Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Rachel

An essay by George William Curtis


Title:     Rachel
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

One evening in Paris, we were strolling through that most Parisian spot the Palais Royal, or, as it was called at that moment, the Palais National. It was after the revolution of February; but, although the place was full of associations with French revolutions, it seemed to have no special sympathy with the trouble of the moment, and was as gay as the youngest imagination conceives Paris to be. There was a constant throng loitering along the arcades; the cafes were lighted and crowded; men were smoking, sipping coffee, playing billiards, reading the newspapers, discussing the debates in the Chamber and the coming "Prophete" of Meyerbeer at the opera; women were chatting together in the boutiques, pretty grisettes hurrying home; little blanchisseuses, with their neatly-napkinned baskets, tripping among the crowd; strangers watched the gay groups, paused at the windows of tailors and jewellers, and felt the fascination of Paris. It was the moment of high-tide of Parisian life. It was an epitome of Paris, and Paris is an epitome of the time and of the world.

At the corner of the Palais Royal is the Comedie Francaise, and to that we were going. There Rachel was playing. There she had recently recited the "Marseillaise" to frenzied Paris; and there, in the vestibule, genius of French comedy, of French intellect, and of French life, sits the wonderful Voltaire of Houdon, the statue which, for the first time, after the dreadful portraits which misrepresent him, gives the spectator some adequate idea of the personal appearance and impression of the man who moulded an age. You can scarcely see the statue without a shudder. It is remorseless intellect laid bare. The cold sweetness of the aspect, the subtle penetration of the brow, the passionless supremacy of a figure which is neither manly nor graceful, fill your mind with apprehension and with the conviction that the French Revolution you have seen is not the last.

The curtain rises, and Paris and France roll away. A sad, solitary figure, like a dream of tragic Greece, glides across the scene. The air grows cold and thin, with a sense of the presence of lost antiquity. The feeling of fate, vast, resistless, and terrible, rises like a suffocating vapor; and the hopeless woe of the face, the pathetic dignity of the form, assure you, before she speaks, that this is indeed Rachel. The scenery is poor and hard; but its severe outlines and its conventional character serve to suggest Greece. The drapery which hangs upon Rachel is exquisitely studied from the most perfect statue. There is not a fold which is not Greek and graceful, and which does not seem obedient to the same law which touches her face with tragedy. As she slowly opens her thin lips, your own blanch; and from her melancholy eyes all smiles and possibility of joy have utterly passed away. Rachel stands alone, a solitary statue of fate and woe.

When she speaks, the low, thrilling, distinct voice seems to proceed rather from her eyes than her mouth. It has a wan sound, if we may say so. It is the very tone you would have predicted as coming from that form, like the unearthly music which accompanies the speech of the Commendatore's statue in "Don Giovanni". That appearance and that voice are the key of the whole performance. Before she has spoken, you are filled with the spirit of an age infinitely remote, and only related to human sympathy now by the grandeur of suffering. The rest merely confirms that impression. The whole is simple and intense. It is conceived and fulfilled in the purest sense of Greek art.

Of the early career and later life of Rachel such romantic stories are told and believed that only to see the heroine of her own life would be attraction enough to draw the world to Paris. Dr. Vernon, in his _Memoires d'un Bourgeois_, has described her earliest appearance upon the Boulevards--her studies, her trials, and her triumph. That triumph has been unequalled in stage annals for enthusiasm and permanence. Other actors have achieved single successes as brilliant; but no other has held for so long the most fickle and fastidious nation thrall to her powers; owning no rival near the throne, and ruling with a sway whose splendor was only surpassed by its sternness.

For Rachel has never sought to ally her genius to goodness, and has rather despised than courted the aid of noble character. Not a lady by birth or breeding, she is reported to have surpassed Messalina in debauchery and Semiramis in luxury. Paris teems with tales of her private life, which, while they are undoubtedly exaggerated, yet serve to show the kind of impression her career has produced. Those modern Sybarites, the princes and nobles of Russia, are the heroes of her private romances; and her sumptuous apartments, if not a Tour de Nesle, are at least a bower of Rosamond.

As if to show the independent superiority of her art, she has been willing to appear, or she really is, avaricious, mean, jealous, passionate, false; and then, by her prodigious power, she has swayed the public that so judged her as the wind tosses a leaf. There has, alas, been disdain in her superiority. Perhaps Paris has found something fascinating in her very contempt, as in the _Memoires du Diable_ the heroine confesses that she loved the ferocity of her lover. Nor is it a traditional fame that she has enjoyed; but whenever Rachel plays, the theatre is crowded, and the terror and the tears are what they were when she began.

Rachel is the greatest of merely dramatic artists. Others are more beautiful; others are more stately and imposing; others have been fitted by external gifts of nature to personify characters of very marked features; others are more graceful and lovely and winning; most others mingle their own personality with the characters they assume, but Rachel has this final evidence of genius, that she is always superior to what she does; her mind presides over her own performances. It is the perfection of art. In describing this peculiar supremacy of genius, a scholar, in whose early death a poet and philosopher was lost, says of Shakespeare: "He sat pensive and alone above the hundred-handed play of his imagination." And Fanny Kemble, in her journal, describes a conversation upon the stage, in the tomb-scene of "Romeo and Juliet", where she, as Juliet, says to Mr. Romeo Keppel, "Where the devil is your dagger?" while all the tearful audience are lost in the soft woe of the scene.

This is very much opposed to the general theory of acting, and the story is told with great gusto of a boy who was sent to see Garrick, we believe, and who was greatly delighted with the fine phrasing and swagger of a supernumerary, but could not understand why people applauded such an ordinary bumpkin as Garrick, who did not differ a whit from all the country boobies he had ever seen. It is insisted that the actor must persuade the spectator that he is what he seems to be, and this is gravely put as the first and final proof of good acting.

This is, however, both a false view of art and a false interpretation and observation of experience. Shakespeare, through the mouth of Hamlet, tells the players to "hold the mirror up to nature"--that is, to represent nature. For what is the dramatic art, like all other arts, but a representation? If it aims to deceive the eye--if it tries to juggle the senses of the spectator--it is as trivial as if a painter should put real gold upon his canvas instead of representing gold by means of paint; or as if a sculptor should tinge the cheeks of his statue to make it more like a human face. We have seen tin pans so well represented in painting that the result was atrocious. For, if the object intended is really a tin pan, and not the pleasure produced by a conscious representation of one, then why not insert the veritable pan in the picture at once? If art is only a more or less successful imitation of natural objects, with a view to cheat the senses, it is an amusing game, but it is not a noble pursuit.

It is an equally false observation of experience; because, if the spectator were really deceived, if the actor became, in the mind of the audience, truly identical with the character he represents, then, when that character was odious, the audience would revolt. If we cannot quietly sit and see one dog tear another, without interfering, could we gravely look on and only put our handkerchiefs to our eyes, when Othello puts the pillow to the mouth of Desdemona? If we really supposed him to be a murderous man, how instantly we should leap upon the stage and rescue "the gentle lady". The truth is, to state it boldly, we know the roaring lion to be only Snug, the joiner.

All works of art must produce pleasure. Even the sternest and most repulsive subjects must be touched by art into a pensive beauty, or they fail to reach the height of great works. Goethe has shown this in the _Laocoon_, and every man feels it in constant experience. One of the grand themes of modern painting is the great tragedy of history, the Crucifixion. Materially it is repulsive, as the spectacle of a man in excruciating bodily torture; spiritually it is overwhelming, as the symbolized suffering of God for sin. If, now, the pictures which treat this subject were indeed only imitations of the scene, so that the spectator listened for the groans of agony and looked to see the blood drop from the brow crowned with thorns, how hideous and insupportable the sight would be! The mind is conscious as it contemplates the picture that it is a representation, and not a fact. The mere force of actuality is, therefore, destroyed, and thought busies itself with the moral significance of the scene. In the same way, in the tragedy of "Othello", conscious that there is not the actual physical suffering which there seems to be, the mind contemplates the real meaning which underlies that appearance, and curses jealousy and the unmanly passions.

Even in a very low walk of art the same principle is manifested. A man might not care to adorn his parlor with the carcass of an ox or a hog, nor invite to his table boors muzzy with beer. But the most elegant of nations prizes the pictures of Teniers at extraordinary prices, and hangs its galleries with works minutely representing the shambles. Here, again, the explanation is this: that the mind, rejecting any idea of actuality in the picture, is charmed with the delicacy of detail, with lovely color, with tone, with tenderness, and all these are qualities inseparable from the picture, and do not belong by any necessity to the actual carcasses of animals. In the shambles, the sense of disgust and repulsion overcomes any pleasure in light and color. In the parlor, if the spectator were persuaded by the picture to hold his nose, the thing would be as unlovely as it is in nature. Imitation pleases only so far as it is known to be imitation. If deception by imitation were the object of art, then the material of the sculptor should be wax, and not marble. Every visitor mistakes the sitting figure of Cobbett, in Madame Tussaud's collection of wax-works, for a real man, and will very likely, as we did, speak to it. But who would accost the Moses of Michael Angelo, or believe the sitting Medici in his chapel to have speech?

There is something unhandsomely derogatory to art in this common view. It is forgotten that art is not subsidiary nor auxiliary to nature, but it is a distinct ministry, and has a world of its own. They are not in opposition, nor do they clash. The cardinal fact of imitation in works of art is evident enough. The exquisite charm of art lies in the perfection of the imitation, coexisting with the consciousness of an absolute difference, so that the effect produced is not at all that which the object itself produces, but is an intellectual pleasure arising from the perception of the mingling of rational intention with the representation of the natural object. We can illustrate this by supposing a child bringing in a fresh rose, and a painter his picture of a rose. The pleasure derived from the picture is surely something better than wonder at the skill with which the form and color of the flower are imitated. Since imitation can never attain to the dignity and worth of the original, and since we live in the midst of nature, it would be folly to claim for its more or less successful copy the position and form of a great mental and moral influence.

Of course we are not unmindful of the inevitable assertion that if certain forms are to be used for the expression of certain truths, the first condition is that those forms shall be accurately rendered. Hence arises the great stress laid by the modern schools upon a rigorous imitation of nature, and hence what is called the pre-Raphaelite spirit, with its marvellous detail. But mere imitation does not come any nearer to great art by being perfect. If it is not informed by a great intention, sculpture is only wax-work and painting a juggle.

It is by her instinctive recognition of these fundamental principles that Rachel shows herself to be an artist. She is fully persuaded of the value of the modern spirit, and she belongs to the time by nothing more than by her instinctive and hearty adaptation of the principles of art which are illustrated in all other departments. There is nothing in Millais's or Hunt's paintings more purely pre-Raphaelite than Rachel's acting in the last scenes of "Adrienne Lecouvreur". It is the perfection of detail. It was studied, gasp by gasp, and groan by groan, in the hospital wards of Paris, where men were dying in agony. It is terrible, but it is true. We have seen a crowded theatre hanging in a suspense almost suffocating over that fearful scene. Men grew pale, women fainted, a spell of silence and awe held us enchanted. But it was all pure art. The actor was superior to the scene. It was the passion with which she threw herself into the representation, with a distinct conception of the whole, and a thorough knowledge of the means necessary to produce its effect, that secured the success. There was a sublimity of self-control in the spectacle, for, if she had allowed herself to be overwhelmed by the excitement, the play must have paused; real feeling would have invaded that which was represented, and we should, by a rude shock, have been staring in wonder at the weeping woman Rachel, instead of thrilling with the woes of the dying, despairing Adrienne. She seems to be what we know she is not.

Rachel's earlier triumphs were in the plays of Racine. Certainly nothing could show the essential worth of the old Greek dramatic material more than the fact that it could be rendered into French rhyme without losing all its dignity. If a man should know Homer only through Pope's translations, he could hardly understand the real greatness and peculiar charm of Homer. And as most of us know him in no other way, we all understand that the eminence of Homer is conceded upon the force of tradition and the feeling of those who have read him in the original. So, to the reader of Racine, it is his knowledge of the outline of the grand old Greek stories that prevents their loss of charm and loftiness when they masquerade in French rhyme. They have lost their sublimity, so far as treatment can effect it, while they retain their general form of interest. But it is the splendid triumph of Rachel that she restores the original Greek grandeur to the drama. We no longer wonder at Racine's idea of Phedre, but we are confronted with Phedre herself. From the moment she appears, through every change and movement of the scene until the catastrophe, a sense of fate, the grim, remorseless, and inexorable destiny that presides over Greek story, is stamped upon every look and nod and movement of Rachel. It is stated that, since the enthusiasm produced in Paris by Ristori, Rachel's Italian rival, the sculptor Schlesinger has declared that his statue of Rachel which he had called Tragedy was only Melodrama after all. If the report be true, it does not prove that Rachel, but Schlesinger, is not a great artist.

It is this simplicity and grandeur that make the excellence of Rachel in the characters of Racine. They cease to be French and become Greek. As a victim of fate, she moves, from the first scene to the last, as by a resistless impulse. Her voice has a low concentrated tone. Her movement is not vehement, but intense. If she smiles, it is a wan gleam of sadness, not of joy, as if the eyes that lighten for a moment saw all the time the finger of fate pointing over her shoulder. The thin form, graceful with intellectual dignity, not rounded with the ripeness of young womanhood, the statuesque simplicity and severity of the drapery, the pale cheek, the sad lips, the small eyes--these are accessory to the whole impression, the melancholy ornaments of the tragic scene. Her fine instinct avoids the romantic and melodramatic touches which, however seductive to an actor who aims at effect, would destroy at once that breadth and unity which characterize her best impersonations. Wherever the idea of fate inspires the tragedy, or can properly be introduced as the motive, there Rachel is unsurpassed and unapproachable. Her stillness, her solemnity, her intensity; the want of mouthing, of ranting, of all extravagance; the slight movement of the arms, and the subtle inflections of the voice which are more expressive than gestures, haunt the memory and float through the mind afterwards as the figure of Francesca di Rimini, in the exquisite picture of Ary Scheffer, sweeps, full of woe, which every line suggests, across the vision of Dante and his guide.

There was, naturally, the greatest curiosity and a good deal of scepticism about Rachel's power in the modern drama, the melodrama of Victor Hugo, and the social drama of Scribe. But her appearance in the "Angelo" of Victor Hugo and in "Adrienne Lecouvreur" of Scribe satisfied the curiosity and routed the scepticism. It was pleasant after the vast and imposing forms, the tearless tragedy of Greek story, to see the mastery of this genius in the conditions of a life and spirit with which we were more familiar and sympathetic. It was clear that the same passionate intensity which, united with the most exquisite perceptions, enabled her so perfectly to restore the Greek spirit to the Greek form, would as adequately represent the voluptuous southern life. If in the old drama she was sculpture, so in the modern she was painting, not only with the flowing outline, but with all the purple, palpitating hues of passion.

This is best manifested in the "Angelo", of which the scene is laid in old Padua and is, therefore, full of the mysterious spirit of mediaeval Italian, and especially Venetian life. Miss Cushman has played in an English version of this drama, called the "Actress of Padua". But it is hardly grandiose enough in its proportions to be very well adapted to the talent of Miss Cushman. It was remarkable how perfectly the genius which had, the evening before, adequately represented Phedre, could impersonate the ablest finesse of Italian subtilty. The old Italian romances were made real in a moment. The dim chambers, the dusky passages, the sliding doors, the vivid contrast of gayety and gloom, the dance in the palace and the duel in the garden, the smile on the lip and the stab at the heart, the capricious feeling, the impetuous action, the picturesque costume of life and society--all the substance and the form of our ideas of characteristic Italian life, are comprised in Rachel's Thisbe and Angelo.

There is one scene in that play not to be forgotten. The curtain rises and shows a vast, dim chamber in the castle, with a heavily-curtained bed, and massive carved furniture, and a deep bay-window. It is night; a candle burns upon the table, feebly flickering in the gloom of the great chamber. Angelo, whom Thisbe loves, and who pretends to love her, is sitting uneasily in the chamber with his mistress, whose name we have forgotten, but whom he really loves. Thisbe is suspicious of his want of faith, and burns with jealousy, but has had no proof.

A gust of wind, the rustle of the tapestry, the creak of a bough in the garden, the note of a night bird, any slightest sound makes the lovers start and quiver, as if they stood upon the verge of an imminent peril. Suddenly they both start at a low noise, apparently in the wall. Angelo rises and looks about, his mistress shivers and shrinks, but they discover nothing. The night deepens around them. The sense of calamity and catastrophe rises in the spectator's mind. They start again. This time they hear a louder noise, and glance helplessly around and feebly try to scoff away their terror. The sound dies away, and they converse in appalled and fragmentary whispers. But again a low, cautious, sliding noise arrests them. Angelo springs up, runs for his hat and cloak, blows out the candle upon the table, and escapes from the room, while his mistress totters to the bed and throws herself upon it, feigning sleep. The stage is left unoccupied, while the just-extinguished candle still smokes upon the table, and the sidelights and footlights, being lowered, wrap the vast chamber in deeper gloom.

At this moment a small secret door in the wall at the bottom of the stage slips aside, and Thisbe, still wearing her ball-dress, and with a head-dress of gold sequins flashing in her black hair, is discovered crouching in the aperture, holding an antique lamp in one hand, a little raised, and with the other softly putting aside the door, while, bending forward with a cat-like stillness, she glares around the chamber with eager eyes, that flash upon everything at once. The picture is perfect. The light falls from the raised lamp upon this jewelled figure crouching in the darkness at the bottom of the stage. Judith was not more terrible; Lucrezia Borgia not more superb. But, magnificent as it is, it is a moment of such intense interest that applause is suspended. The house is breathless, for it is but the tiger's crouch that precedes the spring. The next instant she is upon the floor of the chamber, and, still bending slightly forward to express the eager concentration of her mind, she glances at the bed and the figure upon it with a scornful sneer, that indicates how clearly she sees the pretence of sleep, and how evidently somebody has been there, or something has happened which justifies all her suspicion, and then, with panther-like celerity, she darts about the chamber to find some trace of the false lover--a hat, a glove, a plume, a cloak--to make assurance doubly sure. But there is nothing upon the floor, nothing upon the table, nothing in the bay-window, nothing upon the sofa, nor in the huge carved chairs; there is nothing that proves the treachery she suspects. But her restless eye leads her springing foot from one corner of the chamber to the other. Speed increases with the lessening chance of proof; the eye flashes more and more fiercely; the breast heaves; the hand clinches; the cheek burns, until, suddenly, in the very moment of despair, having as yet spoken no word, she comes to the table, sees the candle, which still smokes, and drawing herself up with fearful calmness, her cheeks grow pallid, the lips livid, the hands relax, the eye deadens as with a blow, and, with the despairing conviction that she is betrayed, her heart-break sighs itself out in a cold whisper, "_Elle fume encore_".

In this she is as purely dramatic as in other plays she is classical. But neither in the one nor the other is there a look, or a gesture, or a word, which is not harmonious with the spirit of the style and the character of the person represented.

This is pure passion as the other is implacable fate. There is something so tearfully human in it that you are touched as by a picture of the Magdalen. Every representation of Rachel is preserved in your memory with the first sights of the great statues and the famous pictures.

In the French translation of Schiller's "Mary Stuart", a character which may be supposed especially to interest Americans and English, Rachel is not less excellent. The sad grace, the tender resignation, the poetic enthusiasm, the petulant caprice, the wilful, lovely womanliness of the lovely queen, are made tragically real by her representation. Perhaps it is not the Mary of Mignet nor of history. But Mary Queen of Scots is one of the characters which the imagination has chosen to take from history and decorate with immortal grace. It cares less for what the woman Mary was, than to have a figure standing upon the fact of history, but radiant with the beauty of poetry. It has invested her with a loveliness that is perhaps unreal, with a tenderness and sweetness that were possibly foreign to her character, and with a general fascination and good intention which a contemporary might not have discovered.

It has made her the ideal of unfortunate womanhood. For it seemed that a fate so tragic deserved a fame so fair. Perhaps the weakness which Mary had, and which Lady Jane Grey had not, have been the very reasons why the unfortunate, unhappy Queen Mary is dearer to our human sympathies than the unfortunate Lady Jane. Perhaps because it was a woman who pursued her, the instinct of men has sought to restore, by the canonization of Mary, the womanly ideal injured by Elizabeth.

But, whatever be the reason, there is no question that we judge Mary Queen of Scots more by the imagination than by historical rigor; and it is Mary, as the mind insists upon having her, that Rachel represents. She conspires with the imagination to complete the ideal of Mary. It is a story told in sad music to which we listen; it is a mournful panorama, unfolding itself scene by scene, upon which we gaze. Lost in soft melancholy, the figures of the drama move before us as in a tragic dream. But after seeing Rachel's Mary we can see no other. If we meet her in history or romance, it is always that figure, those pensive eyes, forecasting a fearful doom, that voice whose music is cast in a hopeless minor. It is thus that dramatic genius creates, and poetry disputes with history.

Jules Janin says that Rachel is best in those parts of this play where the anger of the Queen is more prominent than the grief of the woman.

This is true to a certain extent. It was not difficult to see that the fierceness was more natural than the tenderness to the woman Rachel, and that, therefore, those parts had a reality which the tenderness had not. But the performance was symmetrical, and, so far as the mere acting was concerned, the woman was as well rendered as the Queen. The want of the spectacle was this, and it is, we fully grant, the defect of all her similar personations: you felt that it was only intellect feigning heart, though with perfect success. The tenderness and caprice of the woman, and the pride and dignity of the Queen, are all there. She would not be the consummate artist she is if she could not give them. But even through your tears you see that it is art. It is, indeed, concealed by its own perfection, but it is not lost in the loveliness of the character it suggests, as might be the case with a greatly inferior artist. You are half sure, as you own the excellence, that much of the tender effect arises from your feeling that Rachel, as she represents a woman so different from herself, regards her role with sad longing and vague regret. When we say that she is the ideal Mary, we mean strictly the artistic ideal.

The late Charlotte Bronte, in her novel of _Villette_, has described Rachel with a splendor of rhetoric that is very unusual with the author of _Jane Eyre_. But in the style of the description it is very easy to see the influence of the thing described. It has a picturesque stateliness, a grave grace and musical pomp, which all belong to the genius of Rachel. Even the soft gloom of her eyes is in it; a gloom and a fire which no one could more subtly feel than Miss Bronte. Her description is the best that we have seen of what is, in its nature, after all indescribable.

As the fame of an actor or singer is necessarily traditional, and rapidly perishes, it is not easy to compare one with another when they are not contemporaries, for you find yourself only comparing vague impressions and reports. Of Roscius and Betterton we must accept the names and allow the fame. We can see Reynolds's pictures, we can hear Handel's music, we can read Goldsmith's and Johnson's books; but of Garrick what can we have but a name, and somebody's account of what he thought of Garrick? The touch of Shakespeare we can feel as well as did our ancestors, and our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren will feel it as fully as we. But the voice of Malibran lingers in only a few happy memories, and we know Mrs. Siddons better by Sir Joshua's portrait than by her own glories.

It is, therefore, impossible to decide what relative rank among actresses Rachel occupies. Mrs. Jameson, in her _Common-Place Book of Thoughts, Memories, and Fancies_, says some sharp things of her, and Mrs. Jameson is a critic of too delicate a mind not to be heeded. The general view she takes of Rachel is, that she is not a great artist in the true sense of the word. She is a finished actress, but not an artist fine enough to conceal her art. The last scene of "Adrienne Lecouvreur" seems to Mrs. Jameson a mistake and a failure--so beyond the limits of art, a mere imitation of a repulsive physical fact; and finally she pronounces that Rachel has talent but not genius; while it is the "entire absence of the high poetic element which distinguishes Rachel as an actress, and places her at such an immeasurable distance from Mrs. Siddons, that it shocks me to hear their names together".

It may be fairly questioned, whether a woman so refined and cultivated as Mrs. Jameson may not have judged Rachel rather by her wants as a woman than by her excellence as an artist. That the terrible last scene of "Adrienne" is a harrowing imitation of nature we have conceded. The play is, in truth, a mere melodrama. It is a vaudeville of costume, with a frightful catastrophe appended. But as an artist she seems to us perfectly to render the part. She does not make it more than it is, but she makes it just what it is--a proud, injured, and betrayed actress. Whether the accuracy of her imitation is not justified by the intention, which alone can redeem imitation, will remain a question to each spectator. Mrs. Jameson also insists that Rachel's power is extraneous, and excites only the senses and the intellect, and that she has become a hard mannerist.

In our remarks upon this celebrated actress we have viewed her simply as an artist, and not as a woman. She appeals to the public only in that way. Perhaps the sinister stories that are told of her private career only serve to confirm and deepen the feeling of the intensity of her nature, she so skilfully represents the most fearful passions, not from the perception of genius alone, but from the knowledge of actual experience. Certainly no woman's character has been more freely discussed, and no public performer of any kind ever sought so little to propitiate her audience. She has seemed to scorn the world she fascinated; and like a superb snake, with glittering eyes and cold crest, to gloat over the terror which held her captives thrall. Hence it is not surprising to one who has seen her a great deal, and has felt the peculiarity of her power, to find in Lehmann's portrait of her--which is, perhaps, the most characteristic of all that have been taken--a subtle resemblance to a serpent, which is at once fascinating and startling. Mrs. Jameson mentions that when she first saw her in Hermione, she was reminded of a Lamia, or serpent nature in woman's form. As you look at Lehmann's portrait this feeling is irresistible. The head bends slightly forward, with a darting, eager movement, yet with a fine, lithe grace. The keen, bright eyes glance a little askance, with a want of free confidence. There are a slim smoothness, a silent alertness, in the general impression--a nervous, susceptible intentness, united with undeniable beauty, that recall the deadly nightshade among flowers and Keats's "Lamia" among poems. The portrait would fully interpret the poem, She looked the lovely Lamia upon the verge of flight, at the instant when she felt the calm, inexorable eye of criticism and detection. In a moment, while you gaze, that form will be prone, those bright, cold eyes malignant, that wily grace will undulate into motion and glide away. You feel that there is no human depravity that Rachel could not adequately represent. Perhaps you doubt if she could be Desdemona or Imogen.

Rachel is great, but there is something greater. It is not an entirely satisfactory display of human power, even in its own way. Her triumph is that of an actress. It is only an intellectual success. For however subtly dramatic genius may seize and represent the forms of human emotion, yet the representation is most perfect--not, indeed, as art, but as a satisfaction of the heart--when the personal character of the artist interests those emotions to himself, and thus sympathetically affects the audience. Rachel's Mary is a perfect portrait of Mary; but it is only a picture, after all, that expresses the difference in feeling between the impression of her personation and that which will be derived from another woman. The fiercer and darker passions of human nature are depicted by her with terrible force-power. They throb with reality; but in the soft, superior shades you still feel that it is emotion, intellectually discerned.

Such facts easily explain the present defection of Paris from Rachel. Ristori has come up from Italy, and with one woman's smile, "full of the warm South", she has lured Paris to her feet. There is no more sudden and entire desertion of a favorite recorded in all the annals of popular caprice. The feuilletonists, who are a power in Paris, have gone over in a body to the beautiful Italian. They describe her triumphs precisely as they described Rachel's. The old ecstasies are burnished up for the new occasion. In a country like ours, where there is no theatre, and where the dramatic differences only creep into an advertisement, such an excitement as Paris feels, from such a cause and at such a time, is simply incredible. It is, possibly, as real and dignified an excitement as that which New York experienced upon the decease of the late lamented William Poole.

There are various explanations of this fall of Rachel, without resorting to the theory of superior genius in Ristori. Undoubtedly Paris loves novelty, and has been impatient of the disdainful sway of Rachel. Her reputed avarice and want of courtesy and generosity, her total failure to charm as a woman while she fascinated as an artist, have, naturally enough, after many years, fatigued the patience and disappointed the humane sympathies of a public whose mere curiosity had been long satisfied. Rachel seemed only more Parisian than Paris.

But when over the Alps came Ristori, lovely as a woman and eminent as an artist, then there was a new person who could make Paris weep at her greatness upon the stage, and her goodness away from it; who, in the plenitude of her first success, could shame the reported avarice of her fallen rival by offers of the sincerest generosity. When Ristori came, who seemed to have a virtue for every vice of Rachel, Paris, with one accord, hurried with hymns and incense to the new divinity. We regard it as a homage to the woman no less than a tribute to the artist. We regard it as saying to Rachel that if, being humane and lovely, she chose, from pride, to rule by scornful superiority, she has greatly erred; or if, being really unlovely, she has held this crown only by her genius, she has yet to see human nature justify itself by preferring a humane to an inhuman power. The most splendid illustration of this kind of homage was the career of Jenny Lind in America. It was rather the fashion among the _dilettanti_ to undervalue her excellence as an artist. A popular superficial criticism was fond of limiting her dramatic power to inferior roles. She was denied passion and great artistic skill; she was accused of tricks. But, even had these things been true, what a career it was! It was unprecedented, and can never be repeated. Yet it was, at bottom, the success of a saint rather than that of a singer. Had she been a worse or better artist the homage would have been the same. If the public--and it is a happy fact--can love the woman even more than it admires the artist, her triumph is assured.

We look upon the enthusiasm for Ristori by no means as an unmingled tribute to superior genius. We make no question of her actual womanly charms. Even if appearance of generosity, of simplicity, and sweetness were only deep Italian wile, and assumed, upon profound observation and consideration of human nature and the circumstances of Rachel's position in Paris, merely for the purpose of exciting applause, that applause would still be genuine, and would prove the loyalty of the public mind to what is truly lovely. It was our good-fortune to see Ristori in Italy, where, for the last ten years, she has been accounted the first Italian actress. She has there been seen by all the travelling world of Europe and America. It is not possible that so great a talent, as the Parisians consider it, could have been so long overlooked. We well remember Ristori as a charming, natural, simple actress; but of the surpassing power which Paris has discovered probably very few of us retain any recollection.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Rachel