Exhibit Celebrates Sarah Bernhardt's 'High Art'

Sarah Bernhardt reclines on a divan playing the role of Cleopatra in an 1880 production.

hide captionSarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra in an 1880 production.

Jewish Museum

The 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt is feted at The Jewish Museum in New York City. Co-creators Carol Ockman of Williams College and Kenneth Silver of New York University tell Scott Simon about the exhibit.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sarah Bernhardt was the Marilyn or maybe the Madonna of her time. An overwhelming personality on stage and in pictures, both still and moving, she fascinated crowds and sometimes scandalized officials and clergy. To this day, the 19th-century French actress is still considered the definition of star power. There were reports in the popular press that she loved bats, the kind that fly, slept in a coffin and played "Hamlet" while wearing a wooden leg. Her list of lovers includes Victor Hugo and the Earl of Windsor. That's just for starters. Her motto was (French spoken), loosely translated as `no matter what, bet against all odds.' An exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York explores her life. It's called "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama." The co-curators are Carol Ockman and Kenneth Silver who both join us from NPR studios in New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KENNETH SILVER (Co-curator, "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama"): It's nice to be here, Scott.

Professor CAROL OCKMAN (Co-curator, "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama"): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And if we could start with you, Mr. Silver, why a Sarah Bernhardt exhibition now?

Mr. SILVER: Bernhardt's celebrity is really a model for modern celebrity as we know it. Her sense that she could brand herself and create a kind of longevity, a general presence in the cultural atmosphere was key to her understanding of the theatrical experience, and ultimately, it's become our experience as well.

SIMON: How did she play the media of the times?

Mr. SILVER: Now days, movie stars do not find advertising products anathema. It's taken quite a while to get to that, but Bernhardt seemed to understand right from the start, not only that she could make money endorsing products, but that endorsing products would keep her in the public eye and that ultimately the line between being on the stage, being on film and being in the public eye in advertisements, that there was no such line, that they were on a continuum rather than distinct areas.

SIMON: What products did she affiliate herself with?

Prof. OCKMAN: Well, everything from aperitif to face powder to face creams to real estate in the Bronx...

Mr. SILVER: Automobiles...

Prof. OCKMAN: ...to antiseptic, Pear's soap.

SIMON: Mercy...

Mr. SILVER: Almost anything she was asked to endorse.

Prof. OCKMAN: Hats.

SIMON: And, Ms. Ockman, why The Jewish Museum for a Sarah Bernhardt exhibition? She considered herself Catholic, didn't she?

Prof. OCKMAN: Yes, she did. Yet, she was born to a Jewish mother. The fact that she...

SIMON: Under the laws of the Talmud.

Prof. OCKMAN: Yes, under the law of the Talmud. She was baptized central convent school and a practicing Catholic throughout her life. But certainly, she was always thought to be a Jew. She was for a period, mercilessly caricatured and attacked in an anti-Semitic way as a Jew. And we have a number of images, caricatures that show her with stereotypical Semitic features. She couldn't get away from being Jewish despite her faith.

SIMON: We conveniently have a clip, which I gather is from your exhibit. This is a 1910 Edison wax cylinder recording. And the play, Mr. Silver?

Mr. SILVER: Is "L'Aiglon"...

SIMON: By Edmond Rostand.

Mr. SILVER: Maurice Rostand's "L'Aiglon" and it is the story of Napoleon's surviving son, his one son, on the field of battle, the battle of--the plain of Wagram where his father's troops defeated the Austrians. And he is there along with the ghosts of both the French soldiers and the enemy soldiers, and kind of facing the carnage that his father has left. And Bernhardt, who at this point is already in her late 50s, is, of course, playing the 17-year-old boy.

(Soundbite of "L'Aiglon")

Ms. SARAH BERNHARDT (Actress): (French spoken)

SIMON: So she was playing 18-year-old boys before Barbra Steisand even thought of it.

Mr. SILVER: That's right.

Prof. OCKMAN: Absolutely.

SIMON: To hear that clip, you'll understand why sometimes when mothers and fathers don't quite take the theatrical crying or tantrums of a child seriously, they'll say, `Are those tears real or is this just your Sarah Bernhardt act?'

Mr. SILVER: That's right.

Prof. OCKMAN: `Who do you think you are, Sarah Bernhardt?' is emblazoned on the runway as you come in and see the show, Scott, actually.

SIMON: Tell us, please, about Sarah Bernhardt's handkerchief. There's a handkerchief in this exhibit, looks like a white linen handkerchief and `Sarah' is inscribed on it.

Prof. OCKMAN: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: Embroidered, I guess, not inscribed.

Mr. SILVER: Yes.

Prof. OCKMAN: Embroidered on it, yes.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. OCKMAN: It's a handkerchief that was passed down to a great American actress and we know that it was in the possession of Helen Hayes who gave it to Julie Harris who passed it on to Susan Strasberg and it is now in the collection of Cherry Jones who so kindly loaned it to the exhibition. It's a wonderful transmission story that, on the one hand, speaks to the power of tradition and, on the other hand, talks about the potential for renewal, the fact that theater comes alive every time a new actress walks on the stage and does a grand performance. So in a way, it's one of the objects that indicates very, very powerfully how Sarah Bernhardt's legacy lives on.

SIMON: What do you think actors and celebrities can learn from Sarah Bernhardt today?

Mr. SILVER: I think that Bernhardt showed men and women in the late 19th and early 20th century that to be an actor on the stage also meant to be an actor in life. And that the bolder one could be, the more successful and richer life one could lead. She is, in a sense, constantly present, always trying her utmost, always giving her most, and I think it was that example of a totally engaged, completely fulfilled human being. That was Bernhardt's model and her legacy.

SIMON: I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. SILVER: Thanks, Scott.

Prof. OCKMAN: Thank you. It was a great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Carol Ockman, professor of art history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Kenneth Silver, who's chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at New York University. They are co-curators of "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama" that runs through April of next year at The Jewish Museum in New York.

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