Monday, May 4, 2015


Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) desired to present an inspirational dramatic play to lift French spirits, to provide her audiences with hope and to fuel the will to win the war.  The year was 1915, Bernhardt was seventy-one years old and recovering from having her right leg amputated. She commissioned Eugene Morand (1855-1930) to create this special drama.  

Morand had been writing plays for Bernhardt since 1894, when she selected his play Izeyl for her Paris theatre company. He worked closely with Bernhardt over the following years and provided her with many starring roles.  Morand was a natural choice for Bernhardt, since he knew her well and he seemed dedicated to maintaining her status as a symbol of French national pride.  The poetic one-act play he created is titled Les Cathedrales (Cathedrals). It premiered in Paris on November 6, 1915 at Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt.  The musical score for the play was created by Gabriel Pierne, who also conducted the orchestra and the large off-stage choral group.

The play’s Prelude sets the scene as well as starts the story. Several armed men return to their destroyed village on a deserted Northern French plain carved with trenches. Seeing the total devastation, all the men leave except the youngest soldier--he represents the hope of the whole country. Canons boom and rumble without stopping. The exhausted soldier falls asleep and he dreams. . .  Night comes and five towers of cathedrals, each bearing an actress as a stone figure, move onto the stage. When the canon booms stop, the Prelude is concluded and the play begins with the cathedrals talking to the dreaming soldier.  Eventually, there are six of France’s great Gothic cathedrals on stage—Notre Dame of Paris, Cathedral of Bourges, Cathedral of Arles, Cathedral of Saint-Pol-de-Leon, Cathedral of Amiens and lastly, the Cathedral of Strasbourg.  

 The Cathedral of Reims was destroyed soon after the war commenced, so this cathedral is represented in the play by an off-stage singer. Morand created the Cathedral of Strasbourg role specifically for Bernhardt, who remained seated on the scenic piece representing this cathedral throughout her speeches until, near the conclusion of her lines, she raised herself up to stand tall as she proclaimed for the final time, “Weep, Weep Germany!  The German Eagle has fallen into the Rhine.”  This became a rousing moment of bravery for both Bernhardt and her country. It was thought that the play not only created a profound impression on audiences in Paris, but it reawakened the hope of the possibility for a French victory.

During Bernhardt’s theatre tour to England in January of 1916, she premiered Les Cathedrales at the London Coliseum. The play was presented in French.  The newspapers reported that there were twelve curtain calls for the cast and Bernhardt.  Reviewers considered the play to be “the great poem play”. The musician and singers were also part of the tour to England. The Evening Telegraph in Angus, Scotland reported on January 5, 1916: 

M. Gabriel Pierne, the well-known conductor of the Colonne orchestra, has sounded unexpected depths in his solemn musical setting to this heart-cry of the French people. The vibrant hum of the muted strings was never more tragic than it sounds below the clear, resonant voice of Mme. Bernhardt and it is easy to feel that an atmosphere had been created with real passion and essential desire.

In early 1916, a group of actresses from the Comedie Francaise formed a company named the Theatre des Armees.  The mission of this group was to provide entertainment for the soldiers serving in the trenches and the wounded at the front.  Bernhardt wanted to join the group to perform a segment from Les Cathedrales. Theatre des Armees members believed Bernhardt was too old and infirmed to travel, let alone perform under the difficult circumstances found at the war-torn front.  Bernhardt prevailed. Beatrix Dussane, an actress in the group, recorded Bernhardt’s performance in her book Reines de Theatre:

Three thousand young men (many with bandaged wounds) were told they were about to see Sarah Bernhardt.  The men expected a film.  Illustrious names meant nothing to these sturdy farm boys.  Sarah sensed this and shuddered.  Then she began.  Her every word was vibrant, delivered in a pounding rhythm that mounted like a charge into battle. Her speeches evoked heroic figures who plant flags on conquered soil.  With her final cry “Aux Armes,” the band attacked La Marseillaise and three thousand Frenchmen rose to their feet to cheer.

During early autumn of 1916, Bernhardt and several members of her theatre company set sail for North America.  She was scheduled for her final theatre tour of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America.  Mme. Bernhardt told a New York Times reporter that she had promised Premier Briand not to appear in any play that would be likely to arouse partisan feeling.  As a result of her promise, she specifically told him that she would not stage Les Cathedrales.  She kept her promise until May 23, 1918 when she staged one performance in Chicago. It was presented under the auspices of the French Consul and a special committee.  The proceeds from the performance were designated for a fund to relieve war-suffering artists, players and musicians in France.

All accounts that I have read regarding Les Cathedrales, credit the performances of this play with helping the French to raise their morale in the dark hours of World War One. I have focused on Bernhardt and the play rather than the playwright.  While I think the play is a moving, dramatic script that helps one to understand what the French were living through in 1915, I believe Bernhardt, the music and the manner in which the production was mounted actively engaged the audiences’ emotions and made it a truly significant piece of World War One theatre.

NOTE:  I have omitted all diacritical marks in this post since I was having problems getting some of them entered.  I hope to correct this omission in the near future. RGP

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