“The World’s Greatest Actress”

Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only.  Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Nicola Jones writes about one of them…

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“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” Mark Twain

It came as quite a surprise to discover that the renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt – at the time considered the most famous actress in the world – had been amongst the residents of the Lock-Up.

Appearing at The Grand Theatre in Corporation Street in 1916, Sarah, as a foreigner, was required by law to attend Steelhouse Lane to sign the ‘Aliens Register’ where the record describes her as being: “5ft 4in, of medium build, minus her right leg.”

She’d had her leg amputated in 1915 after suffering ten years of acute pain resulting from an injury sustained on a tour of South Africa. When gangrene set in, she demanded that the leg be removed – something her surgeons were reluctant to do as they didn’t want to be the doctor who killed the great Sarah Bernhardt! She eventually got her way, and refused to let her disability stop her performing, stating that she’d ‘strap herself to the scenery if need be.’ She continued touring Europe and the USA (crossing the Atlantic despite the ever-present threat of U-boat attack), as well as performing to French troops at the Western Front.

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Sarah Bernhardt was a true eccentric who, like P.T. Barnum, understood the value of a good story. She travelled with a satin lined coffin (which she claimed to sleep in), dressed in exotic clothes & furs (she had a hat made from a stuffed bat), and owned a menagerie containing tigers, lions, cheetahs, as well as a puma which roamed freely around her home. She also owned a pet alligator which she said shared her bed (until it reportedly died from an overindulgence of champagne). She was also well-known for her string of lovers which included all her leading men, many well-known writers and artists, plus European royalty including – allegedly – our very own Prince of Wales (who went on to become Edward VII.)

Sarah was also unusual in that she decided to manage her own career. With the help of the British impresario Edward Jarrett, she toured the world several times – with her 1891 tour of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa reportedly earning her 3.5 million francs.

She went through several fortunes during her lifetime, investing in two theatres, supporting her large entourage, repeatedly paying off the gambling debts of her illegitimate son Maurice, as well as being incredibly generous to those she loved by showering them with lavish gifts and property. When she ran out of money, she simply went back on tour!

When she died in 1923, aged 79, half a million people lined the Paris streets to watch her funeral. Her death was front page news around the world and, as ‘The Birmingham Gazette’ reported: “Few foreigners have succeeded in capturing the imagination, and in earning the enthusiastic devotion of the British people, as it fell to her lot to do.”

You can meet Sarah and lots of other characters from the Lock-Up’s past at our next show ‘Behind Bar’, 19th – 21st October 2018. Book at: https://www.wowcher.co.uk/deal/birmingham/9258223/bars-ghost-lock-8

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