1902 Encyclopedia > Rachel (French actress)

(also known as: Elisa Rachel Felix)
French actress of Swiss birth

RACHEL (1820 or 1821-1858), the stage name of a French actress, whose true name was ELIZABETH FÉLIX, and who was the daughter of Jacob Félex and Esther Haya, Alsatian Jews, who travelled on foot through France as pedlars .

She was born according to one account on 24th March 1820, according to another on 28th February of the following year, in a small inn in Mumpf in the canton of Aargau, Switzerland. At Rheims she and her eldest sister Sophia, afterwards known as Sarah, joined a troupe of Italian children who made their living by singing in the cafés, Sarah taking part in the singing and Elizabeth, then only four years of age, collecting the coppers.

In 1830 they came to Paris, where they sang in the streets, Rachel giving such patriotic songs as the Parisienne and the Marseillaise with a rude but precocious energy which evoked special admiration and an abundant shower of coppers.

Choron, a famous teacher of singing, was so impressed with the talents of the two sisters that he undertook to give them gratuitous instruction, and after his death in 1833 they were received into the Conservatoire. Sophia gained a medal for singing, but Rachel at an early period gave her chief attention to elocution and acting.

Her voice, though deep and powerful, was at first hard and inflexible; and her thin and meagre appearance conveyed an impression of insignificance, which her plain features and generally impassive manner tended to confirm. It was only her remarkable intelligence that encouraged her instructors to persevere; but even they did not recognize her talents as exceptional.

She made her first appearance at the Gymnase in the Vendéenne in 1837 with only mediocre success. On 12th June of the following year she succeeded after great difficulty, in making a début at the Théâtre Français, appearing as Camille in Les Horaces, when, attention having been directed to her remarkable genius by Jules Janin in the Débats and Madame de Girardin in the Presse, it at once received universal recognition.

Her range of characters was limited, but within this range she was unsurpassable. It was especially in the tragedies of Racine and Corneille that she excelled, and more particularly in the impersonation of evil or malignant passion. By careful training her originally hard and harsh voice had became flexible and melodious, and its low and muffled notes under the influence of passion possessed a thrilling and penetrating quality that was irresistible. When excited her plain features became transfigured by the glow of genius, and in her impersonations of evil and malignant emotions there was a majesty and dignity which fascinated whilst it repelled. Her facial elocution was unsurpassable in variety and expressiveness, whilst the grace of her gestures and the marvellous skill with which she varied her tones with every shade of thought and emotion were completely beyond criticism. It was, however, the predominance of intellect and will rather than the perfection of her art that most specially characterized her impersonations and conferred on them their unique excellence.

She appeared successively as Émilie in Cinna, Hermione in Andromaque, Ériphile in Iphigénie, Monime in Mithridate, and Aménaïde in Tancrède; but it was in Phèdre, which she first played on 21st January 1843, that her peculiar gifts were most strikingly manifested.

In modern plays she created the characters of Judith and Cleopatra in the tragedies of Madame de Girardin, but her successful appearance was in 1849 in Adrienne Lecouvreur.

In 1840 she visited London, where her interpretations of Corneille and Racine were the sensation of the season. She also played successively in the principal capitals of Europe. In 1855 she made a tour in the United States with comparatively small success. This was, however, after her powers through continued ill-health had begun to deteriorate. She died of consumption at Cannet, near Cannes, on 4th January 1858.

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