There’s a special kind of cringing reserved for plays that seem like they’ll be up your alley and instead get aggressively on your nerves. Watching Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s overwrought production of Theresa Rebeck’s clamorous but rudderless Bernhardt/Hamlet at the American Airlines, I could feel my heart sinking. This is the kind of play that, especially if you’re a woman, leans out into the audience and tries to grab you by the shoulders, half pleading and half threatening through gritted teeth: Like me! You’re supposed to like me! I am so Right Now! Do your job and LIKE ME. Well, as the saying goes, sorry not sorry. Loud, basically laudable politics don’t automatically make for good theater (if they did, we’d be living in a golden age); nor, unfortunately, do interesting historical figures. Even though Sarah Bernhardt — the grande dame of the fin de siècle French stage, around whom Rebeck’s play spins — is certainly intriguing, I can get that much from her Wikipedia page. In attempting to translate historical record (and a fair amount of historical fiction) to drama, Bernhardt/Hamlet falls into the gaping trap of the bio-play. Full of period frills and actorly flourishes, it fails to convey either astonishing mythos or full, authentic humanity. Instead, it fills its protagonist’s mouth with passé sentiments, ideas whose risqué gloss has faded, packaged as relevant and revelatory. The badass British actor Janet McTeer, for all her innate playfulness and power, can’t save this reincarnation of the Divine Sarah. The great actress ends up coming across as slightly behind our time, rather than ahead of her own.
Of course, that’s one of the risks in trying to portray bygone genius: How can we convey the groundbreakers of the past when so much new ground has been broken since? Sarah Bernhardt was a legend in her time (her biographer Robert Gottlieb called her “the most famous of all Frenchwomen after Joan of Arc”), but well before her death in 1923, her time was coming to a close. The French playwright Edmond Rostand called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of gesture,” and she herself wrote an acting textbook late in life in which she stressed technique — the primacy of the voice, the necessity of delivering long passages of poetry in a single breath, the art of “[positioning] the chest” or “tilting the head” to “strike the audience most effectively.” Though Bernhardt/Hamlet works in at least one historically questionable scene in which it seems as if its heroine is inventing improvisation and modern naturalistic acting (Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty employs the same trope to convey the innovative spirit of its heroine, Margaret Hughes, the first woman to act on a British stage, in 1660), the real Bernhardt was no contemporary, post-Method performer: She was a master stylist. And by the turn of the century, high style was under attack. Mark Twain loved her, but Shaw found her “childishly egotistical,” Turgenev called her “cold, false, and affected,” and Chekhov, with characteristically generous dissection, wrote, “She is a woman who is very intelligent … who has immense talent, who understands the human heart, but [who wants] too much to astonish and overwhelm her audience … [Her] enchantment is smothered in artifice.”
Rebeck clearly wants to free Bernhardt from this barrage of male analysis, to give her the space to speak anew and for herself. (Shaw’s critique is pooh-poohed in the play, and the most stodgy and unappealing of the men surrounding McTeer’s Sarah is, inevitably, a theater critic.) That would be an exciting project, except that the voice Rebeck gives Bernhardt says very little that we haven’t heard before. The play follows Bernhardt’s existential, romantic, and financial struggles as she prepares to play the role of Hamlet— which the real actress did in 1899, at 55 years old — and the first scene has barely begun before Rebeck falls back on cheap jabs at Shakespeare. “It is a lot of words for such a small thought,” Sarah grumbles as she attempts to get through “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” Her fellow actor, Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker), tries to prompt her and she rolls her eyes: “‘Unpregnant?’ Now you’re just making up words.” Eventually she sighs and resolves to continue: “He speaks and speaks but does nothing. It is so ponderous. Oh well.”
One of the running gags of Bernhardt/Hamlet is that McTeer’s Sarah keeps calling Shakespeare’s genius into question, and this unheard-of effrontery causes all the men around her, from critics to playwrights to fellow actors, to gasp and clutch their pearls. She bulldozes through their sacred text, insisting that the Danish prince is a rash and passionate 19-year-old (“He is 30!” splutters the critic), cutting the exposition, trashing the verse, and in general assessing the whole thing as boring. “[Hamlet] clings to thought,” she tells her friend, the artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), “He hides. In words, words, and more words. It’s the whole point I’m told. Who wants to see that?” To her lover, the playwright Rostand, she’s even more glib. “To hear some people tell it, Shakespeare never had an original thought in his head,” she quips. When her appalled boyfriend blusters, “No one would say that,” she responds with a self-satisfied little shrug: “I just did.”
It’s supposed to be a mic drop, but this particular mic has been on the floor for ages. It’s downright dusty. Making fun of Shakespeare isn’t edgy at this point; it’s easy. It’s especially easy to ride the artistic fence between implicitly admiring him — by continuing to examine his work — and thumbing our noses. We’ve poked holes in Shakespeare, rewritten him, slashed and burned him, dressed him up, dressed him down, questioned his identity, called him overrated, decided he requires translation, argued that he most certainly doesn’t, consigned him to the bin of Old Dead White Guys, and kept on staging him for decades now. As my high-school English teacher once growled at a boy who was talking during her lesson, “Othello will outlive you! Deal with it!”
That realization of her own mortality, in the face of the immortality of the character she’s decided to take on, lies at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Or, it could have. In the end, it’s a play about ego and insecurity, and part of what Rebeck is trying to argue is that the more angst-ridden Sarah grows — the more she frets and doubts and wavers and rages in her pursuit of the melancholy Dane — the more like him she becomes. The bitter irony being that when she, a woman, behaves in a Hamlet-ian fashion, the dense men around her decide she’s irrational, hysterical, that her “feminine” mind can’t fully grasp Shakespeare’s prince, even as she’s nearing his essence. That’s a compelling idea, and it should be a fascinating arc: a new great part full of both fire and doubt — and this time for a woman — created in the pursuit of an old one.
But it doesn’t come off. It’s as if Rebeck discovered this incredibly rich, deep vein of ore, and instead decided to mine a collection of nearby, more accessible deposits. One of the frustrations of Bernhardt/Hamlet is that it has no sustaining engine. Instead of driving into an unanswerable question, a gnawing central concern to hold the play together, Rebeck gives us a collection of individual scenes with neatly constructed arguments. They’ve got clear topics, builds, climaxes, and resolutions, and they do little to rocket the play forward. “What are we arguing about now?” asks Rostand at one point, and the question feels a little too spot-on. At the end of each scene, the actors must collect their energy for a new, self-contained debate. Other future actors will bring these scenes into acting classes, because they’re often clear-cut he-wants-this/she-wants-that duets (indeed, characters even ostentatiously excuse themselves to make room for the next two-hander). They’re solidly constructed — they just don’t go the distance.
Meanwhile, von Stuelpnagel has decided that the best way to treat Rebeck’s scenes is to motor through them, aiming for punch lines and big licks. He’s trying to milk the play for its comedy, and he’s cutting the legs out from under any real feeling that might be there. With the notable exception of Baker as the thoughtful, sympathetic if a little old-fashioned Coquelin, the men in Sarah’s acting troupe (Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis) ham it up. Tony Carlin does a prim combination of sneering and leering as the critic, and Jason Butler Harner’s Rostand, whom Rebeck writes as the straightest of straight men, gets swept along with the current (though the real Bernhardt had plenty of lovers, Rostand wasn’t among them). Even McTeer, who’s got charisma to burn, gets undercut by von Stuelpnagel’s seeming insistence on “bigger, louder, faster, breathier!” Shaking with anxiety, she rushes straight through passages like this:
No. I’m not afraid of death, nor is Hamlet, honestly, he’s afraid merely of the night, the panic of the soul, the terrifying dread of meaninglessness. Gone in the light of day, but at night it is nothing but the most malicious of battles. Sanity is at risk at night and that is finally where Hamlet puts himself. Turning a saint into a murderer is no mean trick.
There’s something there, perhaps even the keys to the role that Sarah has been searching for. She’s been all caught up over his hesitation, the fact that he “does nothing but think” (a common objection to Hamlet — never mind that he’s thinking rather than killing a human being). Now she’s cracking something open, something that connects Hamlet’s dread to her own. But von Stuelpnagel won’t let McTeer take time over anything, which means even someone with her formidable powers gets caught up in affect and grand gesture. When she plants her feet and refuses to “play the ingenue” anymore, thundering that empty-headed parts like Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac — which Rostand has, in this story, written for her — are “beneath all women,” the audience cheers. And the applause feels manipulated out of us: It’s as much a response to the climax of a speech as it is to the idea expressed, legitimate in sentiment but inauthentic in source. Von Stuelpnagel frames Bernhardt’s frustration as a cathartic “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” moment — and as an actress I know noted sadly, “I’ve been having that argument my whole life. We all have. That’s not what it looks like.” This Sarah Bernhardt walks defiantly away from Cyrano, while the real actress did indeed play Roxanne in Rostand’s smash hit. In making Bernhardt a righteous resister, Rebeck misses the chance to emphasize her contradictions: Perhaps Bernhardt did object to the one-dimensional role, but whether out of vanity or compulsion or professionalism or loyalty, or any number of complex motivations, she took it anyway.
While von Stuelpnagel seems intent on out-Heroding Herod, McTeer and Rebeck are caught in a trap that’s at once more difficult and more sympathetic. They’re torn between the seduction of Bernhardt’s myth and the more unknowable essence of her humanity — between the compulsion to hold up this spectacular woman from history as both an artistic legend and a feminist hero, and the less flashy, much more personal impulse to tell the story of a woman of the theater who’s wrestling with ego, uncertainty, mortality, and Shakespeare. I know which story interests me more, but Bernhardt/Hamlet never fully makes the leap. Instead, it spends its time plucking low-hanging fruit and getting its characters into arguments that feel like cul-de-sacs. It can’t decide whether it wants to ridicule or re-envision Hamlet’s lack of resolve, and in the meantime, it never quite finds its own.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is at the American Airlines Theatre.