Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Do Sarah Bernhardt and Marie Curie Have in Common?

That is a very good question. Until I read Mary McAuliffe's fascinating Twilight of the Belle Epoque (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), I had no idea. And yet their unique stories united, for a time in World War I and following, in a manner that can still provide inspiration a century later.

Let us take the story of Marie Curie first. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, she came to Paris with her sister in 1891. There she pursued studies in physics, mathematics and chemistry at the University of Paris. A Polish professor introduced her to the French physicist Pierre Curie in 1894, when she was looking for a larger laboratory in which to carry out her researches. She and Pierre, with their tremendous shared interests, became romantically involved, and they married in 1895. She was determined to earn the first doctorate in France for a woman in physics, and fastened on a report on "uranium rays" by the French physicist Henri Becquerel which had been largely ignored. She acquired some samples of uranium for study, and her researches led to the discovery of what she herself named as "radioactivity", as well as two new elements: radium and polonium.

Fast-forward by twenty years: Pierre by then had joined in her explorations of the phenomenon, and the two had shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. But then Pierre's life was tragically cut short in 1906 as he was crossing a street in Paris, not paying attention, and was run over by a horse-drawn military wagon. Marie took over his position at the Sorbonne and carried on by herself, with their two young daughters. She was rewarded for her hard work by the creation, with Andrew Carnegie's help, of a national Radium Institute, whose laboratory she would direct for the rest of her life. In 1911 she received an unprecedented second Nobel Prize (in Chemistry) for the discoveries of radium and polonium, and she was encouraged in her work to find applications of radioactivity, through the use of X-rays.

World War I broke out just as Marie Curie was moving into the Radium Institute's newly constructed laboratory. After first seeing the nation's entire supply of radium -- one gram that she had painstakingly isolated -- moved to safety in Bordeaux, she returned on a military train to Paris, where she was determined to help in the war effort. She saw immediately that X-ray screens would assist military surgeons in treating broken bones, and in locating shrapnel and bullets in the bodies of soldiers wounded in action, and she went to work:
She convinced the government to empower her to set up France's first military radiology centers. Newly named Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, she wheedled money and cars out of wealthy acquaintances. She convinced automobile body shops to transform the cars into vans, and begged manufacturers to do their part for their country by donating equipment. By late October 1914, the first of 20 radiology vehicles she would equip was ready. French enlisted men would soon dub these mobile radiology installations, which transported X-ray apparatus to the wounded at the battle front, petites Curies (little Curies). [The van's engine was used to generate the electricity to power the X-ray apparatus.] 
Although Curie had lectured about X-rays at the Sorbonne, she had no personal experience working with them. Intending to operate a petite Curie herself if necessary, she learned how to drive a car and gave herself cram courses in anatomy, in the use of X-ray equipment, and in auto mechanics. [She learned how to change a tire, to clean a dirty carburetor, and to deal with all sorts of breakdowns while at the front.] As her first radiological assistant she chose her daughter Irène, a very mature and scientifically well-versed 17-year-old. Accompanied by a military doctor, mother and daughter made their first trip to the battle front in the autumn of 1914.

This “petite Curie,” which brought X-rays to the Front in World War I, was displayed in Paris in 1998 during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of radium.

Marie and Irène alone, eventually working with other nurses they trained, saved or bettered the lives of thousands of soldiers with the increased certainty their X-rays gave on the spot to field doctors. But in the process, Marie and Irène overexposed themselves to the radiation they had harnessed. Little was known at the time about the adverse effects of radiation, and when Marie came down with double cataracts just after the war's end, she did not immediately trace the cause to her lengthy exposure to X-rays. Her health never was fully restored, although she managed to work in her laboratory for  another fourteen years, and make two trips to America to raise funds for her research. She died in 1934 of a pernicious anemia which her depleted bone marrow could not fight any longer.

And what of Sarah Bernhardt, who was Marie Curie's elder by 23 years? Marie was still in her teens by the time that Sarah had become France's leading stage actress. She developed a unique style that managed to convey to audiences the character, as well as the emotions, of the figures she portrayed.
Bernhardt developed her own emotional romantic acting style based on her lyrical voice (known as the “golden voice”), calculated nervous action and the subversion of her viewers’ expectations concerning her characters, disclosing strength in weakness and weakness in strength. Accordingly she impressively acted travesti roles such as Zanetto in Le Passant and later Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet as the author Elaine Aston has noted, the essence of Bernhardt’s performance was pictorial. She sculpted and drew with some success, exhibiting at the Salon at various times between 1876 and 1881. In 1880 she also exhibited a painting there. Yet her finest skill was projecting her emotional poses into unforgettable tableaux. She made sure that her appearance would echo masterpieces (for example, playing Théodora dressed similarly to the Empress Théodora in the mosaic murals in Ravenna), or would be marketed as such, through oil portraits, posters and photos of key scenes, as were her portrayals of Fédora and Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux camélias. The famous photo by Melandri of Bernhardt, lying dressed in white with closed eyes in a coffin, echoing the painting of Ophelia by Sir John Evertt Millais (1829–1896) and La jeune martyre by Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), was meant to promote her favorite tableaux of dying heroines such as Marguerite, Fédora and Adrienne falling lifeless into the arms of their lovers.

Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth

She became an international sensation; Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salomé in French for her (the play is the source for the infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils").  She made countless tours -- to England, to America, and to South America, and brought her art to hundreds of thousands. (Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can watch at this link some brief -- but alas, silent -- footage of when she spoke at a rally in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in 1917 to encourage America to join the War.)

By the time World War I broke out, she was turning seventy. Due to a knee injury she had suffered in performing a play some years earlier, her right leg went into a cast, gangrene developed, and she had to have the leg amputated above the knee. She tried a wooden leg, but found it so cumbersome that in a rage, she cast it into the fire. She refused to use crutches or a wheelchair, and instead had an elegant sedan chair designed for her, from which she thereafter made all her public appearances.

Nothing daunted, she was determined to do her part for French troops in the war, and arranged to be carried to the front.
A group of young actors from the Comédie-Française accompanied her, skeptical that she would last more than a day. Soon they were left gasping in admiration of her stamina and pluck. At their first performance, Bernhardt's dressing room was a small lean-to with an earthen floor. She was delighted with it. Their stage was a platform reached by a ten-rung ladder; Bernhardt made little fuss and simply directed her associates to hoist her up, depositing her in an old armchair. She faced an audience of three thousand young men who, for the most part, had never heard of her and who were completely unimpressed by her appearance. She proceeded to do what she had always done, win them over. "With a rhythm that surged like the sounding of the charge," she evoked the glories of those throughout history who had died for France. And then, maintaining the same driving cadence, she culminated in a final cry, "Aux armes!", which brought them, cheering, to their feet.

Her courage, "which laughed at adversity," and her triumph of the spirit over frail flesh "changed our pity into admiration," one of her fellow actors later recalled. Of all Bernhardt's many triumphs throughout a lifetime of achievements, it was this last act that stood out above all: this "old woman of genius, who clumped along on her poor leg and in her little sedan chair, to give her blazing heart and valiant smile to the men who were suffering for us."
[McAuliffe, at 298; quotes taken from Béatrix Dussane, Reines de Théâtre, 1633-1941 (Lyon, France: H. Lardanchet, 1944).]
It is beyond peradventure that at some point in their travels to the front, albeit on such different errands, Marie Curie and Sarah Bernhardt crossed paths. I like to think of Bernhardt and her entourage of handsome young actors stopping to help Marie Curie change a flat tire, for example, only to hear Marie tell them: "That's all right -- I can handle this. You have more important work to do."

However their paths may have crossed during the Great War, they were to cross one more time before Sarah Bernhardt succumbed to uremia in March 1923. For just six months earlier, in October 1922, she had given one last benefit performance, acting in Verneuil’s Régine Armand. The cause for which she was raising money? It was none other than the equipping of Marie Curie's laboratory in Paris. 

1 comment:

  1. What a humiliating sounding of reality of such tragedy and accomplishment. How could these women have done any of this without (Sir Edmund) Hillary at least having tilled the field with her mule and disc so a to allow the planting of the seeds of such accomplishment and selflessness?
    With no negation of permission, I shall post this announcement of valour, resourcefullness, dedication to "others" to the readership of my humble publication. Thirty six hours shall pass....we are awaiting the Stork at any minute, and we are between funereal considerations of the number 2 best friend from high-school days and life, and the number 4 best friend who loaned money at the beginning of our establishment of the best excursion company in the history of Mexico.
    This posting by our Vicar is truly humbling.

    El Gringo Viejo