Sarah Bernhardt ’s Edmonton Apotheosis at the Empire

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Sarah Bernhardt ’s Edmonton Apotheosis at the Empire

In January 1913, at the age of 68, Sarah Bernhardt performed the death of young Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gauthier in fifth act of La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils at the second Empire Theatre in Edmonton Alberta for one matinee and one evening show. She was on tour with Martin Beck’s New York company, providing a tragic finale to the vaudeville acts which comprised the first half of the show. The price of theatre seats doubled to $3. Her response to Edmonton was euphoric, despite the “ferociously piercing cold”; and she prophesied that “with remarkable rapidity it will be ravishingly beautiful.”

Edmonton playwright, Stewart Lemoine, brings Bernhardt and her vision of Edmonton into the present in his play, At the Zenith of the Empire, which premiered at the Varscona Theatre, November 2005. In his play Bernhardt’s ironic comments on the conditions under which Edmontonians survive point to a tenacious local pride, and the opportunity to live “free of old notions.” Her observations on the vibrant Edmonton theatre scene in the early 19th century anticipate the current scene, and posit the social value of theatre practice and attendance. Lemoine dramatizes the constituency of the local theatre audience and its response to her performance in the form of three women. For Bernhardt, “Alberta’s daughters” are her “muses.” She finds her inspiration in the community in which she makes her theatre, as does playwright, Stewart Lemoine. All the possibilities for tragedy and comedy reside in Edmonton, as she observes when she first encounters her adoring fans:

Are these the Muses, approaching to ignite the flame of pathos and humour and truth which will rage throughout the ensuing spectacle? . . . Well no, they’re not. These are Alberta’s daughters, not Mnemosene’s, but I think they’re every bit as lovely (4)

At the Zenith of the Empire opens with a dramatic flourish as Sarah Bernhardt is illuminated on stage, draped on a splendid chair. In her direct address to the audience, she establishes herself as choric comment on the action which follows. She has returned from the past to recreate her role in Edmonton, and to act as prologue to a local drama that echoes the mis-en-scene of La Dame aux Camelias:

In the theatre, we will force you to look at some terrible moments. Terrible moments in the lives of good persons much like ourselves. It is as necessary as it is dreadful, for seeing such things helps us to move forward (48).

She comments on her style of acting the death scene (with echoes of Hamlet’s advice to the actors), but only briefly mimes it at the end for her on-stage audience. A full performance is left to the imagination. Lemoine’s Bernhardt effects the transition between fantasy and reality, the past and the present:

For seventy-nine years I roamed this earth and it’s a few more than that since I went to reside with the Muses on Mount Parnassus. It’s a lot of years in total and still I’ve learnt not a word of English. Pas un mot ... and yet … you understand me! This is how it has always been. I was given the gift of being understood by all people at all times and in all places and this led to a great deal of success for me. I have visited your city once before of course, and my experience was much the same as the one we are sharing right now (1).

Lemoine bases her claim that she transcends language barriers on a review of her performance in the Bulletin (14 Jan 1913):

Though speaking in French, which was foreign to a majority of those present at both performances, the audience and Bernhardt understood each other from the first liquid word that passed her scarlet lips until the curtain fell on the last glimpse of the smiling tragedienne with her arms full of roses, presented by local admirers (quoted in Orrell 104).

Lemoine’s Bernhardt, however, waves away the proffered roses at the beginning of At the Zenith of the Empire. She still has a part to play in what follows – a re-enacted visitation of Edmonton. With the help of the Assistant to the Associate Theatre Manager, Bram Jarvis, and architect, Peter Ingram, she tours the city, and marvels at the impossibilities taking place there – for example, the construction of the High Level bridge linking Strathcona on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River to Edmonton on the north. She observes that it will take the people out of the valley, “who have no imagination or purpose or ambition.” (76). For those who stand on the bridge, and observe the vista, it will not spoil the view. She compares this experience with being aloft in a balloon over Paris (83). She urges the theatre manager and the architect to create the community of the future by writing plays and designing beautiful buildings.

On her visit to Edmonton, Bernhardt is accompanied by her current leading man, Lou Tellegan, a posturing Dutch actor with French pretensions. From his location in Winnipeg, where he and Bernhardt have played for six days on the tour, he laments the impending visit to a place that is even more remote and arduous: “It’s so far north of here. It shouldn’t even be possible for people to live there” (9). He voices the uninformed attitudes of those who fancy themselves more urbane, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, although he began his own career as a dock worker in Rotterdam before acquiring his persona as an actor. Bernhardt, on the other hand, who identifies with the challenge provided by unlikely situations – playing Hamlet in drag, for example – counters his negativity: “And yet they do. Their motto must surely be ‘Quand-meme! Just as mine has always been … Edmonton is not even so far north as Denmark. Or St. Petersburg. And wasn’t that where you spent the happiest days of your life?” (10).

Lemoine found his own inspiration for At the Zenith of the Empire in a history of Edmonton’s theatre written by University of Alberta English professor, John Orrell, who also researched the design of London’s Globe theatre for its reconstruction on the South Bank. Lemoine was presented with a copy of Fallen Empires: The Lost Theatres of Edmonton (published by NeWest Press in 1981) at Orrell’s funeral in 2003, when an excerpt of his play The Exquisite Hour was performed by Jeff Haslam, an actor in Lemoine’s theatre company, Teatro la Quindicina. John Orrell was an admirer of Lemoine’s works, and conversely At the Zenith of the Empire is also a tribute to Orrell’s research and writing, and his work in cultivating a vibrant Edmonton theatre scene. As Lemoine explains in a programme note for his play, “While discussing the progress of English theatre through the last two centuries, he would often touch on the concurrent state of local theatre development.”

There were three “Empire” theatres in Edmonton, which mounted vaudeville and plays by American and Canadian touring companies after the arrival of the railway in 1891. The First Empire was built in 1906, a vaudeville house with four shows a day. It was renamed the Bijou in 1907 and functioned as a movie house, then converted to the Queen City Meat Market in 1911, and pulled down in the 1950s. The Edmonton Opera House, also constructed in 1906, was remodeled in 1909 as the Second Empire, and participated in the American Pantages circuit: acts came by rail from Calgary for a couple of days, before departing for Spokane. Following WWII it was converted to a movie theatre and then a popular dancehall named the Trocadero until 1981 when it was pulled down to make way for an office tower. The third “New Empire” was built in 1920 with seating for 1,477 in the auditorium and box seats.

Between 1912 and 1914, however, Edmonton enjoyed two “golden seasons” of theatre. Under the management of Calgary entrepreneur, W.B. Sherman, the second Empire hosted touring companies, and the Lyceum provided a home for resident stock companies:

Sherman’s management policy ensured that they differed radically in character. At the Lyceum he was to encourage resident stock companies whose stays tended to grow longer with the passing years, while at the Empire the half-week vaudeville bookings would leave the prime Friday and Saturday nights free for road shows which might readily arrive in time for a Thursday opening and depart on the Sunday train. The Lyceum tended therefore to elicit and receive a strong local loyalty, whereas the Empire could offer some of the more notable talents of the international English-speaking theatre (Orrell 91).

For example, in 1912 Johnstone Forbes-Robertson performed as the Stranger in Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back and addressed the Drama Society of the University of Alberta on the merits of Ibsen and naturalism in acting (Orrell 92). In 1912, the Lyceum was renovated, and 500 upholstered opera seats installed. It reopened with a new resident troupe of twelve actors and actresses, the Winnipeg Stock Company, which was initially engaged to play for eight weeks, but stayed for eight months, “establishing themselves very firmly in the affections of the local audiences” (Orrell 94).

In Lemoine’s play, a Winnipeg actress performing at the Lyceum provides some insight into the conditions for theatre practitioners in Western Canadian cities. Azalia Claymore’s life is entirely at the disposal of her art. She is in a performance every night, a rehearsal of a new play every afternoon, and in a new show every week. Sunday is her only day off. She also comments on the doubtful efficacy of advertising with handbills and the importance of newspaper reviews – articulating the challenges that still face theatre companies (13). In her conversation with the imported actor, Lou Tellegan, she explains that Edmonton already has an active theatre life, and that she has moved there in order to take advantage of it (78). And it is Azalia who performs the death scene with Lou, as she endeavours to understand Bernhardt’s technique. In metatheatrical postscript to At the Zenith of the Empire, Daniela Vlaskalic, who played Azalia, performed with Mark Meer, who played Lou, in a fundraising performance of the death scene in La Dame aux Camelias at the Varscona Theatre.

At the Zenith of the Empire is a portrait of community theatre practice and audience response, showing the intersections of the past with the present. As Lemoine points out in an interview with Edmonton Journal reviewer, Liz Nichols, the play is not so much about Bernhardt or the Empire as about the audience – “uncharted terrain, really: the people who go to theatre, why they go, the dynamics of the group … the ones who go out of duty, the ones who go to everything at the Empire, audience and celebrity. In a city like this, not everyone was savvy about theatre, but everyone knew who she was.” (C2). His audience is enacted by three devoted theatre fans, who typically attend performances together: Lillian, a wealthy widow and socialite who has seen Bernhardt in other performances, and who prides herself on her knowledge of the theatre; Winnie, a librarian from Strathcona (the other side of the river) who relates personally and emotionally to theatre performance; and Celia, the straight-laced and parsimonious Scot who has some reservations about both classical and experimental drama and prefers “light entertainment.” The playwright has obviously, over the years, been observing the Edmonton audience who observe his plays. From the perspective of loyal audience member, Winnie, Lemoine champions the local theatre scene, and its importance to community-building, even though Winnie appreciates the attraction of the imported “hits” from the United States:

“It’s so nice to see the familiar faces onstage and the plays are always funny and prices are quite a bit lower than at the Empire.” (58)

Winnie also sees films at the Empress, another of Edmonton’s six theatres, converted to admit the newest fad in entertainment. Her treasonous behaviour is deplored by her friend, Mrs. Lillian Barnes, the self-dramatizing theatre aficionado. Lillian also provides insight into the Edmonton amateur theatrical scene before the establishment of “proper” theatres like the Empire, foreshadowing the plethora of contemporary theatre activity in the city, particularly the Fringe Theatre Festival. Her doubts about new experimental theatre groups using “found” theatre spaces are still current:

Everyone was always putting up the most ambitious things in the oddest places, like the back room of Mr. Parrish’s grainery or in the upstairs hall at Fergusson’s where they had the temperance meetings. It was so ridiculous as to be rather entertaining, but I don’t think it’s entirely apt to call a place a theatre just because there’s a congestion of people in it who are all facing the same direction (27).

Through the responses of Bram, the theatre manager, to the telephone inquiries of potential customers, Lemoine also satirizes the unreasonable assumptions and expectations they may bring to the theatre. In his other guise, Bram is an incipient playwright, who will write about Bernhardt’s visit to Edmonton – a Lemoine in the making.

The romantic “play-within-the play” At the Zenith of the Empire replays the scenario of La Dame aux Camelias in terms of two local playgoers. At the onset of the action, the architect, Peter Ingram, is in recovery from a pristine love affair with Winnie Pierce, the librarian from Strathcona with a mysterious past which has left her with the legacy of a generous income. They had met at a matinee performance at the Empire. As Bernhardt observes about their relationship: “The theatre was something different. A tool. A bridge. It brought you together “(57). Their love flourished in the Edmonton environment through which they walked: Groat Ravine, Rossdale Flats by the river, and the Glenora district where Peter has designed houses. But when Peter discovers that she has been in a relationship with a married man, he rejects her as a common courtesan. However, no one dies of love in Lemoine’s plays. Sarah Bernhardt directs the rehabilitation of their relationship through their common love of the theatre. In effect, a classical French tragedy is replayed in “contemporary” Edmonton terms as comedy. Life and art imitate art – as Lemoine demonstrates in many of his metatheatrical works.

He also celebrates the interaction of local theatre artists and community by deconstructing his characters as actors in his own theatre company, Teatro La Quindicina, which has provided Edmonton theatre audiences with cerebral comedies of manners for nearly twenty-five years. Teatro has cultivated over time a loyal audience which readily responds to the fantastical style of the plays, and the quirky personas of the actors. Leona Brausen, a comic character actor with a talent for ironic intonation and grand gestures, played la divine Sarah as a dea ex machina. At one point in the play, demonstrating the financially efficient device of role doubling, she plays a waiter, serving lunch to two community members who constitute her audience, enacting a common contemporary thespian experience:

What’s this? Have we no one to take this role? Ah well, Sarah Bernhardt has surmounted the impossibilities of Hamlet and she will not shrink from this new challenge (30).

And when she performs the menu, which features roast beef and beef soup, she is obviously playing to an Alberta audience:

It is a strong beef broth in which barley and vegetables are suspended. It possesses boldness and humility in equal measure (31).

Peter and Azalea feel “nourished” even before they eat.

The operatic gestures of theatre aficionado Lillian Barnes were ironically played by opera singer/actress Sheri Somerville; and the reservations of the least enthusiastic theatre fan, Celia McCourt, were hilariously rendered by Coralie Cairns, a versatile actor who has played in every Edmonton theatre, in a wide range of roles. As the architect who doubts the viability of Edmonton, Jeff Haslam is also well known as theatre practitioner who has based his work in the community for the past twenty years. At the end of the play, all of the actors appear as “themselves” and present Bernhardt with roses in a tribute to a life in the theatre that endures through performance.

Lillian finally learns from Sarah Bernhardt that the performance of La Dame aux Camelias does not, and should not constitute the “zenith of the Empire.” The pragmatic Celia explains that the implications then would be that theatre will go downhill in Edmonton after Bernhardt is gone. In fact, even though the Empire in which Bernhardt performed would eventually be demolished, theatre has continued to expand and to experiment in the city in a variety of venues. Lemoine gives to Bernhardt an elaboration of the final words in John Orrell’s history:

That the Empire is beautiful is not to be denied, but I think it could come down tomorrow and the loss would be less profound than you’d expect. All that was most valuable here is gone by the end of every night. It’s taken away by the people who came here and watched and listened. These buildings that we call theatres … some last, some don’t, and this is surely how it’s always going to be, but the thing is to see that whenever you may lose one … you find another. A smaller one, a bigger one, it doesn’t matter … but they must always be replaced (95-96).

At the Zenith of the Empire is a witty meta-theatrical and meta-historical exposition of the importance and significance of community theatre practice. It interrogates the many intersections of theatre and community – in the past and in the present. The theatre history of the city comments on and underscores contemporary practice, and makes a compelling case for the future.
Works Cited
Lemoine, Stewart. At the Zenith of the Empire. Unpublished MS 2005.
__________. Program Note for At the Zenith of the Empire, November 10-26, 2005.
Nichols, Liz. “The Day Divine Sarah thrilled Edmontonians,” Edmonton Journal 9 Nov

2005: C1 and C2.

Orrell, John. Fallen Empires: The Lost Theatres of Edmonton. Edmonton: NeWest,


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