On Sarah Bernhardt: Clement Scott, feminist?

Clement Scott, policing society to save it from Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
Clement Scott, policing society to save it from Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
Sarah Bernhardt, being awesome. On a poster.

Clement Scott was a bit rubbish. Think of your least favourite, self-satisfied male theatre critic and then walk half a mile to the right. Scott’s there. He’s the one who thought that Ibsen would destroy society, and conspired with George Alexander to make Oscar Wilde change the original, too-radical plot of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

On the other hand (as Gail Marshall has just pointed out to me, via Shakespeare and Victorian Women 2009 although what an Oxford Brookes don is doing publishing with CUP, hem hem), he managed to write an entire chapter on Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet without getting worked up about the fact she was a woman.

Used the female pronoun throughout? Check. Thought her performance was completely fantastic? Check. Used the phrase ‘the actor or actress Hamlet’ without hyperventilating, snideness or mouth-frothing? Oh, Clement Scott, all is so very nearly redeemed.

Best of all, when he says that Bernhardt’s ‘task was heroic in its significance and importance’, he doesn’t just mean ‘well done, that woman, for being Hamlet without mucking it up, have a hairbow’, he’s talking about what she’s done for her career and for Hamlet in general: she’s done what Scott felt needed to be done for Hamlet (and, of course, for theatre in general) by offering not only ‘new readings, new ideas, change for the sake of change’ but also ‘genius and the gift of inspiration’.

‘These things,’ Scott concludes, ‘belong to Sarah Bernhardt’. And thus Hamlet does too.