A Year in Books/Day 165: Tragic Muse Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise

  • Title: Tragic Muse Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise
  • Author: Rachel M. Brownstein
  • Year Published: 1993/This edition: 1995 (Duke University Press)
  • Year Purchased: 1999/2000
  • Source: Barnes & Noble clearance rack
  • About: Tragic Muse is more than a biography. As the title suggests, its subject met a sad end. An actress rising to stardom before burning out whilst still young? You don’t say. Sounds like familiar (and familiar and familiar) stuff. Trite. Fate as formulaic plot twist. Not quite. Rachel was a classic actress, a great tragedienne beloved by the common people (of which she was one), and enormously successful. As many an actress before and since, she was admired by and socialized (and slept) with the elite. The outline of her life is interesting, but the author never shades in her character with more than the faintest colours. This is certainly due to the post-modern game Brownstein plays with both Rachel and her readers. We are clubbed in the face with the idea that the author, in writing about her namesake, is also searching for her own identity as a fellow young Jewish woman, and that she is doing so in a post-modern way (which is picked up in the same laudatory manner by several reviews featured on the back cover). Got it, thanks. This idea, although certainly not new, is always intriguing; somehow it seems fresh no matter how many times one runs across a similar treatment. Unfortunately, once taken to the conclusion results vary. I should be intrigued by both subject and author, by their parallels and differences. By something, anything. It’s enjoyable but I have been let down as many times as I have read it (three, by the way). It is too post-modern and egocentric to be a good stand-alone biography, not post-modern enough for me to stop yearning after the original subject. I don’t quite care enough either way, which is too bad: I’d be more than happy (eager, even) to read a traditional biography of Rachel the actress or an autobiography or book of cultural essays by Brownstein, who is really a fine writer. It’s when she tries to combine the two, half-heartedly, that I lose interest in either.
  • Motivation: A bit of French social and political history and a famous actress, now forgotten? Yes and yes, please.
  • Times Read: 3
  • Random Excerpt/Page 128: “To show its commitment to the arts and to the past, the Citizen King’s government presented Rachel with a library of the classics. Bourgeois society, eager to parade its elite tastes, embraced, enveloped, and claimed her. The class that had profited most from the revolution of 1830 was hostile to romanticism, especially in the theater, therefore hospitable to Rachel.”
  • Happiness Scale: 7

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