- The Drama of Celebrity by Sharon Marcus
When Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, some half-a-million people lined the streets of Paris as the actress’s funeral took place. Check out the footage on YouTube and those numbers look fairly accurate. For more than a half-century Bernhardt had commanded stages in France and elsewhere, and her performances had come to enjoy the status of legend. Moreover, her image had become so ubiquitous that people who had not seen her perform still knew who she was.
Fame may be the name of the game, but in the modern imagination it carries connotations of superficiality and hysteria, hype and media manipulation. Some people can be famous for being famous (hello, Kim Kardashian). In The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus argues for a deeper and more considered view. Her elegant new book employs the cult of Bernhardt to conduct a wide-ranging study of fame. Women fantasized over Rudolf Valentino, threatening suicide when he died in 1926, and Frank Sinatra made bobby soxers swoon in the 1940s. But celebrities have been having this kind of effect since at least the late eighteenth century.
In George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), we see how the eponymous figure is transformed into a musical star through the controlling genius of the character Svengali, who might be viewed as the literary equivalent of the agents, directors, and Hollywood moguls who sought to strike gold by finding a spark of magic in a young performer. But on the nineteenth-century stage, stars of music and stage did not need a Svengali: they enjoyed considerable power in their own right, shaping their images and designing shows that would show them off at their best. Victorian actor-managers such as Henry Irving or Eliza Vestris are good examples of this. They took the best roles, selected their preferred casts, made the final decision on sets and costumes, and in many respects acted as directors would in the twentieth century. In the age of the internet, Marcus argues, we are returning to the anarchic nineteenth-century roots of celebrity culture.
Contradicting the received wisdom, celebrities cannot be simply manufactured by media moguls. Fame, Marcus argues, is based instead on a complex set of interrelations between stars, producers, and publics. To some extent we get the celebrities we deserve, as stars tend to be expressions of the values of a particular age and therefore a vital resource for the cultural historian.
Modern celebrity culture, Marcus argues, differed from the cult of medieval saints who only enjoyed their status after death. It involved, instead, being famous during one’s lifetime. Marcus views this change as the product of the Romantic cult of genius combined with the rise of literacy and the coming of democracy. Mass printing and the commercialization of photography after the 1860s allowed for the multiplication of images. Celebrities were suddenly everywhere. [End Page 668]
Bernhardt exemplified the processes Marcus identifies, enjoying as she did a Streisand-like magnetism. Originally the product of the Comédie-Française in the 1860s, she went on to dazzle audiences in London with her histrionic style, even though some viewers often could not understand her as she was speaking in French. The visual impact of her body, with its postures and gestures, proved a universal language. She expressed an exuberant naturalism that seemed brilliantly new. Marcus argues that Bernhardt invented modern celebrity culture by using the modern media to court controversy while affecting crowds “so strongly that many journalists found her supporters alarming” (19). Bernhardt grasped that her performances off-stage were as important as what she did on it. She knew the meaning of the publicity stunt, taking to the skies in a hot air balloon and, on one occasion, being photographed sleeping in a coffin.
Bernhardt therefore enjoyed a particular kind of celebrity based on breaking rules and resisting conformity. She enjoyed a similar appeal to Oscar Wilde and George Sand. On stage she would play adulterous women while she...