When I was asked if I’d like a review copy of the Sarah Bernhardt biography, I said what some of you might have said: “Hamlet? That Sarah Bernhardt?” Yes, that Sarah Bernhardt. I said sure.
Of course, that’s literally *all* I know about her. So this was going to be enlightening.
After receiving the book, all I can say is that anybody who thought writing a biography of Shakespeare was tough needs to try Sarah. In the former case, there’s just no trustworthy information to work with because it doesn’t exist. In Sarah’s case that’s almost true - most of what we know about her came from her, and she made it all up. So while Greenblatt’s Will in the World kept falling back on variations of “I imagine it went something like this …”, Gottlieb’s Sarah spends much of the time telling a story (typically a real doozy) and adding, parenthetically, “(then again we get this story from Sarah herself, so who knows how much of that if any is true).”
This woman was so very, very much more than her Hamlet. I’ll admit, I started by flipping to the index and looking for how much of the book would be spent on that role, and couldn’t even find Shakespeare or Hamlet listed. I finally found it, though, in a very large section on Sarah’s Performances. Answer? 5 pages are dedicated to Hamlet. Did you know that an actual video clip of her 1899 performance exists?
Sarah’s life easily fills this book, and it never gets boring (and the nearly 100 images, including her Hamlet and Macbeth, beautifully decorate the stories as they are told). On one page you have something out of a silent movie, everyone dressed to the nines during a Sunday brunch … and on the next page you read about the granddaughter’s firsthand account about how a dispute over politics resulted, literally, in the family smashing plates over each other. Good times.
There’s an amazing amount of information here, about an amazing woman. It’s going to take me a long time to get through it, because I’m learning something new on every page. It would not do justice to the book to keep this post on the shelf until I’ve read it cover to cover, nor would it be fair to rush my reading to rush out the post. So I’m being honest. This is the first English-language biography of Sarah Bernhardt, and it is wonderfully informative as well as entertaining. I’m glad I’ve been given the opportunity to experience it, and will never again think of her as just that woman who was famous for playing Hamlet.