Elisabeth “Eliza/Élisa” Rachel Félix
Better Known as Mademoiselle Rachel
Greatest Tragic Actress of France
1821 – 1858 A.D.
Rachel, the greatest tragic actress of France, was the daughter of a Jewish peddler named Jacob Felix, and was born at the village inn of Mumpf, Switzerland. She was one of a large brood of children, and before the age of ten she and her sister Sarah sang and danced for coppers at the street corners in Paris.
She attracted the attention of Choron, who in 1831 began to give her instruction in music, but as she showed a great talent for the stage, he transferred her to the care of Saint Aulaire, under whom she made rapid progress in elocution.
In 1837 she appeared at the Bymnase Theatre in an indifferent play, without attracting much notice, but after studying under Samson, she produced a sensation as Camille in Corneille’s Les Horaces at the Théâtre Français, June 13, 1838. Her signal success marked on epoch in the history of French stage, and her revival of the long, neglected classic plays suddenly stemmed the rising tide of the Romantic movement. As Jules Janin, the foremost dramatic critic of that time said: “A slip of a girl, quite ignorant, without art, without training, drops into the world of our old tragedies, blows on their august ashes and compels flames and life to burst from them.”
Having, before the age of twenty, captured Paris with her genius, she appeared in London in 1841 and achieved a similar triumph in society as well as on the stage. “She is completely the rage,” writes Fanny Kemble, “all the fine ladies and gentlemen crazy after her, the queen throwing her roses out of her own bouquet, and the nobility driving her about the town.”
During the next ten years of the fortunes of Rachel were at their height, enormous sums were paid to her, and in Russia in 1853 she received 400,000 francs, besides many costly gifts from the czar and czarina.
In 1855 she appeared in New York and other American cities, and then went to Havana to regain her strength; but all attempts to arrest the progress of consumption proved unavailing, and she died in Southern France, at Cannet, January 3, 1858.
As a woman, Rachel was selfish, rather common, and often insincere, but in view of the circumstances of her upbringing, it could hardly be otherwise. She came, as has been said, to the stars from the gutter, and she was not very careful to brush the mud of the gutter from her skirts on her arrival. Most of her love affairs were either passing caprices or stepping stones to social and professional advancement. She died unmarried and a Jewess, leaving two cons, who were educated as Catholics.
As an actress, Rachel stands among the great dramatic artists of the world. She excelled most in the impersonation of lofty classical heroines and in the delineation of the fiercer emotions, and was celebrated for the magnetism of her gestures and voice, her singular air of distinction, dignity, grace and repose, and her wonderful identification with the characters she represented.
Charlotte Brontë wrote, on seeing Rachel act in Brussels in 1848:
“The strong magnetism of genius drew my heart out of its wonted orbit; I had seen acting before, but never anything like this: never anything which astonished Hope and hushed Desire; which outstripped Impulse and paled Conception; which disclosed power like a deep, swollen winter river, thundering in cataract, and bearing the soul, like a leaf, on the steep and sweep of its descent.”
Margaret Fuller Ossoli says:
“I went to see Rachel in Paris seven or eight times, always in parts that required great force of soul, and purity of taste, even to conceive them, and almost invariably I found her true artist, worthy Greece, and worthy at many moments to have her conceptions immortalized in marble. She does not melt to tears, or calm or elevate the heart by the presence of that tragic beauty that needs all the assaults of fate to make it show its immortal sweetness. Her noblest aspect is when sometimes she expresses truth in some severe shape, and rises, simple and austere, above the mixed elements around her. On the dark side, she is very great in hatred and revenge, and I admired her more in Phêdre than in any other part.
“The French language from her lips is a divine dialect; it is stripped of its national and personal peculiarities, and becomes what any language must, moulded by such a genius, the pure music of the heart and soul. Yet, and I never heard her speak a word, my mind would be filled by her attitudes. Nothing more graceful can be conceived, nor could the genius of sculpture surpass her management of the antique drapery. Only it seems as if she could not live long; she expends force enough upon a part to furnish cut a dozen common lives.”
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.