Part 6 out of 9
This was exactly what Perrin wanted; he had from the earliest moment
thought of Croizette, but he wanted to have his hand forced for private
and underhand reasons which he knew and which others guessed.
At last the change took place, and the serious rehearsals commenced.
Then the first performance was announced for November 6 (1872).
I have always suffered, and still suffer, terribly from stage fright,
especially when I know that much is expected of me. I knew a long time
beforehand that every seat in the house had been booked; I knew that the
Press expected a great success, and that Perrin himself was reckoning on
a long series of big receipts.
Alas! all these hopes and predictions went for nothing, and my
_re-debut_ at the Comedie Francaise was only moderately successful.
The following is an extract from the _Temps_ of November 11, 1872. It
was written by Francisque Sarcey, with whom I was not then acquainted,
but who was following my career with very great interest. "It was a very
brilliant assembly, as this _debut_ had attracted all theatre-lovers.
The fact is, beside the special merit of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt, a whole
crowd of true or false stories had been circulated about her personally,
and all this had excited the curiosity of the Parisian public. Her
appearance was a disappointment. She had by her costume exaggerated in a
most ostentatious way a slenderness which is elegant under the veils and
ample drapery of the Grecian and Roman heroines, but which is
objectionable in modern dress. Then, too, either powder does not suit
her, or stage fright had made her terribly pale. The effect of this long
white face emerging from a long black sheath was certainly unpleasant [I
looked like an ant], particularly as the eyes had lost their brilliancy
and all that relieved the face were the sparkling white teeth. She went
through the first three acts with a convulsive tremor, and we only
recognised the Sarah of _Ruy Blas_ by two couplets which she gave in her
enchanting voice with the most wonderful grace, but in all the more
powerful passages she was a failure. I doubt whether Mlle. Sarah
Bernhardt will ever, with her delicious voice, be able to render those
deep thrilling notes, expressive of paroxysms of violent passion, which
are capable of carrying away an audience. If only nature had endowed her
with this gift she would be a perfect artiste, and there are none such
on the stage. Roused by the coldness of her public, Mlle. Sarah
Bernhardt was entirely herself in the fifth act. This was certainly our
Sarah once more, the Sarah of _Ruy Blas_, whom we had admired so much at
As Sarcey said, I made a complete failure of my _debut_. My excuse,
though, was not the "stage fright" to which he attributed it, but the
terrible anxiety I felt on seeing my mother hurriedly leave her seat in
the dress circle five minutes after my appearance on the stage.
I had glanced at her on entering, and had noticed her death-like pallor.
When she went out I felt that she was about to have one of those attacks
which endangered her life, so that the first act seemed to me
interminable. I uttered one word after another, stammering through my
sentences hap-hazard, with only one idea in my head, a longing to know
what had happened. Oh, the public cannot conceive of the tortures
endured by the unfortunate comedians who are there before them in flesh
and blood on the stage, gesticulating and uttering phrases, while their
heart, all torn with anguish, is with the beloved absent one who is
suffering. As a rule, one can fling away the worries and anxieties of
every-day life, put off one's own personality for a few hours, take on
another, and, forgetting everything else, enter as it were into another
life. But that is impossible when our dear ones are suffering. Anxiety
then lays hold of us, attenuating the bright side, magnifying the dark,
maddening our brain, which is living two lives at once, and tormenting
our heart, which is beating as though it would burst.
These were the sensations I experienced during the first act.
"Mamma! What has happened to Mamma?" were my first words on leaving the
stage. No one could tell me anything.
Croizette came up to me and said, "What's the matter? I hardly recognise
you as you are, and you weren't yourself at all just now in the play."
In a few words I told her what I had seen and all that I had felt.
Frederic Febvre sent at once to get news, and the doctor came hurrying
"Your mother had a fainting fit, Mademoiselle," he said, "but they have
just taken her home."
"It was her heart, wasn't it?" I asked, looking at him.
"Yes," he replied; "Madame's heart is in a very agitated state."
"Oh, I know how ill she is," I said, and not being able to control
myself any longer, I burst into sobs. Croizette helped me back to my
dressing-room. She was very kind; we had known each other from
childhood, and were very fond of each other. Nothing ever estranged us,
in spite of all the malicious gossip of envious people and all the
little miseries due to vanity.
My dear Madame Guerard took a cab and hurried away to my mother to get
news for me. I put a little more powder on, but the public, not knowing
what was taking place, were annoyed with me, thinking I was guilty of
some fresh caprice, and received me still more coldly than before. It
was all the same to me, as I was thinking of something else. I went on
saying Mlle. de Belle-Isle's words (a most stupid and tiresome _role_),
but all the time I, Sarah, was waiting for news about my mother. I was
watching for the return of _mon petit Dame_. "Open the door on the O.P.
side just a little way," I had said to her, "and make a sign like this
if Mamma is better, and like that if she is worse." But I had forgotten
which of the signs was to stand for better, and when, at the end of the
third act I saw Madame Guerard opening the door and nodding her head for
"yes," I became quite idiotic.
It was in the big scene of the third act, when Mlle. de Belle-Isle
reproaches the Duc de Richelieu (Bressant) with doing her such
irreparable harm. The Duc replies, "Why did you not say that some one
was listening, that some one was hidden?" I exclaimed, "It's Guerard
bringing me news!" The public had not time to understand, for Bressant
went on quickly, and so saved the situation.
After an unenthusiastic call I heard that my mother was better, but that
she had had a very serious attack. Poor mamma, she had thought me such a
fright when I made my appearance on the stage that her superb
indifference had given way to grievous astonishment, and that in its
turn to rage on hearing a lady seated near her say in a jeering tone,
"Why, she's like a dried bone, this little Bernhardt!"
I was greatly relieved on getting the news, and I played my last act
with confidence. The great success of the evening, though, was
Croizette's, who was charming as the Marquise de Prie. My success,
nevertheless, was assured in the performances which followed, and it
became so marked that I was accused of paying for applause. I laughed
heartily at this, and never even contradicted the report, as I have a
horror of useless words.
I next appeared as Junie in _Britannicus_, with Mounet-Sully, who played
admirably as Nero. In this delicious _role_ of Junie I obtained an
immense and incredible success.
Then in 1873 I played Cherubin in _Le Mariage de Figaro_. Croizette
played Suzanne, and it was a real treat for the public to see that
delightful creature play a part so full of gaiety and charm.
Cherubin was for me the opportunity of a fresh success.
In the month of March 1873 Perrin took it into his head to stage
_Dalila_, by Octave Feuillet. I was then taking the part of young girls,
young princesses, or boys. My slight frame, my pale face, my delicate
aspect marked me out for the time being for the _role_ of victim.
Perrin, who thought that the victims attracted pity, and that it was for
this reason I pleased my audiences, cast the play most ridiculously: he
gave me the _role_ of Dalila, the swarthy, wicked, and ferocious
princess, and to Sophie Croizette he gave the _role_ of the fair young
The piece, with this strange cast, was destined to fail. I forced my
character in order to appear the haughty and voluptuous siren; I stuffed
my bodice with wadding and the hips under my skirts with horse-hair; but
I kept my small, thin, sorrowful face. Croizette was obliged to repress
the advantages of her bust by bands which oppressed and suffocated her,
but she kept her pretty plump face with its dimples.
I was obliged to put on a strong voice, she to soften hers. In fact, it
was absurd. The piece was a _demi-succes_.
After that I created _L'Absent_, a pretty piece in verse, by Eugene
Manuel; _Chez l'Avocat_, a very amusing thing in verse, by Paul Ferrier,
in which Coquelin and I quarrelled beautifully. Then, on August 22, I
played with immense success the _role_ of Andromaque. I shall never
forget the first performance, in which Mounet-Sully obtained a delirious
triumph. Oh, how fine he was, Mounet-Sully, in his _role_ of Orestes!
His entrance, his fury, his madness, and the plastic beauty of this
marvellous artiste--how magnificent!
After _Andromaque_ I played Aricie in _Phedre_, and in this secondary
_role_ it was I who really made the success of the evening.
I took such a position in a very short time at the Comedie that some of
the artistes began to feel uneasy, and the management shared their
anxiety. M. Perrin, an extremely intelligent man, whom I have always
remembered with great affection, was horribly authoritative. I was also,
so that there was always perpetual warfare between us. He wanted to
impose his will on me, and I would not submit to it. He was always ready
to laugh at my outbursts when they were against the others, but he was
furious when they were directed against himself. As for me, I will own
that to get Perrin in a fury was one of my delights. He stammered so
when he tried to talk quickly, he who weighed every word on ordinary
occasions; the expression of his eyes, which was generally wavering,
grew irritated and deceitful, and his pale, distinguished-looking face
became mottled with patches of wine-dreg colour.
His fury made him take his hat off and put it on again fifteen times in
as many minutes, and his extremely smooth hair stood on end with this
mad gallop of his head-gear. Although I had certainly arrived at the age
of discretion, I delighted in my wicked mischievousness, which I always
regretted after, but which I was always ready to recommence; and even
now, after all the days, weeks, months, and years that I have lived
since then, it still gives me infinite pleasure to play a joke on any
All the same, life at the Comedie began to affect my nerves.
I wanted to play Camille in _On ne badine pas avec l'amour:_ the _role_
was given to Croizette. I wanted to play Celimene: that _role_ was
Croizette's. Perrin was very partial to Croizette. He admired her, and
as she was very ambitious, she was most thoughtful and docile, which
charmed the authoritative old man. She always obtained everything she
wanted, and as Sophie Croizette was frank and straightforward, she often
said to me when I was grumbling, "Do as I do; be more yielding. You pass
your time in rebelling; I appear to be doing everything that Perrin
wants me to do, but in reality I make him do all I want him to. Try the
same thing." I accordingly screwed up my courage and went up to see
Perrin. He nearly always said to me when we met, "Ah, how do you do,
Mademoiselle Revolt? Are you calm to-day?"
"Yes, very calm," I replied; "but be amiable and grant me what I am
going to ask you." I tried to be charming, and spoke in my prettiest
way. He almost purred with satisfaction, and was witty (this was no
effort to him, as he was naturally so), and we got on very well together
for a quarter of an hour. I then made my petition:
"Let me play Camille in _On ne badine pas avec l'amour_".
"That's impossible, my dear child," he replied; "Croizette is playing
"Well then, we'll both play it; we'll take it in turns."
"But Mademoiselle Croizette wouldn't like that."
"I've spoken to her about it, and she would not mind it."
"You ought not to have spoken to her about it."
"Because the management does the casting, not the artistes."
He didn't purr any more, he only growled. As for me, I was in a fury,
and a few minutes later I went out of the room, banging the door after
All this preyed on my mind, though, and I used to cry all night. I then
decided to take a studio and devote myself to sculpture. As I was not
able to use my intelligence and my energy in creating _roles_ at the
theatre, as I wished, I gave myself up to another art, and began working
at sculpture with frantic enthusiasm. I soon made great progress, and
started on an enormous composition, _After the Storm_. I was indifferent
now to the theatre. Every morning at eight my horse was brought round,
and I went for a ride, and at ten I was back in my studio, 11 Boulevard
de Clichy. I was very delicate, and my health suffered from the double
effort I was making. I used to vomit blood in the most alarming way, and
for hours together I was unconscious. I never went to the Comedie except
when obliged by my duties there. My friends were seriously concerned
about me, and Perrin was informed of what was going on. Finally, incited
by the Press and the Department of Fine Arts, he decided to give me a
_role_ to create in Octave Feuillet's play _Le Sphinx_.
The principal part was for Croizette, but on hearing the play read I
thought the part destined for me charming, and I resolved that it should
also be the principal _role_. There would have to be two principal ones,
that was all. The rehearsals went along very smoothly at the start, but
it soon became evident that my _role_ was more important than had been
imagined, and friction soon began.
Croizette herself got nervous, Perrin was annoyed, and all this by-play
had the effect of calming me. Octave Feuillet, a shrewd, charming man,
extremely well-bred and slightly ironical, thoroughly enjoyed the
skirmishes that took place. War was doomed to break out, however, and
the first hostilities came from Sophie Croizette.
I always wore in my bodice three or four roses, which were apt to open
under the influence of the warmth, and some of the petals naturally
fell. One day Sophie Croizette slipped down full length on the stage,
and as she was tall and not slim, she fell rather unbecomingly, and got
up again ungracefully. The stifled laughter of some of the subordinate
persons present stung her to the quick, and turning to me she said,
"It's your fault; your roses fall and make every one slip down." I began
"Three petals of my roses have fallen," I replied, "and there they all
three are by the arm-chair on the prompt side, and you fell on the O.P.
side. It isn't my fault, therefore; it is just your own awkwardness."
The discussion continued, and was rather heated on both sides. Two clans
were formed, the "Croizettists" and the "Bernhardtists." War was
declared, not between Sophie and me, but between our respective admirers
and detractors. The rumour of these little quarrels spread in the world
outside the theatre, and the public too began to form clans. Croizette
had on her side all the bankers and all the people who were suffering
from repletion. I had all the artists, the students, dying folks, and
the failures. When once war was declared there was no drawing back from
the strife. The first, the most fierce, and the definitive battle was
fought over the moon.
We had begun the full dress rehearsals. In the third act the scene was
laid in a forest glade. In the middle of the stage was a huge rock upon
which was Blanche (Croizette) kissing Savigny (Delaunay), who was
supposed to be my husband. I (Berthe de Savigny) had to arrive by a
little bridge over a stream of water. The glade was bathed in moonlight.
Croizette had just played her part, and her kiss had been greeted with a
burst of applause. This was rather daring in those days for the Comedie
Francaise. (But since then what have they not given there?)
Suddenly a fresh burst of applause was heard. Amazement could be read on
some faces, and Perrin stood up terrified. I was crossing over the
bridge, my pale face ravaged with grief, and the _sortie de bal_ which
was intended to cover my shoulders was dragging along, just held by my
limp fingers; my arms were hanging down as though despair had taken the
use out of them. I was bathed in the white light of the moon, and the
effect, it seems, was striking and deeply impressive. A nasal,
aggressive voice cried out, "One moon effect is enough. Turn it off for
I sprang forward to the front of the stage. "Excuse me, Monsieur
Perrin," I exclaimed, "you have no right to take my moon away. The
manuscript reads, _Berthe advances, pale, convulsed with emotion, the
rays of the moon falling on her_.... I am pale and I am convulsed. I
must have my moon."
"It is impossible," roared Perrin. "Mademoiselle Croizette's words: 'You
love me, then!' and her kiss must have this moonlight. She is playing
the Sphinx; that is the chief part in the play, and we must leave her
the principal effect."
"Very well, then; give Croizette a brilliant moon, and give me a less
brilliant one. I don't mind that, but I must have my moon." All the
artistes and all the employes of the theatre put their heads in at all
the doorways and openings both on the stage and in the house itself. The
"Croizettists" and the "Bernhardtists" began to comment on the
Octave Feuillet was appealed to, and he got up in his turn.
"I grant that Mademoiselle Croizette is very beautiful in her moon
effect. Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt is ideal too, with her ray of
moonlight. I want the moon therefore for both of them."
Perrin could not control his anger. There was a discussion between the
author and the director, followed by others between the artistes, and
between the door-keeper and the journalists who were questioning him.
The rehearsal was interrupted. I declared that I would not play the part
if I did not have my moon. For the next two days I received no notice of
another rehearsal, but through Croizette I heard that they were trying
my _role_ of Berthe privately. They had given it to a young woman whom
we had nicknamed "the Crocodile," because she followed all the
rehearsals just as that animal follows boats--she was always hoping to
snatch up some _role_ that might happen to be thrown overboard. Octave
Feuillet refused to accept the change of artistes, and he came himself
to fetch me, accompanied by Delaunay, who had negotiated matters.
"It's all settled," he said, kissing my hands; "there will be a moon for
both of you."
The first night was a triumph both for Croizette and for me.
The party strife between the two clans waxed warmer and warmer, and this
added to our success and amused us both immensely, for Croizette was
always a delightful friend and a loyal comrade. She worked for her own
ends, but never against any one else.
After _Le Sphinx_ I played a pretty piece in one act by a young pupil of
the Ecole Polytechnique, Louis Denayrouse, _La Belle Paule._ This author
has now become a renowned scientific man, and has renounced poetry.
I had begged Perrin to give me a month's holiday, but he refused
energetically, and compelled me to take part in the rehearsals of
_Zaire_ during the trying months of June and July, and, in spite of my
reluctance, announced the first performance for August 6. That year it
was fearfully hot in Paris. I believe that Perrin, who could not tame me
alive, had, without really any bad intention, but by pure autocracy, the
desire to tame me dead. Doctor Parrot went to see him, and told him that
my state of weakness was such that it would be positively dangerous for
me to act during the trying heat. Perrin would hear nothing of it. Then,
furious at the obstinacy of this intellectual _bourgeois_, I swore I
would play on to the death.
Often, when I was a child, I wished to kill myself in order to vex
others. I remember once having drunk the contents of a large ink-pot
after being compelled by mamma to swallow a "panade," [Footnote: Bread
stewed a long time in water and flavoured with a little butter and
sugar, a kind of "sops" given to children in France.] because she
imagined that panades were good for the health. Our nurse had told her
my dislike to this form of nourishment, adding that every morning I
emptied the panade into the slop-pail. I had, of course, a very bad
stomach-ache, and screamed out in pain. I cried to mamma, "It is you who
have killed me!" and my poor mother wept. She never knew the truth, but
they never again made me swallow anything against my will.
Well, after so many years I experienced the same bitter and childish
sentiment. "I don't care," I said; "I shall certainly fall senseless
vomiting blood, and perhaps I shall die! And it will serve Perrin right.
He will be furious!" Yes, that is what I thought. I am at times very
foolish. Why? I don't know how to explain it, but I admit it.
The 6th of August, therefore, I played, in tropical heat, the part of
Zaire. The entire audience was bathed in perspiration. I saw the
spectators through a mist. The piece, badly staged as regards scenery,
but very well presented as regards costume, was particularly well played
by Mounet-Sully (Orosmane), Laroche (Nerestan) and myself (Zaire), and
obtained an immense success.
I was determined to faint, determined to vomit blood, determined to die,
in order to enrage Perrin. I played with the utmost passion. I had
sobbed, I had loved, I had suffered, and I had been stabbed by the
poignard of Orosmane, uttering a true cry of suffering, for I had felt
the steel penetrate my breast. Then, falling panting, dying, on the
Oriental divan, I had meant to die in reality, and dared scarcely move
my arms, convinced as I was that I was in my death agony, and somewhat
afraid, I must admit, at having succeeded in playing such a nasty trick
on Perrin. But my surprise was great when the curtain fell at the close
of the piece and I got up quickly to answer to the call and bow to the
audience without languor, without fainting, feeling strong enough to go
through my part again if it had been necessary.
And I marked this performance with a little white stone--for that day I
learned that my vital force was at the service of my intellectual force.
I had desired to follow the impulse of my brain, whose conceptions
seemed to me to be too forceful for my physical strength to carry out.
And I found myself, after having given out all of which I was
capable--and more--in perfect equilibrium.
Then I saw the possibility of the longed-for future.
I had fancied, and up to this performance of _Zaire_ I had always heard
and read in the papers that my voice was pretty, but weak; that my
gestures were gracious, but vague; that my supple movements lacked
authority, and that my glance lost in heavenward contemplation could not
tame the wild beasts (the audience). I thought then of all that.
I had received proof that I could rely on my physical strength, for I
had commenced the performance of _Zaire_ in such a state of weakness
that it was easy to predict that I should not finish the first act
On the other hand, although the _role_ was easy, it required two or
three shrieks, which might have provoked the vomiting of blood that
frequently troubled me at that time.
That evening, therefore, I acquired the certainty that I could count on
the strength of my vocal cords, for I had uttered my shrieks with real
rage and suffering, hoping to break something, in my wild desire to be
revenged on Perrin.
Thus this little comedy turned to my profit. Being unable to die at
will, I changed my batteries and resolved to be strong, vivacious, and
active, to the great annoyance of some of my contemporaries, who had
only put up with me because they thought I should soon die, but who
began to hate me as soon as they acquired the conviction that I should
perhaps live for a long time. I will only give one example, related by
Alexandre Dumas _fils_, who was present at the death of his intimate
friend Charles Narrey, and heard his dying words: "I am content to die
because I shall hear no more of Sarah Bernhardt and of the grand
Francais" (Ferdinand de Lesseps).
But this revelation of my strength rendered more painful to me the sort
of _farniente_ to which Perrin condemned me.
In fact, after _Zaire_, I remained months without doing anything of
importance, playing only now and again. Discouraged and disgusted with
the theatre, my passion for sculpture increased. After my morning ride
and a light meal I used to rush to my studio, where I remained till the
Friends came to see me, sat round me, played the piano, sang; politics
were discussed--for in this modest studio I received the most
illustrious men of all parties. Several ladies came to take tea, which
was abominable and badly served, but I did not care about that. I was
absorbed by this admirable art. I saw nothing, or, to speak more truly,
I _would not_ see anything.
I was making the bust of an adorable young girl, Mlle. Emmy de ----.
Her slow and measured conversation had an infinite charm. She was a
foreigner, but spoke French so perfectly that I was stupefied. She
smoked a cigarette all the time, and had a profound disdain for those
who did not understand her.
I made the sittings last as long as possible, for I felt that this
delicate mind was imbuing me with her science of seeing into the beyond,
and often in the serious steps of my life I have said to myself, "What
would Emmy have done? What would she have thought?"
I was somewhat surprised one day by the visit of Adolphe de Rothschild,
who came to give me an order for his bust. I commenced the work
immediately. But I had not properly considered this admirable man--he
had nothing of the aesthetic, but the contrary. I tried nevertheless,
and I brought all my will to bear in order to succeed in this first
order, of which I was so proud. Twice I dashed the bust which I had
commenced on the ground, and after a third attempt I definitely gave up,
stammering idiotic excuses which apparently did not convince my model,
for he never returned to me. When we met in our morning rides he saluted
me with a cold and rather severe bow.
After this defeat I undertook the bust of a beautiful child, Miss
Multon, a delightful little American, whom later on I came across in
Denmark, married and the mother of a family, but still as pretty as
My next bust was that of Mlle. Hocquigny, that admirable person who was
keeper of the linen in the commissariat during the war, and who had so
powerfully helped me and my wounded at that time.
Then I undertook the bust of my young sister Regina, who had, alas! a
weak chest. A more perfect face was never made by the hand of God! Two
leonine eyes shaded by long, long brown lashes, a slender nose with
delicate nostrils, a tiny mouth, a wilful chin, and a pearly skin
crowned by meshes of sunrays, for I have never seen hair so blonde and
so pale, so bright and so silky. But this admirable face was without
charm; the expression was hard and the mouth without a smile. I tried my
best to reproduce this beautiful face in marble, but it needed a great
artist and I was only a humble amateur.
When I exhibited the bust of my little sister, it was five months after
her death, which occurred after a six months' illness, full of false
hopes. I had taken her to my home, No. 4 Rue de Rome, to the little
_entresol_ which I had inhabited since the terrible fire which had
destroyed my furniture, my books, my pictures, and all my scant
possessions. This flat in the Rue de Rome was very small. My bedroom was
quite tiny. The big bamboo bed took up all the room. In front of the
window was my coffin, where I frequently installed myself to study my
parts. Therefore, when I took my sister to my home I found it quite
natural to sleep every night in this little bed of white satin which was
to be my last couch, and to put my sister in the big bamboo bed, under
the lace hangings.
She herself found it quite natural also, for I would not leave her at
night, and it was impossible to put another bed in the little room.
Besides, she was accustomed to my coffin.
One day my manicurist came into the room to do my hands, and my sister
asked her to enter quietly, because I was still asleep. The woman turned
her head, believing that I was asleep in the arm-chair, but seeing me in
my coffin she rushed away shrieking wildly. From that moment all Paris
knew that I slept in my coffin, and gossip with its thistle-down wings
took flight in all directions.
I was so accustomed to the turpitudes which were written about me that I
did not trouble about this. But at the death of my poor little sister a
tragi-comic incident happened. When the undertaker's men came to the
room to take away the body they found themselves confronted with two
coffins, and losing his wits, the master of ceremonies sent in haste for
a second hearse. I was at that moment with my mother, who had lost
consciousness, and I just got back in time to prevent the black-clothed
men taking away my coffin. The second hearse was sent back, but the
papers got hold of this incident. I was blamed, criticised, &c.
It really was not my fault.
A DESCENT INTO THE ENFER DU PLOGOFF--MY FIRST APPEARANCE AS PHEDRE--THE
DECORATION OF MY NEW MANSION
After the death of my sister I fell seriously ill. I had tended her day
and night, and this, in addition to the grief I was suffering, made me
anaemic. I was ordered to the South for two months. I promised to go to
Mentone, and I turned immediately towards Brittany, the country of my
I had with me my little boy, my steward and his wife. My poor Guerard,
who had helped me to tend my sister, was in bed ill with phlebitis. I
would much have liked to have her with me.
Oh, the lovely holiday that we had there! Thirty-five years ago Brittany
was wild, inhospitable, but as beautiful--perhaps more beautiful than at
present, for it was not furrowed with roads; its green slopes were not
dotted with small white villas; its inhabitants--the men--were not
dressed in the abominable modern trousers, and the women did not wear
miserable little hats with feathers. No! The Bretons proudly displayed
their well-shaped legs in gaiters or rough stockings, their feet shod
with buckled shoes; their long hair was brought down on the temples,
hiding any awkward ears and giving to the face a nobility which the
modern style does not admit of. The women, with their short skirts,
which showed their slender ankles in black stockings, and with their
small heads under the wings of the headdress, resembled sea-gulls. I am
not speaking, of course, of the inhabitants of Pont l'Abbe or of Bourg
de Batz, who have entirely different aspects.
I visited nearly the whole of Brittany, but made my chief stay at
Finistere. The Pointe du Raz enchanted me. I remained twelve days at
Audierne, in the house of Father Batifoule, who was so big and so fat
that they had been obliged to cut a piece out of the table to let in his
immense abdomen. I set out every morning at ten o'clock. My steward
Claude himself prepared my lunch, which he packed up very carefully in
three little baskets, then climbing into the comical vehicle of Father
Batifoule, my little boy driving, we set out for the Baie des Trepasses.
Ah, that beautiful and mysterious shore, all bristling with rocks! The
lighthouse keeper would be looking out for me, and would come to meet
me. Claude gave him my provisions, with a thousand recommendations as to
the manner of cooking the eggs, warming up the lentils, and toasting the
bread. He carried off everything, then returned with two old sticks in
which he had stuck nails to make them into picks, and we commenced the
terrifying ascent of the Pointe du Raz, a kind of labyrinth full of
disagreeable surprises, of crevasses across which we had to jump over
the gaping and roaring abyss, of arches and tunnels through which we had
to crawl on all fours, having overhead--touching us even--a rock which
had fallen there in unknown ages and was only held in equilibrium by
some inexplicable cause. Then all at once the path became so narrow that
it was impossible to walk straight forward; we had to turn and put our
backs against the cliff and advance with both arms spread out and
fingers holding on to the few asperities of the rock.
When I think of what I did in those moments, I tremble, for I have
always been, and still am, subject to dizziness; and I went over this
path along a steep precipitous rock, 30 metres high, in the midst of the
infernal noise of the sea, at this place eternally furious, and which
raged fearfully against this indestructible cliff. And I must have taken
a mad pleasure in it, for I accomplished this journey five times in
After this challenge thrown down to reason we descended, and installed
ourselves in the Baie des Trepasses. After a bath we had lunch, and I
painted till sunset.
The first day there was nobody there. The second day a child came to
look at us. The third day about ten children stood around asking for
sous. I was foolish enough to give them some, and the following day
there were twenty or thirty boys, some of them from sixteen to eighteen
years old. Seeing near my easel something not particularly agreeable, I
begged one of them to take it away and throw it into the sea, and for
that I gave, I think, fifty centimes. When I came back the following day
to finish my painting the whole population of the neighbouring village
had chosen this place to relieve their corporal necessities, and as soon
as I arrived the same boys, but in increased numbers, offered, if
properly paid, to take away what they had put there.
I had the ugly band routed by Claude and the lighthouse keeper, and as
they took to throwing stones at us, I pointed my gun at the little
group. They fled howling. Only two boys, of six and ten years of age,
remained there. We did not take any notice of them, and I installed
myself a little farther on, sheltered by a rock which kept the wind
away. The two boys followed. Claude and the keeper Lucas were on the
look out to see that the band did not come back.
They were stooping down over the extreme point of the rock which was
above our heads. They seemed peaceful, when suddenly my young maid
jumped up: "Horrors! Madame! Horrors! They are throwing lice down on
us!" And in fact the two little good-for-nothings had been for the last
hour searching for all the vermin they could find on themselves, and
throwing it on us.
I had the two little beggars caught, and they got a well-deserved
There was a crevasse which was called the "Enfer du Plogoff." I had a
wild desire to go down this crevasse, but the guardian dissuaded me,
constantly giving as objections the danger of slipping, and his fear of
responsibility in case of accident. I persisted nevertheless in my
intention, and after a thousand promises, in addition to a certificate
to testify that, notwithstanding the supplications of the guardian and
the certainty of the danger that I ran, I had persisted all the same,
&c., and after having made a small present of ten louis to the good
fellow, I obtained facilities for descending the Enfer du Plogoff--that
is to say, a wide belt to which a strong rope was fastened. I buckled
this belt round my waist, which was then so slender--43
centimetres--that it was necessary to make additional holes in order to
Then the guardian put on each of my hands a wooden shoe the sole of
which was bordered with big nails jutting out two centimetres. I stared
at these wooden shoes, and asked for an explanation before putting them
"Well," said the guardian Lucas, "when I let you down, as you are no
fatter than a herring bone, you will get shaken about in the crevasse,
and will risk breaking your bones, while if you have the 'sabots' on
your hands you can protect yourself against the walls by putting out
your arms to the right and the left, according as you are shaken up
against them. I do not say that you will not have a few bangs, but that
is your own fault; you will go. Now listen, my little lady. When you are
at the bottom, on the rock in the middle, mind you don't slip, for that
is the most dangerous of all; if you fall in the water I will pull the
rope, for sure, but I don't answer for anything. In that cursed
whirlpool of water you might be caught between two stones, and it would
be no use for me to pull: I should break the rope, and that would be
Then the man grew pale and made the sign of the cross; he leaned towards
me, murmuring in a dreamy voice, "It is the shipwrecked ones who are
there under the stones, down there. It is they who dance in the
moonlight on the 'shore of the dead.' It is they who put the slippery
sea-weed on the little rock down there, in order to make travellers
slip, and then they drag them to the bottom of the sea." Then, looking
me in the eyes, he said, "Will you go down all the same?"
"Yes, certainly, Pere Lucas; I will go down at once."
My little boy was building forts and castles on the sand with Felicie.
Only Claude was with me. He did not say a word, knowing my unbridled
desire to meet danger. He looked to see if the belt was properly
fastened, and asked my permission to tie the tongue of the belt to the
belt itself; then he passed a strong cord several times around to
strengthen the leather, and I was let down, suspended by the rope in the
blackness of the crevasse. I extended my arms to the right and the left,
as the guardian had told me to do, and even then I got my elbows
scraped. At first I thought that the noise I heard was the reverberation
of the echo of the blows of the wooden shoes against the edges of the
crevasse, but suddenly a frightful din filled my ears: successive
firings of cannons, strident ringings, crackings of a whip, plaintive
howls, and repeated monotonous cries as of a hundred fishermen drawing
up a net filled with fish, sea-weed, and pebbles. All the noises mingled
under the mad violence of the wind. I became furious with myself, for I
was really afraid.
The lower I went, the louder the howlings became in my ears and my
brain, and my heart beat the order of retreat. The wind swept through
the narrow tunnel and blew in all directions round my legs, my body, my
neck. A horrible fear took possession of me.
I descended slowly, and at each little shock I felt that the four hands
holding me above had come to a knot. I tried to remember the number of
knots, for it seemed to me that I was making no progress.
Then I opened my mouth to call out, "Draw me up!" but the wind, which
danced in mad folly around me, filled my mouth and drove back the words.
I was nearly suffocated. Then I shut my eyes and ceased to struggle. I
would not even put out my arms. A few instants after I pulled up my legs
in unspeakable terror. The sea had just seized them in a brutal embrace
which had wet me through. However, I recovered courage, for now I could
see clearly. I stretched out my legs, and found myself upright on the
little rock. It is true it was very slippery.
I took hold of a large ring fixed in the vault which overhung the rock,
and I looked round. The long and narrow crevasse grew suddenly wider at
its base, and terminated in a large grotto which looked out over the
open sea; but the entrance of this grotto was protected by a quantity of
both large and small rocks, which could be seen for a distance of a
league in front on the surface of the water--which explains the terrible
noise of the sea dashing into the labyrinth and the possibility of
standing upright on a stone, as the Bretons say, with the wild dance of
the waves all around.
However, I saw very plainly that a false step might be fatal in the
brutal whirl of waters, which came rushing in from afar with dizzy speed
and broke against the insurmountable obstacle, and in receding dashed
against other waves which followed them. From this cause proceeded the
perpetual fusillade of waters which rushed into the crevasse without
danger of drowning me.
It now began to grow dark, and I experienced a fearful anguish in
discovering on the crest of a little rock two enormous eyes, which
looked fixedly at me. Then a little farther, near a tuft of seaweed, two
more of these fixed eyes. I saw no body to these beings--nothing but the
eyes. I thought for a minute that I was losing my senses, and I bit my
tongue till the blood came; then I pulled violently at the rope, as I
had agreed to do in order to give the signal for being drawn up. I felt
the trembling joy of the four hands pulling me, and my feet lost their
hold as I was hauled up by my guardians. The eyes were lifted up also,
uneasy at seeing me depart. And while I mounted through the air I saw
nothing but eyes everywhere--eyes throwing out long feelers to reach me.
I had never seen an octopus, and I did not even know of the existence of
these horrible beasts.
During the ascent, which appeared to me interminable, I imagined I saw
these beasts along the walls, and my teeth were chattering when I was
drawn out on to the green hillock.
I immediately told the guardian the cause of my terror, and he crossed
himself, saying, "Those are the eyes of the shipwrecked ones. No one
must stay there!"
I knew very well that they were not the eyes of shipwrecked ones, but I
did not know what they were. For I thought I had seen some strange
beasts that no one had ever seen before.
It was only at the hotel with Pere Batifoule that I learnt about the
Only five more days' holiday were left to me, and I passed them at the
Pointe du Raz, seated in a niche of rock which has been since named
"Sarah Bernhardt's Arm-chair." Many tourists have sat there since.
After my holiday I returned to Paris. But I was still very weak, and
could only take up my work towards the month of November. I played all
the pieces of my _repertoire_, and I was annoyed at not having any new
One day Perrin came to see me in my sculptor's studio. He began to talk
at first about my busts; he told me that I ought to do his medallion,
and asked me incidentally if I knew the _role_ of Phedre. Up to that
time I had only played Aricie, and the part of Phedre seemed formidable
to me. I had, however, studied it for my own pleasure.
"Yes, I know the _role_ of Phedre. But I think if ever I had to play it
I should die of fright."
He laughed with his silly little laugh, and said to me, squeezing my
hand (for he was very gallant), "Work it up. I think that you will play
In fact, eight days after I was called to the manager's office, and
Perrin told me that he had announced _Phedre_ for December 21, the
_fete_ of Racine, with Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt in the part of Phedre. I
thought I should have fallen.
"Well, but what about Mademoiselle Rousseil?" I asked.
"Mademoiselle Rousseil wants the committee to promise that she shall
become a Societaire in the month of January, and the committee, which
will without doubt appoint her, refuses to make this promise, and
declares that her demand is like a threat. But perhaps Mademoiselle
Rousseil will change her plans, and in that case you will play Aricie
and I will change the bill."
Coming out from Perrin's I ran up against M. Regnier. I told him of my
conversation with the manager and of my fears.
"No, no," said the great artiste to me, "you must not be afraid! I see
very well what you are going to make of this _role_. But all you have to
do is to be careful and not force your voice. Make the _role_ rather
more sorrowful than furious--it will be better for every one, even
Then, joining my hands, I said, "Dear Monsieur Regnier, help me to work
up Phedre I shall not be so much afraid!"
He looked at me rather surprised, for in general I was neither docile
nor apt to be guided by advice. I own that I was wrong, but I could not
help it. But the responsibility which this put upon me made me timid.
Regnier accepted, and made an appointment with me for the following
morning at nine o'clock.
Roselia Rousseil persisted in her demand to the committee, and _Phedre_
was billed for December 21, with Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt for the first
time in the _role_ of Phedre.
This caused quite a sensation in the artistic world and in theatrical
circles. That evening over two hundred people were turned away at the
box office. When I was informed of the fact I began to tremble a good
Regnier comforted me as best he could, saying, "Courage! Cheer up! Are
you not the spoiled darling of the public? They will take into
consideration your inexperience in important leading parts," &c.
These were the last words he should have said to me. I should have felt
stronger if I had known that the public were come to oppose and not to
I began to cry bitterly like a child. Perrin was called, and consoled me
as well as he could; then he made me laugh by putting powder on my face
so awkwardly that I was blinded and suffocated.
Everybody on the stage knew about it, and stood at the door of my
dressing-room wishing to comfort me, Mounet-Sully, who was playing
Hippolyte, told me that he had dreamed "we were playing _Phedre_, and
you were hissed; and my dreams always go by contraries--so," he cried,
"we shall have a tremendous success."
But what put me completely in a good humour was the arrival of the
worthy Martel, who was playing Theramene, and who had come so quickly,
believing me to be ill, that he had not had time to finish his nose. The
sight of this grey face, with a wide bar of red wax commencing between
the two eyebrows, coming down to half a centimetre below his nose and
leaving behind it the end of the nose with two large black
nostrils--this face was indescribable! And everybody laughed
irrepressibly. I knew that Martel made up his nose, for I had already
seen this poor nose change shape at the second performance of _Zaire_,
under the tropical depression of the atmosphere, but I had never
realised how much he lengthened it. This comical apparition restored all
my gaiety, and from thenceforth I was in full possession of my
The evening was one long triumph for me. And the Press was unanimous in
praise, with the exception of the article of Paul de St. Victor, who was
on very good terms with a sister of Rachel, and could not get over "my
impertinent presumption in daring to measure myself with the great dead
artiste." These are his own words addressed to Girardin, who immediately
communicated them to me. How mistaken he was, poor St. Victor! I had
never seen Rachel, but I worshipped her talent, for I had surrounded
myself with her most devoted admirers, and they little thought of
comparing me with their idol.
A few days after this performance of _Phedre_ the new piece of Bornier
was read to us--_La Fille de Roland_. The part of Berthe was confided to
me, and we immediately began the rehearsals of this fine piece, the
verses of which were nevertheless a little flat, though the play rang
with patriotism. There was in one act a terrible duel, not seen by the
public, but related by Berthe, the daughter of Roland, while the
incidents happened under the eyes of the unhappy girl, who from a window
of the castle followed in anguish the fortunes of the encounter. This
scene was the only important one of my much-sacrificed _role_.
The play was ready to be performed, when Bornier asked that his friend
Emile Augier might attend the dress rehearsal. When this rehearsal was
over Perrin came to me; he had an affectionate and constrained air. As
to Bornier, he came straight to me in a decided and quarrelsome manner.
Emile Augier followed him. "Well----" he said to me. I looked straight
at him, feeling at the moment that he was my enemy. He stopped short and
scratched his head, then turned towards Augier and said:
"I beg you, _cher maitre_, explain to Mademoiselle yourself."
Emile Augier was a broad man, with wide shoulders and a common
appearance, and was at that time rather stout. He was in very good
repute at the Theatre Francais, of which he was at that epoch the
successful author. He came near me.
"You managed the part at the window very well, Mademoiselle, but it is
ridiculous; it is not your fault, but that of the author, who has
written a most improbable scene. The public would laugh immoderately.
This scene must be taken out."
I turned towards Perrin, who was listening silently. "Are you of the
same opinion, sir?"
"I talked it over a short time ago with these gentlemen, but the author
is master to do as he pleases with his work."
Then, addressing myself to Bornier, I said, "Well, my dear author, what
have you decided?"
Little Bornier looked at big Emile Augier. There was in this beseeching
and piteous glance an expression of sorrow at having to cut out a scene
which he prized, and of fear at vexing an Academician just at the time
when he was hoping to become a member of the Academy.
"Cut it out, cut it out--or you are done for!" brutally replied Augier,
and he turned his back. Then poor Bornier, who resembled a Breton gnome,
came up to me. He scratched himself desperately, for the unfortunate man
suffered from a distressing skin disease. He did not speak. He looked at
us searchingly. Poignant anxiety was expressed on his face. Perrin, who
had come up to me, guessed the private little drama which was taking
place in the heart of the mild Bornier.
"Refuse energetically," murmured Perrin to me.
I understood, and declared firmly to Bornier that if this scene were cut
out I should refuse the part. Then Bornier seized both my hands, which
he kissed ardently, and running up to Augier he exclaimed, with comic
"But I cannot cut it out--I cannot cut it out! She will not play! And
the day after to-morrow the play is to be performed." Then, as Emile
Augier made a gesture and would have spoken: "No! No! To put back my
play eight days would be to kill it! I cannot cut it out! Oh, mon Dieu!"
And he cried and gesticulated with his two long arms, and he stamped
with his short legs. His large hairy head went from right to left. He
was at the same time funny and pitiable. Emile Augier was irritated, and
turned on me like a hunted boar on a pursuing dog:
"Will you take the responsibility, Mademoiselle, of the absurd window
scene on the first performance?"
"Certainly, Monsieur; and I even promise to make of this scene, which I
find very beautiful, an enormous success!"
He shrugged his shoulders rudely, muttering something very disagreeable
between his teeth.
When I left the theatre I found poor Bornier quite transfigured. He
thanked me a thousand times, for he thought very highly of this scene,
and he dared not thwart Emile Augier. Both Perrin and myself had divined
the legitimate emotions of this poor poet, so gentle and so well bred,
but a trifle Jesuitical.
The play was an immense success. But the window scene on the first night
was a veritable triumph.
It was a short time after the terrible war of 1870. The play contained
frequent allusions to it, and owing to the patriotism of the public made
an even greater success than it deserved as a play. I sent for Emile
Augier. He came to my dressing-room with a surly air, and said to me
from the door:
"So much the worse for the public! It only proves that the public is
idiotic to make a success of such vileness!" And he disappeared without
having even entered my dressing-room.
His outburst made me laugh, and as the triumphant Bornier had embraced
me repeatedly, I scratched myself all over.
Two months later I played _Gabrielle_, by this same Augier, and I had
incessant quarrels with him. I found the verses of this play execrable.
Coquelin, who took the part of my husband, made a great success. As for
me, I was as mediocre as the play itself, which is saying a great deal.
I had been appointed a Societaire in the month of January, and since
then it seemed to me that I was in prison, for I had undertaken an
engagement not to leave the House of Moliere for many years. This idea
made me sad. It was at Perrin's instigation that I had asked to become a
Societaire, and now I regretted it very much.
During all the latter part of the year I only played occasionally.
My time was then occupied in looking after the building of a pretty
little mansion which I was having erected at the corner of the Avenue de
Villiers and the Rue Fortuny. A sister of my grandmother had left me in
her will a nice legacy, which I used to buy the ground. My great desire
was to have a house that should be entirely my own, and I was then
realising it. The son-in-law of M. Regnier, Felix Escalier, a
fashionable architect, was building me a charming place. Nothing amused
me more than to go with him in the morning over the unfinished house.
Afterwards I mounted the movable scaffolds. Then I went on the roofs. I
forgot my worries of the theatre in this new occupation. The thing I
most desired just then was to become an architect. When the building was
finished, the interior had to be thought of. I spent much time in
helping my painter friends who were decorating the ceilings in my
bedroom, in my dining-room, in my hall: Georges Clairin; the architect
Escalier, who was also a talented painter; Duez, Picard, Butin, Jadin,
and Parrot. I was deeply interested. And I recollect a joke which I
played on one of my relations.
My aunt Betsy had come from Holland, her native country, in order to
spend a few days in Paris. She was staying with my mother. I invited her
to lunch in my new unfinished habitation. Five of my painter friends
were working, some in one room, some in another, and everywhere lofty
scaffoldings were erected. In order to be able to climb the ladders more
easily I was wearing my sculptor's costume. My aunt, seeing me thus
arrayed, was horribly shocked, and told me so. But I was preparing yet
another surprise for her. She thought these young workers were ordinary
house-painters, and considered I was too familiar with them. But she
nearly fainted when midday came and I rushed to the piano to play "The
Complaint of the Hungry Stomachs." This wild melody had been improvised
by the group of painters, but revised and corrected by poet friends.
Here it is:
Oh! Peintres de la Dam' jolie,
De vos pinceaux arretez la folie!
Il faut descendr' des escabeaux,
Vous nettoyer et vous faire tres beaux!
Digue, dingue, donne!
Digue, dingue, di....
Sur les grils et dans les cass'roles
Sautent le veau, et les oeufs et les soles.
Le bon vin rouge et l'Saint-Marceaux
Feront gaiment galoper nos pinceaux!
Digue, dingue, donne!
Digue, dingue, di....
Voici vos peintres, Dam' jolie
Qui vont pour vous debiter leur folie.
Ils ont tous lache l'escabeau
Sont frais, sont fiers, sont propres et tres beaux!
Digue, dingue, donne
Digue, dingue, di....
When the song was finished I went into my bedroom and made myself into a
_belle dame_ for lunch.
My aunt had followed me. "But, my dear," said she, "you are mad to think
I am going to eat with all these workmen. Certainly in all Paris there
is no one but yourself who would do such a thing."
"No, no, Aunt; it is all right."
And I dragged her off, when I was dressed, to the dining-room, which was
the most habitable room of the house. Five young men solemnly bowed to
my aunt, who did not recognise them at first, for they had changed their
working clothes and looked like five nice young society swells. Madame
Guerard lunched with us. Suddenly in the middle of lunch my aunt cried
out, "But these are the workmen!" The five young men rose and bowed low.
Then my poor aunt understood her mistake and excused herself in every
possible manner, so confused was she.
ALEXANDRE DUMAS--L'ETRANGERE--MY SCULPTURE AT THE SALON
One day Alexandre Dumas, junior, was announced. He came to bring me the
good news that he had finished his play for the Comedie Francaise,
_L'Etrangere_, and that my _role_, the Duchesse de Septmonts, had come
out very well. "You can," he said to me, "make a fine success out of
it." I expressed my gratitude to him.
A month after this visit we were requested to attend the reading of this
piece at the Comedie.
The reading was a great success, and I was delighted with my _role_,
Catherine de Septmonts. I also liked the _role_ of Croizette, Mrs.
Got gave us each copies of our parts, and thinking that he had made a
mistake, I passed on to Croizette the _role_ of l'Etrangere which he had
just given me, saying to her, "Here, Got has made a mistake--here is
"But he is not making any mistake. It is I who am to play the Duchesse
I burst out into irrepressible laughter, which surprised everybody
present, and when Perrin, annoyed, asked me at whom I was laughing like
that, I exclaimed:
"At all of you--you, Dumas, Got, Croizette, and all of you who are in
the plot, and who are all a little afraid of the result of your
cowardice. Well, you need not alarm yourselves. I was delighted to play
the Duchesse de Septmonts, but I shall be ten times more delighted to
play l'Etrangere. And this time, my dear Sophie, I'll be quits with you;
no ceremony, I tell you; for you have played me a little trick which was
quite unworthy of our friendship!"
The rehearsals were strained on all sides. Perrin, who was a warm
partisan of Croizette, bewailed the want of suppleness of her talent, so
much so that one day Croizette, losing all patience, burst out:
"Well, Monsieur, you should have left the _role_ to Sarah; she would
have played it with the voice you wish in the love scenes; I cannot do
any better. You irritate me too much: I have had enough of it!" And she
ran off, sobbing, into the little _guignol_, where she had an attack of
I followed her and consoled her as well as I could. And in the midst of
her tears she kissed me, murmuring, "It is true. It is they who
instigated me to play this nasty trick, and now they are annoying me."
Croizette used vulgar expressions, very vulgar ones, and at times
uttered many a Gallic joke.
That day we made up our quarrel entirely.
A week before the first performance I received an anonymous letter
informing me that Perrin was trying his very best to get Dumas to change
the name of the play. He wished--it goes without saying--to have the
piece called _La Duchesse de Septmonts_.
I rushed off to the theatre to find Perrin at once.
At the entrance door I met Coquelin, who was playing the part of the Duc
de Septmonts, which he did marvellously well. I showed him the letter.
He shrugged his shoulders. "It is infamous! But why do you take any
notice of an anonymous letter? It is not worthy of you!"
We were talking at the foot of the staircase when the manager arrived.
"Here, show the letter to Perrin!" And he took it from my hands in order
to show it to him. Perrin blushed slightly.
"I know this writing," he said. "Some one from the theatre has written
I snatched it back from him. "Then it is some one who is well informed,
and what he says is perhaps true. Is it not so? Tell me. I have the
right to know."
"I detest anonymous letters." And he went up the stairs, bowing
slightly, but without saying anything further.
"Ah, if it is true," said Coquelin, "it is too much. Would you like me
to go and see Dumas, and I will get to know at once?"
"No, thank you. But you have put an idea into my head. I'll go there."
And shaking hands with him, I went off to see the younger Dumas. He was
just going out.
"Well, well? What is the matter? Your eyes are blazing!"
I went with him into the drawing-room and asked my question at once. He
had kept his hat on, and took it off to recover his self-possession. And
before he could speak a word I got furiously angry; I fell into one of
those rages which I sometimes have, and which are more like attacks of
madness. And in fact, all that I felt of bitterness towards this man,
towards Perrin, towards all this theatrical world that should have loved
me and upheld me, but which betrayed me on every occasion--all the hot
anger that I had been accumulating during the rehearsals, the cries of
revolt against the perpetual injustice of these two men, Perrin and
Dumas--I burst out with everything in an avalanche of stinging words
which were both furious and sincere. I reminded him of his promise made
in former days; of his visit to my hotel in the Avenue de Villiers; of
the cowardly and underhand manner in which he had sacrificed me, at
Perrin's request and on the wishes of the friends of Sophie. I spoke
vehemently, without allowing him to edge in a single word. And when,
worn out, I was forced to stop, I murmured, out of breath with fatigue,
"What--what--what have you to say for yourself?"
"My dear child," he replied, much touched, "if I had examined my own
conscience I should have said to myself all that you have just said to
me so eloquently! But I can truly say, in order to excuse myself a
little, that I really believed that you did not care at all about the
stage; that you much preferred your sculpture, your painting, and your
court. We have seldom talked together, and people led me to believe all
that I was perhaps too ready to believe. Your grief and anger have
touched me deeply. I give you my word that the play shall keep its title
of _L'Etrangere_. And now embrace me with good grace, to show that you
are no longer angry with me."
I embraced him, and from that day we were good friends.
That evening I told the whole tale to Croizette, and I saw that she knew
nothing about this wicked scheme. I was very pleased to know that. The
play was very successful. Coquelin, Febvre, and I carried off the
laurels of the day.
I had just commenced in my studio in the Avenue de Clichy a large group,
the inspiration for which I had gathered from the sad history of an old
woman whom I often saw at nightfall in the Baie des Trepasses.
One day I went up to her, wishing to speak to her, but I was so
terrified by her aspect of madness that I rushed off at once, and the
guardian told me her history.
She was the mother of five sons, all sailors. Two had been killed by the
Germans in 1870, and three had been drowned. She had brought up the
little son of her youngest boy, always keeping him far from the sea and
teaching him to hate the water. She had never left the little lad, but
he became so sad that he was really ill, and he said he was dying
because he wanted to see the sea. "Well, make haste and get well," said
the grandmother tenderly, "and we will go to see it together."
Two days later the child was better, and the grandmother left the valley
in the company of her little grandson to go and see the ocean, the grave
of her three sons.
It was a November day; a low sky hung over the ocean, narrowing the
horizon. The child jumped with joy. He ran, gambolled, and sang for
happiness when he saw all this living water.
The grandmother sat on the sand, and hid her tearful eyes in her two
trembling hands; then suddenly, struck by the silence, she looked up in
terror. There in front of her she saw a boat drifting, and in the boat
her boy, her little lad of eight years old, who was laughing right
merrily, paddling as well as he could with one oar that he could hardly
hold, and crying out, "I am going to see what there is behind the mist,
and I will come back."
He never came back. And the following day they found the poor old woman
talking low to the waves which came and bathed her feet. She came every
day to the water's edge, throwing in the bread which kind folks gave
her, and saying to the waves, "You must carry that to the little lad."
This touching narrative had remained in my memory. I can still see the
tall old woman, with her brown cape and hood.
I worked feverishly at this group. It seemed to me now that I was
destined to be a sculptor, and I began to despise the stage, I only went
to the theatre when I was compelled by my duties, and I left as soon as
I had made several designs, none of which pleased me. Just when I was
going to throw down the last one in discouragement, the painter Georges
Clairin, who came in just at that moment to see me, begged me not to do
so. And my good friend Mathieu Meusnier, who was a man of talent, also
added his voice against the destruction of my design.
Excited by their encouragement, I decided to hurry on with the work and
to make a large group. I asked Meusnier if he knew any tall, bony old
woman, and he sent me two, neither of whom suited me. Then I asked all
my painter and sculptor friends, and during eight days all sorts of old
and infirm women came for my inspection. I fixed at last on a charwoman
who was about sixty years old. She was very tall, and had very sharp-cut
features. When she came in I felt a slight sentiment of fear. The idea
of remaining alone with this female _gendarme_ for hours together made
me feel uneasy. But when I heard her speak I was more comfortable. Her
timid, gentle voice and frightened gestures, like a shy young girl,
contrasted strangely with the build of the poor woman. When I showed her
the design she was stupefied. "Do you want me to have my neck and
shoulders bare? I really cannot." I told her that nobody ever came in
when I worked, and I asked to see her neck immediately.
Oh, that neck! I clapped my hands with joy when I saw it. It was long,
emaciated, terrible. The bones literally stood out almost bare of flesh;
the sterno-cleido-mastoid was remarkable--it was just what I wanted. I
went up to her and gently bared her shoulder. What a treasure I had
found! The shoulder bone was visible under the skin, and she had two
immense "salt-cellars"! The woman was ideal for my work. She seemed
destined for it. She blushed when I told her so. I asked to see her
feet. She took off her thick boots and showed a dirty foot which had no
character. "No," I said, "thank you. Your feet are too small; I will
take only your head and shoulders."
After having fixed the price I engaged her for three months. At the idea
of earning so much money for three months the poor woman began to cry,
and I felt so sorry for her that I told her she would not have to seek
for work that winter, because she had already told me that she generally
spent six months of the year in the country, in Sologne, near her
Having found the grandmother, I now needed the child.
I passed a review of a whole army of professional Italian models. There
were some lovely children, real little Jupins. The mothers undressed
their children in a second, and the children posed quite naturally and
took attitudes which showed off their muscles and the development of the
torso. I chose a fine little boy of seven years old, but who looked more
like nine. I had already had in the workmen, who had followed out my
design and put up the scaffolding necessary to make my work sufficiently
stable and to support the weight. Enormous iron supports were fixed into
the plaster by bolts and pillars of wood and iron wherever necessary.
The skeleton of a large piece of sculpture looks like a giant trap put
up to catch rats and mice by the thousand.
I gave myself up to this enormous work with the courage of ignorance.
Nothing discouraged me.
Often I worked on till midnight, sometimes till four o'clock in the
morning. And as one humble gas-burner was totally insufficient to work
by, I had a crown or rather a silver circlet made, each bud of which was
a candlestick, and each had its candle burning, and those of the back
row were a little higher than those of the front. And with this help I
was able to work almost without ceasing. I had no watch or clock in the
room, as I wished to ignore time altogether, except on the days I had to
perform at the theatre. Then my maid would come and call for me. How
many times have I gone without lunch or dinner. Then I would perhaps
faint, and so be compelled to send for something to eat to restore my
I had almost finished my group, but I had done neither the feet nor the
hands of the grandmother. She was holding her little dead grandson on
her knees, but her arms had no hands and her legs had no feet. I looked
in vain for the hands and feet of my ideal, large and bony. One day,
when my friend Martel came to see me at my studio and to look at this
group, which was much talked of, I had an inspiration. Martel was big,
and thin enough to make Death jealous. I watched him walking round my
work. He was looking at it as a _connoisseur_. But I was looking at
_him_. Suddenly I said:
"My dear Martel, I beg you--I beseech you--to pose for the hands and
feet of my grandmother!"
He burst out laughing, and with perfectly good grace he took off his
shoes and took the place of my model.
He came ten days in succession, and gave me three hours each day.
Thanks to him, I was able to finish my group. I had it moulded and sent
to the Salon (1876), where it met with genuine success.
Is there any need to say that I was accused of having got some one else
to make this group for me? I sent a summons to one critic. He was no
other than Jules Claretie, who had declared that this work, which was
very interesting, could not have been done by me. Jules Claretie
apologised very politely, and that was the end of it.
The Jury, after a full investigation, awarded me an "honourable
mention," and I was wild with joy.
I was very much criticised, but also very much praised. Nearly all the
criticisms referred to the neck of my old Breton woman, that neck on
which I had worked with such eagerness.
The following is from an article by Rene Delorme:
"The work of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt deserves to be studied in detail. The
head of the grandmother, well worked out as to the profound wrinkles it
bears, expresses that intense sorrow in which everything else counts as
"The only reproach I have to make against this artist is that she has
brought too much into prominence the muscles of the neck of the old
grandmother. This shows a lack of experience. She is pleased with
herself for having studied anatomy so well, and is not sorry for the
opportunity of showing it. It is," &c. &c.
Certainly this gentleman was right. I had studied anatomy eagerly and in
a very amusing manner. I had had lessons from Doctor Parrot, who was so
good to me. I had continually with me a book of anatomical designs, and
when I was at home I stood before the glass and said suddenly to myself,
putting my finger on some part of my body, "Now then, what is that?" I
had to answer immediately, without hesitation, and when I hesitated I
compelled myself to learn by heart the muscles of the head or the arm,
and did not sleep till this was done.
A month after the exhibition there was a reading of Parodi's play, _Rome
Vaincue_, at the Comedie Francaise. I refused the _role_ of the young
vestal Opimia, which had been allotted to me, and energetically demanded
that of Posthumia, an old, blind Roman woman with a superb and noble
No doubt there was some connection in my mind between my old Breton
weeping over her grandson and the august patrician claiming forgiveness
for her grand-daughter.
Perrin was at first astounded. Afterwards he acceded to my request. But
his order-loving mind and his taste for symmetry made him anxious about
Mounet-Sully, who was also playing in the piece. He was accustomed to
seeing Mounet-Sully and me playing the two heroes, the two lovers, the
two victims. How was he to arrange matters so that we should still be
the two--something or other? _Eureka!_ There was in the play an old
idiot named Vestaepor, who was quite unnecessary for the action of the
piece, but had been brought in to satisfy Perrin. "Eureka!" cried the
director of the Comedie; "Mounet-Sully shall play Vestaepor!"
Equilibrium was restored. The god of the _bourgeois_ was content.
The piece, which was really quite mediocre, obtained a great success at
the first performance (September 27, 1876), and personally I was very
successful in the fourth act. The public was decidedly in my favour, in
spite of everything and everybody.
"HERNANI"--A TRIP IN A BALLOON
The performances of _Hernani_ made me a still greater favourite with the
I had already rehearsed with Victor Hugo, and it was a real pleasure to
me to see the great poet almost each day. I had never discontinued my
visits, but I was never able to have any conversation with him in his
own house. There were always men in red ties gesticulating, or women in
tears reciting. He was very good; he used to listen with half-closed
eyes, and I thought he was asleep. Then, roused by the silence, he would
say a consoling word, for Victor Hugo could not promise without keeping
his word. He was not like me: I promise everything with the firm
intention of keeping my promises, and two hours after I have forgotten
all about them. If any one reminds me of what I have promised, I tear my
hair, and to make up for my forgetfulness I say anything, I buy
presents--in fact, I complicate my life with useless worries. It has
always been thus, and always will be so.
As was I grumbling one day to Victor Hugo that I never could have a
chance of talking with him, he invited me to lunch, saying that after
lunch we could talk together alone. I was delighted with this lunch, to
which Paul Meurice, the poet Leon Cladel, the Communard Dupuis, a
Russian lady whose name I do not remember and Gustave Dore were also
invited. In front of Victor Hugo sat Madame Drouet, the friend of his
But what a horrible lunch we had! It was really bad and badly served. My
feet were frozen by the draughts from the three doors, which fitted
badly, and one could positively hear the wind blowing under the table.
Near me was Mr. X., a German socialist, who is to-day a very successful
man. This man had such dirty hands and ate in such a way that he made me
feel sick. I met him afterwards at Berlin. He is now quite clean and
proper, and, I believe, an imperialist. But the uncomfortable feeling
this uncongenial neighbour inspired in me, the cold draughts blowing on
my feet, mortal boredom--all this reduced me to a state of positive
suffering, and I lost consciousness.
When I recovered I found myself on a couch, my hand in that of Madame
Drouet, and in front of me, sketching me, Gustave Dore.
"Oh, don't move," he exclaimed; "you are so pretty like that!" These
words, though they were so inappropriate, pleased me nevertheless, and I
complied with the wish of the great artist, who was one of my friends.
I left the house of Victor Hugo without saying good-bye to him, a trifle
ashamed of myself.
The next day he came to see me. I told him some tale to account for my
illness, and I saw no more of him except at the rehearsals of _Hernani_.
The first performance of _Hernani_ took place on November 21, 1877. It
was a triumph alike for the author and the actors. _Hernani_ had already
been played ten years earlier, but Delaunay, who then took the part of
Hernani, was the exact contrary of what this part should have been. He
was neither epic, romantic, nor poetic. He had not the style of those
grand epic poems. He was charming, graceful, and wore a perpetual smile;
of middle height, with studied movements, he was ideal in Musset,
perfect in Emile Augier, charming in Moliere, but execrable in Victor
Bressant, who took the part of Charles Quint, was shockingly bad. His
amiable and flabby style and his weak and wandering eyes effectively
prevented all grandeur. His two enormous feet, generally half hidden
under his trousers, assumed immense proportions. I could see nothing
else. They were very large, flat, and slightly turned in at the toes.
They were a nightmare! But think of their possessor repeating the
admirable couplet of Charles Quint to the shade of Charlemagne! It was
absurd! The public coughed, wriggled, and showed that they found the
whole thing painful and ridiculous.
In our performance it was Mounet-Sully, in all the splendour of his
talent, who played Hernani. And it was Worms, that admirable artiste,
who played Charles Quint--and how well he took the part! How he rolled
out the lines! What a splendid diction he had! This performance of
November 21, 1877, was a triumph. I came in for a good share in the
general success. I played Dona Sol. Victor Hugo sent me the following
"Madame,--You have been great and charming; you have moved me--me, the
old combatant--and at one moment, while the public whom you had
enchanted cheered you, I wept. This tear which you caused me to shed is
yours, and I place myself at your feet.
With this letter came a small box containing a fine chain bracelet, from
which hung one diamond drop. I lost this bracelet at the house of the
rich nabob, Alfred Sassoon. He wanted to give me another, but I refused.
He could not give me back the tear of Victor Hugo.
My success at the Comedie was assured, and the public treated me as a
spoiled child. My comrades were a little jealous of me.
Perrin made trouble for me at every turn. He had a sort of friendship
for me, but he would not believe that I could get on without him, and as
he always refused to do as I wanted, I did not go to him for anything. I
used to send a letter to the Ministry, and I always won my cause.
As I had a continual thirst for what was new, I now tried my hand at
painting. I knew how to draw a little, and had a well-developed sense of
colour. I first did two or three small pictures, then I undertook the
portrait of my dear Guerard.
Alfred Stevens thought it was vigorously done, and Georges Clairin
encouraged me to continue with painting. Then I launched out
courageously, boldly. I began a picture which was nearly two metres in
size, _The Young Girl and Death_.
Then came a cry of indignation against me.
Why did I want to do anything else but act, since that was my career?
Why did I always want to be before the public?
Perrin came to see me one day when I was very ill. He began to preach.
"You are killing yourself, my dear child," he said. "Why do you go in
for sculpture, painting, &c? Is it to prove that you can do it?"
"Oh, no, no," I answered; "it is merely to create a necessity for
"I don't understand," said Perrin, listening very attentively.
"This is how it is. I have a wild desire to travel, to see something
else, to breathe another air, and to see skies that are higher than ours
and trees that are bigger--something different, in short. I have
therefore had to create for myself some tasks which will hold me to my
chains. If I did not do this, I feel that my desire to see other things
in the world would win the day, and I should do something foolish."
This conversation was destined to go against me some years later, when
the Comedie brought a law-suit against me.
The Exhibition of 1878 put the finishing stroke to the state of
exasperation that Perrin and some of the artistes of the theatre had
conceived against me. They blamed me for everything--for my painting, my
sculpture, and my health. I had a terrible scene with Perrin, and it was
the last one, for from that time forth we did not speak to each other
again; a formal bow was the most that we exchanged afterwards.
The climax was reached over my balloon ascension. I adored and I still
adore balloons. Every day I went up in M. Giffard's captive balloon.
This persistency had struck the _savant_, and he asked a mutual friend
to introduce him.
"Oh, Monsieur Giffard," I said, "how I should like to go up in a balloon
that is not captive!"
"Well, Mademoiselle, you shall do so if you like," he replied very
"When?" I asked.
"Any day you like."
I should have liked to start immediately, but, as he pointed out, he
would have to fit the balloon up, and it was a great responsibility for
him to undertake. We therefore fixed upon the following Tuesday, just a
week from then. I asked M. Giffard to say nothing about it, for if the
newspapers should get hold of this piece of news my terrified family
would not allow me to go. M. Tissandier, who a little time after was
doomed, poor fellow, to be killed in a balloon accident, promised to
accompany me. Something happened, however, to prevent his going with me,
and it was young Godard who the following week accompanied me in the
"Dona Sol," a beautiful orange-coloured balloon specially prepared for
my expedition. Prince Jerome Napoleon (Plon-Plon), who was with me when
Giffard was introduced, insisted on going with us. But he was heavy and
rather clumsy, and I did not care much about his conversation, in spite
of his marvellous wit, for he was spiteful, and rather delighted when he
could get a chance to attack the Emperor Napoleon III., whom I liked
We started alone, Georges Clairin, Godard, and I. The rumour of our
journey had spread, but too late for the Press to get hold of the news.
I had been up in the air about five minutes when one of my friends,
Comte de M----, met Perrin on the Saints-Peres Bridge.
"I say," he began, "look up in the sky. There is your star shooting
Perrin gazed up, and, pointing to the balloon which was rising, he
asked, "Who is in that?"
"Sarah Bernhardt," replied my friend. Perrin, it appears, turned purple,
and, clenching his teeth, he murmured, "That's another of her freaks,
but she will pay for this."
He hurried away without even saying good-bye to my young friend, who
stood there stupefied at this unreasonable burst of anger.
And if he had suspected my infinite joy at thus travelling through the
air, Perrin would have suffered still more.
Ah! our departure! It was half-past five. I shook hands with a few
friends. My family, whom I had kept in the most profound ignorance, was
not there. I felt my heart tighten somewhat when, after the words "Let
her go!" I found myself in about a second some fifty yards above the
earth. I still heard a few cries: "Wait! Come back! Don't let her be
killed!" And then nothing more. Nothing. There was the sky above and the
earth beneath. Then suddenly I was in the clouds. I had left a misty
Paris. I now breathed under a blue sky and saw a radiant sun. Around us
were opaque mountains of clouds with irradiated edges. Our balloon
plunged into a milky vapour quite warm from the sun. It was splendid! It
was stupefying. Not a sound, not a breath! But the balloon was scarcely
moving at all. It was only towards six o'clock that the currents of air
caught us, and we took our flight towards the east. We were at an
altitude of about 1700 metres. The spectacle became fairylike. Large
fleecy clouds were spread below us like a carpet. Large orange curtains
fringed with violet came down from the sun to lose themselves in our
At twenty minutes to seven we were about 2500 metres above the earth,
and cold and hunger commenced to make themselves felt.
The dinner was copious--we had _foie gras_, fresh bread, and oranges.
The cork of our champagne bottle flew up into the clouds with a pretty,
soft noise. We raised our glasses in honour of M. Giffard.
We had talked a great deal. Night began to put on her heavy dark mantle.
It became very cold. We were then at 2600 metres, and I had a singing in
my ears. My nose began to bleed. I felt very uncomfortable, and began to
get drowsy without being able to prevent it. Georges Clairin got
anxious, and young Godard cried out loudly, to wake me up, no doubt:
"Come, come! We shall have to go down. Let us throw out the guide-rope!"
This cry woke me up. I wanted to know what a guide-rope was. I got up
feeling rather stupefied, and in order to rouse me Godard put the
guide-rope into my hands. It was a strong rope of about 120 metres long,
to which were attached at certain distances little iron hooks. Clairin
and I let out the rope, laughing, while Godard, bending over the side of
the car, was looking through a field-glass.
"Stop!" he cried suddenly. "There are a lot of trees!"
We were over the wood of Ferrieres. But just in front of us there was a
little open ground suitable for our descent.
"There is no doubt about it," cried Godard; "if we miss this plain we
shall come down in the dead of night in the wood of Ferrieres, and that
will be very dangerous!" Then, turning to me, "Will you," he said, "open
I immediately did so, and the gas came out of its prison whistling a
mocking air. The valve was shut by order of the aeronaut, and we
descended rapidly. Suddenly the stillness of the night was broken by the
sound of a horn. I trembled. It was Louis Godard, who had pulled out of
his pocket, which was a veritable storehouse, a sort of horn on which he
blew with violence. A loud whistle answered our call, and 500 metres
below us we saw a man who was shouting his hardest to make us hear. As
we were very close to a little station, we easily guessed that this man
was the station-master.
"Where are we?" cried Louis Godard through his horn.
"At--in--in--ille!" answered the station-master. It was impossible to
"Where are we?" thundered Georges Clairin in his most formidable tones.
"At--in--in--ille!" shouted the station-master, with his hand curved
round his mouth.
"Where are we?" cried I in my most crystalline accents.
"At--in--in--ille!" answered the station-master and his porters.
It was impossible to get to know anything. We had to lower the balloon.
At first we descended rather too quickly, and the wind blew us towards
the wood. We had to go up again. But ten minutes later we opened the
valve again and made a fresh descent. The balloon was then to the right
of the station, and far from the amiable station-master.
"Throw out the anchor!" cried young Godard in a commanding tone. And
assisted by Georges Clairin, he threw out into space another rope, to
the end of which was fastened a formidable anchor. The rope was 80
Down below us a crowd of children of all ages had been running ever
since we stopped above the station. When we got to about 300 metres from
earth Godard called out to them, "Where are we?"
None of us knew Vachere. But we descended nevertheless.
"Hullo! you fellows down there, take hold of the rope that's dragging,"
cried the aeronaut, "and mind you don't pull too hard!" Five vigorous
men seized hold of the rope. We were 130 metres from the ground, and the
sight was becoming interesting. Darkness began to blot out everything. I
raised my head to see the sky, but I remained with my mouth open with
astonishment. I saw only the lower end of our balloon, which was
overhanging its base, all loose and baggy. It was very ugly.
We anchored gently, without the little dragging which I had hoped would
happen, and without the little drama which I had half expected.
It began to rain in torrents as we left the balloon.
The young owner of a neighbouring chateau ran up, like the peasants, to
see what was going on. He offered me his umbrella.
"Oh, I am so thin I cannot get wet. I pass between the drops."
The saying was repeated and had a great success.
"What time is there a train?" asked Godard.
"Oh, you have plenty of time," answered an oily and heavy voice. "You
cannot leave before ten o'clock, as the station is a long way from here,
and in such weather it will take Madame two hours to walk there."
I was confounded, and looked for the young gentleman with the umbrella,
which I could have used as walking-stick, as neither Clairin nor Godard
had one. But just as I was accusing him of going away and leaving us, he
jumped lightly out of a vehicle which I had not heard drive up.
"There!" said he. "There is a carriage for you and these gentlemen, and
another for the body of the balloon."
"_Ma foi!_ You have saved us," said Clairin, clasping his hand, "for it
appears the roads are in a very bad state."
"Oh," said the young man, "it would be impossible for the feet of
Parisians to walk even half the distance."
Then he bowed and wished us a pleasant journey.
Rather more than an hour later we arrived at the station of
Emerainville. The station-master, learning who we were, received us in a
very friendly manner. He made his apologies for not having heard when we
called out an hour previously from our floating vehicle. We had a frugal
meal of bread, cheese, and cider set before us. I have always detested
cheese, and would never eat it: there is nothing poetical about it. But
I was dying with hunger.
"Taste it, taste it," said Georges Clairin.
I bit a morsel off, and found it excellent.
We got back very late, in the middle of the night, and I found my
household in an extreme state of anxiety. Our friends who had come to
hear news of us had stayed. There was quite a crowd. I was somewhat
annoyed at this, as I was half dead with fatigue.
I sent everybody away rather sharply, and went up to my room. As my maid
was helping me to undress she told me that some one had come for me from
the Comedie Francaise several times.
"Oh, mon Dieu!" I cried anxiously. "Could the piece have been changed?"
"No, I don't think so," said the maid. "But it appears that Monsieur
Perrin is furious, and that they are all in a rage with you. Here is the
note which was left for you."
I opened the letter. I was requested to call on the manager the
following day at two o'clock.
On my arrival at Perrin's at the time appointed I was received with
exaggerated politeness which had an undercurrent of severity.
Then commenced a series of recriminations about my fits of ill-temper,
my caprices, my eccentricities; and he finished his speech by saying
that I had incurred a fine of one thousand francs for travelling without
the consent of the management.
I burst out laughing. "The case of a balloon has not been foreseen," I
said; "and I vow that I will pay no fine. Outside the theatre I do as I
please, and that is no business of yours, my dear Monsieur Perrin, so
long as I do nothing to interfere with my theatrical work. And besides,
you bore me to death--I will resign. Be happy."
I left him ashamed and anxious.
The next day I sent in my written resignation to M. Perrin, and a few
hours afterwards I was sent for by M. Turquet, Minister of Fine Arts. I
refused to go, and they sent a mutual friend, who stated that M. Perrin
had gone a step farther than he had any right to; that the fine was
annulled, and that I must cancel my resignation. So I did.
But the situation was strained. My fame had become annoying for my
enemies, and a little trying, I confess, for my friends. But at that
time all this stir and noise amused me vastly. I did nothing to attract
attention. My somewhat fantastic tastes, my paleness and thinness, my
peculiar way of dressing, my scorn of fashion, my general freedom in all
respects, made me a being quite apart from all others. I did not
recognise the fact.
I did not read, I never read, the newspapers. So I did not know what was
said about me, either favourable or unfavourable. Surrounded by a court
of adorers of both sexes, I lived in a sunny dream.
All the royal personages and the notabilities who were the guests of
France during the Exhibition of 1878 came to see me. This was a constant
source of pleasure to me.
The Comedie was the first theatre to which all these illustrious
visitors went, and Croizette and I played nearly every evening. While I
was playing Amphytrion I fell seriously ill, and was sent to the south.
I remained there two months. I lived at Mentone, but I made Cap Martin
my headquarters. I had a tent put up here on the spot that the Empress
Eugenie afterwards selected for her villa. I did not want to see
anybody, and I thought that by living in a tent so far from the town I
should not be troubled with visitors. This was a mistake. One day when I
was having lunch with my little boy I heard the bells of two horses and
a carriage. The road overhung my tent, which was half hidden by the
bushes. Suddenly a voice which I knew, but could not recognise, cried in
the emphatic tone of a herald, "Does Sarah Bernhardt, Societaire of the
Comedie Francaise, reside here?"
We did not move. The question was asked again. Again the answer was
silence. But we heard the sound of breaking branches, the bushes were
pushed apart, and at two yards from the tent the unwelcome voice
We were discovered. Somewhat annoyed, I came out. I saw before me a man
with a large _tussore_ cloak on, a field-glass strapped on his
shoulders, a grey bowler hat, and a red, happy face, with a little
pointed beard. I looked at this commonplace-looking individual with
anything but favour. He lifted his hat.
"Madame Sarah Bernhardt is here?"
"What do you want with me, sir?"
"Here is my card, Madame."
I read, "Gambard, Nice, Villa des Palmiers." I looked at him with
astonishment, and he was still more astonished to see that his name did
not produce any impression on me. He had a foreign accent.
"Well, you see, Madame, I came to ask you to sell me your group, _After
I began to laugh.
"Ma foi, Monsieur, I am treating for that with the firm of Susse, and
they offer me 6000 francs. If you will give ten you may have it."
"All right," he said. "Here are 10,000 francs. Have you pen and ink?"
"Ah," said he, "allow me!" And he produced a little case in which there
were pen and ink.
I made out the receipt, and gave him an order to take the group from my
studio in Paris. He went away, and I heard the bells of the horses
ringing and then dying away in the distance. After this I was often
invited to the house of this original person.
THE COMEDIE FRANCAISE GOES TO LONDON
Shortly after, I came back to Paris. At the theatre they were preparing
for a benefit performance for Bressant, who was about to retire from the
stage. It was agreed that Mounet-Sully and I should play an act from
Othello, by Jean Aicard. The theatre was well filled, and the audience
in a good humour. After the song I was in bed as Desdemona, when
suddenly I heard the public laugh, softly at first, and then
irrepressibly. Othello had just come in, in the darkness, in his shirt
or very little more, with a lantern in his hand, and gone to a door
hidden in some drapery. The public, that impersonal unity has no
hesitation in taking part in these unseemly manifestations, but each
member of the audience, taken as a separate individual, would be ashamed
to admit that he participated in them. But the ridicule thrown on this
act by the exaggerated pantomime of the actor prevented the play being
staged again, and it was only twenty years later that _Othello_ as an
entire play was produced at the Theatre Francais. I was then no longer
After having played Berenice in _Mithridate_ successfully, I reappeared
in my _role_ of the Queen in _Ruy Blas_. The play was as successful at
the Theatre Francais as it had been at the Odeon, and the public was, if
anything, still more favourable to me. Mounet-Sully played Ruy Blas. He
was admirable in the part, and infinitely superior to Lafontaine, who
had played it at the Odeon. Frederic Febvre, very well costumed,
rendered his part in a most interesting manner, but he was not so good
as Geffroy, who was the most distinguished and the most terrifying Don
Salluste that could be imagined.
My relations with Perrin were more and more strained.
He was pleased that I was successful, for the sake of the theatre; he
was happy at the magnificent receipts of _Ruy Blas_; but he would have
much preferred that it had been another than I who received all the
applause. My independence, my horror of submission, even in appearance,
annoyed him vastly.
One day my servant came to tell me that an elderly Englishman was asking
to see me so insistently that he thought it better to come and tell me,
though I had given orders I was not to be disturbed.
"Send him away, and let me work in peace."
I was just commencing a picture which interested me very much. It
represented a little girl, on Palm Sunday, carrying branches of palm.
The little model who posed for me was a lovely Italian of eight years
old. Suddenly she said to me:
"He's quarrelling--that Englishman!"
As a matter of fact, in the ante-room there was a noise of voices rising
higher and higher. Irritated, I rushed out, my palette in my hand,
resolved to make the intruder flee. But just as I opened the door of my
studio a tall man came so close to me that I drew back, and he came into
the large room. His eyes were clear and piercing, his hair silvery
white, and his beard carefully trimmed. He made his excuses very
politely, admired my paintings, my sculpture, my "hall"--and this while
I was in complete ignorance of his name. When at the end of ten minutes
I begged him to sit down and tell me to what I owed the pleasure of his
visit, he replied in a stilted voice with a strong accent:
"I am Mr. Jarrett, the _impresario_. I can make your fortune. Will you
come to America?
"Never!" I exclaimed firmly. "Never!"
"Oh well, don't get angry. Here is my address--don't lose it." Then at
the moment he took leave he said:
"Ah! you are going to London with the Comedie Francaise. Would you like
to earn a lot of money in London?"
"By playing in drawing-rooms. I can make a small fortune for you."
"Oh, I would be pleased--that is if I go to London, for I have not yet
"Then will you sign a little contract to which we will add an additional
And I signed a contract with this man, who inspired me with confidence
at first sight--a confidence which he never betrayed.
The committee and M. Perrin had made an agreement with John
Hollingshead, director of the Gaiety Theatre in London. Nobody had been
consulted, and I thought that was a little too free and easy. So when
they told me about this agreement, I said nothing.
Perrin rather anxiously took me aside:
"What are you turning over in your mind?"
"I am turning over this: That I will not go to London in a situation
inferior to anybody. For the entire term of my contract I intend to be a
Societaire with one entire share in the profits."
This intention irritated the committee considerably. And the next day
Perrin told me that my proposal was rejected.
"Well, I shall not go to London. That is all! Nothing in my contract
compels me to go."
The committee met again, and Got cried out, "Well, let her stay away!
She is a regular nuisance!"
It was therefore decided that I should not go to London. But
Hollingshead and Mayer, his partner, did not see things in this light,
and they declared that the contract would not be binding if either
Croizette, Mounet-Sully, or I did not go.
The agents, who had bought two hundred thousand francs' worth of tickets
beforehand, also refused to regard the affair as binding on them if we
did not go. Mayer came to see me in profound despair, and told me all
"We shall have to break our contract with the Comedie if you don't
come," he said, "for the business cannot go through."
Frightened at the consequences of my bad temper, I ran to see Perrin,
and told him that after the consultation I had just had with Mayer I
understood the involuntary injury I should be causing to the Theatre
Francais and to my comrades, and I told him I was ready to go under any
The committee was holding a meeting. Perrin asked me to wait, and
shortly after he came back to me. Croizette and I had been appointed
Societaires with one entire share in the profits each, not only for
London, but for always.
Everybody had done their duty. Perrin, very much touched, took both my
hands and drew me to him.
"Oh, the good and untamable little creature!"
We embraced, and peace was again concluded between us. But it could not
last long, for five days after this reconciliation, about nine o'clock
in the evening, M. Perrin was announced at my house. I had some friends
to dinner, so I went to receive him in the hall. He held out to me a
"Read that," said he.