by Douglas Messerli
Clément Maurice (director, scene based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet) Le Duel d'Hamlet /1900
I might not even have included a discussion of Sarah Bernhardt’s 1.23-minute dueling episode playing Hamlet to Pierre Magnier’s Laertes were it not for the fact that it is probably the very first cross-dressing role ever to be filmed.
The film which was shown on October 1, 1900, may have come after Alice Guy Blaché’s cinematic representations of female dancers performing with cross-dressing female partners, but Bernhardt had already performed the entire Hamlet in drag on stage the year before, with major performances in both Paris and London, so that her brief enactment of Hamlet’s death in Act V predated the dancers—although they may have also danced as crossdressers onstage previously as well. It truly doesn’t matter since neither has much to do with LGBTQ issues except for the blurring of gender.
In relationship, Bernhardt’s very brief performance is simply a footnote. But it is an interesting nod to queerness, nonetheless. And evidently her Hamlet, performed in its entirety on stage, was quite different from the most popular male performers of the day, although little of that is in evidence in this piece, which amounts to nothing more than a “clip” shown at The Exposition Universelle with a synchronized wax cylinder recording providing sound, the cylinder now lost.
An actress of the day, Elizabeth Robbins provided a written summary of Bernhardt’s stage performance, when the great actress was 55 years old, that might provide us with some illumination about Bernhardt’s complete performance:
Los Angeles, July 5, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2021).