The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
Sara as Theodora
Sara as Theodora.
You ask me for an "Esquisse" from Paris, but what you mean by an "Esquisse" I scarcely know. I will allow the pen to run. Theodora is the star of this Christmas season.
Behold me outside the great Porte Saint Martin Theatre, on the first night. The sky is dark and cloudy, with spits of rain, but they do not damp that innumerable throng. The line of vehicles looks endless. Quite a host of Gensd'armes is employed pouring oil upon the waves of populace.
But my business leads me to hurry to the stage door. I enter, together with a youth charged with bandboxes for Madame Bernhardt. A few steps bring me to the ample stage of the theatre, now dimly lighted. There is the buzz and hum of preparation all round. Carpenters, in white suits and paper caps, have still a few taps of the hammer to give to the opening set, the Palace of Justinian. Two curtains are down before the stage, the picture canvas drop curtain inside, and the red curtain outside it. The stage is a promenade of Romans, ladies and gentlemen, upon the painted cloth on the floor, representing a tesselated brown and white pavement.
I take my station with my back to the curtain, and survey the scene, which has a peculiarly dead and flat look, through the lights being down. The myriad of gas jets are only beads all along the "floats" overhead, and the lines of pipes up and down just inside the proscenium.
Beside me is the stage manager, with M. Coquelin, of the Theatre Francais. We criticise the fresh and painty work of the scenic artists, a magnificent palatial interior, built up all round the stage. The audience without keeps up a roar, like the sea. I peep through at them by the familiar hole in the side of the stage picture frame. The house is packed, and every seat has been sold at a high premium. Craving expectancy is written on every one of the three thousand faces.
The manager touches a little silver gong-bell on a table after consulting his watch. The tap of the leader of the orchestra is heard. The violins have been tuning, the trumpets giving premonitory throat music, and the kettle-drum a gentle rattle. All at once the orchestra bursts into the strains of the overture to "Semiramide." The outside red curtain rustles up over the picture drop, which is exposed to the audience with the customary applause. The lights flash up on the audience side, and the drop-curtain, from our side, looks like a seamy map.
A lady, in morning costume of the present day, comes running through the assemblage of antique Romans. It is Madame page 61 Bernhardt's maid. A hurried interchange of words between her and the manager. Then the manager rushes through the crowd with the lady.
"Clear the stage!" All not concerned go off, but those who remain are the most numerous, the Roman Tadies and gentlemen variously posed. At the wing stands Gamier, as Justinia, a noble figure. The stage lights glare up. The picture stands confessed in all such beauty as there may be on a close inspection of artistic daub. The actors and actresses, too, look rather sepulchural.
The music ceases, and the theatre is hushed as the heavy roller of the curtain ascends with its folds. M. Sardou appears from somewhere behind, and brushes me as he hurries to the front. Gamier is loudly applauded. All are on the qui-vive for Sara Bernhardt, as Theodora. I see her come slowly down the stage inside the wings, and she says something to M. Marais who plays Andreas. It was he who supported her as Macbeth in Englands and he also played Nana Sahib when she acted in Richepin's Indian piece, but Berton acted Loris Ipanoff to her "Fedora."
A fine portrait could be taken of Sara Bernhardt as she stood just within the centre arched door, ready to go on. The lithe and long fingers of her left hand trifled with the battening of the woodwork inside the scene. She was nervously biting the knuckle of the first finger of her right hand. No one dared to speak to her as she indued herself with her part She was the Empress Theodora, a right royal figure, tall and slim, clad in clinging white silk fringed with gold. Her auburn hair was worn in a tight bandeau, clasped on her head. Above this was fixed the little regal gold crown. She recalled her lines without any manuscript, and was gently whispering them over. She paused for a moment, and glanced at a bracelet on her wrist. The she stood as motionless as a statue, with her eyes downcast. The rich music of Garnier's voice was meanwhile heard from the state. The there was a pause, and Sara disappeared in a moment through the dorr.
It is impossible for me to describe the storm of acclamation which followed; the surpassing genius of the public idol was recognised, in spite of her faults, which loom the largest when you know nothing of her. To be sure, the excitement had been wrought up in the most clever manner imaginable.
I walked round to the edge of the proscenium, and studied the method of Madame Bernhardt. It was some minutes before she could lose herself and become the artiste. Though I did not see the audience, I could feel the weight of their presence like the pressure of the air all round the actress. The stillness was perfect. Sara began to develop her playing, with the stiffness of page 62 her bare arms, clenched hands, and the shrug of the beautiful shoulders, indispensable to our actresses in scenes of tension. The suppleness of Bernhardt was reserved for later scenes of fascination and insinuation, of which I have not time to write.
Her delicious voice has no parallel on the stage. It is comparable to Frontignac wine, or the richest golden amber Tokay, with inexpressible finesse. The charm of her acting is embodied in the French word "sympathique." Her face is strangely youthful in its thin oval, with an artificial complexion, which is a blending of peachbloom and the salmon hue. Her long thin eyes have an incline to the almond. In my next I may tell you further about a performance which has arrested the notice of all Paris.