Tag Archives: Sarah Bernhardt

Salomé in Paris: ‘a protest against English morality’.

Tragically, although Ada Leverson, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends, insisted that he cared little for any of his plays except Salomé since it most fully ‘expressed himself,’ Wilde never saw Salomé performed. Refused a licence by the English Examiner of Plays, it was staged during Wilde’s lifetime by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, founder of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, but its author was in prison at the time.

Image result for oscar wilde salome

When Lugné-Poe visited London after Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labour, he was shocked at how apathetic and powerless the playwright’s supporters appeared to have become. In an act of solidarity, he staged the world premiere of Salomé in his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris on 11 February 1896, performing the role of Herod himself and casting Lina Munte, a trained dancer, as Salomé.

Image result for lina munte

Lina Munte

Several French newspapers reported on the performance and critics were unanimous in their praise for Munte; La Matin reported that she ‘was absolutely remarkable with her ferocious sensuality,’ while Francisque Sarcey of Le Temps noted that she imitated the diction of Sarah Bernhardt, the actress Wilde had originally intended for the part.

Image result for théâtre de l'oeuvre paris

Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, Paris

A number of critics noted the sympathy expressed for Wilde by the French public. L’Événement described the staging of Salomé as ‘a protest against English morality’. The Journal des Débats reported that:

When the curtain fell, the audience responded to the name of the playwright with rapturous applause.

Wilde, who received no payment for the performance, assured his lover Lord Alfred Douglas:

‘All I want is to have my artistic reappearance, and my own rehabilitation through art, in Paris, not in London. It is a homage and a debt I owe to that great city of art’.

REFERENCE:

The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe by Stefano Evangelista, Bloomsbury Publishing

Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, Duckworth Overlook

PBCover

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay

Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

PBCover

In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

Image result for maurice bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

Damala.jpg

Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay

Sarah & Maurice Bernhardt

Image result for maurice bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

On 22 December 1864, Sarah Bernhardt gave birth to Maurice, her only child. She named him after her maternal grandfather Moritz Bernardt (the original spelling), although it is entirely possible that she never once met that unreliable vagabond.

Maurice’s father was generally assumed to be Belgian nobleman Charles Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral, Prince de Ligne, but Sarah refused to be drawn on this and joined in with humorous speculation as to her son’s paternity.

She seemed refreshingly unabashed by her status as a single mother; she gave Maurice her last name and never attempted to conceal his relationship to her, although many women of her time bowed to societal pressure and concealed their children from disapproving eyes.

For more on Sarah and her son Maurice, read any of the following:

Elaine Aston. Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage.Oxford: 1989

Ruth Brandon. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London: 1991

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: 1991

Or Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

1 Comment

Filed under Essay

‘The subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska’

Helena Modjeska by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, 1880 held in the       Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie

 

In 1880, when Polish actress, and one of Wilde’s Women, Helena Modjeska arrived in London to star in Heartsease, the English title chosen for Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelia, at the Court Theatre, she asked of Oscar Wilde:

‘What has he done, this young man that one meets him everywhere? Oh yes he talks well, but what has he done? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act – he does nothing but talk. I do not understand.’ 1

Born to Józefa  Benda, the widow of a wealthy merchant in Kraków in 1840, Modjeska was a veteran of the stage of the stage by the time she arrived in London. At twenty, she had joined a company of strolling players managed by Gustav Modrzejewski, who she married and had two children by before discovering that he already had a wife who was very much alive.

Modjeska left Modrzejewski after their daughter, Marylka, died in infancy in 1865. She took their son Rudolf, later renamed Ralph Modjeska, to Krakow with her. There, she accepted a four-year theatrical engagement before moving to Warsaw in 1868, where she forged a reputation as a talented theatrical actress. Her two brothers,  Józef and Feliks Benda, were also well regarded actors.

Image result for Karol Bozenta Chlapowski

On 12 September 1868, Modjeska married Polish nobleman Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who was editor of the liberal nationalist newspaper Kraj. Their home became the focus of Krakow’s dissident, artistic and literary milieu. The couple’s political activities attracted the attention of authorities and in 1876,they felt obliged to flee to California, where Chlapowski established an experimental and idealistic colony of Polish expatriates on a remote ranch in California. A good account of daily life on the ranch is included in Theodore Payne’s memoir, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties.

When this experiment failed spectacularly, leaving them penniless, Modjeska was obliged to resume her career. Although she had been principal actress at the Polish National Theatre, she needed to learn English to secure major roles. She accomplished this in a matter of months by practising the language between performances for six or seven hours every day.

Modjeska was fêted in London and reported with delight:

‘My success surpassed all my expectations; everyone here seems to think it quite extraordinary, and my manager has already numerous projects concerning my future.’2

The Prince of Wales visited her in her dressing room and she shared a stage with the great Genevieve Ward at a party given his honour; the two women got on famously. Lillie Langtry came backstage to meet her during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Bernhardt, who Modjeska described as ‘the wonderful creature’, sent her a bouquet of white camellias and assured her that she was moved to tears by her performance. When Ellen Terry came to her dressing room, Modjeska declared:

‘Whoever has met Ellen Terry knows that she is irresistible, and I liked her from the first.’ 3

Offstage, Modjeska was embraced by fashionable society. She received an invitation to leading society hostess Lady Jeune’s unmissable ‘five o’clocks’. Wilde had once quipped:

‘There were three inevitables – death, quarter-day and Lady Jeune’s parties.’ (Quarter-days were the four days each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due).

Keen to befriend this newfound star, Wilde invited Modjeska to tea. Her instinct was to refuse, since she thought it unwise to visit a young man unaccompanied, but she relented when he assured her that Lillie Langtry and artist Louise Jopling would be there too.

Before long, Wilde and Modjeska had become good friends. They collaborated on a poem, ‘Sen Artysty; or the Artist’s Dream. When it appeared in the Christmas 1880 edition of The Green Room, it was attributed to ‘Madame Helena Modjeska (translated from the Polish by Oscar Wilde)’. 4

Afterwards, Wilde enthused:

‘If there is any beauty in this poem it is the work of the subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska. I myself am but a pipe through which her tones full of sweetness have flown.’

Wilde and Modjeska also considered adapting Verdi’s opera, Luisa Miller, but this project came to nothing and Modjeska left London to tour in the US and further afield

Helena Modjeska died at Newport Beach, California on April 8, 1909. She was 68 and had been suffering from Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Her remains were returned to Kraków where they were buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published posthumously in 1910.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:

1. As reported by G.K. Atkinson in The Cornhill Magazine 1925, Part 395, p.564

2. Helena Modjeska, ‘Modjeska’s Memoirs: The Record of a Romantic Career Part V, Success in London’, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.879

3. Modjeska, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.883

4. ‘Sen Artysty; or, The Artist’s Dream’ was published in Clement Scott (Ed.), The Green Room: Stories by Those Who Frequent It (London, Routledge, 1880), pp.66-8; http://www.helenamodjeskasociety.com/activity.html accessed on 12 January 2015

Also:

PBCover

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay

Sarah’s Menagerie

e7dc9c3a5380a7761b397bd50eb76038

Fêted for her talent on-stage, Sarah Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor and exhibited at the Paris Salon. In London, she used the proceeds of a sale of her work at the William Russell Galleries to add several exotic creatures to her private menagerie. These included a cheetah and a wolfhound, which she bought from the Cross Zoo in Liverpool. She had hoped to purchase two lions and a dwarf elephant but had be content with seven chameleons, which were thrown in for free by proprietor, Mr. Cross; she had a gold chain made for her favorite, Cross-ci Crossça, so that he could sit on her shoulder while attached to her lapel.

Yet, Bernhardt was not always kind to her animals. The death of Ali-Gaga, her alligator, was attributed to his diet of milk and champagne, and she shot her boa constrictor after he swallowed one of her sofa cushions. So why did she keep so many exotic animals? Did she see them as an extension of her own untamed and unusual persona – she was often credited with having animal traits, most notably those of a snake.  Did she regard these creatures as beloved pets or living accessories? After all, her tortoise Chrysagére, who died in a fire, had a gilded shell set with brilliant topazes. I’d love to know more about the nature of Bernhardt’s relationship with the animals she owned.

Sarah Bernhardt is just one of the remarkable women in my book Wilde’s Women, read more here.

PBCover

1 Comment

Filed under Essay, Uncategorized