Rachel (1821–1858)

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Rachel (1821–1858)

French tragedian whose talent in the classical French tradition brought her a lifetime post with the Comèdie-Française, during which she was credited with reviving respect in post-revolutionary France for the great dramatists of the ancien règime. Name variations: Rachel Félix or Felix. Born Elisabeth-Rachel Félix near Aargau, Switzerland, probably in February 1821; died on January 3, 1858, in Le Cannet, France, of tuberculosis; second child of poor Jewish peddlers, Jacques and Thèrese Félix; never married, but her numerous affairs among the European aristocracy produced at least one child.

A leisurely walk through Paris' famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, that granite and marble index to French social and cultural history, would inevitably present the casual visitor with a bewildering array of familiar names—Balzac, Bizet, Chopin. Drawn by these luminaries, it would be easy to bypass the small tomb of one of their contemporaries, in the form of a petite Greek temple, bearing the single name "Rachel" and standing at the end of the avenue of the same name; nor would it be apparent that they once paid enthusiastic court to the woman they had called la reine du théâtre; the woman who had, they said at the time, singlehandedly saved the moribund Comédie-Française with her electrifying interpretations of the French classics, and who fascinated them even more by an unfettered lifestyle denied to most women of the mid-19th century. She was, in fact, one of the most famous personalities of her time, an international celebrity known on both sides of the Atlantic in an age that had not yet invented the telegraph.

"She was born in the realms of poetry," gushed one of her most ardent supporters in 1840 at the height of her career. There was no need for such metaphorical raptures, for the heights to which Mlle Rachel ascended from a decidedly lowly birth were remarkable enough—a birth so obscure that even the precise date and the name under which she came into the world remain problematical. The date generally given for the event, February 1821, was recalled with imperfect memory many years later by her parents, who had not bothered to officially record the arrival of their second daughter. The fact that it was the same year that the exiled Napoleon had died may have played a part in the parental recollection. Jacques and Thèrese Félix had been part of the great Jewish exodus from pogroms and harsh living conditions in Poland and Russia, joining the wave of itinerant peddlers which slowly made its way west, particularly to France, where Napoleon had passed laws designed to integrate Jews into mainstream French culture rather than persecute them. The surname "Félix," in fact, may have been the assigned French transliteration of the family's original Hebrew name, "Baruch." Both names in their respective languages mean "blessed."

Rachel had been born as her parents and an older sister traveled through Switzerland on their way to Lyons, where many Jews found employment in that city's thriving clothmaking industry. The baby girl born at a roadside inn in the canton of Aargau, between Zurich and Basel, may have been named Elisabeth or perhaps Elisabeth-Rachel. (A note written by her to her parents in about 1830 is signed "Elissa," a diminutive for Elisabeth.) When their daughter later became famous, Monsieur and Madame Félix would tell stories of how Rachel, at a tender young age, accompanied her older sister Sarah Félix singing and playing the guitar to supplement the meager income the family earned from selling pins, writing paper and other notions from the back of their battered wagon; or how Rachel, at seven years of age, could move passersby to tears with her melancholy rendition of the "Ballad of the Wandering Jew." By 1831, when Rachel was ten and had gained three more sisters, including Lia Félix , and a brother, the family had arrived in Paris and settled into the Marais, then a damp, marshy outpost on the eastern edge of the city. A seventh and last child, another daughter, was born as the Félixes joined about 9,000 Jews in Paris at the time, accorded full rights as French citizens under Napoleon's laws.

The first recorded reference to Rachel occurs in the registration records of the school in which she and her older sister were enrolled, where the girls were listed as "Mlles de Sainte-Félix." Little is known of her education, although it is probable Rachel was taught the elements of speech and deportment which were a part of every school-child's curriculum in a society much concerned with the social graces. In later life, Rachel would tell friends that she owed her success to her childhood teachers, especially her vocal coach. This anonymous individual was sufficiently impressed with the young student's dramatic talents to recommend her to an actor friend, one Monsieur Saint-Aulaire, who managed a school for the dramatic arts as well as a theater. Saint-Aulaire was also a member of the prestigious Comédie-Française, the French national theater created by an edict of Louis XIV in 1680 to preserve and present the works of the great classical French playwrights, chief among them being Racine, Corneille, and Molière. Saint-Aulaire's theater, in fact, was called the Théâtre Molière and presented several of the works in the Comédie's repertoire. While Sainte-Aulaire taught his students the highly stylized expressions, gestures, and declamatory acting of the classical stage, he departed from his contemporaries in encouraging his students to graft their own natural sensibilities onto this time-honored stock. He was quickly struck by the depth of emotion in Rachel's acting, particularly in the tragic roles for which she would later become famous.

Félix, Lia (b. 1830)

French actress. Name variations: Felix. Born in 1830; third daughter of poor Jewish peddlers, Jacques and Thèrese Félix; pupil of her sister, Rachel (1821–1858).

Lia Félix had hardly been tested as an actress when she was asked to take the lead role in Lamartine's Toussaint L'Ouverture at the Porte St. Martin on April 6, 1850. Though the play was not a hit, Félix was favorably received, and several important parts were immediately offered to her. Soon, she came to be recognized as one of the best comedians in Paris. Rachel took Lia to America with her to play supporting parts. On returning to Paris, Lia appeared at several of the principal theaters, but her health forced her to retire for several years. When she reappeared at the Gaiété in the title role of Jules Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc, she had an enormous success.

By 1834, when the great American tragedian Edwin Forrest attended a performance at Saint-Aulaire's theater during a European tour, Rachel was attracting considerable attention. Forrest wrote to friends in America about the "Jewish looking girl" he had seen, a "little bag of bones with the marble face and flaming eyes. If she lives and does not burn out too soon," he predicted, "she will become something wonderful." Also in the audience one night and equally impressed was the treasurer of the Théâtre Française, owned and managed by the Comédie-Française. In October 1836, Rachel was offered a position at the Comédie's own acting school, the Conservatoire, with a yearly stipend of 600 francs. Just 15 years old at the time, Rachel was now virtually assured an eventual position with the permanent company of the Comédie-Française. But her first offer of professional employment came from a private company called the Thèâtre Gymnase. Her father, it was said, negotiated the contract himself and convinced his daughter to leave the Conservatoire before her studies there were completed.

So it was that Rachel made her professional début in 1837 in a play written especially for her, La Vendéene, set during Napoleon's First Republic of 30 years before. Her portrayal of a peasant girl who undertakes a perilous journey on foot to Paris to plead with the empress Josephine to spare her condemned father's life brought mixed reviews; while the reaction to her work in her second play for the company, a comedy, was so negative that the Théâtre Gymnase agreed to cancel her contract. Anxious to return to the Conservatoire, Rachel undertook a letter-writing campaign to reclaim her place and won a positive response from the teacher she most respected, Joseph-Isidore Samson. Samson agreed to take her on as a private student and prepare her for the Comédie, of which he, like Sainte-Aulaire, was a member. A year's work with Samson added elegance and sophistication to her technique, so that by February 1838, Samson felt she was ready for the classical stage and arranged for her to sign a year's contract as a pensionnaire, or apprentice, with the Comédie.

Rachel took her place in a venerable acting company that was struggling to regain the prestige it had lost at the hands of the French Revolution, during which it was viewed as a relic of the ancien régime and an aristocratic anachronism. Renamed the Théâtre de la Nation during the Terror of 1792, it had declined into obsolescence during the Directory in the face of more contemporary plays inspired by the German and English romanticism of the early 1800s. It revived somewhat under Napoleon but lost its momentum with the death of its leading tragedian in 1826. By the 1830s, the king's proud Comédie-Française was playing to half-empty houses while audiences flocked to see that ravishing new art form, opera, being presented at the new Opéra de Paris or to the raffish "boulevard theaters" presenting raucous comedies and social satires by authors like Victor Hugo. Such works would have horrified the old masters of the French stage, whose courtly plays adhered strictly to the Three Unities of the ancient Greeks. Their plots were required to take place within a 24-hour period, their action was limited to one location, and there were no distracting subplots. Any fighting or bloodletting was described in elegant prose rather than shown directly, and every moral position was exhaustively presented in static speeches written in stately alexandrines. But even the Napoleonic nostalgia that had brought the "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe to power eight years before Rachel's debut with the troupe had failed to revive the Comédie-Française.

The company's prospects began to brighten once Rachel stepped onto the stage of the Théâtre Française in June 1838, playing Camille in Corneille's Horace. It was, wrote critic Jules Janin, "an unexpected triumph, one of those lucky victories of which a nation like ours can be rightly proud." During the next four months, Rachel played every one of the classic jeunes princesses—Hermione in Racine's Andromaque, Aménaïde in Voltaire's Tancrède, Eriphile in Racine's Iphegénie in Aulide, Roxane in Racine's Bajazet. Theatergoers flocked to see the new sensation in such numbers that box-office receipts more than doubled by September, and rose to an unprecedented 6,000 francs a night by October. "Racine and Corneille were living among us once more, as in the great century of Louis XIV," rhapsodized one admirer in remembering that first season, although Rachel's fans were not limited to the theater elite. Bourgeois Paris considered her one of their own after Rachel was presented to Louis-Philippe himself and chose to address him using the common "monsieur" rather than the more respectful "sire." By the end of her second season with the Comédie-Française in 1839, Rachel had been presented with the company's coveted couronée, a crown of gilded laurels in which each leaf had been inscribed with the names of her most famous roles. More important, she was given the permanent rank of sociètaire, eligible for a seat on the company's governing board.

By the early 1840s, her fame had spread far beyond Paris. After a triumphant tour of the French états, Rachel was offered her first appearance outside of France. She was paid 3,500 francs for five performances in May 1841 at Her Majesty's Theater in London and was granted a private audience with the young Queen Victoria . "Everybody is now raving about her," wrote Rachel's chief English rival, Fanny Kemble . "It is singular that so young a woman should so especially excel in delineations and expressions of this order of emotion," she said, although adding the opinion that Rachel was less successful with more subtle emotional tones.

Since Rachel wrote nothing about her acting that has survived, the reactions of those like Kemble must be relied upon. Many of them dwell on the almost frightening emotional intensity of Rachel's performances. "Her lips tremble, her eyes blaze with maniacal fire, a gesture becomes insanely expressive," wrote one observer of her 1843 portrayal of Racine's Phédre, considered the greatest triumph of her career; while Charlotte Brontë , who saw Rachel perform four times in London, thought that "it is scarcely human nature that she shows you; it is something wilder and worse; the feelings and fury of a fiend." Her stage presence was so mesmerizing that even former critics of the old classical theater were drawn to her. Among them were French poet and essayist Théophile Gautier, who thought Rachel had "that supreme gift which makes great tragediennes—authority," and Victor Hugo, who had once ridiculed the staid Comédie-Française but now begged its exciting new star to play his Venetian courtesan in Angelo. In 1848, Rachel became the very symbol of France with her stirring recitation of the "Marseillaise" in honor of the creation of the Second Republic under Napoleon III, the nephew of the great Bonaparte.

Rachel's private life was of as much fascination as her acting. Her many affairs with prominent aristocrats were the talk of Paris, even though her acting teacher, Samson, thought there was a "sort of confusion … in her small features and closely set eyes." She seemed to hold a particular attraction for relatives and descendants of Napoleon, among them Napoleon III, Prince Napoleon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, whom everyone referred to as "Plon-Plon," and one of Napoleon's illegitimate sons. Gossips claimed that Rachel was so sexually predatory that a special bed was installed in her traveling carriage, allowing her to enjoy the favors of a new consort in every town she visited on tour. There was at least one offspring of these liaisons, a son left in the care of her parents to whom Rachel wrote affectionate letters during her touring. More conversationally minded Parisians jockeyed for invitations to Rachel's famous Thursday afternoon salons at her plush apartments facing the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges), during which they could study the scratched and battered guitar Rachel claimed she had played as a young girl traveling with her parents. Then there was the collection of daggers Rachel assembled as an inducement for a popular playwright of the day to write for her a version of Judith and Holofernes for the stage, or for when she was playing Racine's murderous Roxane.

Not all of Paris society was amused. "The great tragedienne of our age … cannot boast of that which is the patrimony of the humblest and poorest child of the people—an act that proves her identity," sniffed one Madame de Barrera, referring to Rachel's lack of a proper birth certificate. Indeed, it was only when her father won a lawsuit against the Comédie-Française, during which he was required to prove that her contract had been signed when she was a minor, that a certificate was finally issued giving the date which has come down to us. Jacques Félix, in fact, took such an active interest in his daughter's career, and the money it produced, that Samson, her acting teacher, was once obliged to throw the man down a flight of stairs and to smash a plaster bust of Rachel to demonstrate how easily her career could be broken. Jacques persisted, lodging a formal complaint when Rachel was forced by the Comédie to tour the provinces with non-company actors, and seeing to it that his son Raphael became Rachel's manager when he himself was too much out of favor. What Rachel thought of it all can only be guessed. During the disputed tour, she merely wrote back to her mother in regal grammar, "What can I tell you about our triumphs? They continue to be as great as our gifts are."

I am free, and mean to remain free. I will have renters, but not owners.

—Rachel

Her triumphs were great enough for word of her to cross the Atlantic. In 1855, Rachel accepted an offer to appear in New York and Boston, much to the dismay of French audiences. Her classical portrayals "speak to the souls of discriminating audiences, not the passions of the masses," huffed the critic Janin; and everyone had heard of the infamous Astor Place riots in New York, in which supporters of the American Edwin Forrest and of the English tragedian William Macready had bloodily clashed when the two men were appearing on separate stages in the city. How, it was asked, could such barbarians appreciate the talents of France's greatest actress? Rachel's manager-brother Raphael thought it prudent to send a carefully prepared biography and press clippings well ahead of his sister's arrival in New York. As she made her transatlantic crossing, New York's elite prepared for their first sight of the woman they anticipated would be a "Jewish sorceress," as the city's press eagerly reported. By the time she left New York for Boston, Rachel wrote serenely back to her mother, "I am making myself commercial; I take and I pile up the dollars." She did not complain about the severe cold she had contracted or the unheated train carrying her northward, but by the time she had completed her Boston engagement, the tuberculosis that had first appeared ten years earlier began to take its toll. (The disease had already claimed the life of her youngest sister the previous year.) On the advice of American doctors, Rachel did not return directly to France but sailed instead for Cuba for a "sun cure." A month in Havana humidity, however, did little to alleviate her condition. Doctors now recommended a spa in Germany known for its healing waters, to be followed by rest in Egypt, where it was thought the drier air would help clear her congested lungs. She seemed to rally somewhat after arriving in Cairo, where Napoleon's legacy of a large French-speaking population made the Egyptian city a kind of Paris in the desert. "Don't think it's so easy to bury people of my race and merit," she wrote defiantly to admirers in Paris, but by late 1857 it became plain that her disease would prove victorious. Rachel calmly put her affairs in order, sending her parents back to France, writing her will, and returning all her love letters to their writers while burning her own correspondence.

She left Egypt for France just after Christmas 1857, making her Mediterranean crossing to Le Cannet, near Nice, in the south of France. It was there that she died, on January 3, 1858, while a minyan of Jewish gentlemen from the area chanted at her deathbed. Funeral services were held in Nice, Marseilles, and Lyons as her body made its way back to Paris for final burial. The funeral carriage that carried her to Père Lachaise was attended by 40 guards, in full military uniform, and was followed by the Grand Rabbi of Paris and literary giants such as Prosper Merimée, the elder Alexander Dumas, and the poet Alfred de Musset. It was said that 40,000 came to pay their respects before she was finally laid to rest.

Rachel's influence on the French theater was such that even 40 years after her death, drama critic Françisque Sarcey, who had been barely out of his teens when Rachel strode the boards, clearly remembered her. "Rachel alone could draw receipts in those days," he recalled in the century's last decade. "The nights on which she played, the receipts amounted to ten thousand francs." Sarcey claimed Rachel pocketed the lion's share of those receipts and left many a theater owner in the lurch, but even so, he said, great actresses of the late 19th century owed her their careers. Among them was Sarah Bernhardt, who remembered meeting Rachel when the great actress paid a visit to the convent school Bernhardt attended as a girl. Even then, Rachel was weakened by tuberculosis. "She … had to sit down because she could not get her breath," Bernhardt wrote. "They fetched something to bring her around, and she was so pale, so pale! I was very sorry for her, and Sister Appoline told me that what she did was killing her, for she was an actress."

But Rachel would not have wanted Bernhardt's pity, for she considered the price she paid for her art well worth it. Born to poor Jews in a shabby roadside inn, she had risen to the highest ranks of celebrity and had enjoyed every minute of it. In one of the few surviving photographs of her, she wears one of the elegant classical gowns of her stage wardrobe. A delicate filigreed crown rests on her brow. But she is not striking the tragic pose of one of her heroines. Rather, a mischievous smile is playing on her lips as she gleefully thumbs her nose at us.

sources:

Barrera, Madame. Memoirs of Rachel. NY: Harper Brothers, 1858.

Brownstein, Rachel M. Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française. NY: Knopf, 1993.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York