On Seeing Madame Bernhardt's Hamlet

by Elizabeth Robins

Published in: North American Review, 171 (December 1900), 908-919.


Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates, project director, The Elizabeth Robins Web
    Note: Elizabeth Robins is most well-known for her acting of Ibsen roles on the London stage in the 1890s and for her suffrage play, Votes for Women, which was produced at the Court Theatre in London in 1907. Immediately after the stage success of the production, directed by Harley Granville Barker, Robins turned the play's action into a novel, published as The Convert later in 1907.
    In this review, Robins has vivid recall of Edwin Booth's performance as Hamlet. She toured with Booth in America in the 1880s, but her published reminiscence of Booth is confined to these comparisons and to a travel piece published in 1890, "Across America with 'Junius Brutus Booth.'" (Edwin Booth named his custom-designed Pullman car after his father.) Later, in the unpublished novel Theodora, she would fictionalize a young actress's awakening of her artistic potential, centering it around Booth's Hamlet, which had so moved the younger Elizabeth Robins.
     I delivered a paper on my analysis of Robins' review of Bernhardt as Hamlet at the Women in Theatre Conference at Hofstra University, to commemorate the 150th birthday of Sarah Bernhardt, 1994. In it, I suggest that Robins' disappointment in Bernhardt was one of many forces which prompted her to retire from the stage by 1902. In her novels and non-fiction, Robins frequently quoted or loosely quoted from Shakespeare's plays. Other details on Robins can be found in an on-line chronology, at http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/robins/erchron.htm, and in my biography, Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952: Actress, Novelist, Feminist, published by the University of Alabama Press - J. E. G.

page 908

      For a woman to play at being a man is, surely, a tremendous handicap in the attempt to produce a stage illusion. There may be room for difference of opinion about her success in simulating the passions, but there is no real difference of opinion about her successes in pretending that she is a man. However well she does it (and I do not believe it could be better done than in the instance under consideration), there is no moment in the drama when the spectator is not fully and calmly conscious that the hero is a woman masquerading, or is jarred into sharp realization of the fact by her doing something that is very like a man. It is a case where every approach to success is merely another insistence on failure. Madame Bernhardt's assumption of masculinity is so cleverly carried out that one loses sight of Hamlet in one's admiration for the tour de force of the actress. This is not to say that she gives us a man, but rather Sarah Bernhardt playing, with amazing skill, a spirited boy; doing it with an impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.

      The effect produced is only partly due to the actress's extraordinarily successful picture of a Prince in his first youth. This Hamlet's juvenility is partly an exemplification of that law by which, apparently, a woman, when she plays at being a man, may hope with some show of success to climb to the height of twenty years, and then stops short, suffering, it would seem, from arrested development. Of course, the voice is never the voice of a man; but, apart from that, watch Madame Bernhardt's quick boyish gestures, her little runs and jumps--notably that one down from the players' dais, when she laughs with all the keen enjoyment of a child, at a moment which is fraught for Hamlet with the most tragic foreboding! The execrable comic business of


page 909

cracking Rosencrantz and Gulidenstern's heads together is another instance in point; that, like the cocking up of her feet on the bench to prevent Polonius from sitting beside her, is the action of a scampish schoolboy. Indeed, the thought kept returning upon me: it was not the gentle Prince, the melancholy Dane, that we were seeing, nor any man of any sort, but an amazingly good imitation of a high spirited, somewhat malicious boy.

      Most of us can recall, or at any rate imagine, a Hamlet who is something of a thinker in his own right, rather than a precocious lad reciting scraps of borrowed philosophy. We think of Hamlet as one who, with all his unsparing wit and occasional wildness of spirit, is essentially a Prince, and by that fact a man apart. Yet, had Hamlet been born a peasant with the same cast of mind, he would have walked lonely in ploughed farrows, or, solitary still, have watched his flocks upon the hills.

      In so much as Hamlet is a Prince, we may look--if we lend ourselves to the illusion of the old time--for some grace of personal distinction, something that, in mere externals, proclaims the King's son, born to the purple and to overlordship. But, in so much as Hamlet is cut off from the common lot of men, not by his outward condition alone, but even more by his aloofness of spirit, in that fact we have the essential stuff of the tragedy.

      The most worth-while things that Hamlet says have no inevitable connection with his need to avenge his father. If it is an evidence of Hamlet's greatness that we feel him to be there independent of the plot, it is because his mental isolation is the real tragedy--not that he is foully robbed of an earthly father, but that he is spiritually fatherless.

      Now, melancholy, as Madame Bernhardt realizes, is not a popular manifestation. Her way of dealing with the difficulty is, as far as possible, to belittle and deny it. "Another way" even the great public permits, else were the tragedian's occupation gone; and that is to show that, in some specific instance, melancholy may be based on incontrovertible grounds, excused with eloquence, enforced with genius. In accordance with the wholesome popular conviction that melancholy not brilliantly justified is either dullness or mere indigestion, Madame Bernhardt, knowing her public well, gives the people a Hamlet who is sad, so to speak, with his tongue in his cheek.

      Not only is this Hamlet leagues away from the true tragedy


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of doubt, from fatal brooding on the insoluble mysteries of life, death and responsibility, but he is light-hearted, light-footed, quick to act, ready with laughter, and above all a boon companion of the self-same stuff as those about him.

      I am not sure but what almost the first thing one unconsciously demands in Hamlet is the clear and definite note of distinction. The hot discussion as to whether Hamlet was fat or thin is of little moment to any of us, in comparison with this question of his distinction of mind.

      We Americans were long ago shown a Hamlet who taught us that, however high an ideal the imagination might conjure up, it might fall short of a great actor's power to body forth a noble sympathy with noble things. That Hamlet or ours, who being dead yet speaketh, is, half unconsciously to ourselves, still the standard by which we measure the acted play. Sitting in the Adelphi Theatre, I heard again the voice of Edwin Booth soaring out beyond Madame Bernhardt's, and filling the distances she made no attempt to sound.

      I had had this experience before, of trying to overlay the great tragic picture with a Hamlet so "reduced" that the old majestic outlines underneath appeared in a wide and mocking margin all round the meagre new design. But one does not anticipate such disappointments. Some of us fortunate ones go to the play for the pleasure of the thing, and with the subconscious intention of yielding ourselves up to the combined influence of playwright and play-actor. It is when these two seem to be widely at variance that our satisfaction is marred. When I first went to see Madame Bernhardt in this part, nothing was further from my mind than to be critical either of her undertaking or of its manner of accomplishment. I had no idea that I was about to be convinced that women cannot "do" men's parts. Indeed, I do not, while I am in the theatre, care two sous about scholarly distinctions. I want emotion; I admire good technique; but I have come first and foremost that my primitive love of the play may be ministered to.

      Nevertheless, outside the theatre, it is not perhaps without interest of a kind, to realize that the most satisfying Hamlet of our day was the one farthest removed from the crude, popular original whom the poet accepted in externals, but endowed with a different soul--the soul of Shakespeare. There are two Hamlets,


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beyond a doubt, bound up in the play--the old Hamlet of the Hystorie and the new Hamlet whose father was the poet. This, I think, appears even more clearly in a little running comparison between Edwin Booth as the modern Hamlet--Hamlet with all his sensitiveness, profundity and subtilized passion emphasised--and the earlier Hamlet, crude, frankly comic, essentially "popular," of whom Madame Bernhardt gives us more than a glimpse.

      Remembering that some of the most poignant passages of the scene with Ophelia ("To a nunnery, go," for instance) used popularly to be relished as comedy, it must be confessed that it seems more than likely that the Hamlet of Edwin Booth and of Mr. Forbes Robertson was a man undreamt of by Elizabethan audiences, with their relish for cruelty, and their readiness to accept a representation of insanity as "comic relief." But, if Hamlet in action brings out strongly the pre-Shakespearean characters, it is the reflective Hamlet who is the essential Shakespeare--overlaying the popular "situations" with a poetry and wit which have salted the antique story against oblivion.

      It is this Hamlet, he of soliloquies, Poet and Prince of Questioners, whom Madame Bernhardt slights, probably much as he was slighted three centuries ago. Looking back, I feel that she struck the keynote of her performance in the first scene where Hamlet appears with the Court. There is something pert and theatrical in her mien and expression that does not allow us to take much to heart the jaunty gentleman's little airs of melancholy. Rather are we disposed to echo the king: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" In spite of his assurance, we know he is wearing "but the trappings and the suits of woe." "Beyond these voices," I kept hearing the echo of that other, saying with a conviction that seems alien to living tongue:

                                 "These, indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show."

Neither the little eloquent motion that went with the words, nor the proud, high carriage, as of one who walks apart without complaining, nor the unforgettable look out of tragic eyes--not any one of these things made people say (and feel) about Edwin Booth: "Here is one who makes good the poet's claim. Here we have not great words alone, but symbols of feeling and experience to which this actor has the key." No facile use of


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frowns and sighs and moody airs can convey the mortal heaviness that Booth put into the lines:
                                 "Oh, God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!"

      In his recapitulation of the hasty marriage, he compelled you to take sides with him, just as surely as he made you a sharer in his presentiment of doom with,

"It is not, nor it cannot come to, good,"
and in the flickering out of his sudden energy in,
"But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!"
Very marked was the contrast between the hail-fellow-well-met reception of Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo by Madame Bernhardt, and Booth's princely courtesy; dropping at Horatio's
"My lord, I came to see your father's funeral,"
into the undisguised pain and shrinking of,
"I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student."

      Madame Bernhardt took the story of the apparition with less surprise than Booth. He stood during the scene, alert, keen to his finger tips, to listen to so strange a story. Madame Bernhardt sat and crossed her legs. I remember how quick and sharp Booth's questions rang:

"Armed, say you?"--"From top to toe?"--"What, look'd he frowningly?"--"Pale or red?"--"And fixed his eyes upon you?"
all going up in a staccato crescendo, and then falling in the deep, long breath with which he said, more to himself than to them:
"I would I had been there."

      When Horatio puts in officiously, "It would have much amazed you," Booth's "Very like, very like" was almost a moody rebuff to one who would intrude upon his thought. Quickly he returned to his keen questioning, and with a brief admonishment got rid of his old comrades, not more summarily than kindly. You saw plainly what a grip the story of the apparition took upon him from the first. He was profoundly moved; no philosopher here, but the son of a dear father who had been made the victim of foul play. It was not in this first moment of amazement and emotion that he questioned, Can such things be? Madame Bernhardt, on


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the contrary, was more collected and critical here--more "modern"--than in any part of the performance. Her questioning was meditative, with pauses between. She was more like a youthful Psychical Researcher, bent on employing scientific methods of investigation.

      And yet I think her scenes with the Ghost appealed to me more than anything she did; particularly the first, where Hamlet's awe is shown to be modified, softened, by his great filial affection. It does, perhaps, take a French tongue to utter the word "father" with such an effect; but certainly, having seen a good many Hamlets, I never got so vivid an impression of the warm, personal relationship between the buried Majesty of Denmark and his son as Madame Bernhardt gave me. The instantaneous flinging off of the cap upon catching sight of the apparition was perhaps too light-heartedly done--it had almost the effect of "Hurrah!" and the cap in the air--but the instinct that prompted it atoned for the triviality of the execution.

     If, in "Angels and ministers of grace," she missed the majesty and solemnity associated with the great adjuration, it is only fair to remember that she had not Shakespeare's sounding lines to make her effect with. Still, as she stood with bared head and appealing, uplifted hands, the effect was so beautiful that it was something of a shock when, upon the speech, "I do not set my life at a pin's fee," Hamlet turned his back squarely upon the Ghost, and spoke directly to Horatio and Marcellus. Surely, at a moment so absorbing, those words, nominally to his friends, are not meant to be an interruption to the tension, but an awed continuation of it--a half-whispered thinking aloud, with fascinated eyes still held by the spectre. That Hamlet could for a moment turn his back upon it snapped the thread of feeling; showed that he did not take the apparition for a ghost who might fade into formless shadow at any moment. He advertised to us his entire confidence that, when he chose to turn round again, the spectre-king would be obligingly waiting there till he could secure his son's attention. But if the ghostliness of the scene had somehow evaporated, one was made to feel the humanity of Hamlet's exigency and the valid claim this much-loved father had upon his soul.

      Booth made a great effort by rousing himself out of his hushed and awed absorption into a sudden fierce energy at:


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"Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge--"
with a great upward flight of the voice that made you think of an eagle cleaving black cloud masses before a storm.

      I ought, perhaps, to make the apologetic explanation, by the way, that, if I set down more of Booth in detail than of Madame Bernhardt, it is because, although I saw her yesterday, and that other Hamlet years ago, the old performance is vivid still from end to end, and the new one only here and there.

      Her heavy-handed discourtesy to Polonius has been hinted at; and, although she gets the laughs she plays for, the effect of the scene as a whole is blunted by the obviousness of Madame Bernhardt's contempt of the Chamberlain. The infusion into the encounter of some natural civility heightens wonderfully the effect of Hamlet's bitter wit, as some of us remember to have seen.

      She had a very fine moment at the end of this scene, where Polonius takes his leave: "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal." The "Except my life, except my life, except my life," was so entirely beautiful that one forgot for the moment that this Hamlet could never have meant it.

      In the ensuing scene with Polonius, where the Chamberlain comes to announce the actors, Madame Bernhardt elaborates Shakespeare's laconic "Buz-buz" into a prolonged piece of comic business, affecting to follow a fly about, which ultimately she pretends to catch, herself buzzing vigorously all through Polonius's speech. The Chamberlain was made to appear in this an imbecile indeed; for, had he retained any of the shrewdness Shakespeare permits him in the earlier scenes, he would have sent straightway for doctors and strait-jackets, instead of continuing his speech under such painful difficulties.

      Then, when the players are on and Hamlet tries to recall the lines about Pyrrhus, Shakespeare is thus improved upon;

Polonius (encouragingly, when Hamlet pauses an instant)-- "C'est ca!"
Hamlet (very snubbily)--"Non, ce n'est pas ca!"
snuffing out the old man with a comic emphasis; and the obedient laughter runs round the gallery.

      But, from the point of view of mere stage effect, Booth's


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earlier, ironic forbearance with Polonius met its reward when his patience at last was spent:
Polonius--"This is too long."
Hamlet--"It shall to the barber's, with your beard."
It is noteworthy that, just after this, Shakespeare evidently means Hamlet to suffer some little prick of compunction for this public contempt: "Follow that lord," he directs, "and, look you, mock him not."

      As might be expected, it is more in the great soliloquies than in other parts of the play that one misses the very words of Shakespeare. It would be idle to expect any actor to get the delicate aroma of irony out of, "Aye, there's the rub," when what he has to say is, "Voilà l'obstacle"; just as before, when Polonius asked Hamlet, "What do you read, my lord?" instead of the briefest and most damning of all criticisms ever uttered, he must say "des mots, des mots, des mots." Those little clogging particles have prevented the point from going home.

      The absence of the poetic vehicle, however, does not account for the ignoble cunning Madame Bernhardt puts into the line, "The play's the thing." One is accustomed to thinking this should be treated rather as a desperate clutching at an appearance of action; a fobbing off of revenge by seeming still to feed it--with a lurking hope in the background that the play is the thing, not so much to catch the conscience of the King as to ease that of Hamlet, to show himself that the bloody deed he shrinks from is after all uncalled for.

      Booth's Hamlet stumbled upon the device of the play. Out of stinging self-recrimination, lashing himself with scorn, he worked himself into a state of strong excitement, in which he pitched upon the first thing that came into his agitated mind as having the appearance of forwarding his mission of vengeance.

      Madame Bernhardt speaks the line with an air of shrewd satisfaction; she enters with zest into the office of detective. So far from the test being one to decide Hamlet's justification as well as the King's complicity, this Hamlet (whom even his enemy has called "most generous, and free from all contriving") has set his heart upon entrapping the King. We see him self-possessed, foot on chair, forefinger raised in meditative self-admonition, shrewd brows knitted--more sly conspirator than storm-swept John-a-Dreams.


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      The French version retains the scene of King and Queen interrogating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where the Queen says: "Did he receive you well?" and Rosencrantz, answering for both, and forgetting that on this occasion Hamlet has cracked their heads together replies: "Most like a gentleman."

      Naturally, in the scene with Ophelia, more than in any other, the sense that Hamlet was not a man interfered with the illusion. Booth made you feel the lover in the lines, very softly spoken and with a new note of exquisite tenderness:

"The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

      If my memory serves me aright, he was seized by suspicion of Polonius or some eavesdropper spying on them just before he replies to Ophelia's offer to give back "the remembrances." In a flash, he was on his guard and had given the audience a key to his assumed hardness and bitter raillery:

                                 "No, not I;
I never gave you aught."

      He went on, talking really for the benefit of the listener behind the arras, piling up disappointment and perplexity for any one who had thought to spy upon him in a moment of unguarded tenderness.

      Booth made a magnificent piece of arraignment out of, "I am myself indifferent honest," rising on the words "very proud, revengeful, ambitious"; and, his scorn gathering momentum, he poured out in a torrent, "With more offences at my beck that I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in." A little breathless pause, and the contemptuous question: "What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?" It occurs to me to wonder if there has ever been any one who could give us the height of the heavens above the earth, as he did here, without even raising that glorious voice of his. Did any one, before or since, ever make meanness the reptile that he showed it, with his slight, dragging emphasis on "crawling"?

      I could not see that Madame Bernhardt suspected the presence of Polonius till the question, "Where's your father?" She ends the scene (after a singular effect got out of hissing at Ophelia) with, "To a nunnery, go!" thereby cutting Ophelia and


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the audience out of the beautiful, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown," etc.

      In giving much advice to the players, the French Hamlet is not so much the fastidious and enlightened Prince, putting the players on their mettle by showing them he knows good art when he sees it--Madame Bernhardt is not so much that, as a precocious young gentleman, who fancies himself as an actor, and thoroughly enjoys laying down the law to plodding "professionals."

      His relish of his own oratory could not be more plainly marked than she does it, in that little burst of laughter as she frisks the platform. But what could be further from Hamlet's real mood than this whole-hearted pleasantry at a moment full for Hamlet of such foreboding?

      Booth's assumption of self-possession, so that the King should suspect nothing before the test was applied, was felt to be the mere necessary cloak for his smouldering passion. This view seems to be indicated in the text, where Shakespeare shows Hamlet unable to await the culmination of his own elaborately laid plot, but on a wave of excitement (as he sees the king flinch) exclaiming, "The murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife!"

      Here Madame Bernhardt's Hamlet, with something a little reminiscent of an urchin swarming over an orchard wall, crawls up to the throne, till his eyes, not sombre and horror-stricken, but keen and glittering, are on a level with the King's. When he has surprised the guilty terror there, this Hamlet actually bursts out into peal on peal of laughter. His clever trick has succeeded, his Schadenfreude overflows.

      By all the gods, no! Hamlet's blackest fears have been justified. His last excuse for doubting and delaying has been wrenched out of his grasp. The scene closes not on Hamlet's victory, but rather on his defeat; and he meets it, one would think from the text, with a feverish and mocking courage.

      I remember, I never used to hear distinctly Ophelia's "The King rises," for Hamlet had risen, and, on the flood of his strong passion, the whole company, with smothered cries and frightened faces, was lifted up, swayed helplessly to and fro, and dashed against the rocks of fear. Booth's stage-management made more of the shipwreck of the King. Hamlet had evidently not been alone in his suspicions of foul play. The scene ended in a tumult, the Court scattered, the King flying, the darkness rent


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with fitful torchlight and confused cries, and as these died in the distance, Hamlet's voice was over all crying in an ecstasy of tragic bitterness:
"For some must watch, while some must sleep;
Thus runs the world away!"

      Madame Bernhardt's scene with the recorders was especially full of interesting and skillful touches. Booth used at this point-- it is a small detail--at the climax of his indignation, to snap the pipe across the knee and throw the pieces from him. Madame Bernhardt keeps hers to make excellent business with.

      Booth's Hamlet wore a miniature of his father hung round his neck. In the closet scene, the French performance shows the full length portraits of the two kings. The one of Hamlet's father is painted on gauze, and the apparition is made to appear within the frame by a sudden flood of strong light revealing, behind the painted gauze, the brilliantly illuminated figure of the actor who does the Ghost.

      After flying to see if she could intercept the apparition as it stole away "out at the portal," Madame Bernhardt got a curious and touching effect by running back to the now dull and unilluminated picture, appealing dumbly for another sign, and passing pathetic fluttering hands over the unresponsive surface, groping piteously like a child in the dark.

      Her original business with the dead Polonius, although meant to be in obedience to Shakespeare's direction, is now wisely omitted. One wished, however, that she had followed the old stage direction in dealing with the skull in the grave-yard, especially after seeing that she was as little sensitive about it as the grave-digger, and apparently as ready to see an old friend come down in the world, "knocked about the sconce with a dirty shovel." This skull, too, which had "lain in the earth three and twenty years," instead of being brown, discolored, was of a staring and indecent whiteness, as of bone boiled and bleached. It was not pleasant to see the grinning object handled so callously. Some of the dramatic effect, too, went by the board in this; for what's the use of bringing in the ironic emblem of mortality if it is treated as lightly as a lap-dog? Indeed, I feel sure that Madame Bernhardt treats her lap-dog more considerately, for it would be strange if she made gestures with it as unconcernedly as she does with the skull. If my eyes did not deceive me, she tapped the


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grinning teeth with her finger; and she certainly is far from objecting as genuinely to the odor of mortality as Shakespeare makes Hamlet when he asks if Alexander "looked o' this fashion i' the earth, and smelt so? Pah!" Here the actor is expressly directed to "put down the skull," but Madame Bernhardt could not only endure to hold it without "Pah!" she seemed to forget what it was she had in those eloquent hands of hers, as she emphasized feelingly the lines on imperious Caesar by gesticulating with the skull of a former acquaintance.

      It would be a work of supererogation at this time of day to dwell upon the magnetism, the untranslatable fascination that Madame Bernhardt exercises over her public, in whatever part she chooses to appear. But, granting the artistic handicap in this particular undertaking--namely, that Hamlet here is a woman and has not Shakespeare to speak--it is interesting to see what special aptitudes the great Frenchwoman brought to her task. Among the most notable of these is her wonderful mastery of sheer poise, that power she has of standing stock still for an indefinite length of time with perfect ease and grace, never shifting from her ground, and equally never ceasing for a moment to be dramatic. It was when she stood so, her feet firmly planted, making only occasional use of sparing, clean-cut gesture, that she came nearest, I should say, to the effect that the artist in her wanted to produce. Here, again and again, one recognized her faculty of keen observation and paid tribute to the accomplished technique that translated her knowledge into action at times so vivid and yet sober. But there will be those, even among Madame Bernhardt's warm admirers, who will feel that, in this version of Hamlet, the great tragedy has been drained of its dignity, as well as robbed of its mysterious charm. It is as if, upon some moonlit, spectral scene, the noonday sun burst suddenly, routing the shadow legions, showing alluring alleys to be only sheep paths, and infinite distances to be barred and bounded by the common things of day.

ELIZABETH ROBINS.


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