Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française

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The great nineteenth-century tragedienne known simply as Rachel was the first dramatic actress to achieve international fame. Composing her own persona with the same brilliance and passion she demonstrated on stage, she virtually invented the role of "star." Rumors of her extravagant life offstage delighted the audiences who flocked to theaters in Boston and Paris, London and Moscow, to see her perform in the tragedies of Racine and Corneille. In Tragic Muse, Rachel M. Brownstein reveals the life of la grande Rachel and explores—at the boundary of biography, fiction, and cultural history—the connections between this self-dramatizing woman and her image.
Born to itinerant Jewish peddlers in 1821, Rachel arrived on the Paris stage at the age of fifteen. She became both a symbol of her culture’s highest art and a clue to its values and obsessions. Fascinated with all things Napoleonic, she was the mother of Napoleon’s grandson and the lover of many men connected to the emperor. Her story—the rise from humble beginnings to queen of the French state theater—echoes and parodies Napoleon’s own. She decisively controlled her career, her time, and finances despite the actions and claims of managers, suitors, and lovers. A woman of exceptional charisma, Rachel embodied contradiction and paradox. She captured the attention of her time and was memorialized in the works of Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Henry James.
Richly illustrated with portraits, photographs, and caricatures, Tragic Muse combines brilliant literary analysis and exceptional historical research. With great skill and acuity, Rachel M. Brownstein presents Rachel—her brief intense life and the image that was both self-fashioned and, outliving her, fashioned by others. First published by Knopf (1993), this book will attract a broad audience interested in matters as wide ranging as the construction of character, the cult of celebrity, women’s lives, and Jewish history. It will also be of enduring interest to readers concerned with nineteenth-century French culture, history, literature, theater, and Romanticism. Tragic Muse won the 1993 George Freedley Award presented by the Theater Library Association.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Rachel, the great tragic French Jewish actress, comes to us alive in this wonderful book. I have longed to read a fine book in English about the Tragic Muse of the French theater, and now, here it is."—Claire Bloom
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Regarding her subject as a ``cultural construct,'' Brownstein ( Becoming a Heroine ) inquires into the life of Rachel (nee Elisa Felix), the legendary 19th-century French actress (1821-1858), in a book that is less a biography than a scholarly study of the image Rachel presented to the world as the leading tragedienne of the French stage for more than 20 years. Brownstein examines the paradox of the uneducated daughter of Jewish peddlers reviving classical tragedy and performing the works of Corneille and Racine to great critical acclaim in a climate of virulent anti-Semitism. Audiences who thrilled to Rachel's performances also referred to her as money-grubbing and ignorant. Presenting Rachel through the eyes of fans, critics and novelists such as Henry James, Brownstein analyzes the phenomenon of stardom and describes how Rachel used her fame and fortune to enrich her life and rescue her family from poverty. Her long illness and early death from tuberculosis enhanced her reputation as the ``tragic muse.'' Illustrations not seen by PW. (May)
Library Journal
Before Sarah Bernhardt, the French stage was illuminated in the mid-19th century by the actress known only as Rachel. Not beautiful, the daughter of a poor Jewish peddler, Rachel was alternately idolized and castigated by the fickle public. Her early death from tuberculosis served to further her legend as the great tragedienne and the ultimate celebrity of her time. In addition to the spate of biographies that followed her death in 1858 (and continued well into the 20th century), such writers as Charlotte Bronte and Henry James immortalized her in their novels. In this thoroughly researched and scholarly examination, Brownstein does not so much try to discover the true Rachel as to examine the myths involved in creating ``La Grande Rachel.'' This will be a useful addition to serious theater collections.-- Marcia L. Perry, Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822315711
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1995
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel M. Brownstein is Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is also the author of Becoming a Heroine.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Tragedy 3
Ch. 2 Stars 36
Ch. 4 Origins 72
Ch. 4 Playing Rachel 108
Young Princess 109
Fortunate Fall 136
Fatal Woman 160
Statue 172
Symbolic Moves 183
Stage Empress 197
Ch. 5 Afterlives 218
A Woman and an Artist: Vashti 221
Separateness and Connections 234
Tragicomic Muse 246
Notes 263
Index 307
Illustrations 319
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