Sarah Bernhardt is, for many, synonymous with the melodramatic.
One of the most well-known and celebrated actresses of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, she was described by contemporaries as “indefatigable;” “an actress without a rival;” and “a queen of art.”1 Actor Sir Herbert Tree called her, simply, “the greatest woman I have ever known.”2 She was so iconic, some referred to her as “the Bernhardt”3 or “the divine Sarah.” Critics commented on her “glorious” voice (“soft and deep, and capable of infinite modulation…”)4 and her “long, catlike step.”5
It is not a stretch to say that she transfixed the theatrical world entirely. This was never more true than when, in 1899 at age 55, she took on the titular role of Hamlet. She commissioned a new prose version of the play from translators Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob, which premiered in Paris. The production reportedly ran for over four hours, and retained more of the original text than any of the adaptations (English or French) running at the time.6 After Paris, she took her production straight to the source: London, followed by a performance at Stratford-on-Avon.
In France, despite the light scandal of a woman donning tights or trousers to play a male role (which Bernhardt had done before and would do again), the production was generally well-received. The rest of the world seems to have been unsure whether they ought to be more scandalized by the fact that Bernhardt was female, French, or Jewish (or all three), and still dared to play Hamlet. Like Bernhardt herself, Bernhardt’s Danish prince was on fire with passion, energy, and melodrama. Pages and pages of criticism, positive and negative, were written; and multiple books and essays survive that dissect Bernhardt’s every dramaturgical choice. Whatever choices she made, her performance in this role clearly provoked strong feelings in her audiences. One such devotee may have even taken the opportunity afforded by the Divine Sarah’s visit to Great Britain to present the actress with a token of her admiration.
Folger PR2807 .A399 Sh.Col. is a confusing volume, at first glance. It would have been issued as one of a twelve-volume, small-format set of the Works of William Shakespeare by the publisher Frederick Warne, who issued many such editions at the end of the 19th century. In this set, Hamlet was bound with King John and Richard II. Here, however, the other two plays have been excised, and the binding (which still includes the names of these plays) has been sewn back onto the text block using a piece of silk that fits onto the front board like a sleeve, then wraps around behind, and is sewn through the back joint. The half-title is inscribed, “To Madame Sarah Bernhardt- from Lily Scorer- 1899.”
At first, I was suspicious as to whether or not this volume ever truly belonged to Sarah Bernhardt herself. It’s a shabby, homemade little book; the edition itself is nothing special, and Lily Scorer doesn’t seem to have been a fellow actress or socialite. Yet, when I looked through the catalog of Bernhardt’s library (sold by the French book dealer Henri Leclerc on her death in 1923), it seems clear that it was sold as a part of lot 195: “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in 16, hardcover in green cloth covered in white silk…7 Henry and Emily Folger purchased lot 195, an edition of Hamlet dedicated to Bernhardt by translators Lucien Cressonnois and Charles Samson. Bernhardt had played Ophelia in their production in 1886, and this volume was their presentation copy to her, inscribed “Et puis toutes nos affections, toutes nos tendresses, tous nos devouemonts!!!” (And then all our affections, all our endearments, all our dedications!!!) We still hold this copy in our collection.
The Folgers likely didn’t intend to purchase this small, strange, Frankenstein-esque edition of Hamlet; it was simply included with the lot, along with a Spanish edition of “Hamlet y el cuerpo de Sarah Bernhardt,” published in Madrid in 1905. As many auction houses do today, Libraire Henri Leclerc simply grouped several books of a similar nature in one lot, knowing they wouldn’t likely be able to sell either of the two secondary volumes listed for a significant enough price on their own. But this little book, with its inscription in English from someone with a British name, inscribed in the year of her Hamlet‘s tour in Great Britain, clearly meant something to the Divine Sarah.
I was unable to discover who Lily Scorer might be, or why she would present Sarah Bernhardt with a homemade, partial edition. There are several Lily or Lillian Scorers in the census records who were likely alive in 1899. Perhaps this copy held sentimental value. Any one of them could have traveled to London or Stratford with this little book in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of this golden-voiced flame of a woman, who dared (despite her Frenchness, Jewishness, middle age, and femaleness) to put on tights and personify the “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Perhaps Bernhardt saw a reflection of the passion she inspired in the knobby, uneven stitches, and the slanted inscription, which caused her to keep it alongside presentation copies from eminent translators.
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle., December 27, 1896, Page 21
- Quoted in The Sun, August 26, 1917, Page 50.
- The Evening Post, New York, NY, June 15, 1880.
- The Sun, November 29, 1891, Page 20
- The evening world., May 06, 1913, Page 17.
- Robert Gottlieb, “Sarah: the Life of Sarah Bernhardt” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 141-2.
- “Bibliothèque de Mme. Sarah Bernhardt…” (Paris: Libraire Henri Leclerc, 1923), 53.