The year is 1915, the scene is a bombed-over market square near the trenches in France. The leading lady, in her early seventies, thin and frail, with one leg missing at the hip, is carried onto a makeshift stage in an specially-designed litter, escorted by a officer in his seventies. She faces over 2,000 troops gathered for a performance, her audience a mixture of the battle-worn wounded and the not-yet tested. It is, of course, the great Bernhardt. Even propped up in a ratty armchair she commands attention. Her voice is strong and young as she launches into the lines of a patriotic piece. When she is done, before the echo of her final, "To arms!", has died away, every soldier who can manage it is on his feet, many cheering through tears. Perhaps at this moment she thinks back to an earlier war.

It is 1870. On September 23rd Paris is placed under siege by the Prussian army. Resistance leader Leon Gambetta has escaped by balloon and leads attempts to relieve the French capital. They fail. The theaters begin closing as fuel for heat and lighting becomes scarce. Sarah Bernhardt, up-and-coming star of the Odeon repertory theater, is out of work. The Comedie Francais is converted into a hospital as casualties pour into the former City of Light. The wiry Sarah can't just sit around and wait for events. She writes to the Prefect of Police, possibly an early lover, and volunteers the Odeon and herself. She gets immediate results and 32 beds are moved into the lobby and foyers of the 88-year-old theater. They are quickly filled. With absolutely no previous experience, Sarah becomes a combination hospital administrator, nurse and supply sergeant. Her personal cook now makes tea and soup for the wounded, seemingly around the clock. Sarah and two older women helping her, sleep in shifts, two-on and one-off, week after week. The wounded pour in. The once-pampered actress assists a surgeon as he amputates limbs and digs out bullets, then changes the dressings on infected wounds. The temperatures plummet as the year nears its end. She spends a night out on the battlefield with the Sisters of Mercy. Many lightly-wounded men freeze to death that night. All over the city coal runs out and the Odeon crew begins burning the theater's seats to for warmth. One day a local undergraduate and ardent fan appears with a shrapnel wound in his shoulder. There's no bed available but Sarah wrangles an extra cot and acquires a new patient. When he's discharged he asks for an autographed picture and Sarah obliges. As food supplies dry up, domestic pets and the animals in the zoo are slaughtered. December draws to a close, 3,280 Parisian civilians join 4,000 soldiers in death. On January 28th the despairing city surrenders.

Now it's 1915 again. As the cheers continue, it's likely that Madame Sarah's escort, Ferdinand Foch, soon to become commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces, thinks of his old, fading, treasured, autographed photograph, signed Sarah Bernhardt.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

Skinner, Cornelia Otis - Madame Sarah (Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1967)

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte