On 8 February 1903 Joyce saw Sarah Bernhardt in Racine’s Andromaque
Less than a week after his twenty-first birthday, Joyce attended a performance of Racine’s play Andromaque, in Sarah Bernhardt’s own theatre, in which Bernhardt played the role of Hermione. This was the premiere of a revival of the play in which she usually played the role of Andromaque. At the time, Joyce was writing articles for the Daily Express and he wrote to his mother on 8 February to say he was sending the Express a review of Bernhardt’s performance, but the review was never published.
Bernhardt was one of the leading actresses of her time and one of the first international stage stars. She was born Henriette Rosine Bernard (she later took Sarah Bernhardt as her stage name) in 1844 of a Jewish mother and unknown father. She made her acting debut in 1862 in Racine’s Iphégenie. She acted at the Comédie Française for many years before opening her own theatre in 1899. As well known for her off-stage romantic affairs as for her on-stage tragic roles, she toured all over Europe, Russia, the Middle East, north and south America, and Australia. Despite having her right leg amputated in 1915 she continued to act on stage. She died in 1923 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Andromaque, Racine’s third play, was written when he was just 27 and first performed in Paris in 1667. It established his reputation as the leading dramatist of the time. A tragedy in five acts, it is set after the destruction of Troy in which Andromaque’s husband, Hector, was killed. Andromaque is loved by Pyrrhus who is loved by Hermione who in turn is loved by Orestes. Orestes has Pyrrhus killed, Hermione kills herself, and Orestes goes mad.
There appears to be a reference to Bernhardt in Finnegans Wake (102.18-19):
Notre Dame de la Ville, mercy of the balmheartzyheat!
Dame, la: Bernhardt’s married name was Damala, and she was well-known for her performance in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias. Her name is punned in balmheartzyheat along with the German word Barmherzigkeit, charity.
To see images of Bernhardt in the role of Hermione in February 1903 click here
Sources & Further Reading:
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
Gottlieb, Robert: Sarah – The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, Yale University Press, 2010.