Bernhardt/Hamlet: Inside a new play about Sarah Bernhardt

“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” So said Mark Twain about one of the most famous actresses of the 19th century.

A new play by Theresa Rebeck, Bernhardt/Hamlet, shows “the Divine Sarah” grappling with one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles: Hamlet. A Free Folger Friday staged reading at Folger Theatre on Jan. 19 saw DC actress Holly Twyford as the lead, with Luigi Sottile (Henry in The Way of the World) as playwright Edmond Rostand, her friend and lover.

Bernhardt/Hamlet cast
(l-r) Eric Hissom (Constant Coquelin), Holly Twyford (Sarah Bernhardt), Luigi Sottile (Edmond Rostand), and Michael Russotto (Alfonse Mucha) in a staged reading of Bernhardt/Hamlet, written and directed by Theresa Rebeck, at Folger Theatre, 2018. Photo by Teresa Wood.

As she rehearses scenes from Hamlet with the rest of the cast, Bernhardt realizes that something is not quite clicking for her as the Danish prince. But can she handle the possibility of failure? “I want you to re-write Hamlet,” she tells Rostand, to his astonishment and frustration. Meanwhile, others in Paris are gossiping about whether Bernhardt is overreaching and whether the role will sink her reputation.

The ensuing drama, mixed with plenty of comedy and romance, presents the audience with questions about women and power, the legacies of playwrights and actors, the roles of thinking and feeling in the theater—and of course, Shakespeare and the space he occupies in our cultural imaginations.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Ink drawing by Reginald Cleaver. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Box C623.5 no.1 (size S)

The real-life Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) performed as Hamlet in 1899. For the famous graveyard scene, she used a skull given to her by the novelist Victor Hugo. Later, she became the first actress to play Hamlet on film.

Other historical figures populate Rebeck’s play: Constant Coquelin, a well-known French actor who played the original Cyrano in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac; Rosemonde Gérard, a poet and playwright married to Rostand; Maurice Bernhardt, Sarah’s only child; and Alfonse Mucha, an artist who created iconic Art Nouveau posters of Sarah’s stage roles.

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