Thesis: Sarah Bernhardt’s fame and notoriety in film and on the French stage during the late 19th and early 20th centuries made being an actress a respectable job for women in European society.
I. Introduction: Sarah Bernhardt strongly influenced the respectability of
being an actress.
A. Brief outline of how actresses were perceived in society in each
II. Views on female actresses prior to Bernhardt’s time.
A. Women in theatre during the 16th Century,
1. Women in Shakespearean theatre.
a. Women’s roles were played by young boys.
2. Commedia dell’Arte – Italian improvised drama.
a. A type of masked theatre that usually had a family for its cast, with a
husband and wife.
b. Despite opposition, this type of theatre gave women a place on the
B. Women in theatre during the 17th Century.
1. Women first appeared on the English and Parisian stages.
2. Actresses of this time were considered unwomanly and improper as they had to put themselves on public display in order to work.
C. Women in theatre during the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
1. Women during the 18th and 19th centuries often led boring lives as they were
not allowed to do what men took part in.
2. Aristocratic libertinism- the activity in the high society of France of pursuing
the pleasures of the flesh.
a. Seduction was a game; when actresses came along, men of high society preferred them as opposed to high-born women because they were not married and were seen as exotic.
b. Before their acting careers, many actresses had been prostitutes; they were known for their bad morals.
c. Allowed actresses to make a name for themselves in the courts.
3. Actresses in the 19th Century started to make a career out of acting, but were
still dominated by males in society.
III. Sarah Bernhardt’s rise to fame.
A. Early life of Sarah Bernhardt.
B. 1870s, more roles were available to women
a. Gave Sarah the chance to start her career.
IV. The works of Sarah Bernhardt.
A. Queen Elizabeth (1912).
1. Bernhardt’s style of acting- exaggerated movement in silent films.
B. The Art of the Theatre (1924).
1. A book written by Bernhardt on acting; showed that actresses were more
respectable during this time and the hurdles they had overcome in European
V. Commending the work of Sarah Bernhardt and her life.
A. James Agate, a friend of Bernhardt’s.
VI. Conclusion: Evidence that there was a major increase in the number of actresses during the
Victorian era and how that related to Sarah Bernhardt’s career.
Looking back through history, it can be easily argued that the role of the actress in society has gone through a notable evolution. During the 16th Century, it was a rare occurrence for a woman to be seen on stage. Women’s roles were played by young boys. It was not until the 17th Century that women first appeared on the English and Parisian stages. However, it was considered improper because women were expected to remain in the shadows, and actresses had to put themselves on disp...