Cavalcade Of Stars

Yesterday as today, Beyoğlu has welcomed some of the world’s leading theater actresses, like Sarah Bernhardt, Adelaide Ristori and Suzanne Desprès.

In the 19th and 20th centuries there was a theater scene in Istanbul to vie with those of Europe: the Beyoğlu district. The oldest of its many theaters large and small was the Naum, where mainly Italian theatrical ensembles and opera troupes performed. Indeed some Italian operas had their debuts here even before they were staged in Paris and London. The French, the Verdi and the Tepebaşı are just a few of the other theaters that hosted world renowned groups. But our focus here is the world-famous stage actresses of the period. It is of course impossible to mention all those who ever visited Istanbul, so we shall remember only the ones who were most important and who visited the city more than once.

Let us begin with Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt, who died in 1923, earned wide acclaim not just in France but throughout the world with the performances she gave in a number of countries. With a voice like a bell, she won over the hearts of her audiences with her musical tones and grace of movement. This star, who not only acted on the stage but also appeared in numerous silent movies, earned even more admiration when she continued to pursue her career despite the amputation of a leg in 1915. One of her most outstanding traits was that she also played male roles, including that of Hamlet and of Napoleon’s son, the Duc de Reichstadt, in Edmond Rostand’s play, ‘L’Aiglon’. Bernhardt first came to Istanbul in 1881 with her husband. On her next visit in 1888, she presented the staples of her repertoire at the New French Theater. Some 700 people came to see her on the last evening of her performance. Bernhardt, who appeared at the Istanbul Verdi Theater in 1893, took the stage this time in Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Francillons’, a new addition to the roles she had played earlier. In December of 1904 she played Sappho at the Tepebaşı Theater in the play of the same name by Alphonse Daudet and A. Belot. On her fifth and last visit to the city in 1908, the actress again appeared at the Tepebaşı Theater, this time playing the ‘The Fortune-Teller’ as well as her earlier roles. This play was later adapted for the screen in 1923, the year of Bernhardt’s death.

Perhaps the most distinguished of the actresses who came to Istanbul is Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906). Like Sarah Bernhardt, she too toured the whole world, leaving audiences spellbound wherever she went. But this actress abandoned the stage in 1885 at the pinnacle of her career. Ristori, who came to Turkey in 1864 and gave thirty performances in the city, played at the Naum, filling it to capacity every night. And the audience never failed to pelt her with roses. Legouvé, Schiller, Pellico, Scribe and Shakespeare are some of the playwrights whose works she performed. Today a prize in her name is awarded annually to the world’s most successful women. Among the recipients are some of our own most highly acclaimed women. Stage actress Yıldız Kenter, for example, as well as writer-journalist Zeynep Oral, world-renowned violin virtuoso Suna Kan, art historian Prof. Günsel Renda, opera singer Belkıs Aran and drama professor Sevda Şener. Jane Hading, described as ‘the most beautiful woman of the French theater’, came to Istanbul in 1902 with her troupe. This actress, who gave four performances, also played the role of Sappho that Sarah Bernhardt had played earlier. Hading, who came to Beyoğlu two more times, staged three different plays at the Tepebaşı theater. Among the famous female stars who came to Istanbul twice is also Blanche Toutain and her troupe. Toutain’s first visit was especially significant for the Turks, because among the plays she presented was Izzet Melih Devrim’s ‘Leylâ’, which he wrote in French. Toutain, who first played to a Turkish audience in 1910, staged eight different plays in the city.

One of the leading artists of the French stage in the 1900s was Réjane (her real name was Gabrielle Charlotte Réju). A player at the Comédie Française, Réjane came to Istanbul for the first time in 1905 and performed four different roles together with the other prominent artists in her troupe. Coming to Istanbul again five years later, Réjane performed this time at the Varyete Theater. She also staged four plays in Beyoğlu in 1914. Madame Judic, who first came to Istanbul in 1891, is another actress who enchanted Turkish audiences, staging five different plays from her repertoire at the New French Theater. She returned to Istanbul at the beginning of 1896, performing this time in three plays as well as playing for Sultan Abdülhamid II on the stage of the Yıldız Palace Theater. Georgette Blanc is the actress who introduced Turkish audiences to Maurice Maeterlinck, a rising star at the time who was taking his place among Europe’s leading writers. Blanc, who came to Istanbul at the beginning of 1904, played in Maeterlinck’s ‘Joyzelle’, ‘Aglavaine et Sélysette’ and ‘L’Intruse’ at the Odeon Theater. Among them, ‘Joyzelle’ had premiered in Paris only a year earlier.
Suzanne Desprès is another prominent actress of the period. The wife of French theater great Lugné-Poe, who founded the group known as ‘L’Oeuvre’, Desprès introduced Istanbul audiences to the works of Ibsen. Like Sarah Bernhardt, she also played Hamlet. The Turkish theater giant Muhsin Ertuğrul was strongly influenced by this couple, whom he met in Paris where he followed their work, and even devotes a special section to them in his memoirs. So impressed was Ertuğrul after seeing Desprès as a female Hamlet that he put Nur Sabuncu and Ayla Algan on stage for the first time.
Desprès’s first visit to Istanbul was in 1906 with the group ‘L’Oeuvre’, which performed at the Tepebaşı theater. Playing the role of Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ on her first visit, the actress again presented two Ibsen plays on her 1908 visit as well as works by other important playwrights. In 1909 she performed the classics, ‘Phédre’ and ‘Electra’. Desprès’s last visit was in 1911 when she staged, among other prominent works, a play by Jules Renard entitled ‘Poil de Carotte’, in which she donned male garb to play a despondent red-haired youth. Last but not least, I would like thank our own star, Yıldız Kenter, for being my inspiration for this piece of writing...