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In February, 1821, a poor Hebrew family, consisting of Samuel or Isaac Felix, the husband, Esther Haya, the wife, and a little girl of four years of age, called Sophia (which name she eventually changed for Sarah), were forced to delay their journey at a poor village in the canton of Argau, called Munf. Our readers need not look for it on the map or in the gazetteer; it is so small as to have been utterly neglected, and yet it was the birthplace of the greatest tragic actress France ever possessed. Here it was that the Felix family were delayed on their laborious progress from one fair to another, by an interesting event; and so soon as the
young Elizabeth Rachel was born, she was added to the rest of the burden, the father growling at the additional weight, and little foreseeing the wondrous treasure he was taking his turn to carry. So they went on from fair to fair, from town to town, until they at last reached Lyons, where Madame Felix gained a step in the social hierarchy by being attached to the theatre as mender-in-chief of old dresses, while the father added to his scanty fortunes by giving lessons in German and elocution. In the mean time, a son had been added to the family, and the children were compelled, by the harsh law of poverty, to seek their own livelihood. Sophie, the future Sarah, visited the cafés, singing (malice adds, very much out of tune), while Eliza, the future Rachel, went round to collect the centimes, which were grudgingly bestowed. Still Papa Felix possessed all the pertinacity of his race, and obeyed a secret impulse which told him to seek his fortune in Paris
. This he decided on doing in 1830; and so scanty were the family circumstances, that they were compelled to travel on foot, meeting their expenses by singing at the public-houses along the road. At Paris, however, it was much the same as at Lyons; the mother set up an establishment for second-hand clothes, while the children went about singing as before ; whether the sun scorched or the rain drenched them, they were to one thing constant ever--they must take money home with them at night.
Although not generally admirers of the Hebrews, we are bound to give them credit for the admirable manner in which they assist their poorer brethren. Such was the case with Felix père ; some of his coreligionists took compassion on the poor girls, and exerted their influence to procure them admission to the school of singing and declamation kept by a M. Choron, formerly director of the Opera. The old gentleman was an enthusiast, and welcomed recruits, no matter their social position. So long as he saw in them germs of talent, he devoted his own powers to the good cause, and was indefatigable in his researches after fine voices. A curious letter is quoted by H. Jules Lecomte in Figaro, the first portion being written by Choron, and suggesting to the parents that the two children should remain a little longer at his school before Felix père began to make a market of them. In his verdict on the two girls, Choron says, “ Eliza (Rachel) will require a little more time, for she has a worse memory and works less than her sister, who is considerably more thoughtful, and understands with greater facility.” The second portion of the letter, dated 30th of November, 1832, is probably the earliest autograph
existing of the great tragédienne; we quote it in its entirety, preserving the peculiar orthography :
CHERS, CHERS PARENTS,— Il m'est imposible de vous exprimer toute la joie que j'ai resentée en recevant de vos nouvelles. Je commençais à craindre qu'il arivé quelque chose, car voilà longtemps que vous m'avez écrit; je me réjouis à l'idée que j'aurai bientôt le bonheure de vous voir et montres les progrès que j'ai fait. M. Choron est assez content de moi et a pour nous mille bontés. Je ne puis prouver toute ma reconnaissance qu'en cherchant à m'apliquer afin de toujours contenter M. Choron autant que je désire. Adieu, mes bons parents, recevez l'assurance de tout mon resepect. Votre fille soumise vous embrasse sans oublier mon petit frère Raphaël et ma sœur Rebec.
“ELISA." But M. Choron soon detected that Eliza's nature was not adapted for the trammels of song, while he foresaw a great future for her as a tragedian. Hence he mentioned her to his friend Pagnon, who kept a school of declamation with a small theatre annexed, called the Théâtre Molière, in the Rue St. Martin. He soon discovered the latent talent in Rachel, and from M. J. de Lasalle we may be allowed to quote the following paragraph relating to her : “St. Aulaire entered my room one morning and spoke with extreme animation about a poor Jewish girl, whom he described to me as the essence of tragedy, and the only person capable of recalling the chefs-d'oeuvre of our tragic repertory. It was Rachel for whom the professor demanded an audience, which I granted on the spot. Mademoiselle Mars, Samson, Desmousseaux, were the only persons present. Saint-Aulaire replied to the débutante, who was then very small; she had selected Hermione in ‘Andromaque,' and Marinette in the • Dépit Amoureux. She commenced with the latter, in which she displayed no remarkable talent ; but she had hardly finished in Andromaque' the irovical passage, the 'Adieu to Orestes,' than we uttered exclamations of surprise. For a very long period we had not heard the verses declaimed with so much precision or such energy. The audience over, Mademoiselle Mars embraced the young girl, who was quite moved by the success she had just achieved, and evinced great interest in her. Upon the remark that she was very short for the part of queens and great heroines, the characters she had decided on playing, Mars reminded us that Mademoiselle Maillard, the great tragic actress, was still shorter. • Besides,” she added, “it is a good fault ; Rachel will grow.''
M. Thiers granted the young débutante a gratification of 1200 francs, while Samson, the celebrated professor, undertook her tragic education. It was with great difficulty that Rachel could be induced to give up her predilection for comedy; but at length she was pronounced fit for managerial inspection, and her parents pressing to make money out of her, M. St. Aulaire invited Delestre-Poirson, director of the Gymnase, to come and hear the little Jewess. He was satisfied with her performance in “ Eriphile,” and engaged her at 3000 francs a year. His first care was to change her name of Eliza into Rachel, the learned Dr. Véron describing the circumstance thus : “ M. Poirson said to her, “That name of Eliza will not suit the bill at all. Have you no other ? •My name is Elizabeth-Rachel. “Come, that is better. Rachel ! that is a name which will be remembered, and which is not borne by everybody. Call yourself, in future, Rachel. The selection of a name is of more conseVOL. XLIII.
quence than you may imagine.'” But the père aux écus has forgotten that another circumstance decided Poirson on calling the young actress Rachel; Halévy's opera had brought the name into great vogue, and no manager would neglect such an opportunity of attracting popular attention. A wretched play, called “ La Vendéenne,” was written expressly for the young actress, and she made her first appearance in it on the 25th of April, 1837. But few of the critics recognised her marvellous power ; in fact, the only favourable exception was Jules Janin, and he has not forgotten to plume himself on his discovery ever since. Here is his critique, taken from the Journal des Débats, May 1:
In this “Vendéenne," the authors not only desired to make a drama, but to produce at the same time a new-born child of the drama, a little girl, scarce fifteen years
of age, named Rachel. This child, thank Heaven ! is not a phenomenon, and she will never cause the world to consider her a prodigy. Rachel plays with a good deal of soul, heart, talent, and very little skill: she feels naturally the sentiment of the drama entrusted to her, and her intelligence suffices for her to understand it; she requires no advice or lessons. There is no effort, no exaggeration, no cries, or gestures; a great soberness in all the movements of her body and her face; nothing that resembles coquetry; but, on the contrary, something brusque, bold, even fierce in her gestures, carriage, and look. Such is Rachel. This child, who has the conscience of truth in the art, dresses herself with a scrupulous fidelity of costume: her voice is hoarse and veiled, like the voice of a child; her hands are red, like the hands of a child; her foot is like her hand, still slightly formed; she is not pretty, but she pleases. In a word, there is a great future in this young talent, and already there is a goodly crop of tears, of interest, and of emotion.
We dare say this is very fine criticism, but, in all humility, we venture to suggest it would have been more intelligible if less ornate. Still, we suppose that Janin is justly entitled to the merit of being the great Rachel discoverer. Unfortunately, the people could not be induced to look on the
young actress with the same eye of enthusiasm : the piece was bad, the applause lukewarm, and Rachel was allowed gently to sink into oblivion, although we believe her salary continued to be paid. For a whole year she was not heard of in public; but during that period she was diligently studying her art under the tuition of Samson. A powerful Israelite interposed in her behalf ; she was again heard at the Théâtre Français. M. Vedel cancelled her engagement with the Gymnase, and took her on to the establishment as pensionnaire, with a salary of 4000 francs a year. Her foot was now firmly planted on the ladder, and she never ceased her exertions till she had reached the summit. The company being aware that Mademoiselle Mars took considerable interest in the young actress, attended the rehearsals, a thing they were not in the habit of doing usually; and they had the sense to recognise her wondrous talent. Hence, before the young girl made her first public appearance, she had attained a certain degree of celebrity. On the 12th of June, 1838, the bills announced " Les Horaces,” with Mademoiselle Rachel. And here we must make room for the second Christopher Columbus, Dr. Véron :
On a lovely summer evening, seeking shade and solitude (by looking carefully, everything may be found at Paris, even shade and solitude), I entered the Théâtre Français between eight and nine o'clock. There were four spectators
in the stalls
, I being the fifth. My eyes were attracted to the stage by a strange face, full of expression, with a prominent brow, a dark eye, full of fire; all this planted on a thin body, but possessing a certain elegance of posture, movement, and attitude.. A sympathetic voice, of the most delightful diapason, and before all very intelligent, drew the attention of my distracted mind, which was more disposed for sloth than for admiration. This strange physiognomy, this eye full of fire, this thin body, this so intelligent voice-it was Mademoiselle Rachel; she was making her first appearance in Camille in "Les Horaces.” The lively and profound impression made on me at the first glance by this
young actress aroused in me confused reminiscences. By dint of interrogating my memory, I called to mind a singular young girl, playing the Vendéenne at tlie Gymnase. I also remembered a poor young girl, poorly clad, with clumsy shoes, who, on being asked in my presence, in the corridor of a theatre, what she was doing, replied, to my great amazement, in a high tragedy voice and most serious tone, "I am pursuing my studies." ' I found again in Mademoiselle Rachel the singular physiognomy of the Gymnase and the poor girl poorly clad. The young Rachel had astonished me; her talent impassioned me; I was obliged to lay hands as speedily as possible on my friend Merle, whose tastes and literary fancies I shared, to compel him to follow the débuts of her whom I already called my little prodigy. “This child," I said to him," when the twelve or fifteen hundred men of talent who form public opinion in Paris have seen and heard her, will be the glory and fortune of the Comédie Française.” In 1838 I had left the Opera; the talent and success of my actress became for me a fixed idea and business. Before bidding people good day, I asked them, “ Have you seen her in ' Les Horaces, in Andromaque?” The greater number did not know of whom I was talking : I grew angry with them, and reproached their ignorance in strong language. The pleasures and joys of my summer were ensured; my emotions as habitué of the 'Théâtre Français were to take the place of the pleasures of the fields, the incidents and surprises of travels. During the whole month of June, during the whole month of July, but few people seemed to be converted to my new religion: whether Mademoiselle Rachel performed Camille, Emilie, or Hermione, the apostles of this new creed, of this new divinity, preached in the desert. From the month of Augnst, despite the canicular heat, Rachel's performances were more closely followed. When the theatre appeared to me nearly filled, I wiped my brow, and, like the fly on the coach-wheel, I said to myself, with a satisfaction pushed almost to pride, “ Mademoiselle Rachel and I will gain our cause with the public. Here are people possessed of common sense. At last, during the whole of October, the young actress played nine times, and the smallest receipt (Monime, in “ Mithridate”) amounted to 3669 fr. 90 6. The receipts exceeded 6000 fr. when she played Hermione: it was a complete victory and deafening triumph; Racine and Corneille lived again among us, as in the great age of Louis XIV.; a feverish popularity surrounded the young tragédienne and the old tragedy.
So great was the success attained by the young actress, that the sociétaires spontaneously decided on raising her salary from 4000 to 20,000 francs, or 8000 francs more than Ligier, Samson, or Monrose were receiving. A short time afterwards, though still so young and inexperienced, she was summoned to take her seat in their committee of administration, so utterly had Rachel subverted all the old prejudices connected with the principal French theatre, in which, hitherto, everything had been forced to give way to precedents and tradition. One of the earliest acts of revenge Rachel took on those who had contemned her talent, was so graceful that we cannot omit it here, although it is probably well known. M. Provost, of the Théâtre Français, to whom
she had applied for dramatic instruction, had somewhat brutally repulsed her by telling her to go and sell bouquets. One evening, when the theatre was crowded to see Hermione, and bouquets were thrown by thousands to the actress, she amused herself, so soon as the curtain fell, by filling her Greek tunic with flowers ; then, going to the actor who had given her such bad advice, and kneeling with admirable grace, she said, " I have followed your counsel, M. Provost: I am selling bouquets. Will you buy some from me ?” We must make room here for an anecdote not so well known, serving to display the appreciation Mademoiselle Mars felt for the young actress. We quote from M. de Varenne, who had the story at first hand from an intimate friend of the great actress :
It was the day of Rachel's début, and she was about to perform Camille, in “Les Horaces." I met at the theatre Mademoiselle Mars, who said to me, are aware that there is a début to-day ?” “ Ah!" I remarked, " it seems there is nothing extraordinary about her." "On the contrary, according to competent judges, great things may be expected from her. At any rate, come with me and hear her.", I accompanied her to her box. We were alone with a young man who stood behind her, and during the whole performance criticised the young actress in the hope, of course, of gratifying the elder one. When Camille appeared on the stage, Mademoiselle Mars followed her attentively; then, turning to me, she said, with a half nod and a sigh of hearty satisfaction, "She walks well!” Those acquainted with the theatre well know what praise was contained in these simple words, especially from the lips of Mars. Sabine addresses a few words to Camille at the moment when the latter appears on the stage. Made. moiselle Rachel had not yet opened her lips, when Mars turned to me again, and, regarding me with an air of personal triumph, said, “ And she listens well!" Listening well is the height of art which few actors possessman art as difficult, more difficult, perhaps, than that of speaking well. Mademoiselle Mars was too profoundly, too delicately artistic, not to seize with delight the slightest nuances. Camille spoke in her turn. She had scarcely uttered half a dozen lines when Mars exclaimed, with a satisfaction I shall never forget, and an indescribable feeling of relief, “ Ah! she does not declaim : she speaks!" When the famous imprecation came
“Rome, l'unique objet de mon ressentiment ...
Rome, enfin, que je hais, parce qu'elle t'honore”. instead of the classic elevation of voice, and those noisy outbursts of grief which carry away the audience and force applause, Mademoiselle Rachel, either through fatigue, calculation, or disdain of received traditions, uttered these words hoarsely, and with a concentrated feeling; so that the public, which expected something very different, did not applaud this consecrated passage.
« Ah!" the young gentleman remarked, “she lacks strength.” “But, sir," Mademoiselle Mars exclaimed, turning sharply to him, and as if stung to the quick, “surely you will allow her to recruit her strength. Are you fearful she will not grow older? She grows while performing, this young girl!” For my own part, though far from being ill-disposed to the young actress, I could not summon up such an amount of admiration, and was struck by Mademoiselle Mars's heat in this scene.
As Dr. Véron justly tells us, great names and great fortunes are often pleased to play the part of Mecænas to rising celebrity. Hence it grew the fashion to have the wild Hermione in company. She soon counted among her friends the greatest personages of Spain then residing in Paris, the Duchess of Berwick and Alba being the chief among them. The Countess Duchâtel insisted on Rachel dining with her constantly, while her husband the minister presented her with a rich library, con