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She's old enough to be a beautiful young boy: Sarah Bernhardt, breeches roles and the poetics of aging

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This essay argues that Sarah Bernhardt's choice to play young male roles late in her career served as a radically anti-agist feminist response to the limiting and often demeaning professional and social opportunities afforded aging women. While scholarship has attended to Bernhardt's cross-dress roles through the lens of gender, this essay highlights her “breeches” roles, in particular Hamlet and L’Aiglon as cross-age and cross-gender. By examining “aging” as the contextual mode by which gender functioned, we open up new terrain with which to examine and appreciate Bernhardt's significance in the scope of theatre history, women's history and aging studies. In the title roles of Hamlet and L’Aiglon, Berhnardt assumed youth and male-ness on stage, which both highlighted her offstage socially perceived deficits (aged and female) and challenged the designation of those identities as deficient; performance threw into flux what had been assumed static. And the public responded. Far from honoring the assumed cultural hetero-normative contract that aging women acquiesce public visibility, Bernhardt's breeches roles (re)constructed her body as female (from aging/sexless) and demanded audience members’, male and female, desiring gaze.

Keywords: Hamlet; L’Aiglon; Sarah Bernhardt; aging; breeches roles; cross-dress roles; travesti roles; “cross-age roles”

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Barnard College, New York,

Publication date: March 1, 2012


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