La divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt aged 20 in 1884

On Wednesday 29th  and Thursday 30th June 1881, the ‘Divine Sarah’ trod the boards of the Theatre Royal Brighton.  With a name like Bernhardt, can she justifiably be included as French?

Sarah Bernhardt was born in 1844 in Paris to Dutchwoman, Julie Bernardt (without the ~h~).  No-one knew who her father was.  Her ‘actress’ mother farmed her out to a wetnurse in Brittany before taking Sarah, aged about four, back to Paris.  But still she was not quite French.  Schooling in Auteuil and four years as a boarder in a convent near Versailles did not yet make her French.  Never mind.  She was a sociétaire (actor/shareholder) of the Comédie Française, she was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the French claimed her as their own.  That’s good enough for me.

By 1881, Sarah was world famous.  She came to Brighton on the first leg of a national tour of England.  So famous was she that she perfomed at the Theatre Royal on just two evenings before a whirlwind tour of the country:

Source The British Newspaper Archive

Despite this advertisement being in English, the performances were most positively in French.  This was an entire French theatrical company which had come from France and the leading lady barely spoke a word of English.

It is possible that not all the audience understood every word of the plays, but the Brighton Herald reports that the performances took place:

 “Under an almost antipodean atmosphere and before a fully fashionable and attentive audience …”

Macbeth 1884
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Mrs Nye Chart, the manager of the Theatre Royal, had her work cut out to receive her illustrious guest in a  manner to which she was accustomed. On 1 July 1881 The Stage newspaper reported that:

“Mrs Chart, for her zeal and outlay, deserves every praise and consideration, and her endeavours to provide the latest novelties merits the warmest encouragement, and will, we sincerely trust, prove amply remunerated. On the stage, embellishments were most elaborate and exhaustive; no energy nor expense having been spared to render things proper.”

So it would seem that the Theatre Royal was spruced up.  An advantage for all theatre-goers in the town, whether they saw la divine Sarah or not.

The Brighton Gazette was a little more critical of Mlle Bernhardt, the person.  After saying how well La Dame aux Camélias had gone down in London, the reporter went on to point out that:

“Nearly every seat in the house has already been booked, and Mrs Nye Chart’s liberal venture to please her patrons is, I am glad to say, likely to pay much better than the different speculations recently brought forward.  It was rather too chic-ey (excuse this pun) for the divine Sarah to demand the filthy lucre in advance.  But she did, and didn’t get it.”

Did Sarah just pop back to the local four star hotel after the show to drink a quiet cup of hot chocolate.  Not if the following story  from one of Sarah’s personal memoirs is to be believed.

[“This performance (of Hernani by Victor Hugo) on 21 November 1877 was a triumph.  I had my fair share of the success.  I was playing Dona Sol and Victor Hugo sent me this note:

“Madam,  You have been great and charming; you have moved me, me, the old warrior.  There was a particular moment, during the applause of the audience who you had touched and bewitched, when I cried.  This tear which you have wrung from me is for you and I place myself at your feet.  Victor Hugo

“With the note was a little box containing a link bracelet on which hung a diamond drop.  This bracelet I lost when staying with one of the richest of all nabobs: Alfred Sassoon.  He offered to replace it, but I refused.  He could never return Victor Hugo’s tear drop.”]

Sarah was notorious for her ‘inaccurate’ recall of past events.  The account in Le Figaro newspaper on 4 July 1881 is probably far more accurate than the account above:

Source / BnF

 [Mlle Sarah Bernhardt was in Brighton last Wednesday and Thursday.  She played to two full houses with Frou-Frou and The Lady of the Camelias.   On Thursday, during a drive along the Cliff with Sir Albert Sassoon, an Anglo-Indian tycoon, Miss Sarah Bernhardt lost a very valuable diamond.]

The Sassoons were indeed, tycoons.  However, Alfred Sassoon was never a baron.  It was his uncle, 63 year old Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon who had driven with Sarah along the cliff top.  Had he also hosted her in his home at No. 1 Eastern Terrace?  Neither Sarah nor the newspapers say.

Sarah Bernhardt followed a punishing schedule of performance dates.  She started her first tour of America on 7 November.   The syndicated report in the Litchfield Mercury (25 March 1881) exposes the extent of her travels:

“Beginning in New York, she played there 25 times, then 13 times in Boston, then once each in Hartford and Newhaven and four times in Montreal, where there was excitement  caused by her playing on Christmas day.  Then she played once in Springfield, five times at Baltimore, and seven times at Philadelphia.  From here she went to Chicago, giving twelve performances, then appeared seven times in St Louis and five time in Cincinnati.  Travelling to the Far South she gave eight performances in New Orleans, and, returning northwards, appeared once in Atlanta, three times in Memphis, twice in Louisville and once each in Cincinnati, Columbus and Drayton, Ohio and once in Indianapolis where the 100th performance was given on the 29th February.”

By April she was in Canada before returning to play New York again.  She had travelled over 18 000 miles.  She did not leave the New World until 4 May, bound for Le Havre and was due to perform for a week at the Gaity in London on June 14th before her Brighton appearance later in the same month.

Sarah travelled in her own train, surrounded by servants, dressers and helpers of all kinds.  Her travel arrangements might well have been more comfortable than a modern-day star hopping from uncomfortable plane to uncomfortable plane.  However, at the end of the article there is a hint of what was to happen to her in Brighton in 1883:

“On only two occasions has illness prevented her from appearing.”

By 1883, Sarah Bernhardt was already 39 years old. That year, her promoter was sued by the Blackpool Winter Gardens and Pavilion Company Limited as Sarah had broken her contract with them the previous August:  she had reached the end of the first act of La Dame aux Camélias but had then pleaded exhaustion and refused to return to the stage, “and consequentially the play was brought to an abrupt termination” (Syndicated report in the Leeds Mercury, 1 February 1883).  The Winter Gardens Company had lost a considerable amount of money.

The collapse at Blackpool happened during a whirlwind tour of England and Scotland which had started at Brighton in the Theatre Royal on 14 August 1882.  According to her impresario’s defence statement:

“A fortnight before the Blackpool engagement Madame Bernhardt broke down at Brighton and that was the beginning of a long illness by which she had thrown up several engagements and lost several thousand pounds.”

This fact is confirmed, not by the local Herald newspaper, but by the Derby Daily Telegraph on 16 August:

“Madame Sarah Bernhardt-Damala, who was to have commenced an engagment at the Theatre Royal and Opera House on Tuesday night, was unable to appear in consequence of indisposition.  In crossing the Channel on Sunday, the distinguished actress caught a severe cold, which developed on Tuesday into intense hoarseness.  This unlooked for event  rendered the closing of the theatre necessary, a result almost unknown in Brighton.”

Fortunately Sarah had recovered sufficiently by the next day, 14th August, to play to a full house at the Theatre Royal.  There was no mention of the exhaustion and spitting blood which her impressario had mentioned in the Blackpool case.

Sarah Bernhardt visited Brighton four times more.

On 14 August 1882, she appeared in Adrienne Lecouvreur and La Dame aux Camélias.  This was probably just one afternoon performance and one evening perfomance: a frequent pattern, repeated again during her whistle-stop visit to Brighton in 1895 when she gave two performances at the Theatre Royal:

Alphonse Mucha poster 1899

 “Fedora in the afternoon and Tosca in the evening”                The Era 29 June 1895

before dashing off to her next engagement in Portsmouth.  She was not to play at the Theatre Royal again.  But this was not her last visit to Brighton.  Indeed, her next appearance on stage caused quite a kerfuffle, and not just for her acting.

On 31 October 1911, aged 65, she was back, still performing in La Dame aux Camélias but limiting herself to just the final act of the play.  What type of theatre would put on just one act of a play as part of a complete show?  Well, a music hall, of course.  And that music hall was the Hippodrome. where:

“Mme. Bernhardt received a most enthusiastic reception, while at the close of the performance the curtain had to be raised  no fewer than six times.”              The Stage Thursday 2nd November 1911.

The enthusiasm shown by Brighton (as well as London and other Provincial) audiences is all the more remarkable as shown by this syndicated comment in the Leeds Mercury in October 1911:

“Madame Sarah Bernhardt ends her visit to London this week and leaves the Metropolis for Brighton.  It need hardly be said now, we are so used to hearing it, that age has no terrors for Madame Sarah Bernhardt. I doubt whether any actress speaking in a foreign tongue could rivet the attention of the audience in her every word and gesture as she does.

 “Probably not more than one person in every ten understands the words of “La Dame aux Camelias” when he learns (sic) them spoken.  But when Sarah Bernhardt acts them you could hear the slightest whisper amongt the audience from the furthest part of the theatre.”

Was the journalist’s slip of the pen (‘learns’ instead of ‘hears’) a Freudian slip or just sloppy sub-editing?  It is true that many a poor schoolboy and schoolgirl might well have had to learn by heart chunks of French – but they would not have been given Alexander Dumas’ racy 1828 novel La Dame aux Camélias.   However, it is likely that many of the audience would have read the novel in French and tried to ‘learn’ the story.

During her 1911 stay in Brighton, Mme Bernhardt stayed at the Metropole – just a stone’s throw from the Hippodrome.  She still attracted the attention of local worthies, albeit not, apparently, from the nabobs of former years:

“Hippodrome (Manager, Mr. W. H. Boardman), – the neighbouring boroughs of Brighton and Hove were so delighted at the visit of Mme. Bernhardt, who is appearing at the Hippodrome this week, that deputations from the two town councils visited the famous tragedienne at the Hotel Metropole on Monday and extended a hearty welcome to her … on her appearance on the stage at the Hippodrome in the evening Mme. Bernhardt received a most enthusiastic welcome, while at the close of her performance, the curtain had to be raised no fewer than six times.  She is producing the last act of La Dame aux Camélias.”  The Stage Thursday 2 November 1911.

Gossip always dogs public figures.  The report (above) from The Stage concludes:  “Mme. Bernhard is being ably supported by M. Lou Tellegan …”.  The tittle-tattlers of Brighton watched the elderly actress in the role of the courtesane Marguerite being thus ‘ably supported’.  A syndicated article from the Leeds Mercury on 21 November 1911 points out that M. Lou Tellegan was a “young Flemish actor of about twenty-six years of age (who was) better known in Paris for his fine and handsom physique than for his artistic talents”. The Leeds Mercury then went on to reveal the “spin” put on this fact by the Brighton audience:

“A fortnight ago, however, at Brighton, he played Armand in La Dame aux Camélias, and the passionate lover of the drama is soon to become the    husband in real life.”

Not surprisingly this rumour was quickly quashed by the actress:

Mme Bernhardt has promptly denied the announcement that she is to marry Mr Leo (sic) Tellegen, a young Flemish actor who is a member of her company. “I am,” she said [presumably in French] a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.  My son Maurice is 44.  M. Tellegen is 26.  The report that I am going to marry him is comical.  If it were not so comical it would be shameful.” The Stage Thursday 23 November 1911

Sarah Bernhard’s last visit to Brighton was in January 1916.  She had arrived in London in the first days of the month.  Her first concern was to visit wounded soldiers in the Charing Cross Hospital.  She was of a charitable disposition, but there was perhaps a more tragic reason behind her concern for these soldiers, many of whom would have been amputees.

Over the years, Sarah Berhard had suffered from problems with her knees.  Much of the pain she suffered was caused by the need to jump from the parapet of her prison at the end of Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca.  Brighton historian Antony Dale claims in his book “The Theatre Royal Brighton” (1980)  that during her visit to Brighton in 1894 “It was at a performance of Tosca that Bernhardt injured her knee when jumping over the battlements of the Castle of San Angelo in the last act  and the stage manager had omitted to provide a mattress for her to land on.”  This might well have been the case, but Sarah was already suffering from osteo-tuberculosis of the knee by 1887.  After poor treatment of the knee in 1914, gangrene set in.  The decision was made to amputate the leg above the knee. The great actress refused to wear a prosthetic leg.  Thereafter she played all her roles seated.

Sarah Bernhard in “Du théâtre au champ d’honneur” 1916
Source The British Newspaper Archive

Her booking in Brighton in 1916 was relatively long.  This may well be because age and infirmity made dashing from venue to venue just too taxing.  For the same reasons, she played just the shortest of extracts on the stage:

“Hippodrome.  P[roprietor] The Variety Theatres Controlling Co. Ltd,:  M[anager] Mr.  William H. Boardman. – Sarah Bernhardt is here this week in “Du Théâtre au Champ d’Honneur.”  The Era Wednesday 7 February 1916.

The Era then goes on to list six other acts as well as “pictures”(ie what the Americans would call ‘movies’).  Sarah might have been the main attraction, but her performance must necessarily have been very short.

Sarah Bernhard was never to return to Brighton… in person, that is.  However, she had made her first film in 1900, Le Duel de Hamlet.  There is considerable evidence that audiences in Brighton continued to enjoy her eleven performances on screen until long after her death.

Sarah died in 1923 – but ‘provincial’ Brighton had had the oportunity to admire her as much as had many of the other great cities of the world.

Many thanks to David Fisher for information about Sarah Bernhard’s visits to Brighton.  The Hippodrome is currently not in use as a theatre but its restoration and revival is actively planned.  For more information see

One thought on “La divine Sarah

  1. When I was on the trail of a distant relative who is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris I discovered that his tomb is in the same section as Sarah Bernhardt whose tomb is almost opposite. I had no idea of her connection with Brighton and that she had appeared at the Theatre Royal and at the Hippodrome.

    (I have only just found this blog and had no idea of its existence. Well done! However I would like to point out that she was not in Brighton in 1816 which is obviously a typo for 1916!)


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