The legacy of France’s Nazi occupation is manifold and enduring. In culture, nowhere is it more central and blatant than in the very name of a major public performance space in the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville, facing the famed Châtelet theatre. Operating on an annual budget of 13 million euros, of which around 11 million come from the municipal government, the Théâtre de la Ville attracts 220,000 audience members to evenings of music, dance, and theatre. Originally called “Théâtre Lyrique” and later “Théâtre des Nations,” the theatre was then renamed “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt,” after the fiery, majestic actress who starred there, beginning in 1899. Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was partly Jewish, was admired for her artistic daring, despite being castigated in French anti-Semitic books like Les Femmes d’Israël (1898) for being “neither more nor less than a Jewess and nothing but a Jewess.” When the Germans arrived in 1940, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt” was renamed the “Théâtre des Nations” and later, “Théâtre de la Ville.”
From 1945 to this day, no French politician has dared to advocate returning the theater’s name to its former dedicatee, “la divine Sarah.” The reasons for this are complex and peculiarly French, as may be gathered from the well-documented study from Yale University Press, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a multifaceted 2006 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. These are only two instances of the ever-burgeoning interest in Sarah’s captivating mystique and legend—everywhere except in her native Paris.
Born Marie Henriette Bernardt to a Jewish courtesan, Sarah was an international phenomenon during her lifetime, touring America nine times in roles from Racine’s Phèdre to Hamlet (in French). Her dauntless tours, which extended to Cairo, Tahiti, and Istanbul, were not halted after doctors amputated her leg at age 70. Sarah fearlessly performed patriotic plays at the front for World War I soldiers. Her funeral in 1923 featured a vast outpouring of public emotion, especially when her coffin passed before the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.” A few short years later, she was a non-person in France, much the way Mendelssohn was treated in Germany by the Nazis, with the exception that after World War II, the Germans re-embraced Mendelssohn, whereas Sarah is still left out in the cold.
Postwar Paris, eager to forget its recent history, was looking forward artistically, not to the surviving legacy of Bernhardt, which amounted to some stagy silent films and a few trembly-voiced recordings from her old age. It is to be hoped that this ignorant attitude will soon change. Two months ago, a future new director was named for the Théâtre de la Ville. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, a young Parisian director, will take over the reins in June 2008. A lively character and amateur race-car driver who is Portuguese on his mother’s side, Demarcy-Mota should shake things up at the Théâtre de la Ville. His first act should be to return the theater to its former name, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.”