The Bernhardt charm worked even when audiences had no idea what she was saying. Touring throughout the Americas and Europe, she held audiences rapt for hours of French tragedy. Her "golden voice", her decadence and glamour (the museum displays her Lalique jewellery, diadems and regal robes) combined to make her mesmerising.

The child of a Jewish courtesan and an unknown father, Bernhardt was brought up a Catholic but considered herself "a daughter of the great Jewish race". So did her countrymen, including the anti-Semites among them. Cartoons of Bernhardt raking in gold were framed with a yellow Star of David; her collaboration with the poster designer Mucha, also a Jew, whom she discovered, was attacked as a plot to promote decadent Jewish art. The Dreyfus case, which cut through many French families, tore hers as well: her beloved only child Maurice (the illegitimate son of a Belgian prince), who had married into the aristocracy, announced his contempt for Jews. But Bernhardt never let any of this stop her. She openly supported Dreyfus and raised funds for victims of pogroms.

When she died, at least a million people followed her coffin to the cemetery - more, even, than had turned out for the great Victor Hugo. They knew her as "divine". We know her as immortal.

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York (212 423 3200), to 2 April