Private Lives and Public Spaces: Reputation, Celebrity and the Late Victorian Actress

  • Sos Eltis


Of all late Victorian actresses, it was Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) who embraced celebrity with the greatest enthusiasm. Building her career on a reputation both on and off stage for illicit and unbridled passion, power and danger, Bernhardt had, as Henry James observed, ‘in a supreme degree what the French call the genie de la réclame — the advertising genius; she may, indeed, be called the muse of the newspaper’.1 Though she had begun her career under the auspices of the Comédie Française, performing in classical plays by Victor Hugo and Jean Racine, she broke free to control her own career and repertoire, soon displaying a marked preference for scandalous roles as courtesans, adulteresses and murderers in contemporary boulevard dramas by Victorien Sardou and Alexandre Dumas fils. The 156 performances she gave in her 1880 tour of the United States, for example, included 65 of La Dame aux Camélias, 41 of Frou-frou, 17 of Adrienne Lecouvreur and 6 of Phèdre. As William Archer was moved to observe in 1895, ‘Someone to cajole and someone to murder are the two necessities of artistic existence for Madame Sarah Bernhardt’, accompanying his comment with an explanatory table, listing the victims and lovers in each of her recent plays.2


Private Life Stage Role Celebrity Persona Stage Persona Critical Acclaim 
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  1. 1.
    Henry James, ‘The Comédie Francaise in London’, The Nation, 31 July 1879, quoted in Susan A. Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    William Archer, ‘Fedora’, The Theatrical World of 1895 (London: Walter Scott, 1896), 29 May 1895, p. 184.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
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