Television

A star is reborn: a divine Zoe as The Divine Sarah

MARTIN KNELMAN October 4 1976
Television

A star is reborn: a divine Zoe as The Divine Sarah

MARTIN KNELMAN October 4 1976

A star is reborn: a divine Zoe as The Divine Sarah

Television

“When I am with her she exasperates me,” said Alexandre Dumas the younger, of Sarah Bernhardt. “But when I get home, how I can write!” Little direct evidence of Bernhardt’s theatrical witchcraft remains, since few of her performances were recorded, and those that were show she was baffled by the camera. Yet more than half a century after her death, her legend continues to grow. That’s because, in the tradition of tempestuous women from Joan of Arc to Maria Callas, she was a great natural phenomenon who drove people into frenzies through sheer force of personality. To play such a character requires qualities beyond the craft of acting, but from the moment CBC drama chief John Hirsch conceived the project of a TV play about “the divine Sarah,” he had only one performer in mind: Zoe Caldwell.

Audiences across the country will understand why when the CBC’S prestigious drama series Front Row Centre has its seasonal premiere on Wednesday, October 6. Sweeping through a 90-minute show with flamboyant energy, Caldwell turns in the most exhilaratingly theatrical portrait of the star as sacred monster since Bette Davis played Margo Channing in the movie All About Eve.

Suzanne Grossman’s script gives only sparing glimpses of Bernhardt’s onstage triumphs, and concentrates instead, as Caldwell puts it, on what makes Sarah run. An illegitimate Jewish girl who was sent to school at a convent, Bernhardt took to the stage as an act of defiance against a mother who wanted to get her securely married off. Although she was far from beautiful and suffered from stage fright, she vowed: “Quand même, they will love me.” And they did. The play traces her life from early triumphs at the Comédie-Française through stormy boudoir episodes and a sensational American tour to the final years of notoriety and forgiveness from an adoring public.

The production overflows with loving bits of its heroine’s magnificent eccentricities. To audiences Sarah was known for her exquisite death scenes (she played Camille more than 3,000 times), and since the play suggests that Bernhardt didn’t do any more acting on stage than off, it’s fitting that we see her obsessed with death. Caldwell’s Sarah reclines regally in a coffin as if it were a throne. The colorfully bizarre sets and costumes are a help, and so is a mostly competent supporting cast. Still, except perhaps for Donald Davis as her manager, there’s really no one in this except Caldwell.

It’s an extravagant one-woman show, and she dominates everybody. Whether on the rampage shrieking “Cancel the tour!” or crooning softly to her own image in a dressing-room mirror, dressed at age 68 for the role of Elizabeth I, she manages to ring inflections you can’t quite believe you’re hearing. Zoe Caldwell’s greatest asset is her voice, but she has also concocted a fantastic walk, so that every time she enters a room you fear for the furniture.

“The thing that excited me was her survivor quality,” observed Caldwell, recalling that she wasn’t enthusiastic about the role until she went to Paris to research it. For Caldwell, a 42-year-old Australian who lives in New York state with her husband, the Canadian-born producer Robert Whitehead, this show marks a return to Canada. She did most of her work here in the mix-Sixties, playing Cleopatra at Stratford, Mother Courage in Winnipeg and appearing often on CBC Festival, before playing Miss Jean Brodie on Broadway.

“It was planned like the raid on Entebbe,” says John Hirsch. Owing to his tiny budget and limited time, Sarah had to be taped in just five days. Even when a monkey with stage fright bit Caldwell, the show went on. Hirsch has high hopes of selling it to networks in England and the United States. No wonder. Sarahmania will escalate with the release of a movie starring Glenda Jackson, but in this role it’s unlikely anyone can challenge the divine Zoe. MARTIN KNELMAN

MARTIN KNELMAN