Rachel, the circulation of the image, and the death of tragedy



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Although it is frequently suggested that the idea of celebrity, as opposed to fame, is a construct of twentieth-century popular culture, many of the originating mechanisms and characteristics of modern celebrity have their roots in the more distant past. In France, the Industrial Revolution and the resulting mechanization of the media in the early to mid-nineteenth century fostered the processes of publicity. The invention of photography, the explosion in circulation of newspapers, and the emergence of cultural criticism gave rise to a new sense of both the importance and the relatability of people in the public eye. Elisa Rachel Félix (1821-1858), known professionally as “Rachel,” was the undisputed star of the French state theater, the Comédie-Française, from 1838 until shortly before her death. She was in many ways the first exemplar of the tropes of celebrity in French popular culture. Not only was she greatly admired for her talent in performance, especially in the classical tragic repertoire of the Golden Age of French playwriting, but she was also a pioneer in what Tom Mole has called “the hermeneutic of intimacy,” the perception on the part of the public that the accessibility of images of the performer creates a sense of connection and sympathy between artist and audience. This dissertation will explore the varieties of media through which Rachel’s career and life were publicized and the competing currents of her celebrity identity: the extent to which the star was understood as an exceptional woman versus her identification with her public. Depictions of Rachel in traditional arts, such as sculpture and painting, competed with her portrayal in such modern media as photographs, newspaper columns and caricatures, either enhancing her closeness to her fans or emphasizing her fundamental difference. The image of celebrity which Rachel helped to create endured after her premature death and contributed mightily to a foundational shift in the emphasis of media culture in France. Coinciding as it did with the heyday of Romanticism and the rise of realism in the arts, the cult of celebrity contributed strongly to the death of the tragic genre.