“The Divine Sarah” appeared in the Port City on at least three occasions. Mobile had a theater as early as 1838 and was known for its playhouses during the 19th century. As a result, many of the nation’s reigning stars made regular visits.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923) grew up in poverty with her single mother in Paris. After finding financial success as a courtesan (a well-paid prostitute), Sarah took to the stage in the 1870s.
For the rest of the century, all of Europe flocked to see Bernhardt, above, perform. Napoleon III and England’s Prince of Wales were enthralled by her. A critic reported, “She could seize the nerves of her audiences. She could touch … she could terrify.” Nothing seemed to surprise Sarah, whose famous retort was “Quand même?” or “So what?”
A Casket and Pet Alligator
As her stage presence grew, so did Sarah’s flamboyance. Her bedroom was carpeted and upholstered in black velvet. In front of a bay window sat the casket she had lined with a fortune’s worth of satin and handmade lace. Surrounded by potted palms and vases of roses, she slept and rested in the coffin, which she believed helped her fully understand her most tragic stage roles.
Nearby, a full skeleton hung before a mirror, his finger pointing at his reflec-tion. Sarah would explain that he died of a broken heart in Spain. A table held another man’s skull, which had been converted into a box to hold her love letters. She kept a pet alligator named Ali Gaga whose ultimate death was chalked up to an overdose on good champagne.
Her Mobile Debut
In 1881, the famed actress toured the U.S., but when her agent tried to book the Mobile Theater (on the southeast corner of Royal and Conti streets) he was told the dates were unavailable. In truth, there was no one appearing there on those nights. A prominent Shakespearean actor had been booked two years earlier, for the previous week, and it was feared that an appearance by a far more flamboyant star would weaken ticket sales to his performances.
Since money was to be made, the agent pursued another venue: Temperance Hall. Standing on the northeast corner of St. Joseph and St. Michael streets, this 1854 building was designed for the meetings of the Sons of Temperance – not theatrical performances. Still, the space could hold a crowd – a ticket-buying crowd.
The Conniption Fit
Apparently no one had told Bernhardt about this unusual arrangement. The space had no dressing area so a corner was curtained off for her use, much to the diva’s dismay. According to a subsequent newspaper account, when shown her accommodations, “she loudly joked about its beauty and magnitude, its damask curtains and marble bathroom.” As the audience, described as “one of the most select we have seen, ” gathered, the actress was working herself up to one of her most legendary tantrums.
The play was “Camille, ” ironically a tale about a doomed courtesan. The first scene featured a banquet, and when the leading lady took a look at the table and its massive turkey of papier-mâché, the fun began. “She giggled, she laughed, and she could not speak her lines.” Another account noted that “the papier-mâché fowl was too much for her and she grabbed it by the leg and beat the table.”
Her performance ended with her rushing off the makeshift stage and emitting earsplitting screams that could be heard a block away. The small orchestra immediately began playing as loud a number as they could muster while the abandoned actors on stage made motions for the crew to bring down the curtain.
The next morning’s newspaper described the disaster, and an anonymous reader commented: “This is not much of a city in size, but we know what’s what. You wouldn’t draw so well if you came here again, Sarah.”
The editors termed her “a spoiled child, impregnated with the deleterious Parisian incense and liable to fall to pieces at any time.” Another summed it up as: “We would judge she is a very peevish star.”
The Divine Sarah Returns
Apparently it took over a decade and assurances of use of the Mobile Theater to entice that peevish star back. In January of 1892, Bernhardt appeared here in the title role of “La Tosca, ” a French play that a London reviewer had termed “offensive in its morals, corrupt in its teaching and revolting in its brutality.” The audiences loved it.
The Mobile Register assured readers that while it would be performed entirely in French, “This will in no way detract from the pleasure of the entertainment.” The plot was printed in the paper in advance of the show. This time, things went off as planned, and a reviewer termed it “a remarkable dramatic event” in front of “a magnificent audience.”
“Camille” Puts it Across the Plate
Bernhardt’s last performance on a Mobile stage took place in March of 1911. The actress arrived in her personal railroad car along with “5 carloads of scenery, 40 players, 3 maids, a manservant, personal secretary, her chef, 65 personal trunks and a dog named Peter Pan.”
And what was the 67 year old starring in? “Camille.” Thirty years after her infamous “conniption fit” the great star was back to reprise the role of a beautiful young courtesan with a bad cough. The day after her performance the Register’s critic wrote: “She is not quite young-appearing, but she makes a near-youthful appearance and at times puts it across the plate – as baseball men would say.”
Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923 at age 79 and was buried in the casket of her choice in Paris. The Mobile Theatre was demolished for a Sears Roebuck store, and Temperance Hall was replaced by an office building.
Text by Tom McGehee