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Professor lectures at National World War I Museum

On Feb. 19, Felicia Hardison-Londré gave a lecture at the World War I Museum about Sarah Bernhardt’s potential influence on the American public, and our country’s decision to enter the Great War.

Hardison-Londré has been a professor of theater history at UMKC since 1978.

“Attending a play might expand one’s understanding of the human condition, but not very often does the theater directly alter one’s thinking about topics of current interest,” Hardison-Londré said. “It is my contention however, that the artistry of Sarah Bernhardt in performance, her charismatic acting in a well chosen repertoire of plays during her 9th and last American tour, combining with her celebrity to help precipitate one of the biggest changes in American public opinion during the 20th century.”

Before leaving France for America in October 1916, Bernhardt was involved in patriotic performances to support her country’s troops.

“Only five months earlier, the ardently patriotic actress had been preforming in Paris for french soldiers on leave. She also traveled to the front at Tulle,” Hardison-Londré said. “She recited morale building selections for the embattled soldiers.”

Her travel was not for the purpose of influence alone.

There were many factors at play when Bernhardt left her home.

“A number of reasons might be put forth to explain the timing of the 1916 tour,” Hardison-Londré said. “Certainly Bernhardt’s lavish lifestyle required infusions of money, and her American tours had proved to be reliable sources of funds. In France, Sarah Bernhardt was regarded as a national treasure and from the war’s inception was known to be on a German list of 50 desirable hostages who would fetch a tidy ransom. Protecting her was very much in the French government’s interest during the dark days of 1916. Shipping her off to America, assuming she got across the German submarine infested ocean, could be considered a means of getting her out of harm’s way.”

Before leaving, the Prime Minister of France, Aristide Briand, asked Bernhardt specifically not to upset the neutral leanings of the American public.

“Madame Bernhardt said that before leaving Paris she had promised Premier Briand not to appear in any play that would be likely to arouse partisan feeling,” Hardison-Londré said.

Being very politically minded and with her patriotism fueling her creative edge, Bernhardt would have to adjust.

“Her only recourse would be to subsume her expression of patriotic feeling into her performance,” Hardison-Londré said.

Reports of Bernhardt’s tour show for the most part she maintained the outward appearance of neutrality. This crumbled when a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer asked on Dec. 29, 1916 “What do you think of the peace move?”

According to Hardison-Londré, Bernhardt’s brilliantly phrased reply indicated France and her allies must fight on and their cause shall triumph and despite the neutrality, that must be the madame’s, she said vehemently, “I am against the Mr. Wilson’s attitude. The attitude of all neutrals is a crime.” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt was not only limited to non-partisan performances but also in how she performed due to a leg amputation in 1915. For Bernhardt, this challenge was easy to meet.

“The mission was to use the power of dramatic literature in performance to shape public opinion indirectly,” Hardison-Londré said. “The art itself could communicate the sentiments that she was not supposed to speak thus Bernhardt was surely gratified whenever a drama critic picked up on news of the day relevance of the material she performed on stage.”

After six months of performances throughout the United States portraying characters representative of French culture and justice, like Joan of Arc, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany.

“Wilson was our most theater-going president of all time.,” Hardison-Londré said. “They didn’t always report every time he went to the theater because he went a lot. Even right up before he signed the entry into war, he went to the theater that week.”

gmoore@unews.com

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