A Columbia University professor and the author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England takes a look at the 19th century origins of stardom and fandom, with particular attention to the cultish figure of stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923).
If there is a problem with Marcus’s careful, thoughtful, thorough study—and I am hard pressed to find one—it is a trap all of us trained in certain literary or cultural periods fall into: an over-reach of claims for one’s own specific period ... Marcus’s great achievement here is that she leads us on a journey of understanding celebrity and stardom with a richer history than we are often want to take. She carefully mines the archives of nineteenth scrapbooks and libraries, theater reviews and newsletters to help us understand that celebrity culture itself helps move a society forward ... The Drama of Celebrity offers an exhaustive analysis, typical of good cultural studies work, of Sarah Bernhardt’s relationship to the media, the public, and her own stardom. But more than that, Marcus offers us an intersectional understanding of celebrity itself, a wisdom we can use as we prepare for 2020 perhaps more than ever.
...[an] inventive, stimulating book ... It seems indisputable that Bernhardt anticipated many of the strategies of celebrity self-promotion, and Marcus is a brilliant theorist and analyst of theater history. But equating celebrity with the stage actor, and generalizing about public influence from the memorabilia of 19th-century devotees, can’t account for the contemporary cultural situation. The drama of celebrity goes far beyond the dwindling niche market of theater ... A celebrity today is as likely to be Stormy Daniels or Sarah Sanders as Sarah Bernhardt.
Marcus aptly compares Bernhardt’s resistance to body shaming with Barbra Streisand’s and Lena Dunham’s, an analogy that loses none of its force from the obvious reversal in the standard of beauty the latter is defying ... Over the course of the century, the habitual rowdiness of theatrical audiences increasingly gave way to respectful silence, but Marcus sensibly questions those who identify such pacification with passivity. Indeed, new protocols of silence and darkness may have encouraged audiences to concentrate more intently on the performance, without being distracted by fellow theatergoers. Though we tend to think that only the Internet has enabled everyone to weigh in as a critic, Marcus demonstrates that individual debates about merit were a part of celebrity culture from the first. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some of the evidence she uncovers is no more enlightening than the average Amazon rating or Rotten Tomatoes review ... The Drama of Celebrity is premised on a fundamental continuity between Bernhardt’s era and our own, and Marcus is surely right to contend that the star did much to invent what we now recognize as celebrity culture ... But while it may be true, as Marcus suggests, that Bernhardt anticipated virtually every move in the modern celebrity playbook, there’s also something potentially misleading about the decision to treat her career as representative. The technological developments...[that] postdate the actress’s death...[may] have made more of a difference than Marcus allows ... by underestimating how the rapid expansion of mass media in the century since Bernhardt’s death has heightened the illusion of intimacy, she also risks minimizing how politicians in this country and elsewhere have managed to manipulate it.