Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt

Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Talbot, Ben Sanders as Michaud and Martin Happer as Brother Casgrain. Photo by David Cooper

"She has just arrived in our city. Nothing will ever be the same."

At intermission, I step outside the Royal George Theatre, greeted by several lush flower baskets hanging from above. The sweet sound of jazz sifts from the Epicurean courtyard across the street, and fellow patrons race and return with prized gelato from a nearby shop. A caleche saunters by, pulled easily by a powerful Percheron, a breed of draft horse with roots in France. The driver bends slightly for tourists to better hear her commentary amidst the steady clip-clop generated by the heavy hooves as they hit the Queen Street pavement. An enchanting Niagara on the Lake evening!

Inside the theatre, it's not so tranquil. I watch a brilliant new play by Québécois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard depicting the battle between celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt and the Catholic Church over her controversial performances in Québec City at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioned by the Shaw Festival, Bouchard has penned this powerful play as a fitting contemporary tribute to Bernard Shaw and the power of theatre, his themes prototypically Shavian - poverty contrasted with unbridled capitalism, freedom versus servitude, women and children manipulated by men, the significance of culture (theatre) and of course, the abuse of power by those whom power has corrupted.

Under the direction of a stern Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), two young seminarians, Michaud (Ben Sanders), an over-the-top theatre buff and Talbot (Wade Bogert-O'Brien), a tough and temperamental recruit from a poor family are charged with advising "Divine Sarah" (Fiona Reid) that she is not welcome on the voyage - by the Catholic Church.

Sanders, Bogert-O'Brien and Happer form an impressive triumvirate that is solid throughout this drama, each exacting respective talent to the utmost, a wonderful fresh opportunity seized and perfected in their demanding roles. They are amazing to watch.

At first, one does not quite know what to make of Saunders as he giddily revels in his love of theatre and writing, over-dramatically falling flat on the floor not once but twice when Sarah commissions him to write her a play within three days. But as the plot progresses, he marshals an inner strength that helps him make decisive choices that ultimately lead to both death and life.

Talbot is immediately disdainful of Saunders' love of theatre with, "Theatre's just a bunch of stories invented to make rich people cry." Bogert-O'Brien is masterful in this role - defensive, quick to anger and lust, and unequivocally tragic, revealed in his wonderfully sluggish monotone that reveals his immense pain and explains his volatile anger, an incredible speech that has the audience cringing in their seats.

Happer, in contrast to his terrifically humourous pirate role in Peter and the Starcatcher, is stoically superb, hiding his anguish, acting in control, yet forced ultimately by Sanders' courage to confront his demons. He serves as the prime example of how the church exploits and traps impoverished youth, and his sudden suicide alluded to in a Zen-like slap at the end, ensures our deep awareness of the fundamental wickedness in this undertaking.

Fiona Reid is a languid Sarah Bernhardt, appearing late in the play (much to her consternation), the centre of the storm, who rises to take charge in the fray, deciding to play Adrienne Lecovreur who "sings the praises of adulterous love" and "ridicules a man of the cloth portrayed as a plotting habitué of Parisian salons." Reid is adept at expressing the wit, flamboyance and tenacity that so characterized the Divine. Unfortunately, the church has other thoughts about divinity, and so they engage in conflict amidst capitalistic excess in the person of Mr. Willis, (Ric Reid) owner of a shoe factory that brutally enslaves children and abuses women. Reid is a true villain, stepping hard on a lady's fingers while forcing women into a half-hearted chorus on how much they love their jobs à la North Korea's Kim Jong-un, and making malicious comments about the death of employees, two children whose hair gets caught in the plant's deadly machinery.

Michael Gianfrancesco's superb set and costumes reflect a minimalist, Samuel Beckett-like atmosphere, a too-tall ladder leading to a single lonely window postured high up a wall where lowly seminarians may climb and view the town, perched there like birds on high, challenging gravity's pull. Bonnie Beecher's lighting replete with metaphoric fog enhances the dismal effect along with John Gzowski's ghostly sound.

Andrew Bunker adroitly plays Meyer, Bernhardt's resilient and opportunistic manager while Darcy Gerhart is a convincing Madeleine, her sexually robust assistant. Mary Haney is perfect as Mrs. Talbot, a feisty mother trying to protect her children amidst church and state excess. This second tier of characters is so skilled that Jackie Maxwell's direction easily flows throughout the play, and the third level is equally rich with the likes of Catherine McGregor, Jenny L Wright, Kyle Orzech, Billy Lake and Jonathan Tan rounding out a powerful cast.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was famously characterized as the greatest, most famous actress of all time, known as the "Divine Sarah" by her fans during a 56-year stage career while she toured the world, visiting Canada several times between 1880 and 1917. Using her visit to Québec as the fulcrum, the stage is cleverly set by Michel Marc Bouchard for a classic battle of wills reminiscent of Mohammed Ali, "Sportsman of the Century," versus the U.S. military.

The Shaw's program is always a delight - full of enriching material that enhances one's appreciation of this play. Here are some important notes directly from the program:

An All-Powerful Church by Paul Lefebvre
At the beginning of the 20th century - which is where the action starts in The Divine - the Catholic church occupied a predominant space in Quebec society. More than the government, more than the business world, the church organized Quebec society, determined its outlook on the world and fed its imagination.

The historical roots of this date back to after the Conquest of Quebec in 1760, when the French administrative and commercial elites took the boat back to France, and the institutions that linked the population collapsed - except for one: the Catholic church. The new British government then used the church's network to communicate to the people of Quebec, making the church a sort of representative of the government. But after the 1837 rebellion was crushed, the Catholic church became the premier institution of Lower Canada. This political defeat was beneficial because it showed the French-Canadian nation that its fate was neither political nor linked to temporal power, but rather as a people elected to spread Catholicism throughout the land of America.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the church had achieved its goals: the bishops benefitted from the defeat of the Parti patriote and from the discouragement of the elites that supported it; from the condemnation by Rome of Republican ideas born out of the French Revolution; from the poor education of Quebecers and from the absence of a class of rich and powerful businesspeople to establish its power.

The church became so powerful that it consumed more financial and human resources than the provincial government in Quebec. In 1898, the population of Quebec was more than 1.6 million people and the church had ten bishops, 1529 diocesan priests, 330 priests from religious communities, 1500 friars and 6500 nuns. By 1901, Quebec had one priest per 680 practicing Catholics, which was more than in Italy. Quebec had become the Western society where Catholicism was the most present. The people of the church managed 650 parishes and 100 missions distributed in dioceses and one Apostolic Vicariate. The church also owned and ran the entire network of health and social services: approximately 50 hospitals and asylums, many specialized institutions (orphanages, child-care centres, institutes for the blind, the deaf, the handicapped, the homeless, etc). It financed all of these establishments from property income, collections, donations and savings due to a system of thousands of religious men and women working without a real salary. It also controlled education; not only did the church run the only comprehensive education network - the government had only a handful of primary schools and a few junior high and high schools - but in 1898, it also stopped the Quebec government from creating a Ministry of Education.

In fact, Quebec was a society led by its clergy and the church was its premier political power. Politicians often spoke of the necessary submission of governments to the will of the church. Political parties, be they Conservative or Liberal, avoided any confrontation with them. This society, which French writer Paul Claudel described as the "Tibet of Catholicism", was in fact a veritable theocracy.

But in Quebec the church was very conservative. Despite the geographic distance, it was directly connected to Rome and vowed absolute obedience to the pope. This had two advantages: it allowed French Canadians, isolated in North America because of their language and religion, the support of an internationally renowned and powerful organization. Second, the clergy could establish its authority on the infallibility of the pope. In Europe, national churches often had a stormy relationship with the Holy See but the Quebec church aligned itself to Roman orthodoxy and to the official magisterium. It was also influenced by the French ultramontane movement, which said that all spheres of society should be managed by the Catholic religion and submit to the authority of the clergy. Essentially, the church governed all activities, and faith gave meaning to the smallest details of existence as well as to great world events.

Not only was the clergy numerous, but it was also highly visible. Priests were designated by their cassock and their Roman collar as consecrated people. Unlike in Europe where bishops and canons were born of the aristocracy, in Quebec almost all of them came from rural settings and those from the bourgeoisie were a minority. The same goes for the clergy: the majority of them were sons of farmers. Being a priest meant occupying the most prestigious social function, ahead of doctors, lawyers, politicians and business-people and not only allowed access to the highest rank of society, but it also provided a good income. In 1898, Louis-Nazaire Bégin, the archbishop of Quebec, thought that a parish priest should receive at least $450 per year from his parish, or twice the salary of an average worker. Richer parishes relished the pride of paying their priests even more.

For all of these reasons, the farming and working-class families were ready to make enormous financial sacrifices if one of their children showed the intellectual and spiritual gifts required to enter the priesthood. The Church provided a whole network of juvenates and seminaries to train these priests. Even the general education dispensed by the classical colleges showcased priesthood as a higher state of life than that of the family patriarch: at the beginning of the 20th century, 55 of graduates from classical colleges entered the seminary.

For a young man from a low-income family who was interested in matters of the mind, the priesthood was the only way to gain access to an intellectual life. This was also true for women: if a young woman wanted to go into administration or architecture, the only means to access these professions was by becoming a nun.

Diving Sarah Bernhardt by Melissa Bailar
The most famous actress in the world at the turn of the twentieth century, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was as successful a celebrity as she was a thespian. Her flamboyant lifestyle and theatrical brilliance have long made her a popular subject for journalists, biographers, novelists, poets, artists and playwrights. Known as "La Divine," the "8th Wonder of the World," the "Golden Voice," and the "eternal feminine," Bernhardt cultivated her mythic status, ensuring that neither audiences nor critics ever tired of her. She travelled the world with her entourage, cavorting with the famous, inciting rivalries, and strategically scattering photographs of herself in character, partially unclothed, posing in her signature serpentine curve, asleep in a coffin, and otherwise being alluringly eccentric. As a woman who frequently dressed in men's clothing on and off the stage, a Jew who was baptized and attended Catholic school, a former prostitute who grew astonishingly wealthy, and an unwed mother who later married and carried on wildly public affairs, Bernhardt crossed every social divide of admirers and adversaries.

Bernhardt's celebrity persona has often outshone her various talents: though physically frail, she was a diligent and innovative stage and film actress, director, business woman, writer, sculptor and humanitarian. Although fin-de-siècle critics tended to focus on actresses' physical traits, leading to stagnant type-casting, Bernhardt evaded pigeonholing through her extraordinary creativity, talent and eccentricity as well as her seemingly limitless energy. During the dramatic rise of the theatre industry in the late 19th century, Bernhardt developed what was then a fresh, natural approach to acting, insisting that an actor must not simply demonstrate the passions of his/her character but also internalize them. In preparation for a part, she directed photographers to take multiple shots as she modeled different poses to depict emotions, reviewed the photographs and adopted the most evocative for the stage. Through her convincing incarnations of various roles, Bernhardt persistently challenged public perception of herself and of women's capabilities.

During her visit to Quebec City, Bernhardt performed in three plays: Alexandre Dumas's Camille, Victor Hugo's Angelo, and Scribe and Legouve's Adrienne Lecouureur. Her characters were the strong-willed mistresses of powerful men, demi-mondaines who die tragically in the midst of romantic intrigue, that exhibited Bernhardt's famous death scenes and tormented, selfless love. While the belle époque popularized the spectacle of women playing men's roles because trousers revealed women's figures more than gowns, Bernhardt was successful in roles such as Hamlet because she was utterly convincing as male characters. In 1900, at the age of 56, Bernhardt achieved unprecedented theatrical success for the part of Napoleon's 20-year-old son in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon, which she continued to play well into her seventies, even after her leg was amputated.

The archbishop's outrage at Bernhardt's appearance in Quebec continued the anti-theatrical sentiment that had long condemned both the immoral content of popular plays and the irregular lifestyles of actresses. Bernhardt paid little heed to such criticism, her notorious performances stoking the growing popularity of the theatre, bettering the living conditions and status of actors in the Western world and enhancing perceptions of the talent and tenacity of women. Critics of the theatre were astute in their perceptions of the theatre as subversive; Bernhardt demonstrated that even the most marginalized of women could become Divine.

(Melissa Bailar is the associate director of the humanities research center and faculty at Rice University. Her research focuses on francophone film and representations of actresses. She has published and received grants on digital archives and emergent structures in higher education and was the dramaturg for Marguerite Duras's Eden Cinema.)

Director's Notes by Jackie Maxwell
In my first season as Artistic Director, I programmed The Coronation Voyage by a brilliant Quebec playwright, Michel Marc Bouchard. It was my creative shot across the bow. Programming had been expanded to include contemporary plays about our original mandate era, and his play was a fierce and fearless, highly provocative mix of politics and poetry exploring a damaged, post-war Canada. There was a palpable sense of excitement on the opening night as I sat in the house with Michel Marc - the first time a playwright had ever watched one of their own plays on the Festival stage. Change was on the way!

Since then we have produced the works of many contemporary playwrights and have commissioned and developed over a dozen new plays, adaptations and translations. Throughout, however, I waited for a phone call from Michel Marc replying to my invitation to write a play specifically for the Shaw Festival.

That phone call came just over four years ago, as Michel Marc had just read about Sarah Bernhardt's stormy visit to Quebec City in 1905. The appeal was obvious - the Archbishop of Quebec City banned Sarah and her troupe from performing, something Sarah did not take lying down. The Church versus the Theatre - how could he resist? We commissioned him at once and over the subsequent four years he spent time in residence every summer, and, as we worked on the piece, he attended every production, slowly building and incorporating a clear sense of The Shaw's company and audience.

Shaw Festival - 2015

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The result is a complex play that is far from merely a recording of the historical event that inspired it. It is a meta-theatrical play of ideas that explores the struggle between submission and outrage. It is a story of how the young were, and alas still are, so vulnerable to abuse from both church and state. It is a glorious imagining of a relationship between an imperious, outrageous and ultimately generous artist and an awestruck young seminarian. It is a play that must be done here at the Shaw Festival.

To have been a part of this process with Michel Marc, his brilliant translator Linda Gaboriau, the many company members who have been involved and an inspired design team has been an absolute joy. To have been able to come full circle with Michel Marc with an English premiere of his work in my penultimate season will, without doubt, sit as one of the most meaningful and memorable creative journeys I have taken at The Shaw.

The Divine plays at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 11.

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt - Translated by Nicole Nolette

The Divine

The Divine

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