The First Actress by C W Gortner

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I was amused to read C W Gortner’s comment in the afterword about how he became interested in Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of this book, when he was being a melodramatic little boy and his grandma would say that he was “doing a Bernhardt”.  When I was being a melodramatic little girl, my grandad would say that I was “a Sarah Bernhardt”.  I used to think that it was just a quirky saying of his, but Gortner says that it was a comment made by a lot of parents and grandparents at one time.

Gortner is obviously a huge fan, and waxes lyrical about how Sarah can be credited with creating modern, natural acting, as opposed to the more overblown acting seen in earlier times.  I’m not quite sure how that fits with the idea of her as being melodramatic, but I’m not an expert in theatre so I’m not going to worry about that too much!

The book’s written in the first person, and it’s quite short: it doesn’t cover all of Sarah’s life, and omits some fairly important parts of it, notably her marriage and her strong support for Alfred Dreyfus.  But it does give you a very good sense of the person, and what a fascinating life she led.

She was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan living in Paris.  No-one’s entirely sure whom either her father was or who the father of her own illegitimate son was, but Gortner’s taken a view on both.  We see her difficult childhood and the start of her theatrical career – and how it was disrupted by her slapping a well-known but very irritating senior actress, which Gortner repeatedly refers to as “The Slap” … which kept making me think of Darrell Rivers slapping Gwendoline Mary Lacey, but never mind.

There’s quite a bit about the plays, but most of the book’s about her personal life – her family, and her friendships with a wide range of people including the Prince of Wales, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.  There’s quite a bit about her lovers, too, but not as much as you might expect.

I think Gortner was quite keen to focus on aspects of her life with which he identifies – her Jewish background, her love of animals, and the possibility that she might have had a same sex relationship – but I think he just generally finds her very interesting and very admirable.  The book doesn’t go as far as her work during the Great War, but we do see her work during the Franco-Prussian War, which is obviously something completely different to her acting career: she was certainly an unusual woman.

As I said, the book’s quite short, and there’s certainly enough material about her to have filled a much longer book, but what there is makes for very entertaining reading, and I really enjoyed it.

4 thoughts on “The First Actress by C W Gortner

  1. This sounds great! I’ve enjoyed a few of Gortner’s earlier books but haven’t read any of his more recent ones. I know almost nothing about Sarah Bernhardt, so maybe this would be a good introduction.

    Liked by 1 person

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