||This article may require copy editing for grammar, style, cohesion, tone, or spelling. (January 2013)|
Portrait of Mlle Rachel by William Etty, 1840s.
21 February 1821|
Mumpf, Rheinfelden, Aargau, Switzerland
|Died||3 January 1858
Le Cannet, France
Rachel was born Elisa Félix, on February 28, 1821 in Mumpf, Rheinfelden, Aargau. Her father Jacob Félix was a peddler and her mother Esther Hayer was a bohemian dealer of second hand clothes. She had four sisters Sarah, Rebecca, Dinah, Leah and one brother, Raphael. Rachel earned money as a child singing and reciting in the streets. She wanted to become a famous French actress so she came to Paris around the year of 1830, and took elocution and singing lessons, eventually studying under the instruction of the musician Alexandre-Étienne Choron and of Saint-Aulaire, and taking dramatic arts classes at the Conservatoire. To provide for the needs of her family she debuted in La Vendéenne in January 1837 at the Théâtre du Gymnase. Delestre-Poirson, the director, gave her the stage name Rachel, a name that she chose to keep in her private life.
As a student, Rachel was described as being very serious and committed. She was not preoccupied with flirting with the teachers for favor like some of the other girls in her classes. She had a goal deep inside her heart that she was committed to pursue, a goal to be the best. As a young and growing student she was admired for her intelligence, work ethic, diction, and ability to act. Auditioning in March 1838, she started at the Théâtre-Français in Pierre Corneille's Horace at the age of 17. At this time she began a long liaison with Louis Véron, the former director of the Paris Opera, and subsequently her personal life was a subject of gossip, well documented by biographers and acquaintances of the time. From 1838 in 1842, she lived in a third-floor apartment in Paris's Galerie Véro-Dodat.
Her fame spread throughout Europe following a sensational success in London in 1841, and became particularly associated with the works of Racine, Voltaire, and Corneille, touring in Brussels, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. When Rachel first stepped on the stage of Comedie Francaise, French classical tragedy was not dying but dead. Regardless, Rachel would remain true to her classical roots. She aroused audiences with an undeniable craving for the tragic style of great writers like Corneille, Racine and Molière. She evoked a high demand for classical tragedy to remain on the stage. She created the title role in Eugène Scribe's Adrienne Lecouvreur. Her acting style was characterized by clear diction and economy of gesture, and represented a major change from the exaggerated style of those days. Out the doors of Rachel’s theatre was a battle of artistic desires. Society was beginning to demand the highly emotional, realistic, instinctual acting styles of the Romantics. Rachel completely turned her back on the Romantic Drama movement happening in nineteenth century France. She was best known for her portrayal of the title rôle in Phèdre. Eliza Rachel, as the actress was also known, was reportedly a great tragédienne.
She became the mistress of Napoleon I's son, Alexandre Joseph Count Colonna-Walewski, and together they had a son Alexandre Colonna-Walewski in 1844. He entered the diplomatic service and died at his post in Turin in 1898. After an affair with Arthur Bertrand, Rachel left for England. There she briefly had an affair with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, as well as with Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte. Her second son, Gabriel-Victor Felix, was never acknowledged by Bertrand. He became a navy man and died in the Congo in 1889.
Rachel never married, although she had many lovers. When Walewski upbraided her for not remaining faithful to him, she retorted, "I am as I am; I prefer renters to owners."
Her health declined after a long tour of Russia. She died of tuberculosis in Le Cannet, Alpes-Maritimes, France. Upon her deathbed Rachel wrote many farewell letters to her sons, family members, lovers, colleagues and theatre connections at Comedie Francaise. A villa in Cannet near Cannes was prepared for her and it was in that restful place that she died with her sister Sarah by her side. She is buried in a mausoleum in the Jewish part of Père Lachaise Cemetery. The English theatre critic James Agate published a biography of her in 1928, which echoes the anti-Semitism of his day. A modern account of her life and legacy by Rachel Brownstein was published in 1995.
Rachel’s legacy remains to be noted as a woman that was a great Jewess, a great actress, and a great lover. Driven by her fiery passionate heart, Rachel left an impact on theatre that is still noted to this day. She single handedly brought classical tragedy back with a difference, breathing human passion into figures with tradition and a bombastic delivery. A true rag to riches glamour story, Rachel was a poor girl with a big dream and an unstoppable determination. She knew at young age that the path of pleasure was not the way to glory, though the path of glory might be the way to pleasure. She paved a way for her own legacy and left two sons, no husband, innumerable lovers, a million and a quarter francs and a reputation as a tragic actress which has never been overshadowed. Rachel impacted the history pages of theatre and for her lifetime, established a definition of art. Defining classic tragedy and leaving the legacy of a true muse of artistic form.
Rachel, a light tannish colour, primarily for face-powder used in artificial light, is named after her; the raschel knitting-machine is according to the OED also named after her.
Chronological repertoire 
- La Vendéenne by Paul Duport (Théâtre du Gymnase, 24 April)
- Le Mariage de raison de Scribe et Varner (Théâtre du Gymnase, 12 June)
At the Théâtre Français:
- Andromaque (January)
- The title role of Le Moineau de Lesbie by Armand Barthet (22 March)
- The title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur (14 April)
- Toured in west and southwest France (29 May - 31 August)
- 1851: Toured
- 1853: Toured
- 1854: Toured in Warsaw, Saint Petersburg and Moscow (January–April)
- 1855: Toured in New York and in the United States (September–December)
- The troupe separated in Cuba in December.
- 1858: Rachel died on 3 January
- Agate, James, Rachel. Gerald Howe, London; Viking Press, NY; 1928.
- Arnold, Beth. "On Location, Galerie Vero-Dodat". Letter From Paris.
- Agate, James, Rachel. Gerald Howe, London; Viking Press, NY; 1928.
- Brownstein, Rachel M., Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française. Duke University Press, Durham and London; 1995.
- Oxford English Dictionary, OED2 on CD-ROM v 1.02. Oxford University Press, 1992.
This article relies heavily on the French wiki of the same name, from which this was partially translated in May 2006.
- Anonymous. Rachel et la Comédie Française. Brussels, 1842.
- de B---, Madame, Memoirs of Rachel. London, 1858.
- Barthou, Louis, Rachel. (Acteurs et Actrices d’Autrefois.). Paris, 1926.
- Brownstein, Rachel, Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française. Duke University Press, 1995.
- Coquatrix, Emile, Rachel à Rouen. Rouen, 1840.
- Faucigny-Lucinge, Rachel et son Temps. Paris, 1910.
- Fleischmann, Hector, Rachel Intime: d’après ses lettres d’amour et des documents nouveau. Paris, 1910.
- Gautier, Théophile, L’Art Dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans. Six Volumes. Paris, 1859.
- Gribble, Francis H.,Rachel: her Stage Life and her Real Life. London, 1911.
- d’Heylli, Georges, Journal Intime de la Comédie Française (1852–1871). Paris, 1878.
- d’Heylli, Georges, Rachel d’Après sa Correspondance. Paris, 1882.
- d’Heylli, Georges, Rachel et la Ristori. Paris, 1902.
- Houssaye, Arsène, Les Confessions: souvenirs d’un demi-siècle. Four Volumes. Paris, 1885.
- Janin, Jules, Rachel et la Tragédie. Paris, 1861.
- Kennard, Mrs. Arthur, Rachel. Eminent Women Series. London, 1885.
- Laplane, Gabriel, Rachel: lettres inédites. Paris, 1947.
- Louvet, A., Mademoiselle Rachel: Etude sur l’Art Dramatique. Paris, 1892.
- Martin, Sir Theodore, K.C.B., Monographs: Garrick, Macready, Rachel, etc.. London, 1906.
- Maurice, Charles, Histoire Anecdotique du Theâtre. Paris, 1856.
- Maurice, Charles. La Vérité-Rachel: examen du talent de la première tragédienne du Théâtre Français. Paris, 1850.
- de Musset, Alfred, Un Souper chez Mademoiselle Rachel– Oeuvres Poshumes. 1839.
- de Saint Amand, Imbert, Madame de Girardin [Delphine Gay], avec des lettres inédites de Lamarine, Châteaubrieand, Mlle Rachel”. Paris, 1876
- Samson, Mme., Rachel et Samson: souvenirs de thèâtre”. Paris, 1898.
- Thomson, Valentine, La Vie Sentimentale de Rachel d’aprè des lettres inédites. Paris, 1900.
- Veron, Louis, Mémoires d’un Bourgeois de Paris. Five Volumes. Paris, 1856
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wood, James, ed. (1907). "Rachel, Eliza". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.
- Agate, James. Rachel. London: Gerald Howe 1928; NY: Viking Press 1928; reprint Bronx: Benjamin Bloom, Inc., 1969.
- Brownstein, Rachel M. Tragic Muse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
- Forman, Edward. Historical Dictionary of French Theatre. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2010.
- Gribble, Francis. Rachel. New York: Benjamin Bloom Inc., 1972.
- Media related to Rachel (actress) at Wikimedia Commons
- Bartleby's entry on Rachel
- An Englishman in Paris, by Albert D. (Albert Dresden) Vandam (see Chapter VI)
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rachel". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.