The celebrated French tragédienne Rachel ( Elisabeth Rachel Félix,1821-1858) has just finished four highly acclaimed performances at the St. James Theatre in London.
Everybody who is anybody has seen her - including Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and Prince Louis Napoleon. The latter, one of her numerous lovers, is soon to return to France and assume the title of Napoleon III.
So, after her London success, Rachel is now headed on the train to Manchester to make her debut in the English provinces.
Accompanying her are Louis Napoleon and his cousin Prince Napoléon.
Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, 1822-1891
- who according to some bears a physical resemblance to his more famous uncle
- but is to acquire during the Crimean War the rather unflattering nickname for a Bonaparte of "Plon Plon" (derived from Craint-plon - fear of bullets).
Picture the scene in the carriage.
Rachel and Louis Napoleon begin the journey sitting together. Prince Napoléon sits opposite. The three have the carriage to themselves.
Louis Napoleon apparently falls asleep, so what else is Rachel to do but go and sit beside his cousin?
Unfortunately Louis Napoleon is not asleep.
For some time, through half shut eyes, he watches Rachel and his cousin kiss and cuddle.
He then begins to simulate the process of awakening.
By the time he is fully "awake" Rachel is back sitting beside him, and Prince Napoléon is examining the English countryside through the carriage window as avidly as if he has never seen trees before.
Louis Napoleon says nothing, but he is irritated by the duplicity. He stays in Manchester one night only, and returns to London the following day. That appears to have been the end of that particular affair (1)
Rachel at the Theatre Royal
Rachel's destination was Manchester's new Theatre Royal, with its white marble sculpture of Shakespeare on the facade. (2)
The theatre still stands, although it has lost its former glory.
In recent decades it has been variously cinema, bingo hall and night club.
Hopefully better times await it again.
A refurbishment costing £150 million has been announced, and when completed it will be the new home of the Manchester Library Theatre Company.
Presumably 160 years of grime will be removed from the Shakespeare sculpture and the marble will be revealed again.
Back to August 1847.
Rachel appeared on four nights in four different plays: Les Horaces, Phèdre,Virginie and Jeanne d'Arc .
In those days two or even three plays were performed on the same night, and on occasion Rachel would be taking her final curtain call not much before midnight.
On her final benefit night her sister, Mademoiselle Dinah Felix, made an appearance, reciting "Le Chene et le Roseau" and "La Belete". One wonders what the good merchants of Manchester made of that.
Rachel's performances were a resounding artistic success.
The Observer said there was no mistaking here the presence of the highest histrionic genius.
The Examiner noted the
enthusiasm of the audience, both during the course and at the close of the performance, when Rachel was called for and received with showers of bouquets.
The Manchester Guardian contrasted French actors favourably with English actors:
English actors think it sufficient to know what to say on the stage, French actors learn what to say and what to do.
Those attending were apparently able to buy scripts of the plays being performed with French and English in parallel lines, but despite this the size of the audiences was a disappointment. The Courier noted that for one performance the dress circle (10/6) the pit stalls (5/-) and the pit (3/-) were full, but the upper circle (5/-) gallery (2/-) and upper gallery (1/-) contained no more than 50 people.
The Manchester Times , with characteristic Victorian optimism, had expected that
our Athenæum, our Mechanics' Institute, and other educational institutions, would have been preparing, through their language classes, large numbers who could have understood and enjoyed a performance of this nature.One wonders how many today would turn out to watch a play performed in French. I don't think it would need a very large theatre!
Rachel was followed by Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale". Miss Lind commanded an enormous fee for her appearances at the Theatre Royal, and had no trouble filling it. For her the best seats were priced at £1-11s-6d - three times the cost of seats for the French plays. (3)
On one night she was indisposed and the performance was postponed twenty four hours. The news was communicated to various stations on the line of railway by means of the electric telegraph. (4)
As always Manchester was at the cutting edge of technology.
I understand that plans to house the Library Theatre in the old Theatre Royal building have had to be shelved because of the high cost of renovation. A pity, but I can't say that I am surprised. I wonder what will happen to the building now.
1. Roman Golicz The English Life of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte: The Life of Napoleon III in the context of Anglo-French Relations - available online.
2. This was the third Theatre Royal - the previous two were burnt down - a common occurrence given the dependence on candle light. The insurers insisted that the new Theatre Royal had a huge tank containing thousands of gallons of water installed over the stage. My thanks to Roy Rogers for this and other insights into the surprising history of Manchester Theatre
3. Rachel should have learned lessons from her and Jenny Lind's differing receptions in Manchester. Hearing that Jenny Lind had made 2 million francs on an American visit, Rachel followed her there, with predictably poor results. "Music is enjoyed by human beings everywhere, while French classical plays, even though acted by a genius like Rachel, could be rightly understood only by a French- speaking people." Famous Affinities of History by Lyndon Orr, The Story of Rachel
4. Manchester Theatre Royal Playbills, May-Sept 1847. Arts Library, Manchester Central Library. Unfortunately this excellent collection, which contains press cuttings as well as playbills, will soon be unavailable to researchers for three or four years while the library is being renovated.