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The Chutzpah of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt had chutzpah. This illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan had already gained wide renown as the best actress of her day when she decided to take on an exceptionally highprofile, high-risk role: She wanted to play Hamlet. Not girlfriend Ophelia or mother Gertrude, but the Danish prince himself, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most difficult and iconic character.

It was a glass-ceiling-breaking move, one among several in Bernhardt’s career, and it inspired playwright Theresa Rebeck to build a play, set in 1897, around Bernhardt’s struggles. First Bernhardt had to overcome the dismissive skepticism of some men: “It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play ‘Hamlet, Princess of Denmark’.” Rebeck has one critic protest.

But countering those kinds of arguments was easy for the Divine Sarah, according to Rebeck’s snappy and finely observed play, which recently had its world premiere in a Roundabout Theater production on Broadway. “Why shouldn’t I play Hamlet? I am perfectly suited. Nobody cares about his masculinity. So called. They care about the magnificent nuance of his heart,” says the play’s Sarah, mirroring the real Sarah’s boldly modern notions.

At one point in the new play, Bernhardt complains that she is tired of dying every night, as many of her female roles require. Alphonse Mucha, an artist who paints her theater’s posters, points out that Hamlet dies, too. “But he kills as well,” Bernhardt says. Women, on the other hand, “never get to kill anyone.”

AILEEN JACOBSON, The Lilith Blog, October 11, 2018.