Rachel Felix: Europe’s first real theatrical star 1821-1858

Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise (“La Grande Rachel”), nee Rachel Felix, was an icon of her day, Europe’s first real theatrical star, the Marilyn Monroe/Elizabeth Taylor/Madonna of mid-1800’s France. Plays were written for her, and scores of novels, poems and biographies were written about her. Her affairs with princes and even with an emperor-to-be were well known, and European audiences dreamed of converting this daughter of Jewish peddlers to Catholicism.

Arguing about Rachel’s image was, for nearly a century, a popular French pastime—fraught with misogyny, anti-Semitism and politics. Chanting La Marseillaise in France’s national theater after a change of government, for example, Rachel was canonized by some as a patriotic daughter of the French people, and demonized by others as a tool of the new government, deployed to calm mobs.

Though nearly 150 years have passed since Rachel’s death from tuberculosis in 1858 (at 37), how to “read” this great tragedienne is still a matter of intellectual and artistic debate. Rachel herself—like her modern Hollywood female counterparts—lost no opportunity to “craft” her image, adding endless drama to the popular obsession of trying to discern Rachel’s “real” self.

Beginning her career in rags as a street singer, Rachel became the darling of royalty, and yet remained close with her much-maligned Jewish family: those “greedy” and “vulgar” foreigners who—in the eyes of many—hawked their miraculously talented daughter for their own profit. She never forsook her Jewishness, never married, and insisted on involving her father, sisters and brother in every turn of her career, seemingly indifferent to how others might feel about the presence of such undesirables.

According to author Brownstein, Rachel was, indeed, an amalgam of contradictions: “Rachel the child of the streets and stage queen; chaste courtesan; classical tragedienne and romantic actress; monstrous egotist and loving daughter, mother and sister.” Add to this, “fallen” woman, and we begin to approach the provocative mix of myth and truth that kept fans endlessly entranced by her.

By no accounts was Rachel an attractive woman. Descriptions of her, in fact, often pivot on a such phrase as “despite her plainness.” Over and over, critics praise “her strangely rough voice, her flashing eye, her spectral look, her feverishness.” (And, as if to showcase simultaneously Rachel’s prodigious talent and Paris’s casual anti-Semitism, one critic admiringly observed that, “Rachel made a common Jewish physiognomy lovely by mere force of expression.”)

When she struck a pose on stage, however, audiences were enthralled. Her critics compared her to a marble statue in her dignified, restrained passion. Rachel played Hermione, Tisbe and Roxane in the classical tragic style, and her most triumphant role was as Racine’s Phedre.

The “making” of “La Grande Rachel” was also a hotly contested question. Critics posited this man or that—teacher, critic, theater director, reviewer—as responsible for this phenomenon called “Rachel.” Brownstein notes, of course, the conspicuous absence of credit given to Rachel herself (or, heaven forbid, to Rachel’s “coarse” Jewish family). But whomever the ultimate Pygmalion of her success, Rachel rose quickly from singing with her sister on the streets, through acting classes and auditions, and on to France’s most high-brow theater, the Comedie-Francaise.

It was here that Rachel accomplished what many thought impossible—the transformation of a “politically incorrect,” fast-fading, anachronistic institution into a stunningly redeemed financial and cultural success. At the time that Rachel first joined the French national theater, post- Revolutionary playwrights were producing increasingly violent, expressionistic work to mirror the bloody events that people had seen on the streets. The Comedie-Francaise, with it insistence on classical tragedy’s muted and stylized gestures and formal conventions, seemed, by comparison, irrelevant, elitist and passe.

Interestingly, the 17-year-old Rachel’s success in no way consisted of violating the conventions of the Comedie-Francaise. On the contrary, her postures were classical, she recited her couplets in traditional style, and the hallmark of her performance was a manner so restrained that her slightest gesture drew impassioned responses from the audience.

People flocked to see her, and, in the course of only one summer, Rachel astonished France by turning the fortunes of the Comedie-Francaise completely around. This slight Jewish woman draped in a toga seemed to represent something her audiences desperately sought: “Standing up alone for Corneille,” Brownstein writes, “assuming the grand manner and making it thrilling once more, [Rachel] seemed to chasten the corrupted taste of the Boulevard du Crime, and to stand for France at its noblest.”

The meaning of Rachel’s Jewishness, to her fans as well as her detractors, is in its own right fascinating. Some 19th-century writers highlighted the fact that Rachel was a Jew, while others attempted to argue that she wasn’t. Some descriptions of the star are laden with an anti- Semitism so thick that it obscures any accurate vision of her.

References to the Felix family’s “congenital rapacity”—in keeping with ethnic “trait” theories of the time— abound. Rachel’s interest in box-office receipts, her pleasure in extravagant jewelry and in giving expensive gifts to her family were, naturally, cited as “proofs” of her unfortunate hereditary degeneracy. Some writings about Rachel fabricate a racist rags-to-riches story: that she came from a veritable “dung heap” of crudeness and depravity, but became, because of an externally begotten talent, paradoxically charged to bear the banner of France’s honor.

Yet another source of critical unease regarding Rachel was, of course, that she was a woman on “display” in 19th-century France. Her aggressive pursuit of her career left many talking about her “male” talent and her “unwomanly will to fame.” The question of her sexual availability was also, of course, fodder for public debate. Her persona as the innocent, ever-chaperoned tragedienne was shattered all at once, one evening, when a patron read some of Rachel’s love letters aloud at a society dinner. Overnight, Rachel’s public identity changed from that of “pure chaste child” to that of sexual woman. Exposed to public scandal, Rachel shrewdly reshaped her image positively— as a savvy woman of the world.

Once she had become, however, in the public’s eyes, a “dangerous, foreign, fallen woman, the femme artiste who unsettlingly combines Nature and Art,” Rachel seems to have lived the life she chose, more or less successfully manipulating her career and her image to her advantage. She had one sexual affair after another, maintaining an elaborate network of friendships with ex-lovers. She never married (“I will have renters, but not owners,” she was known to declare).

In the course of her years touring Europe, Rachel had two sons: one fathered by Count Alexandre Colonna Walewski (a son of Napoleon), the other by Arthur Bertrand. What sort of a mother she was is obscure. Descriptions of her behavior with her sons range from tender to indifferent. (“An unmarried star is supposed to be a bad mother,” comments Brownstein. “It is part of the fantasy of her monstrous unwomanliness.”) But Rachel’s letters, although only rarely referenced in Brownstein’s biography, seem to indicate a great dedication to all members of her family, her children being no exception.

The list of commentators who wrote about Rachel reads like a 19th-century Who’s Who: Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, George Sand, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Fuller, and on and on.

Ultimately, though, her life ended prematurely—like those of the tragic heroines she portrayed. After a tour of America, where she mesmerized audiences who did not understand a word of her language, and where she fell so severely ill that she collapsed on stage in Charleston, Rachel was sent to Egypt for a rest cure. There, in the shadow of pyramids. La Grande Rachel writes: “I came here to find the life that is fleeing me, and all around me I see only death.”

Rachel—dead of tuberculosis at age 37 (her beloved sister Rebecca had died of the same illness at 25)—was mourned by crowds of admirers in a state funeral that was, as Brownstein terms it, “the ultimate appropriation of woman by the nation.”

Yet even after her death, her image was revived and debated again and again to suit the needs of successive generations. Her identity as a true daughter of France became the subject of fierce discussion in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, and, in the troubled 1930’s, Jewish groups set about claiming Rachel in earnest, casting her in the image of a Hebrew heroine. Biographies of Rachel, which proliferated after her death, range from moralistic to tabloidesque.

Her life was perhaps a foreshadowing of other consummate “public women” whose lives seemed destined to become, as Brownstein puts it, “embroiled with fictions.” If Tragic Muse often seems not so much the biography of a woman as it is the biography of an image, perhaps that is, after all, most fitting.

And the Critics Said
In 1853, a critic named Annenkov, observing Rachel of the Comedie Francaise playing Racine’s Phedre in Russia, penned this:

Rachel begins, with full voice, the tale of her criminal love. Soon the words, the couplets, as if driven by the thought, begin to run as incredible, barely audible speech. A whisper— which betrays her passion with a rapidity almost convulsive—becomes unbearable, hi mid-monologue, Phedre, giving herself up totally to a single thought, loses self-consciousness and is almost beside herself.

Her lips tremble, her eyes blaze with a maniacal fire, a gesture becomes insanely expressive, that ghastly whisper goes on the whole time, and the words run on, filled with agonizing truth. She bursts out in a thundering confession of her criminal passion in the face of heaven and earth until—filled to the brim with horror and self-revulsion—she seizes Hippolyte’s sword and is borne off-stage unconscious by her confidante.

Only then does the parterre take a breath and rise as one man, crying, “Rachel!” Such is the scene.

and the author of Tragic Muse, Rachel Brownstein, adds:

Exhausted by her performance, she chose not to come onstage to take her bow, tacitly bowing to the greater reality of the tragedy, showing her respect for Racine, suggesting that the actress had merged with, or been overcome by, the character she played.. ..the audience came to witness not only Phedre’s suffering and Rachel’s great performance, but the spectacle of the star being consumed by her role.