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The French Actor on the London Stage: Charles Fechter

L’acteur français dans la scène londonienne : Charles Fechter
Catherine Quirk

Résumés

Charles Fechter (1824-1879) était considéré par nombre de ses admiratrices du milieu du siècle comme le plus grand séducteur de la scène londonienne. Selon la plupart de ses biographes, l’acteur était né à Londres, mais originaire de France, où il aurait grandi. C’est à Paris qu’il débuta sa carrière sur scène, obtenant ses premiers succès dans les cercles d’amateurs avant de rejoindre la Comédie Française. Ayant appris seul un anglais plus ou moins courant, il retourna à Londres en 1860, se produisant sur la scène du Princess avant de prendre en charge la gérance du Lyceum Theatre en 1862. Tout au long de la décennie suivante, on allait le voir tantôt à Paris tantôt à Londres, avant qu’il ne vogue vers l’Amérique. S’il fut dans un premier temps connu dans le « théâtre légitime » – tout d’abord pour son Hamlet peu conventionnel en 1861 –, le style particulier de Fechter était jugé plus adapté au mélodrame du milieu du siècle. Le critique américain Henry Austin Clapp le décrit comme « un maître du symbolisme extérieur de l’art histrionique », et les propres annotations de l’acteur sur le texte scénique d’Othello reflètent l’accent mis dans le déploiement de son personnage sur le geste, l’attitude, le mouvement et autres marqueurs superficiels. S’il est vrai que ce choix centré sur l’extérieur était tout à fait dans l’air du temps sur les scènes des mélodrames du milieu du dix-neuvième siècle, le maniérisme français de Fechter, et tout particulièrement son accent et ses intonations auxquels il ne pouvait (ou ne voulait) totalement se soustraire, divisèrent le public et les critiques de Londres. Anticipant la dissection mordante, de la part de Clapp, de sa prononciation de certains mots, ainsi que le manque de goût avéré du public américain qui l’adopta sur le tard, certains commentateurs jugèrent les choix de l’acteur par trop (et inutilement) français et partant, impropres à la scène londonienne. D’autres rejetèrent complètement l’accent et le maniérisme, ignorant la nationalité de Fechter pour n’évaluer positivement ou négativement que son jeu d’acteur, voyant même parfois que les aspects particulièrement français de ses représentations constituaient un attrait supplémentaire de l’acteur. Parmi les personnes importantes de ce groupe tardif figurait Charles Dickens, qui avait vu et admiré le Hamlet de Fechter et ne tarda pas à inviter le Français à rejoindre son groupe de compagnons-acteurs. De nombreuses études ont porté sur les stars françaises qui se succédèrent sur les planches de Londres, comme Sarah Bernhardt et Rachel, par exemple, qui donnèrent lieu à des analyses particulièrement abondantes. Fechter, en revanche, qui avait choisi de travailler alternativement à Paris et à Londres et qui jouait à la fois en français et en anglais, n’a pas été l’objet de tant d’intérêt. À l’aide de publications de revues, de lettres et des pièces dans lesquels il joua — sans oublier les propres adaptations de Fechter et ses notes sur le texte d’Othello — je me propose d’étudier comment cet acteur souvent négligé fut à la fois accueilli comme le plus grand séducteur de la scène londonienne et considéré comme singulièrement français, et de quelle manière cette apparente contradiction est le reflet des réactions divergentes des spectateurs de la capitale anglaise contemporaine face à tout ce que leurs planches offraient de français.

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‘He was either the favorite of the public, or he was entirely forgotten. He would flash before the world, a brilliant meteor; then disappear, without even leaving a trail of light behind him’
—‘Miss Field’s Fechter’, 251

1Charles Fechter’s life and career defy easy definition. Fechter was born in London, but he was brought up in Paris, performed throughout Europe, and considered himself to be French; his biographer, Kate Field, however, called him ‘a man without a country’ (1886, 209). Edmund Yates described the actor as ‘the best love-maker I ever saw on the stage’ (1882, 148), and Henry Austin Clapp agreed: ‘Mr. Fechter’s love-making was the best I ever witnessed’ (124). Errol Sherson read his popularity as that of the first ‘Matinée Idol’ (362), and Edward Robins called him ‘the prince of melodramatic lovers’ (348). Dion Boucicault, however, protested in a memorial of the actor for the New York Sun that Fechter’s Hamlet was ‘a performance a deaf man might have revelled in’ (10 Aug 1879). Robins’s positive comment came after the same author’s complaint that Fechter’s characterisations ‘lacked dignity, spirituality, [and] soul’ (339). In addition, many critics—both professional and amateur—found that Fechter’s enduring French accent ‘not infrequently spoiled the effect’ (Watson 376) of even his most successful performances. He lived surrounded by friends and admirers—he was acquainted in London with such mid-century names as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and William Charles Macready and in Paris with Alexandre Dumas fils, Rachel Félix, and Frédérick Lemaître—but died alone on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania.

2Such contrasts encapsulate not only Fechter’s life and career but also more broadly the status of foreign actors on the mid-nineteenth-century English stage. People of all nations were burlesqued on stage—especially those of American, Irish, and French extraction—and actors from other countries were never certain of the reception they might receive in London. An actor’s or company’s success often depended on popular sentiment and prejudice, which could shift daily in response to current socio-political events. While Fechter’s career on the English stage and the general reaction to his work in London in the 1860s reflect the ambiguous status of the French on the London stage, his particular acting style also marks a distinct turning point in London stage history. Fechter’s work as an actor and later as a manager was influential in bringing about the shift from the traditional staging and styles of the first half of the nineteenth century to the Naturalism and Realism that were increasingly favoured during the second half of the century.

The Life of Charles Fechter

  • 1 Or 1822, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry.
  • 2 Kate Field (1882) has provided the main full-length biographical account of Fechter. Because of his (...)
  • 3 Occasionally, the two art forms would meet, such as in 1848 at the Ambigu when Fechter ‘astonished’ (...)

3Charles Albert Fechter was born on 23 October 18241 to an English mother and a French sculptor of German background.2 He spent the first decade of his life in London at Hanway Yard, off Oxford Street, with easy access to the theatres of the metropolis. His early school days were as contradictory as his later experiences would be. His days were miserable—fellow students teased Fechter for his background and accent and called him ‘French Frog’ (Field 1882, 6)—but his nights, when he was able to steal away to take in performances by such prominent early-nineteenth-century actors as Macready and Charles Kemble, were magical. In 1836, when Fechter was 12, the family returned permanently to France. Fechter completed his education at Boulogne-sur-Seine before starting work with his father in Paris. Jean Maria Fechter always intended that his son would follow in his own artistic footsteps, and the battle between the two arts of sculpting and acting would be a continual conflict throughout Fechter’s formative years.3

  • 4 This Parisian theatre catered to amateurs and those looking for exposure prior to trying their hand (...)
  • 5 ‘Under the rules of that institution stage-struck young men and women might ask for a trial rehears (...)

4In 1840, when Fechter was 16 years old, he first took the part of jeune premier in the private theatricals at the Salle Molière.4 The young actor was such an immediate success on the amateur stage that in the following year he was recruited to travel to Florence to play the young lover’s role in a touring French company. Upon his return, and still against his father’s wishes, Fechter applied for admission to train at the Conservatoire in Paris. He was accepted, but, as would become increasingly clear over the course of his later life and career, even at this early stage, Fechter was never keen to follow either tradition or direction. He left the Conservatoire after three weeks and—likely to his father’s great joy–entered instead the École des Beaux-Arts to complete his training as a sculptor. In the summer of 1844, Fechter was invited to appear for a trial rehearsal at the Comédie-Française.5 He was an immediate success there as well, although even at this early stage of his professional career the actor was embroiled in controversy. The more established players at the Comédie-Française protested at the presumption of the young pensionnaire who ‘had ideas of his own; and once convinced of having attained the truth in his art, no one could turn him from his purpose’ (Field 1882, 22). The first examples of the temper that would become infamous appeared in the eighteen months Fechter spent at the Comédie-Française: from this point and throughout his career, ‘[h]e never would control himself; his temper became his king, and, in the end, his tyrant’ (Robins 327). When early in 1846 the rest of the players received a raise in salary, Fechter alone being exempted, he finally stormed away from the theatre (Field 1886, 211).

5Following this dramatic exit, Fechter avoided Paris for the better part of a year, performing in Berlin and in London, where he spent four months at the St. James’s Theatre as a member of one of the many French companies to make that theatre their temporary London home. In his four months in London, Fechter caught the eye of John Maddox, then the manager of the Princess’s Theatre. Fechter’s acting stood out as fresh and unique, even in a company of his countrymen, and the Frenchman would have made a remarkable spectacle to add to Maddox’s repertoire. The manager was willing to offer the exorbitant sum of £40 a week for three years to secure the young French actor. Fechter was forced to turn down the offer, as he had already committed himself to appear at the Ambigu upon his return to Paris, but the offer clearly suggested to Fechter the possibility of returning to the London stage. When the Ambigu was forced to close during the 1848 revolution, Fechter wrote to accept Maddox’s offer, but the manager had engaged an opera troupe instead, and Fechter put his English aspirations on hold.

6In the 1850s, Fechter became one of the most highly sought-after actors in Paris, though his acting choices and the readings he gave to his roles often sparked controversy and divided critical reception. Over the course of the decade, he appeared in at least three of the major Parisian playhouses in a vast array of classic and melodramatic roles. His greatest success of this period came in creating Armand Duval in the stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias at the Vaudeville. In Dumas’s novel, and in the original conception of the adaptation, Armand takes a supporting role, and the casting of one of the leading actresses in Paris, Eugénie Doche, as Marguerite Gautier seemed to solidify this expected hierarchy. Fechter’s ‘impassioned’ acting repeated the successes of his earlier jeune premier roles, building from the ‘tenderness’ of the desperate lover, through the ‘finest pathos’ to reach ‘a magnificent climax in the fourth act, where Duval bursts out into scornful denunciation of the heroine’ (Robins 334). Dumas himself was entranced by the passion of his re-imagined hero and wished that another author had written the piece so he could ‘say of Fechter all that ought to be said’ (qtd in Robins 335). For Field, the singularity of Fechter’s treatment of Armand was a mark of his ‘genius’, his ability to ‘carr[y] the author’s conception beyond the letter’ (Field 1882, 42) in such a way that even the author himself could be favourably impressed with the actor’s interpretation.

  • 6 In Fechter’s own words, ‘that wormeaten and unwholesome prison where dramatic art languishes in fet (...)
  • 7 ‘Until 1867 the Théâtre Français had the exclusive right of presenting the classic drama, comic and (...)

7At the end of the decade, following a string of successes on the Parisian stage, Fechter briefly took on the management of the Odéon. His hope was that, in managing his own theatre, he had finally found a place to exhibit and give free rein to his own ideas, without having to keep ‘Dame Tradition’ happy and appeased (Robins 319).6 He intended to focus on the classics of the French and English stages, through French-language productions of the legitimate dramas of such playwrights as Shakespeare and Molière rather than the melodramas and romantic dramas he had primarily performed to this point in his career. The Emperor Napoleon, however, repeatedly refused to allow Fechter special permission to stage the plays that had traditionally been the province of the Théâtre Français.7

8In the summer of 1860, at the moment of this crucial disappointment, Fechter happened to return briefly to England. There, he met with Augustus Harris, who had followed Maddox as manager of the Princess’s and who succeeded where Maddox had failed in enticing Fechter to make his English-language debut on the London stage. Harris made a point of emphasising his new star’s origins in the advertisements for his new season, selling the actor as a novel spectacle. The playbill for Fechter’s first night announces the ‘First Appearance on the English Stage of Mr. FECHTER The Favourite Actor of Parisian Renown, and original representative of “THE CORSICAN BROTHERS”, “PAULINE”, “THE BACHELOR OF ARTS” And many other Dramas that are now familiar to the London Public’ (Sat. 27 Oct 1860; original emphasis). Fechter’s English-language debut, then, was successful not only because he was a new face performing in a well-loved drama at a well-attended theatre, which was always a draw, but also because he was already an established theatrical name in France. In addition to the usual excitement that greeted guest appearances by foreign actors, though, he was successful as a spectacle because he was attempting what no French actor of his rank had yet done. Fechter made his English-language debut as the star of a regularly performing London company rather than as a one-off or short-contract performance.

  • 8 A non-exhaustive list includes Ruy Blas, Don Caesar de Bazan, The Golden Daggers, The Duke’s Motto, (...)

9Fechter’s decade on the London stage includes the highlights of mid-century romantic drama.8 His first foray onto the English-language stage was as the title character in Edmund Falconer’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. This role quickly became a favourite of both the actor and his audiences because of the romance of the piece and the varied outlets the character provides for emotional expression, and Fechter returned to it throughout his career. Most prestigiously, he revived the role in 1865 at the Lyceum at the Royal command of the Prince of Wales. Tellingly, his farewell performances in London and the provinces—both in 1869 and during his brief return in 1872—also included the role.

10In March of 1861, Fechter ventured to fulfil his lifelong goal of acting Shakespeare in English, first taking on Hamlet—which met with mixed reviews—and then Othello, which was a complete failure. When Othello returned after Harris’s Christmas 1861-62 pantomime, audiences saw Fechter as Iago instead of as the title character. This, too, failed, and his only later attempts at legitimate English drama were revivals of his Hamlet, which had become, for its novelty value, nearly as prominent a sensation as his French romantic leads. In the 1862-63 season, Fechter took over as manager of the Lyceum. Fechter hoped, as he had done with the Odéon, that the role of manager would allow him to play the classical roles of legitimate drama, but again he was disappointed, and again he staged a continual stream of melodrama and romantic drama.

11While Fechter’s term of management may not have taken the route he had hoped, it cemented his popularity with London audiences and his associations with the leading figures of the literary and theatrical worlds. Fechter left the Lyceum in 1867 to originate the role of Obenreizer in the adaptation of Charles Dickens’s and Wilkie Collins’s No Thoroughfare at the Adelphi. By this point in his career, the Adelphi Theatre Calendar for 1867-68 notes, Charles Fechter had achieved ‘an international reputation’ and was just as well-known as either of the authors (Cross, Donohue, and Nelson 67/8). After farewell performances both in London and in the provinces, Fechter left England and Europe. Perhaps, as Clapp speculates, his temper and impetuosity had once again gotten the better of him (115); perhaps his appearance at the Adelphi, the home of melodrama in London, had finally convinced Fechter of the impracticality of his dream to appear in legitimate English drama on the London stage.

  • 9 Yates, on a visit to America in 1872, found Fechter ‘much changed for the worse in appearance, heal (...)

12Like many nineteenth-century actors, Fechter looked to America for his next challenge after London. Early in 1870, he arrived in New York, where he performed in Ruy Blas (in the title role that had served him so well on the London stage a decade earlier), The Duke’s Motto, and Hamlet, with each performance receiving similarly mixed reactions. In Boston, he opened the Globe Theatre in an attempt to repeat the managerial success he had found at the Lyceum, but the ‘miserable temper of the Frenchman made mischief’ (Robins 345), and he returned to New York in 1871. After a final, brief appearance in London, as Ruy Blas at the Adelphi in 1872, he created his last new role—as Karl in Love’s Penance, his English-language version of M. Anicet-Bourgeois’s Le Médecin des Enfants—at New York’s Park Theatre in April 1874. In the final years of his career, he relied on the romantic heroes that had made his name but that were becoming a stretch of even the most partial imagination, as the actor aged and lost his ‘matinée idol’ looks.9 In 1876, Fechter broke a leg, and neither his career nor, apparently, his energetic spirits could recover from the months he was off the stage. His final performance was as Dantès in his own version of Dumas père’s Monte Cristo, at New York’s Broadway Theatre in December 1877. He spent his remaining years secluded on a farm in Pennsylvania, hunting and fishing with little company but his dogs. His death on 5 August 1879 was mourned in all three countries on whose stages he had spent his career and whose respective national dramas had been irrevocably altered by his presence.

Controversy and Spectacle: Charles Fechter’s Hamlet

  • 10 The best example of Fechter’s easy dismissal of convention in favour of conviviality is in a descri (...)

13Fechter’s death in lonely obscurity stands in marked contrast to his otherwise glittering career. Although, as Robins has noted, he had a reputation for temper, those he did not offend spoke highly of his energy and inclusivity.10 On stage as well as in life, Fechter was best known—and best appreciated—for his conviviality. Clapp recalls that ‘when the matter in hand was one of clear romance; when youthful love, or the power of loyalty, or the spirit of daring was to be exemplified; indeed, when any common passion was to be shown in any usual way, Mr. Fechter’s playing was eminently effective’ (Clapp 121). The romantic leads, apart from being the roles he had trained for in Paris, seemed also to be roles that naturally suited his personality: Watson asserted, speaking of Fechter’s performance as Ruy Blas, that ‘he was merely the French lover that nature had made him’ (Watson 237). Robins called him ‘the exponent of all that was impetuously romantic and dazzlingly picturesque in modern drama’ and recalled how, even in his later years when he was no longer the ideal embodiment of the young romantic hero, he ‘could play the lover so ardently to the last’ (Robins 316).

  • 11 This particular choice, however, may have been made purely for reasons of the actor’s health. The p (...)

14Fechter’s success as an actor, then, has in part been attributed to his own appearance and his natural suitability to the roles he chose to play. Fechter’s later success as manager of the Lyceum has been similarly attributed to the fact that he, for the most part, ‘confined himself to his native drama’ (Watson 240). He put on adaptations of French novels and plays and the occasional English novel—such as The Lady of Lyons, The Corsican Brothers, and The Master of Ravenswood—but stayed well clear of such pre-eminently English property as Shakespeare. He revived Hamlet once while managing the Lyceum, again to mixed reviews, but did not venture any further into the classical English repertoire either as an actor or as a manager. Even when the chance might have arisen to expand his Shakespearean repertoire, Fechter either declined or was not considered. Harris staged King Lear and The Merry Wives of Windsor in the same season as the Hamlet in which Fechter made his Shakespearean debut, but the Frenchman did not take a role in either (Princess’s playbills, May 1861).11 Regardless of Fechter’s limited Shakespearean range, critics of the actor, both positive and negative, focus on his Hamlet as the highest point of interest in the actor’s career. Many of the contradictory reactions to Fechter stem from this one role, and many later reviewers recall his performance as the Dane in commenting on his career, style, or even personality.

15As Austin Brereton notes, ‘[a]t some time or other in the course of his career, it is the ambition of every actor who loves his work to appear as Hamlet’ (v). In the nineteenth century, most critics and audience members, even those not deeply familiar with Shakespeare’s text, carried with them a long list of preconceived notions on the part. Many actors took full advantage of this familiarity and expectation, playing to specific points and limiting their own reading of the character to those aspects of tradition that were most fashionable (or most acceptable) to contemporary audiences. The chance to play Hamlet, then, was often less a chance to take on a challenging role in an original manner than it was a chance for the actor to prove that he or she understood the tradition. This tradition, of course, was a particularly English one, and so Fechter met with opposition not only to his original reading of the character but also to his attempting the role at all.

16A majority of the London theatre world—filled with ‘curiosity’ at the mere ‘idea of a Frenchman playing the Dane, in the very city where so many English Hamlets had appeared’ (Robins 338-39)—descended on the Princess’s to see the spectacle of the Frenchman playing Hamlet. Of this majority, many went expecting the worst, ‘bristl[ing]’ with ‘British jealousy of the foreigner’ (Baker 490). Amongst those critical of Fechter were such high-profile actors as Charles Kean, Samuel Phelps, and John Ryder, who ‘did all they could to pour ridicule on the attempt, and freely prophesied the break-up of the School of British Acting with all its great traditions if the interloper from Paris were permitted to play Hamlet’ (Sherson 147). Macready, who was bed-ridden and unable to see Fechter on stage, expressed his views in a more conciliatory manner. Although he confessed himself ‘predispos[ed]’ to a ‘favourable, indeed a high opinion’ of the French actor, his preference would have been to see Fechter act in French; in English, ‘the substance and passion of the scene would be given, but minuter beauties and more subtle meaning, belonging to the genius of the language, must, I cannot but think, escape the apprehension of a foreigner’ (Macready 716). Henry Ottley, whose analysis of Fechter’s later Othello mercilessly condemns each element of the actor’s performance, summarised in his prefatory remarks the general discontent with Fechter’s choice of role by asking, ‘Is not our stage already abased enough, but it must receive a new indignity, and from a foreign source?’ (Ottley 3). The idea of a Frenchman playing Shakespeare—not to mention a French melodramatic actor playing Shakespeare’s greatest role—filled the traditionalists of the London stage with dread.

17Of course, many of those who saw Fechter’s Hamlet were less determined to be appalled by what critics like Ottley saw as the actor’s direct assault on the traditions of the English theatre. Rather, there was a distinct split between those audience members and reviewers who were ready for a change and thus were positively struck by Fechter’s choices and those who remained attached to the idea of the traditional Hamlet as a national treasure sullied by this foreign portrayal. Charles Dickens, one of those who supported Fechter’s innovations, declared that ‘no innovation in art was ever accepted with so much favour by so many intelligent persons pre-committed to, and pre-occupied by, another system as Mr. Fechter’s Hamlet’ (Dickens 182). George Henry Lewes, similarly, remarked on the naturalistic quality of Fechter’s performance: ‘If Shakespeare’s grandest language seemed to issue naturally from Fechter’s lips, and did not strike you as out of place, which it so often does when mouthed on the stage, the reason was that he formed a tolerably true conception of Hamlet’s nature, and could represent that conception’ (Lewes 118; original emphasis).

18The spectacle and novelty of Fechter’s performance and the debate it engendered transformed the actor into a household name, ‘a veritable lion’ (Robins 340). His portrayal of the character marked a turning point in the English theatrical tradition. Fechter’s reading of the role was singular in its treatment of the character with the actor’s melodramatic, ‘colloquial’ style (Morley 275; Shattuck 22). Fechter’s Hamlet was at once naturalistic and romantic: ‘it was his intention to make Shakespeare’s heroes, beginning with Hamlet, resemble Armand Duval as nearly as possible—colloquial, suave, genteel, domesticated to drawing room and boudoir’ (Shattuck 144). Fechter’s Hamlet, like the romantic leads that had made his reputation, was ‘a suffering man, never an actor’ (Field 1882, 105; emphasis added). Rather than hitting the expected points, Fechter made his own choices based on the interiority of the character—a character who is, after all, one of the most introspective of Shakespeare’s creations. Fechter presented his Hamlet not as a prepared stage persona but as ‘an ordinary individual’ (à Beckett 23). Fechter’s melodramatic training and style would seem at odds with this focus on interiority. The actor, however, used this background to incorporate choice gestures that reflected the interiority of the character—that is, gestures that proceeded naturally from his characterisation rather than gestures which were necessarily over-emphasised to reach the back rows of the London playhouses.

19The popular interest in Fechter’s performance had less to do with the effectiveness of the performance itself, or with the emotional connection between actor and audience, than with its status as spectacle. Brereton suggests that Fechter ‘interested rather than moved his audience’ as Hamlet (Brereton 46). As with any performance, those moments read most positively by some critics were the same moments with which others found the most fault. In opposition to those who saw Fechter’s greatest innovation as his introspective treatment of the character, Brereton critiqued Fechter’s decision to give ‘undue prominence to the meditative element in Hamlet’s nature, concerning himself chiefly with the play of intellect revealed in the soliloquies’ (Brereton 46). Fechter’s main flaw, in Brereton’s critical view, was not that he had departed from tradition but that he lacked ‘the tragedian’s personality’ and thus ‘the qualities which give the force of animal passion demanded by tragedy, and which cannot be represented except by a certain animal power’ (Brereton 50). Clapp, who saw Fechter’s later American portrayal of Hamlet, expressed a similar reaction to the actor’s departure from traditional interpretations: ‘His Hamlet’s feet were planted firmly on the earth; and his head was six feet above them,—not in the clouds, where Shakespeare put it’ (Clapp 120-1). For some audience members, Fechter’s interpretation was too natural, too far removed from the accepted separation of reality and staged reality.

The French Actor on the London Stage

20Fechter’s Hamlet sparked controversy because Fechter himself was a Frenchman taking on (and changing) the most iconic English role. When Fechter limited his roles to romantic leads and dramas from the French, he was impressive and irresistible. In the traditional legitimate English drama, however, he was out of place. The split critical reactions to Fechter’s Hamlet that illustrate the violence with which some critics and audience members clung to their respective ideas of tradition also reflect the ambivalent audience reactions faced by anything French on the English stage in the middle of the nineteenth century. While adaptations of the French drama and of novels by, for example, Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas were endlessly popular on the English stage in the first half of the century, convention dictated that these dramas be appropriately anglicised for performance. Often these changes consisted merely of adding English names or settings, but in some cases the attempts to give an English flavour to a French drama were all but nonsensical. Watson recalls, for instance, one of the earliest translations of a Guilbert de Pixerécourt melodrama, into which a British sailor is ‘most absurdly introduced’ for patriotic (rather than narrative or theatrical) purposes (Watson 5).

21This prejudice against the foreign in part resulted from a jingoistic nationalism coming out of the wars of the early nineteenth century and English pride in an ever-expanding empire. Specific reactions against French actors varied based on the current political situation. In the 1840s, for instance, the Company of the Théâtre Historique in Paris attempted to stage Dumas’s adaptation of his The Count of Monte Cristo at Drury Lane. This adaptation was never particularly well-received—it ran far too long, for one thing, and had to be played over two nights. On this occasion, the audience, discontented with the appearance of foreign players on a traditionally English stage, refused to allow the play to be heard (Emeljanov 25). In Sherson’s later analysis, the riotous scenes were meant to have occurred ‘in the interests of the British Drama’, but instead became ‘a rather pitiful example of how far British insularity [could] go’ (Sherson 359). In Fechter’s own experience, the press capitalised on these popular sentiments to justify a critical review. When the Prince of Wales commanded a performance of Ruy Blas in 1865, Fechter, of course, complied. The papers, however, exploded ‘at the idea of royalty leaving native talent unhonored, and commanding a performance at the theatre of what they were pleased to call “a French importation”’ (Field 1882, 57). The public and the popular press happily left the French actor to his own devices and supported his innovations so long as he did not threaten the perceived superiority of the English stage and its traditions.

  • 12 Many reviewers—both positive and negative—make note of Fechter’s enduring French accent, and the di (...)

22Throughout Fechter’s career, the reactions to the theatrical changes he implemented—and the larger social changes he represented—were contradictory. Some English critics fought to keep the English stage free from foreign ideas while others welcomed the changes Fechter brought. Watson suggests that foreign, and especially French, actors ‘were welcomed according to the political barometer’ (6). Fechter, then, happened to appear on the London stage long enough after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 to be treated with at least a modicum of respect. Fechter was also, however, among the first of the imported French actors to appear not just as a foreign novelty with a French company at a theatre such as the St. James’s, performing in French for a limited engagement and a very specific audience, but as a member of an otherwise English company at a minor theatre that received audiences from all levels of London society. Moreover, Fechter performed English plays in the English language, though with an obvious accent, a choice that made his foreignness one of the most readily identifiable aspects of his performances.12 Ottley’s reaction to Fechter’s choices in the final two acts of Othello is representative: ‘the actor went into a wildness of excess quite foreign to all our notions of Othello, and of tragedy in general’ (14). To Ottley, the actor’s unorthodox performance is ‘foreign’ rather than inventive, and out of place on the English stage. In contrast, reviewing Fechter’s final London performance of Ruy Blas during his brief return from America in 1872, the Athenæum praised his choices as evidence of French theatrical superiority: ‘A comparison between the general representation of the play in Paris and that in London would explain why in one city the drama is prized and studied as an art, while in the other it can scarcely obtain the support of men of intellect as an amusement’ (qtd in Cross, Donohue, and Nelson 71/2). The Athenæum reviewer’s attitude reflected a larger issue: the necessity for changes to the English stage tradition and the rigid aversion to this necessity. Fechter’s French background made him the perfect focus for the latter group of critics and the perfect model for those who advocated change.

23I have claimed throughout that although reactions to Fechter (especially negative reactions) tend to focus on his foreignness, he nevertheless played a significant role in the evolution of the English drama. Situated midway through the century—in the midst of the gradual shift from melodrama to Naturalism—Fechter’s decade on the London stage is notable for the stylistic and practical alterations he implemented into the English tradition. Fechter based his style on the belief that characters were ‘written to be acted not recited’ (Othello iii; original emphasis), a conviction more readily associated with melodrama and French romantic drama. Throughout his career, Fechter’s characterisations relied heavily on the gestures often associated with melodrama or pantomime. Fechter appeared on stage as ‘a master of the exterior symbolism of the histrionic art’ (Clapp 125). He displayed and developed his characters through movement and the expressions of his body and face—in keeping with the melodramatic style—but he also used these gestures to develop a naturalistic emotional interiority.

24Such reliance on gesture was in no way controversial; many of the performance styles of the nineteenth-century London stage depended on such a gestural vocabulary. What made Fechter’s style revolutionary was the way he paired the exteriority of melodrama with an unprecedented level of the kind of interiority that would come to be associated later in the century with Naturalism and Realism. Wilkie Collins described Fechter’s acting not only as ‘noble and romantic’—that is, as befitting melodrama and the jeune premier roles he favoured—but also as ‘firmly founded on truth to nature’ (156). A later reviewer for The New York Times glosses the centrality of this “truth to nature” as the organising principle of all Fechter’s characterisations: “Is it natural? Would a man do thus and so in the given situation? appear to be his constant questions” (16 Feb 1870, 5). Fechter in many ways anticipated twentieth-century acting techniques by, for instance, deliberately assuming aspects of his characters off stage as well as on (Collins 163), creating each as an individual who existed even beyond the staged world of the play. Robins records the story of an argument the younger Fechter had with George Sand over the actor’s role as a ploughboy in her Claudie. Fechter had studied the part and infused the character with his naturalistic ideas, all of which went against both tradition and the playwright’s expectations. Fechter’s reaction, as related by Robins, was that ‘Madame Sand can write, but she has proved that she does [not] know the meaning of acting’ (333). Even at this early point in his career, ‘the meaning of acting’ centred, in Fechter’s view, on capturing and expressing the realism of the role. When performing at the height of his talents, Fechter’s combination of melodramatic gesture and naturalistic emotional expression presented on stage ‘something that was like life, and glowing, ardent life at that’ (Sherson 147). This union of melodrama and Realism is Fechter’s greatest and most lasting contribution to English stage history.

Gentlemanly Melodrama: The Lasting Influence of Charles Fechter

25In 1860, when Charles Fechter arrived in London, the English stage tradition had already begun to develop away from a sole reliance on melodramatic exteriority. Charles Kean, the star name at the Princess’s immediately before Fechter’s arrival, had imported French dramas such as The Corsican Brothers and staged them in ways that were—to the traditionally minded members of the London theatre audience—unconventional. Even Kean, however, was never so bold as to attempt to perform Shakespeare in a modern, melodramatic style, as Fechter would do. As Watson has noted, ‘this destructive service’, this disregard of traditional style and introduction of more naturalistic elements of acting and staging, was both Fechter’s ‘just and worthy claim to celebrity’ (240) and the ‘beginning of our [English] contemporary stagecraft’ (235). In this way, Fechter not only allowed for future generations of foreign actors to perform on the English-language London stage, he also set the bar for ‘that brilliant succession of actor-managers who were the shining lights of the Stage during the closing years of the nineteenth century’ (Sherson 153). In challenging so many traditions of the English stage, Fechter both anticipated and allowed for the innovations of later actor-managers such as Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree who would continue the evolution of the nineteenth-century English stage.

  • 13 Baker delineates the specific changes he attributes to Fechter’s management, all of which contribut (...)

26The tradition against which Fechter worked consisted mostly of set-pieces like the points discussed in opposition to the actor’s Hamlet. In contrast to these traditions, Fechter’s style was natural and colloquial in acting and, in staging, as historically realistic as possible given the technology of the 1860s. Barton Baker, looking back on Fechter’s influence from 1889, suggested that the actor’s greatest contributions to the evolution of the London stage were in fact those choices he made as a manager, especially the physical and mechanical changes he implemented in staging, lighting, and design.13 Watson expands Baker’s interpretation, claiming that it was these changed elements of staging that allowed Fechter’s naturalistic style to catch on at all (89, 240). Removing the pit in favour of stalls seating, for instance, went further to make Fechter’s acting choices acceptable than any artistic justification he could make. Suddenly, actors confronted ordered rows of attentively listening audience members who had paid for the privilege of sitting close to the stage rather than the enthusiastic participation of the earlier pit audiences. Without the need to declaim and project over this mass of humanity, Fechter’s quiet, naturalistic style made more sense. Fechter’s emphasis on the realism of his acting was also at least assisted by, and at most reliant on, his scenic changes. Rooms onstage were fully constructed, even up to the ceilings (Baker 295). Actors entered not from the bare wings, striding to centre stage to pose and declaim a speech, but through doors and in character (Watson 240). Under Fechter, then, the stage took on the appearance of representing a version of real life.

  • 14 Matthews, similarly, comments that ‘For an important play there are sometimes as many as eighty reh (...)

27Finally, Fechter exerted his influence in what was already an active push towards more fully staged and rehearsed performances. W. S. Gilbert, in his satiric commentary on the state of the English theatre in 1873, compared the London and Parisian stages, the latter of which relied on a more elaborate system of technical and dress rehearsals: ‘Parts are distributed, learnt perfectly, and then rehearsed for six weeks or two months, sometimes for three or four months. Scene-rehearsals and dress-rehearsals occupy the last week of preparations. Actors and actresses act at rehearsal; they have been taught and required to do so from the first’ (35).14 In the 1860s, Fechter had already implemented these Parisian practices in which he had been trained, both in his management at the Lyceum and, earlier, in his run at the Princess’s. The production of Othello, for instance, which opened at the Princess’s in October of 1861, was advertised as being ‘in rehearsal’ as early as the beginning of July, even before the previous season had ended (Princess’s playbill, Monday 1 July 1861).

28Fechter’s implementation of these techniques of acting and staging marked what Watson over-zealously calls ‘the decisive victory of French methods over the English stage tradition’ (235). I would suggest ‘influence’ as a more fitting term than ‘victory’: the changes imported from Paris were so quickly incorporated into the existing English stage style that they rapidly merged with other changes particular to the English stage in the immediately succeeding period. English stage histories, then, often elide the role of the French theatre—and especially the part played by Charles Fechter—in advancing English drama in the final third of the nineteenth century. Watson perhaps tries best to redeem Fechter’s influence, reminding his readers that the growth of a naturalistic theatrical style was neither particularly English nor ‘the single-handed work of Fechter’ but the eventual result of a series of innovations that began as far back as David Garrick in the eighteenth century, all of which made Fechter’s own work on the London stage possible (Watson 128-9). Watson goes on to claim that Fechter’s effectiveness was very much of his time: by 1860, ‘faith in the entertainment value of the new naturalistic French art was already widespread among the theatre-going public. . . .  The populace was not only prepared to greet favorably the daring foreign invasion, but many, it is certain, were even eager for it’ (Watson 373). The London stage, then, readily absorbed Fechter’s innovations, even though its critics remained split on the Frenchman’s own performances.

29While Watson ends his discussion of Fechter’s place in the evolution of the English drama by remarking that the Frenchman’s style was ‘perishable’ (377)—of its time and place—Fechter’s ‘gentlemanly melodrama’ (238) influenced many of the actors, managers, designers, and playwrights associated with the shift to Realism in the final third of the nineteenth century. Henry Irving especially, who followed in Fechter’s footsteps both as manager of the Lyceum and in favouring a similarly gentlemanly melodramatic style in the ‘coat-and-waistcoat domestication’ of his tragic heroes (Shattuck 145), traced his early influence to Fechter. Irving played Laertes to Fechter’s Hamlet on tour, and his own later Hamlet owed much to the Frenchman’s influence (Richards 122). At the Lyceum, Irving played many of the roles Fechter had originated and similarly favoured the expressive qualities of melodrama over the declamatory power of earlier actors. By the end of the nineteenth century, these choices in performance and staging were more acceptable and less controversial than they had been in Fechter’s productions of the 1860s. The naturalistic acting style and realistic staging practices of Fechter were no longer considered the foreign importation of an upstart Frenchman. They had become an intrinsic part of a modern dramatic style and an intrinsic part of London stage history.

30At the beginning of the nineteenth century, actor, manager, and playwright Henry Siddons averred that ‘the whole merit of an actor can only be appreciated in his own country: in the midst of those whose manners he imitates, and whose customs he has observed: thus, he can only appear with his true eclat upon his national theatre, and seldom on a foreign one’ (Siddons 326). Although prejudice against the French was still strong following the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, countless French actors made their respective ways, both temporarily and permanently, to the nineteenth-century London stage. Charles Fechter, though he enjoyed the ambivalent reception Siddons finds to be reserved for foreigners, was a fixture of the London stage for over a decade and contributed significantly to the mid-century development of Victorian acting and staging styles. Fechter finally proves Siddons’s reading of the insularity of the English stage to be outdated: the actor’s combination of melodramatic technique with a constant consideration of nature was instrumental in the development of what would by the end of the century become the accepted modern English drama. Fechter’s life and career, however, were both full of contradiction and controversy. He was at the same time the perfect stage lover and an ardent critic of the traditions of the stage. He was a dedicated Frenchman who wrote even his last letters in French and retained his accent but also the actor who adapted Shakespeare—that most English of playwrights—to the modern theatre. At a time when the French were still looked on with distrust in London and still suspected of intending to incite revolution, Fechter revolutionised the London stage.

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Bibliographie

Baker, Barton. History of the London Stage and its Famous Players (1576-1903). 2nd ed. London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1904.

à Beckett, Arthur William [Gilbert]. Green Room Recollections. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1896.

Boucicault, Dion. ‘Boucicault’s Notion of Fechter’. New York Sun 10 August 1879: 5.

Brereton, Austin. Some Famous Hamlets: From Burbage to Fechter. 1884. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

Clapp, Henry Austin. Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic. Boston & New York: The Riverside Press, 1902.

Collins, Wilkie. ‘Recollections of Charles Fechter’, Charles Albert Fechter. Kate Field. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882: 154–73.

Cross, Gilbert B., Joseph Donohue, and Alfred L. Nelson, eds. The Adelphi Theatre Calendar. Web. www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/index.htm 2013.

Dickens, Charles. [‘On Charles Fechter,’ Atlantic Monthly (August 1869)]. Charles Albert Fechter. Kate Field. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882: 177–84.

Emeljanow, Victor. ‘The Events of June 1848: the “Monte Cristo” Riots and the Politics of Protest’. New Theatre Quarterly 19.1 (2003): 23–32.

Fechter, Charles. Charles Fechter’s Acting Edition: Othello. London: W.R. Sams, 1861.

Field, Kate. Charles Albert Fechter. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882.

Field, Kate. ‘Charles Fechter’, Macready and Forrest and Their Contemporaries. Ed. Brander Mathews & Laurence Hutton. Boston: L.C. Page and Co., 1886: 207–28.

Foulkes, Richard. ‘Fechter, Charles Albert (1822–1879)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, 2004.

Gilbert, W. S. A Stage Play. 1873. New York: Dramatic Museum of Columbia University, 1916.

Lewes, George Henry. On Actors and the Art of Acting. 1875. New York: Grove Press, 1957.

Macready, William Charles. Macready’s Reminiscences, and Selections from His Diaries and Letters. Ed. Frederick Pollock. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1875.

Matthews, J. Brander. The Theatres of Paris. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880.

Morley, Henry. The Journal of a London Playgoer from 1851-1866. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1866.

Ottley, Henry. Fechter’s Version of Othello Critically Analysed. London: T. H. Lacy, 1861.

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Richards, Jeffrey. Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World. London: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Robins, Edward. Twelve Great Actors. New York & London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1900.

Shattuck, Charles H. Shakespeare on the American Stage: Vol. 2. Washington: Folger Books, 1987.

Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century: With Notes on Plays and Players Seen There. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head Limited, 1925.

Siddons, Henry. Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. 1807. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1822.

Watson, Ernest Bradlee. Sheridan to Robertson: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century London Stage. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1926.

Yates, Edmund. ‘On Charles Fechter’, Charles Albert Fechter. Kate Field. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882: 147–49.

Yates, Edmund. Edmund Yates: His Recollections and Experiences. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1885.

[Unsigned]. ‘Amusements: Theatrical: Mr. Fechter’s Hamlet’. New York Times. 16 February 1870: 5.

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[Unsigned]. ‘Miss Field’s Fechter’. The Critic 23. September 1882: 251.

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Notes

1 Or 1822, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry.

2 Kate Field (1882) has provided the main full-length biographical account of Fechter. Because of his relative obscurity, however, nearly every mention of the actor necessarily includes a brief biographical statement. See also Brereton, Clapp, Field (1886), Foulkes, Robins, Sherson, and Watson.

3 Occasionally, the two art forms would meet, such as in 1848 at the Ambigu when Fechter ‘astonished’ audiences of La Famille Thurean by ‘modelling, each evening, a statue of Poetry’ (Robins 330). As a manager, Fechter’s artistic background would come out in his attention to detail in set and backdrop design.

4 This Parisian theatre catered to amateurs and those looking for exposure prior to trying their hands in more professional companies. Here, ‘one had but to pay for the privilege of acting. So many francs were required for the leading characters; a smaller amount sufficed for the minor rôles’ (Robins 319).

5 ‘Under the rules of that institution stage-struck young men and women might ask for a trial rehearsal, and, if they were found satisfactory in that, could demand three public débuts, which would decide their fate as to admission into, or rejection from, the ranks of the theatre’s pensionnaires” (Robins 323). See also Matthews for a broader consideration of the traditions, precedents, and rules of the Parisian theatres.

6 In Fechter’s own words, ‘that wormeaten and unwholesome prison where dramatic art languishes in fetters, and which is called “TRADITION!”’ (Othello iv; original emphasis).

7 ‘Until 1867 the Théâtre Français had the exclusive right of presenting the classic drama, comic and tragic’ (Matthews 84).

8 A non-exhaustive list includes Ruy Blas, Don Caesar de Bazan, The Golden Daggers, The Duke’s Motto, Bel Demonio, The King’s Butterfly, The Mountebank, Belphegor, The Master of Ravenswood, The Corsican Brothers, The Lady of Lyons, and Monte Cristo.

9 Yates, on a visit to America in 1872, found Fechter ‘much changed for the worse in appearance, health, and manner’ (Yates 1885, 413).

10 The best example of Fechter’s easy dismissal of convention in favour of conviviality is in a description of one of his London dinner parties, recalled fondly by Wilkie Collins: ‘Nobody (the master of the house included) had any special place at the table . . . . No servants waited on us. . . . Each guest picked out the wines that he liked best, and put the bottle by him when he took his chair. The dogs dined with us, and friends’ dogs were welcome. People who could not speak English spoke French; and Englishmen in the same predicament stuck to their own language,—expressive pantomime being used on either side in illustration of the meaning’ (Collins 170).

11 This particular choice, however, may have been made purely for reasons of the actor’s health. The playbill for 29 April 1861 informed audiences that there would be fewer performances of Hamlet for the remainder of the run because of the emotional upheaval Fechter went through in each performance, courtesy of his particular style: ‘In consequence of the unprecedented success of Mr. FECHTER in “HAMLET” necessitating the continuous performance of the Tragedy, it is impossible for him to sustain the fatigue of its nightly repetition, he will therefore appear Three nights only during the the [sic] Week’ (original emphasis).

12 Many reviewers—both positive and negative—make note of Fechter’s enduring French accent, and the difficulties it presented in his performances. ‘In the interview with the Ghost, Mr. Fechter, carried away by the strong current of his emotions, is highly demonstrative, and at times, thanks to his foreign accent, unintelligible’ (‘Drama’, 19 Feb 1870, 122); ‘To many it seemed desecration that the grand language of the National Bard should be spoken with a foreign emphasis’ (à Beckett 24); ‘even “love” . . .  he pronounced between loaf and loave, to the end of his career’ (Clapp 118-9). The most damning is Boucicault: ‘when he came to speak, it was buffoonery. . . . Fechter could not speak English and that ended the whole matter’ (New York Sun, 10 Aug 1879, 5).

13 Baker delineates the specific changes he attributes to Fechter’s management, all of which contributed to the realistic effect of the pieces he staged: ‘The ancient grooves, trap-doors, and sticky flats were abolished, the flooring so constructed that it could be taken to pieces like a child’s puzzle, scenery could be raised or sunk bodily, and all the shifting was done on the mezzanine stage beneath; ceilings were no longer represented by hanging cloths, or the walls of a room by open wings, but were solidly built, the old glaring “floats,” which used to make such hideous lights and shadows upon the faces of the performers, were sunk and subdued, and set scene succeeded set scene with a rapidity that in those days, when seldom more than one set was attempted in each act, was regarded as marvellous’ (Baker 295).

14 Matthews, similarly, comments that ‘For an important play there are sometimes as many as eighty rehearsals’ (80).

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Référence électronique

Catherine Quirk, « The French Actor on the London Stage: Charles Fechter », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 20 avril 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3359 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3359

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Auteur

Catherine Quirk

Catherine Quirk is a PhD candidate at McGill University specializing in the nineteenth-century theatre and the Victorian novel. Her current research focuses on the language and conventions of the melodramatic stage and their use in the novel, and on the shift in acting styles over the course of the nineteenth century.
Catherine Quirk est doctorante à l’université de McGill. C’est une spécialiste du théâtre du dix-neuvième siècle et du roman victorien. Ces recherches actuelles sont centrées sur le langage et les conventions de la scène mélodramatique et leur usage dans le roman, ainsi que sur les changements de styles de jeu tout au long du dix-neuvième siècle.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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