Sarah Bernhardt was known for her eccentricities. She slept in a coffin, she kept a pet lion and attracted lovers everywhere she went.
Bernhardt made five visits to Kansas City between 1887 and 1918, during nine American tours. Her 1906 performance at Convention Hall reportedly broke a world record, selling more than 6,000 seats for the world’s largest indoor audience of “legitimate theater.”
“There's no question she was doing the kinds of things that a lot of women didn't do,” says Felicia Hardison Londré, a curators’ distinguished professor of theater at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Londré is the dramaturg for “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a backstage comedy about gender politics running through the end of this month at the Unicorn Theatre. Among Londré’s multiple books on Kansas City theater history is “The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theatre, 1870-1930,” which recounts Bernhardt’s performances in local theaters, including the now defunct Gillis Opera House and Orpheum Theater.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the revered French actress took on what might have been the most audacious performance of her life when she decided to play the titular role in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Such is the subject of “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” The show premiered on Broadway in 2018 with Janet McTeer in the leading role (she received a Tony nomination for the part). In the play, Bernhardt is a diva who has earned her status. She is the most accomplished actress of her generation and one of the most famous people in the world. Still, her entourage isn’t sure Hamlet is the best role for her to take on. It’s 1899, after all. Audiences aren’t used to women wearing pants, let alone challenging centuries of theater history.
It’s a production that makes audiences ask the question: How much progress have we really made?
“The story is very much about an artist, you know, who was ahead of her time,” says playwright Theresa Rebeck. “And you could say, 'Well, she was a big feminist.' But, you know, that's not generally how they're perceived.”
Based in Brooklyn, Rebeck is one of the most prolific theater and television writers working today. Her 2003 work “Omnium Gatherum,” cowritten with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Her husband, Jess Lynn, grew up in Prairie Village.)
The “feminist” label, she notes, came long after Bernhardt's time.
“What was more exciting to me about writing about Sarah,” Rebeck says, “was how inspiring she was in terms of these obstacles that were there in the culture for her. And she found such a sort of spectacular and cunning way to put them aside.”
Bernhardt decries those obstacles in a critical scene in Rebeck’s play. She’s sick of reviving her most famous roles — women who are dead when the curtain falls — like Ophelia in “Hamlet” and Marguerite in “Camille.”
“No matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me,” she laments. “It is beneath all women.”
Were Bernhardt alive today, she might still be unsatisfied by the state of the industry, says director Cynthia Levin.
“We’re still having these arguments about: If you’re strong woman and want to just do whatever you want to do, like any man would do, then something’s wrong with you,” she says.
Both Levin and Carla Noack, who stars as Bernhardt, say they see their own stories in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” They have also grown weary of ingenues, mothers and wives. Noack says the play has stiffened her resolve, as has playing Bernhardt.
“Her confidence, hopefully, has carved out, I think, something in me that wasn’t there before,” she says. “That has given me a completely different perspective on her and on myself and on women.”
But as Londré notes, while Bernhardt may have been the biggest trailblazer, that doesn’t mean she was the first.
“She always set her own agenda and did things the way she wanted them. But that didn’t happen overnight. She had a long, slow growing up to do to get to the point of being so empowered. And she was not the first empowered woman on the stage.”
Bernhardt wasn’t even the first woman to play Hamlet on the stage (though she was the first to play him on film). She was merely the first famous woman to do so.
“The fact is about Sarah, she invented celebrity,” Rebeck says. “She was the first worldwide celebrity. And that gets replicated, but it's never going to be invented again.”
There may never be another Bernhardt, but her legacy is evident in contemporary stars. Levin and Noack bring up Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, women who are forces of nature onstage but aloof otherwise.
Rebeck also makes a less-obvious comparison to a self-created celebrity who stands in their own power.
“Right now, the person who seems most like Sarah Bernhardt in that aspect, I’m afraid to tell you, is Donald Trump, who is so self-created, such a myth. And I mean, he’s like the monstrous version of it. But he’s like, making shit up about who he is what he does. She was making up a lot of stuff too, but it was more benign and joyful and celebratory.”
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs through December 29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street Kansas City, Missouri 64111; 816-531-7529.
Follow KCUR contributor Courtney Bierman on Twitter @courtbierman.