TRAGIC MUSE by Rachel M. Brownstein


Rachel of the ComÇdie-Franáaise
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 In what she claims ``might be called a postmodern biography,'' Brownstein (English/Brooklyn College; Becoming a Heroine, 1982) does not present the life-story of the 19th-century French ``star'' known only as ``Rachel'' (1821-58)--but, rather, she considers her as a ``text,'' interprets her as a ``cultural construct,'' and examines this daughter of peddlers who became an empress of the stage as a ``function of her personal effects.'' ``Stars,'' says Brownstein, because they are ``invented by writers,'' attract other writers, especially biographers--of which Rachel has had many (e.g., Joanna Richardson's Rachel, 1957). But none have so subtly yet expansively managed to avoid her life in favor of decoding how others saw her and what it all meant. We learn enough here to pique our interest: illiterate waif, woman, priestess, criminal, mistress, femme fatale, Rachel was the ``conflation'' of all her roles. But she was also the creation of men: her calculating father; her mentor at the ComÇdie Franáaise; critics, journalists, playwrights, writers, painters. Rachel revived the classical ideals of Racine and Corneille; as a ``mock queen,'' she gave dignity to royalty in an age that was repudiating it; and, as a ``republican muse,'' she inspired patriotism-- although, as a Jew, she remained an alien. In her travels from Moscow to New York, she served as a French cultural icon, while as an actress she provided models for painters, and for writers from Henry James to Balzac. Notorious for her sexuality, she bore two illegitimate sons (one of them Napoleon's grandson) before she died of TB, at age 37. An epic meditation, rich with detail on the history of the stage, of Jews in France, of journalism and its role in creating a Rachel. But with no chronology, life story, or even obituary, this is an interpretation without a narrative, a biography without a life. (Thirty illustrations, including eight pp. color--not seen)

Pub Date: May 8th, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-57451-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1993