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The actress and the volcano: Sarah Bernhardt ascends Vesuvius, 1898 23 May 2008

Posted by admin in Italy, miscellaneous, Vesuvius, volcano culture.
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The famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), passionate and unpredictable, was somewhat volcanic herself. During 1898 she made a theatrical tour of Italy, performing her celebrated star turn as Margeurite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, and while staying in Naples took the opportunity to climb Vesuvius. She made her climb on foot and at night and, in a typically self-dramatizing episode, insisted on approaching the edge of the crater, getting her hair and eyebrows scorched as a result. From The Pall Mall Gazette, 28 December 1898, p. 6:





ROME, Monday. — Theatre-goers in the Eternal City have this year had the unusual pleasure of seeing three great artists: Eleanor Duse, Maria Guerrero, and now Sarah Bernhardt — the three shining stars of those three Latin nations which produced Goldini, Lope de Vega, and Moliére, who are such magnificent exponents of the master’s work. The French diva is now at the Theatre Valle, whither I wended my way after receiving an invitation which read: “Come and see me this evening at the theatre.” So between the acts of the “Dame aux Camélias” I found myself kissing her hand and admiring the big Newfoundland dog which lay at her feet, having taken the place of the tiger, bear, and serpents of other days.

“I love this Italy,” she began. “This is my fourth visit to Rome.”

“And the public?” I queried.

“Ah! That is another pair of sleeves, as the Italian proverb has it.”

“That is to say?”

“All Latin audiences are difficult to enchain. The English, je les adore and Americans behave in the theatre as though in church. They listen in religious silence, though they are quick to catch a point and generous with applause. Italians talk more, rustle their programmes, read newspapers, making success much more difficult. But then it is their volcanic nature, I suppose. Apropos of volcanos, before leaving Naples I wished to have the strange sensation of seeing Vesuvius by night. I have been in Naples many times, and always intended to see that superb fiery despot at close quarters, but always put it off. However, I could do so no longer, for soon there will be a funicular from Naples to the crater, which will render the monster accessible to all. This railway I find barbarous. Is Vesuvius to be reduced to the proportions of a theatrical representation? I find this scheme only less ridiculous than the lighting of the Catacombs by electricity. I went up the great mountain on foot with two attendants and a trusty guide.”

“And ran a great risk,” I interrupted.

“It is dangerous enough by day, but at night wellnigh impossible for a lady, but quite well worth the trouble. We left after the theatre closed, taking the shortest route. We seemed ancient Pompeians climbing to face the inexorable father with the breast and head of fire. My emotions increased as we ascended. I have climbed many mountains of snow, but never one of fire before. As we proceeded the ground beneath my feet seemed to become gradually warmer and warmer. Then there were frequent clouds of vapour and showers of ashes. The way became more difficult, our feet leaving prints in the scarcely cold lava, while the giant sighed occasionally, sending out a hot breath of flame, and the air became heavier and heavier until breathing was difficult. I went on and on without a word to my companions, feeling in my innermost being the grandeur of the earth and the littleness of man when face to face with the forces of Nature. At last the guide said we must go no further, as the lava was liquid at the mouth of the crater. I begged for a few more paces. The man gave way to my importunities, and we went on forty or fifty steps, when the others came to a standstill. I proceeded until stopped by a cry from the guide. I seemed to be in the midst of flame, hardly able to breathe, and — but look! I lost one of my curls, and do you see my eyebrows are scorched? I felt as though the day of judgement was at hand.”

From this the conversation turned to general subjects, even the Dreyfus affair. “We French have become mad, perfectly mad, and it will end badly. We shall see the army in the streets of Paris.”

“Why? What for?” I asked.

“To slash, to strike, to kill.”

At this interesting point the call for Madame to go on the stage was heard, and she hurried away with her inimitable grace, saying over her shoulder, “Come and see me at the Grand Hotel before I leave!”

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1. Beano - 24 May 2008

Sarah Bernhardt would have seen the legacy of Krakatau – even in Europe. It seems foolhardy that she undertook this journey (- at least she still had two legs at the time). A true eccentric.

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