Tragic muse : Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise New York : A.A. Knopf, 1993 Rachel M. Brownstein Theater France History 19th century, Comedie-Francaise, Rachel, 1821-1858 Hardcover. 1st. ed. xiii, 318 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 363-305) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Usually considered the greatest of French classical tragediennes, she made her American debut in 1855 as Camille in Corneille’s Horace. The Albion reported, “There came in a severe classic figure, a polychrome statue, gliding past the columns, and breathing rather than articulating. . . . So deep, vibrant and magnetic were the first tones of [her] voice that they sent a thrill through the vast assembly, a thrill which at once opened communication between the genius of Rachel and her new hearers.”
Rachel Felix (1821-58), the homely daughter of poor Jewish peddlers, was the first stage actress to achieve international stardom – and the last person one would have expected to resurrect the cultural patrimony of France. Yet her passionate, startling performances of the works of Racine and Corneille saved them from almost certain obsolescence after the fall of Napoleon and the emergence of Romanticism.
Audiences in Paris, London, Boston, and Moscow thrilled to her voice, and devoured the rumors of her offstage promiscuity and extravagance. Her fame – equal parts popularity and notoriety – was so great that she could nonchalantly dispose of her last name. La grande Rachel virtually invented the role of the superstar, while remaining a symbol of the highest art and most serious cultural pursuits. Indeed, her identity was fraught with such contradictions – which intrigued the public all the more.
From the moment she was discovered playing the guitar on the streets of Lyons, to her debut on the Parisian stage at the age of fifteen, to her critical and commercial triumphs as Camille, Phedre, and other tormented women, Rachel’s career was exhaustively “managed”. A series of theater gurus, influential reviewers, and impresarios – including her brash and opportunistic father – claimed the credit for her astonishing success.
What this abundance of male managers has always obscured is Rachel’s own decisiveness and control over her time and money – not only did she play her various champions against one another, she openly defied them. Some called her stubborn, even perverse; in these pages, we come to recognize her as a woman ahead of her time, a charismatic individual very much in charge of her own destiny.
As her fascination with all things Napoleonic suggests, Rachel liked power – both personal and professional – and had the talent to command it. This biography explores the themes of Rachel’s brief, intense life and tragic death, as well as her afterlife as a character in novels and a figure of legend. Rachel’s appearances – more or less disguised – in Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Henry James are crucial to an understanding of her profound appeal.
On later evenings she presented her Phèdre, Adrienne Lecouvreur, and Andromaque, among others. Apparently she caught a cold that aggravated her tubercular condition, and her last performance was in Charleston, where she was barely able to perform. She then sailed for France, where she died just over two years afterward.