This paper analyzes the review that the American actress in London, Elizabeth Robins, published in 1900 in response to seeing Bernhardt's Hamlet. I will demonstrate how the essay reveals significant information about Robins' career on the American stage, for she felt compelled to compare Bernhardt's performance with details from Edmund Booth's Hamlet, which Robins so very vividly remembered because she had such direct contact with his performances. Booth's Hamlet, as Robins reveals in an unpublished autobiographical novel, was the inspiration and salvation for the young Robins. When she first earned her way into the "bill-posters' seats," at the top of the gallery to experience Booth's Hamlet, she was struggling to justify the poverty she endured before she got her first stage role. Later, she performed in Booth's productions, most regularly during his co-productions with the Boston Museum Theatre in the early 1880s and in his tour with Lawrence Barrett in 1887-1888.
Unlike Bernhardt who acted into her later years, Robins--who had electrified London audiences with her performances of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Hilda in The Master Builder--gradually gave up her career on the stage in order to write and eventually to lobby for women's suffrage. Her unpublished stage fiction is a neglected aspect of her reputation. I elaborate upon the works only touched upon in my biography of Robins (Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952: Actress, Novelist, Feminist, University of Alabama Press, 1994). Robins' fiction of stage life, especially her 1892 novella in which a leading British playwright searches for a performer with the talent of a younger Sarah Bernhardt, is a key to understanding both her relationship to the theatre and her emerging feminism. Life as the creator of Ibsen's heroines did not fully satiate Robins' talent. She not only has deep recall of Booth's Hamlet and makes important contrasts; she hints at why acting is limiting to her own ambitions.
Gates, Joanne E. "Autobiographical Elements in Elizabeth Robins' Review of Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet." Presentation at the Hofstra University's Women in Theatre Conference, "On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Sarah Bernhardt 1844-1923." Hempstead, New York (October 6, 1994). Revised with added notes and references, 2022. JSU Library Digital Commons, https://digitalcommons.jsu.edu/fac_pres/.
Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Commons, Performance Studies Commons, Theatre History Commons
Not previously published. Some information within the paper replicates what appeared in dissertation and biography by the same author.
Paper for Hofstra University's Women in Theatre Conference, "On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Sarah Bernhardt 1844-1923." Hempstead, New York (October 6, 1994).