"Sarah in America," a partially successful one-hour version of the play performed at the Kennedy Center last February which will be shown on WETA-TV at 9 tonight, presents the question: Do works designed for the stage transplant well to another medium? It is not a new question, to be sure, but one bound to occur with greater regularity as theaters try to cash in on the booming TV market, cable and otherwise.
At its best, the marriage produces a love child, who enriches everyone's life financially and artistically, making performances by great artists available to a wider audience and providing a new perspective on a work for the stage. At its worst, the product is awkward, with performers emoting and made up for the last row in the balcony, not the camera 10 feet away.
"Sarah in America" both gains and loses from the presence of the camera. The play, essentially a one-woman show starring Lilli Palmer as the Divine Miss Sarah, got mixed reviews when it played here. Palmer is the only speaking performer (the other character being Bernhardt's maid) and while she is physically lovely, vocally she is not compelling enough to make us see why Bernhardt was such a legendary performer.
"This is how I live -- risk!" Bernhardt says with Niagara Falls pounding in the background. Palmer's Bernhardt seems dear and entrancing, but lacks that feeling of lunacy, of daring, of risk that made Bernhardt a character as well as an artist. Palmer seems too nice to be a prima donna.
The camera serves Palmer well in the scenes of Bernhardt's later years, when she is still touring at the age of 62, 69 and 72, despite increasing infirmity and eventually an amputated leg. The heavy stage makeup and bright red wig of a woman painting over her age with a thick brush are all too clear in the close-ups, adding poignance to her tired realization that she is "a freak."
The camera also seems too often an intruder here, making the audience feel they are backstage rather than part of the Kennedy Center audience out front. Palmer's voice projection (the production here was criticized for having bad sound reproduction) is fine for theater, but on television she appears to be shouting.
The form of the production, a series of scenes from four of Bernhardt's nine tours of the United States, seems disjointed, and the between-scenes narrations by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. do little to connect one scene to the next. Things clip along a little too quickly -- one minute Sarah is combating the "syndicate" of theater owners, and the next minute she's limping on the hurt leg. Perhaps it is too rich a life, starting with an illegitimate birth in Paris in 1844 and ending with a funeral attended by thousands in 1923, to pack into one hour. And while a filmed stage performance might seem an ideal vehicle to portray a preeminent stage actress, these snippets are frustrating in their incompleteness.
"When a writer dies, he lives . . ." Sarah says at one point. "I only live as long as I can act." Sarah lives on, but not well enough.