The Divine A Play for Sarah Bernhardt

by Michel Marc Bouchard • The Good Life Performance • Megan Palm

Intro

Having never before entered the Constans Theatre here at UF, I had no idea what to expect. Granted, I've been to a few plays and shows throughout my life, but every theater setup is a little different. The plot and setting of every play is generally also unique, so I was excited to see what the playwrights created and how the actors made this script a reality. I'd heard mixed reviews about "The Divine" from my peers before seeing it performed myself, however I was determined to keep an open mind. I went to see this play Thursday, January 26th with a friend.

The Spatial Experience

When I first entered the Contans Theatre, I noticed how wide it was and how the stage comes forward towards the seats on either end. I also noticed how far back the stage extends, but initially my first thought was that it was rather normal-looking -- not too big, not too small. In the words of Goldilocks, it was "just right," because the slightly smaller size added a greater intimacy to the performance (plus we got better seats). I was seated on the left with a friend, but again the size of the theater made the precise seat unimportant, as we all got a fairly good view.

At first the room was somewhat dimly lit but the stage decorations (excuse my lack of proper theatre terms) looked amazing. There were these massive brown-framed (or perhaps gold) stained-glass windows which were painted with an array of colors blended beautifully. When the lights dimmed and the performance started, I remember being startled by the actors running down the stairs -- playing the role of, if I recall correctly, frantic journalists. I hadn't expected that, and it was a very cool way for the audience to get even closer to the story. It especially helped to grab our attention in the beginning. Mostly, though, as the initial hush fell over the audience, I remember being excited for the play to start.

The Social Experience

I attended the performance with my friend, Ivan. We both dressed somewhat nicely, which for us entailed putting in slightly more effort to get ready for the performance than we do on the average day for, say, classes. Attending the performance with a friend definitely strengthened my experience of the play, as we spoke about the events and themes of the play during intermission and exchanged opinions afterward. My companion, for example, pointed out the irony of having a play within a play, as occurred in "The Divine." For example, Sarah Bernhardt's concern over being a major actress who only appears during the third act occurred in the performance during her initial appearance, ironically also during the third act.

The Cultural and Intellectual Experience

Based on my observations, this play focused primarily on social divides, the oppression of the working class, and moral controversies. Additionally, The Divine incorporates elements of Canadian culture, history and religion. The play begins as a young man, Talbot, arrives at the Grand Seminary (essentially a priest school in Canada) after getting into a fight with a priest at his old academy. We learn that Talbot's mother is widowed and she and his younger brother work in a shoe factory (in rather dangerous conditions) to scrape together money for his seminary school. We also meet Michaud, another student at the Grand Seminary, who secretly wants to be a writer and is fascinated with actress Sarah Bernhardt, who coincidentally is in town to perform a play. Throughout the play the troubled past of Talbot is uncovered, and both he and Michaud undergo serious character development, as they are forced to make choices about what is morally and ethically right once Michaud finds out about Talbot's past abuse by a priest. The poor working conditions at the shoe factory ultimately lead to the death of Talbot's brother, Leo, which also attests to the central concept of the oppression of the working class.

Before attending this performance, I knew a few things about child labor, divisions between the wealthy (privileged) and poor, and the role of the theater as a challenger to more conservative views in society. However, I did not know nearly anything about Canada in the 1900s.

The Emotional Experience

Throughout the play, I had an inkling that there was more to Talbot's complicated past than meets the eye, but when it was revealed that he was abused I was shocked and deeply saddened. This is just one example of the emotional experience of The Divine, because I can also distinctly remember feeling dozens of other emotions throughout the play. I was angry at the Shoe factory boss for the horrible working conditions, I was horrified to learn that two little girls' heads had been cut off by machines, I was frustrated that Talbot's mother never really understood what he was going through and that Brother Casgrain tried to suppress the entire abuse issue, I was irritated by Sarah Bernhardt's ignorance and arrogance, and I was happy that Michaud and Talbot became such deep friends.

I think that a lot of the play's emotions can be felt through Michaud, as he is writing about Talbot's life throughout the play and thus experiences the plot reveals firsthand. As a viewer of the play, I definitely had the opportunity to look at these somewhat 'unorthodox' topics, trials and tribulations, which, in turn, led me to question the sometimes awful actions of humanity. The perseverance of the characters in spite of these tragic circumstances (especially the actions of Michaud at the end) also gave me a feeling of hope for a better future and led me to question exactly what motivates me and what makes me happy. For Talbot, being happy is trying to move on and forget his past abuse and trying to make a living for his family. For Michaud, living a meaningful life is developing friendships and uncovering the truth. Even Sarah Bernhardt, in her own odd way, came to embody the idea of the Good Life as one of educating the public about social issues through artistic outlets of expression, and of challenging cultural authority.

Me standing in front of the Constans Theatre before the play

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