Modernism on the World Stage


For roughly a century, Sarah Bernhardt's centrality to modernism­ has been largely ignored. Her inspiration and patronage of the twirling, tendrilic forms of Art Nouveau­ is often discussed in relation to her capacity for self-promotion and commercialization rather than as evidence of a pioneering performance style that subsequently helped drive the theatre's burgeoning intermediality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

If we consider, in particular, Bernhardt's early and active involvement in silent film (from1900 until the year of her death in 1923), then we can begin to appreciate the efforts she made to ensure that her theatre developed into a mass medium that could (and would) reach new international audiences at the opening of the twentieth century. 

In my view, this synergy between Bernhardt as a celebrity actress-manager on the stage and Bernhardt as a champion of nascent screen culture illustrates the productive and even surprising intermingling of the theatre and the visual arts in theatrical modernism. Although an established celebrity, Bernhardt, therefore, newly contributes to how and what we study in modernism. She is capable of enriching not only the materials we associate with the theatre, but the very modernism that her "brand" of fin-de-siècle theatre represents.