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The Divine Life of Sarah Bernhardt

As the opening of Bernhardt/Hamlet draws closer, we find ourselves contemplating the magnetic allure and frankly bizarre qualities of the original eccentric, Sarah Bernhardt.

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Born Henriette-Rosine Bernardt in 1844 to a Jewish prostitute in Paris, Bernhardt — who later changed her name to Sarah — is to date, the earliest born person to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Progressive to the very core and decades ahead of her time, Bernhardt refused to adhere to traditional female acting roles, opting instead to play characters in dissonance with her age and gender (like our titular play’s Hamlet) much to society’s dismay.

Bernhardt’s modern, liberal view of the world didn’t end in the workplace either, the un-wed mother held a notoriously prolific reputation for promiscuity. Throughout her life she collected an impressive array of celebrity conquests including Victor Hugo, Charles Haas, Edward Prince of Wales, and impressionist painter Louise Abbema.

She even eschewed her work responsibilities as translator to the 25-year-old nephew of Professor Louis Pasteur — Dr Adrien Loir — a scientist being shipped out to Sydney to help with the Australian rabbit plague. Instead, she took one look at him at Sydney Harbour and whisked him off to nearby Rodd Island for a week-long romance. We’ll just drop in here that Bernhardt was 47 at the time, cougar extraordinaire!

Collector of lovers, collector of animals: Bernhardt accumulated an impressive array of exotic pets throughout her lifetime, including a boa constrictor, cheetah, wolf, monkey, and baby alligator. The actress is said to have travelled with a menagerie of pets in tow — often including dogs, possums, parrots, and (of course) a native bear. We do sadly need to state that the alligator died after consuming too much milk and champagne and can only hope it wasn’t in too much pain. But really, could there be a more Bernhardt-ian way to go?

Speaking of death, it seems our so-called Divine Sarah had something of a morbid fascination, purchasing a coffin and planning her own funeral during a particularly distressing period of her life. She held on to this when she realised how comfortable it was, keeping it in her boudoir for naps and the occasional night’s rest.

However, with all the weird and wonderful qualities our free-spirited heroine possessed, veracity wasn’t one of them. All facts about Bernhardt’s life should be taken with a pinch of salt as she often embellished stories for dramatic value — particularly when it came to her own life — such that all records of her are vague and ambiguous. Just, we imagine, as Bernhardt would have wished her legacy to be.

Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet, directed by Lee Lewis will premiere at the Bille Brown Theatre from 28 May to 18 June.

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