The Hottest Ticket in Town

The Divine Sarah Bernhardt playing Cleopatra, the original transformational theater experience

Transformational! G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! You’ve never experienced anything like it!

Gobblyedook? Hyperbole? No, as you might guess, these were some of the Facebook comments about Hamilton, which we enjoyed seeing in San Francisco last week, despite the exaggeration and hoopla surrounding its existence. This is not a review of the show, about which you most likely already have an opinion, but it got me to thinking about the other It Performances and Artistic Experiences that also left long shadows from say fifty, a hundred, or even longer ago.

Contrary to some recently held beliefs, Hamilton is not the only theater experience that has ever been deemed life-changing. It was only about fifty years ago that musicals themselves were transformed by the introduction of contemporary music, young people, and irreverent ideas, in the first true rock musical, Hair. A century ago, there was a single person–and her rival–who changed all of theater. Still further back, there was a guy who changed how people wrote, what people read, and even how people think about Christmas. There are all sorts of ways to influence the arts.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House…

The musical Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967, before moving to Broadway for a very popular, if critically tepid, run. When it migrated to London’s West End in 1968, the start was delayed until changes were made to the Theatres Act in order to allow for the nudity and profanity. Then, it ran in London for nearly 2000 performances.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who also appeared in the show, the musical explored the controversial themes that exploded across headlines the late Sixties: the youth counterculture, opposition to the war, air pollution, racism, free love, and bureaucratic oppression. The songs are joyous and sarcastic, hummable tunes of subversion. We had the album at home when I was nine, and I loved it. Of course, there was no place to actually look up the words to the lyrics, so imagine my dismay at 23, when I finally realized some of the words I was singing in the tune “Sodomyyyyyy…..”

Hair took Broadway by storm, like Hamilton, 50 years ago. Photo by Central Press/Getty.

The musical had a clear and profound effect on the way music was used and, to some extent, on the themes that audiences might accept. Before Hair appeared on Broadway, the big musicals were Promises, Promises, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and Oliver. True, West Side Story had earlier broken barriers of topic and musical styles, but it was followed by years of Bye, Bye Birdie and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and so on–musicals not exactly bursting with innovative music or ideas. After Hair came Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wiz, and Grease.

Ironically enough, Hair lost the Tony award in 1969 to another of my favorite musicals, 1776, which is the other very good production about American history. Hamilton even pays it a little tribute with a throwaway line about John Adams: Sit down John! But Hair had a bigger influence musically and stylistically. It didn’t hurt that catchy tunes like “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine in” were covered by the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night. Also, as Ebony magazine pointed out, Hair was “the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of the American theater,” up until that more recent, other show.

Theater changed a lot during the 20th century. But before all the movies, musicals, and Ziegfield acts, there was a single performer who brought people to the theater in the first place. She was called The Divine, Sarah Bernhardt.

Bernhardt, captivating even with one leg, 1920. Photo from

Queen of the Pose and Princess of the Gesture

Although Sarah Bernhardt started in an acting conservatory, she struggled initially to gain respect or applause. In the French acting style of the late 19th century, actors used stylized views of repressed emotion; everything was a tableau pose, restrained and frozen. Bernhardt mastered the Look, but wanted to move more, to express romance, and her teachers didn’t like it. Her breakout roles didn’t come until she was nearly in her thirties, after she had been mingling with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Belgian Princes. Her personal charisma eventually brought her back to the stage, and early successes came from playing troubadours, engenues, and boys.

Eventually, in 1871, she captured a lead, the Queen of Spain in Hugo’s Ruy Blas. It played to packed houses. The Prince of Wales attended opening night, and Hugo came backstage afterwards to kneel in homage. Her reputation transformed her into the Queen of Theater, and her “Golden Voice” made her the toast of Paris, which–between Victor Hugo and Claude Monet–was the acme of the artistic world.

Aside from bringing audiences in to view her grand style, Bernhardt also created one of the first cults of celebrity. She slept in a coffin and allowed herself to be photographed to prove it. She had numerous lovers, some royal, a child resulting from one affair possibly with a Prince. She wore a hat with a taxidermied bat. She endorsed products and posed for portraits and photographs frequently. Lady Gaga, Khardashian, Marilyn Monroe all became descendants of this original A-Lister.

After turning a Paris theater into an army hospital during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, an even more famous Bernhardt also entertained the troops during World War I. By then, a fall in South America during a performance where she leapt off a balcony had injured her leg so severely that gangrene developed. Her leg was amputated, but she continued to perform in the theater and for the troops, many also missing body parts. She couldn’t find a comfortable prosthetic and disdained crutches, so she rode everywhere in a palanquin and handled stage roles from a couch or chair. Audiences ate it up.

The Pose vs. the Glance

Even beyond changing theater by herself, Bernhardt’s rivalry with another actress, Elenora Duse, added to the legend for both and shifted the acting style for everybody who came after. Duse, born to an Italian theater family, was acting practically before she could walk and talk. A dozen years younger than the Queen of Paris, Duse burst onto the Italian stage in lead roles only a few years after, taking over as understudy to become the It Girl of Naples in 1878. One critic said, “her way of acting is the truest and most natural that can be imagined.”

Elenora Duse as Cleopatra, holding an audience transfixed with a pause. Photo at Pinterest.

Duse’s approach was to blend into the character, to use silence and small body movement in order to enthrall an audience. While Bernhardt’s unmistakable voice and penetrating gaze might transfix theater patrons, Duse could create space between lines, with poignant pauses and sideways glances, as if she was sharing a character’s inner thoughts. This comparison is brought to life in an excellent book by Peter Rader: Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanor Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever. Rader describes how Duse performed in Moscow in 1891. In the audience every time was Konstantin Stanislavski, the originator of “method acting.” If Stanislavski was father, perhaps it was Duse who was its mother or, at the very least, great-aunt.

Both of these women changed the way actors act. But if we go back a full 150 years, we find a writer who changed, not just how others wrote, but how audiences read. The idol of Europe and America in the 1860s was Charles Dickens.

1870, a ship slides into a port, echoing that ship in 1841, where Dickens fans stormed the piers, demanding to hear what had happened to Little Nell.

Is She Dead?

To many people accustomed to twitter-length stories, reading Dickens can be a chore or, at best, feel antiquated. But his infamous 600-page novels were mostly originally serialized. In fact, he pioneered the idea of chopping up the long novels of his age into digestible chunks, read in magazines, often with what came to be his signature, the cliffhanger chapter ending.

Aside from inventing To Be Continued…, Dickens shifted the subjects of novels from romantic dalliances and fanciful stories to social and political criticisms. He wasn’t the only writer to do this, as Hugo, Thomas Hardy, and Nathaniel Hawthorne also delved into topics beyond Ivanhoe or Tom Jones. But Dickens raised it to such prominence that laws would eventually be changed by those who read his books.

Dickens novels even became so popular that they inspired a whole new class of readers–the working classes–who found themselves at last actually appearing as characters in stories. The poor gathered ha-pennies to buy the serial magazines or met together to listen to someone read to them. Eventually a whole new class of readers was born.

In 1840-1, Dickens serialized The Old Curiosity Shop, a story of orphaned Little Nell who is mistreated by a variety of villains and eventually escapes with her grandfather to the country, but *coff coff*, at great cost to her health. Reportedly, when a ship landed at New York harbor in May 1941, carrying the next (and final) chapter of the story, fans stormed the pier, yelling up to the sailors, “Is she dead? Is she dead?” Legend says that when the nautical literary enthusiasts yelled down the answer to the crowd–Yes, yes, she’s died–they let out a collective wail, with many women fainting. Sound silly? Remember when Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter? Remember the “hype” around the release of Deathly Hallows? You get the picture.

Dickens posing as if for a reading, photo by Herbert Watkins

Dickens himself toured extensively throughout Europe and in America, twice to packed houses in the 1840s and the late 1860s. In his 1867 tour, he gave 75 readings between December and April, driving himself to the point of exhaustion. Dining on rich food and suffering from hypertension, by the end he could only eat champagne and eggs mixed into sherry. (Where was a little kale or spinach when he needed it?)

Lasting Legacies, Not Beloved By All at the Time

Not everyone loved everything about these groundbreaking artists. Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” George Bernard Shaw thought Sarah Bernhardt’s acting was “childishly egotistical.” Hair was called “a complete bore,” and early audiences often walked out, shocked by silhouetted nudity, depictions of gay people, and the very adult language. Similarly, some recent reviews of Hamilton take it to task precisely because of its popularity and call it out of touch, given activities of the the current administration. Not exactly the fault of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hamilton, in the end, is worth seeing and precisely because its creator learned from the best who came before… Long hair? Irreverence? PG-13 language? Check! (Hair) Posing? Check! (Bernhardt) Spellbindingly popular storytelling? Played to the masses? Check? (Dickens)

Transformational? Let’s give it fifty years and see.

The touring cast of Hamilton, photo by Joan Marcus

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