April 12, 2016

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poetry Postcard 27: Save the Drama

Before the Divine Miss M,

there was the Divine Sarah--
Fiery Women
The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt
Available from Amazon
actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). What made Bernhardt one of the Women Who Dared in my Pomegranate postcard book?

The postcard is a photograph from the Library
of Congress collection, about 1878?
Pretty much everything about her. Poem first, details after.

To Be or Sarah Bernhardt

Her real  name was Rosine.
The records of her birth
lost in a fire. So
she invented new details:
a mother named
for Judith of the Bible,
a father who was said to be
a lawyer, naval man
or sometimes an
accountant called Edouard.
She was a Jewish girl
in an Augustine convent,
not yet a star at the Conservatoire
and Comedie Francaise,
where she slapped another girl
while celebrating the birthday
of Moliere. These are some
of the costumes she wore.
In photographs, they seem
to grow heavier on her skin--
more silk ruffles
pressed against her throat,
a longer train,
a complicated crown.

Laura Shovan

I relied on Wikipedia and other sources while writing this poem. The only fact I tweaked slightly was her religion. Bernhardt was baptized a Catholic, but was of Jewish descent.

What a remarkable person. Bernhardt started, owned, ran and starred in her own theater company. She famously portrayed Hamlet (thus, my title), but I had never heard before that she rewrote Shakespeare's script for the production. That's chutzpah.

Sarah Bernhardt
As Hamlet, 1900.  BBC  News.
One amazing fact I could not work into the poem: Sarah Bernhardt lost a leg to gangrene (first injured during a performance in 1905, amputated around 1915). For many years, she wore and performed with a prosthetic leg.

But what I found most fascinating about Bernhardt was that she seemed to view herself as a scripted character. Her own history was something to be revised, rewritten, made more interesting. A photograph taken in her youth shows the actress clothed in a simple sheet of fabric.

By Carol Ockman
As she grew older, the costumes appear weightier. They are jeweled and embroidered. I wonder how much it cost her to be that Sarah Bernhardt.

Sarah Bernhardt
Painting by Louise Abbema, rumored to be Bernhardt's lover.
Abbema would also make a great subject for a poem.


Linda B said...

My daughter and grandmother share the name Sarah, & when my daughter grew up she had a bear named Sarah Bearnhardt, thus we read about this famous actress a number of times, and I did know that she took risks, hence the accident, and bad medicine. Wouldn't it be interesting to know some truths about her, like was she really great? Or did her 'hutzpah' keep her in the forefront so much that people accepted she was great? I love that you left us with some questions too. And how she grew weighted down with the costumes (the pretense). Thoughtful poem.

Author Amok said...

Laughing about your daughter's bear! I've looked at some film clips of Bernhardt. It's hard to gauge her acting. Today's standards are so different than the era of early film. I noticed lots of big hand and arm gestures. She's a fascinating person.