By Arthur Croxton.
IN 1913 SARAH BERNHARDT reached the apex of her theatrical career in this country. Her wonderful success in the previous season naturally led the London Coliseum’s Oswald Stoll to engage her once more for the autumn of the following year. And she was just as successful as in her birthday year. But, of course, we had to find some outstanding feature, some special means of providing for the Coliseum the social and booking-office success which was essential, considering the enormous fees which would be paid. The success of Bernhardt’s birthday year had not been forgotten. There was the old glamour attached to her name, and there was, if anything, an increased desire on the part of the British public to see the great actress for probably the last time, as rumours were current that her health might not permit her ever coming again to this country.
There were this time no receptions at Folkestone, there were no distinguished actors meeting her on board the steamer, but there was an extraordinary demonstration of welcome when she arrived at her old apartment at the Carlton Hotel, where once more she met an army of journalists, and where, ever ready, she had another message which was broadcast throughout the world—“For the English people—my heart.”
Before Madame Bernhardt left Paris, she had accepted a suggestion made by Lord Lonsdale, who was in charge of a special appeal for £70,000 for the Charing Cross Hospital, and the Governor of the Hospital, Mr. George Verity, that she might be responsible for a great gala performance in aid of the Hospital at the Coliseum, which Stoll was generously lending under the patronage of Their Majesties the King and Queen, who had signified their intention of being present.
BUT BEFORE THIS HAPPENED in the following October, there were “alarums and excursions.” The programme for the season arranged by Stoll included, as the first production, Act two of Rostand’s La Samaritaine. The actress further exhibited the wide range of her powers by appearing in such diverse parts as Theodora, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Marguerite Guitier. But it was about La Samaritaine that the to-do arose. The Lord Chamberlain’s department, in the person of Sir Douglas Dawson, one of the kindest official friends the British stage has ever had, thought fit to forbid Madame Bernhardt to produce the second act in its entirety. The play itself, it will be remembered, was described by the author as “Un évangile en trois tableaux.”
In the excerpt proposed, the appearance, amongst others, of the Apostles Peter and John, was regarded as irreverent, John, Peter, Andrew and James being shown at the rise of the curtain in a crowd of hawkers, fruit-sellers, and provision dealers, vainly trying to purchase food. They are Jews, we are told, and the people of Samaria will have nothing to do with the tribe they abhor. This was how the dialogue proceeded. Crowds of hawkers offering their wares: “Corn! Fruit! Honey! Milk! Rice! Salt! Fresh Rekikim!”
Peter: “Oh, this place makes me feel hungry.”
Andrew: “Let us leave this place.”
Peter: “Try again to get them to sell you some food.”
Andrew: “It is useless. They will never cease jeering at us.”
A Hawker: “Delicious cakes fried in oil.”
Andrew: “How much?”
A Young Man (addressing the hawker): “They are Jews. Get the most you can out of them.”
THE INCLUSION OF THIS scene was meant to prepare the audience for the dramatic entrance of the Woman of Samaria, Photine, the part played by Madame Bernhardt, immediately after the Apostles’ departure. We had to change all this, however, and the scene opened with the appearance of Azriel, a lover of Photine, before her house, inquiring whether she was still at Jacob’s Well; he hears a discussion of her dissolute life—the elders of the place contemplate banishing her from their community. Presently Photine is seen running towards the gate dishevelled, haggard and breathless. Then follows a scene with Azriel, who demands to know why Photine has left her pitcher behind. In reply, she revels in her religious ecstasy, and stirs the crowd to frenzied enthusiasm by her fervid eloquence. The curtain falls as the crowd, lead by “La Samaritaine,” pass enthusiastically through the gate, and, singing a Psalm, go forth to find the Saviour at Jacob’s Well.
Happily the change in no way destroyed the continuity of the story, and when the act, in deference to the Lord Chamberlain’s department, was placed at the end of the performance, instead of, as is customary, in the middle, and was preceded by an intermission of music, everyone seemed satisfied. Certainly, the position seemed farsical to those who remembered that only the week before Joseph and his Brethren produced by Sir Herbert Tree, and Bernard Shaw’s Voltairean Early Christianity had been allowed to be put on the stage. The day of Green Pastures had not arrived. The cynics smiled up their sleeves.
BUT THIS WAS ONLY the beginning of a very pretty little row. The religious papers took up the matter. Speaking of Joseph and his Brethren and La Samaritaine, the Church Times said, “One is a human story taken from the Old Testament, the other, in the Gospel narrative, is no less human, but the Sacred Humanity of our Divine Lord and the Divine Mission of the Apostles were made in the original intention to cross the stage to enhance the human interest and illustrate the human passions. There can be no question of the superb skill in the stage craft of the one and the histrionic splendour of the other.
“But what is the purpose of it all? The managements are the pastmasters of the meterology of the box office. Is it that a wave of religious feeling is sweeping over the country? Are the theatres and music halls hearing the call of the Apostles all in their own tongues? Are they seeking salvation by way of the box-office? Is it a movement towards higher ideals than those of the musical comedy marriage-markets, a revolt against the vapidity of the divorce court tangle, and wholesome disgust at the shameless exploitation of the ‘underworld’ on the stage, or the closer approximation of parsons and players of Sunday school teachers and chorus-girls, that is opening up a new market for dramatic wares? Or is it the playwrights and producers that have run dry for novelties, and passion plays, pageants, religious films, and the wonderful Miracle have revealed to them untold possibilities in the Bible as a box-office find?”
With a fine vision, the writer went on labouring the point which it was my pleasure to put forward in an address I gave at St. Martin’s Church on “The Church and the Stage,” that the Church and the Stage might join hands with mutual advantage, but not by way of Biblical or other sacred plays. It would be by playwrights, actors and audience accepting and demanding in all plays produced on the legitimate and variety stage, whether in tragedy, comedy or farce, ideals of life and perfection of art worthy of presentation to the eyes and ears of those who love justice and hate iniquity.
A Cluniac monk in his cloister may be a better patron of the theatre than a moneyed libertine by giving to the world a type of noble living. An actress who passed through the fierce light of the stage with unsinged wings advances the cause of religion as much as any sheltered nun.
THE THUNDERBOLT HOWEVER, FELL upon us when we began to advertise The Good Samaritan performance, in aid of Charing Cross Hospital, and announced that the King and Queen would be present. The contrast in breadth of mind between one writer on religious topics and another is curious. A letter was sent to the King, couched in the following terms:—
“Protestant Alliance, 43, Strand,
5th September, 1913.
“TO HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V.—
“SIRE,—In The Times of the 6th instant, it is recorded that Your Majesty, and Queen Mary have arranged to be present at the Coliseum to witness the drama of La Samaritaine by Edward Rostand, and in which it is stated Mme. Bernhardt will take the part of the Woman of Samaria. This play, it is also stated, has a direct bearing upon the Life of Christ, who, with the Apostles, takes a prominent part in the play. My Committee respectfully submit to Your Majesty that such an exhibition or play as advertised to take place under the patronage of Your Majesty and Queen Mary, in which our Lord Jesus Christ must be characterised by a theatrical display to an audience which may be gathered together for sensationalism (and who may not be followers of the Divine Master), is to be deplored, and, further, my committee appeal to Your Majesty and Queen Mary to make yourselves more fully cognisant of the nature of the said exhibition, as proposed, before allowing your honoured names to be used as patrons, to the displeasure of our Heavenly Father and the disappointment of a huge section of the Protestant people of these realms. I am, Sir, Yours obediently, (signed) HENRY FOWLER, Secretary.”
Lord Stamfordham, diplomat that he was, soon cleared the air, his reply being direct and terse:
11th September, 1913.
“DEAR SIR,—In reply to your letter of the 6th September, I do not know upon what authority the announcement in The Times of the 6th September to which you refer was made. There has never been any idea of Mme. Sarah Bernhardt appearing in the performance at the Coliseum on the 11th October, at which the King and Queen will be present, in the drama La Samaritaine. Perhaps you will be kind enough to inform your Committee accordingly. Yours faithfully, (signed) STAMFORDHAM.”
Naturally all this fuss created great curiosity on the part of the public to see Madame Bernhardt in her production, and we all greatly benefited thereby.
WHEN THE MATTER WAS brought to the notice of The Times, however, it was pointed out that the announcement of the Royal visit in that paper on September 6th contained no mention whatever of Madame Bernhardt’s appearance in La Samaritaine. In subsequent correspondence the secretary of the Protestant Alliance explained that in a notice of Madame Bernhardt’s Farewell, published at the same time, the only play mentioned was The Women of Samaria, and he referred to a statement in The Times that “The King has approved the leading features of the great ‘Good Samaritan’ performance.”
He added: “And although on that occasion it now appears that the play of the Good Samaritan is not to be given on that night, yet the connection of the matter with the previous notices as specified by my committee justify the conclusion which they drew. If, however, the committee have misread what you intended to convey they hereby express their regret, and thank you for calling their attention thereto.”
The Times, in reply to this “expression of regret, but not of apology,” observed that “The Good Samaritan” is the official title of the performance, and that the Good Samaritan was not the same person as the “Woman of Samaria.” This agitation over, attention was centred on Sarah Bernhardt’s other productions, and with the Royal performance of October 11th, a wonderful season came to an end.
THREE YEARS WENT BY before we saw Sarah Bernhardt again at the Coliseum. In fulfilment of a promise made to Stoll, she made her reappearance at that theatre on Monday, January 3rd, 1916, receiving a wonderful welcome from her admirers. Much had happened in the meantime, and those of us who were in close touch with the actress in 1913, saw that, whilst mentally she was in the full flower of health, physically she suffered. To our unfeigned regret, we afterwards learnt that she had suffered the amputation of a leg. The sympathy of the world was extended to her, and grave fears were expressed that the great actress might never reappear on the stage.
But to the heroic woman, the loss of a leg meant nothing. With wonderful courage immediately she was restored to health she started work again and played in several seasons in Paris, astonishing the critics by her vigour, her voice having lost none of its wonderful quality and freshness. So it was that when we saw her at the Coliseum she played with an artificial limb in parts which she selected herself as necessitating the least possible movement. Indeed, more than once, visitors to the theatre went away without recognising any physical defect.
Leaving the Coliseum, Madame Bernhardt had a wonderful tour through the provinces, returning to London in the following April with a week’s revival of Les Cathédrales, the clever one-act play written by her grand-daughter. It will be remembered that she returned to the Paris stage in 1920 as Athalie in Racine’s tragedy, and revisited London in 1921, when under C. B. Cochran’s management she appeared at the Prince’s Theatre in Louis Verneuil’s play Daniel. After that we saw her no more.
Her death in 1923 plunged the world in gloom. On her tomb in Père Lachaise is inscribed the simple word:
Arthur Croxton was a businessman, raconteur, and a very prominent theatrical manager.
This text has been manually transcribed exclusively for this New Series from Croxton’s collection of memoirs, Crowded Nights – and Days (1930), with very minor edits to track usage. Please note The Fortnightly Review and fortnightlyreview.co.uk in citations based on this transcription.