Gabrielle Rejane, the French comedienne of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, did not leave a lasting image on generations of American theater goers as did her contemporary, Sarah Bernhardt. If that oft' queried "man (or woman) on the street" were asked to name two historically famous French actresses, most could give you Madame Sarah, no problem, while the smart-alecs might smile and suggest Brigitte Bardot, but few, if any, could name Madame Rejane.
The daughter of an actor, she was born in Paris and educated at the Paris Conservatoire, where she was a student of famed actor Regnier. She became well known in the U.S. when she toured in Sardou's Madame Sans-Géne in 1893-94. Thereafter, Americans saw her here almost as frequently as they saw Bernhardt, sometimes in the same roles but, whereas Bernhardt would tailor emotion for artistic effect, Rejane never stepped across that line. It could be said that Bernhardt, known for assimilating characters into her own personality, played the truth of the performer. Rejane, on the other hand, accepted a character fully — good, evil, slutty, prudent, ugly, beautiful, smart or stupid — and could move, speak, and think only as that character, thereby playing the truth of the character.
Sometime in the first half of the 1890s, the brilliant young artist Aubrey Beardsley sketched Mme. Rejane, and developed drawings for his illustrations for Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camelias. Beardsley's superb artistry runs the gamut from gorgeous to grotesque. You can see more of it by visiting the THE SAVOY, a wonderful online gallery devoted to the works of this important fin-de-siecle illustrator.
In 1905, after a dozen years of marriage to the director of the Vaudeville Theatre, Madame Rejane and her husband divorced. The following year, she opened the Theatre Rejane in Paris. Four short years later — June 19, 1910, to be exact — a small article in the New York Times announced that Madame Rejane "is about to give up her managerial career and will surrender the Theatre Rejane, always a favorite resort of Americans, into other hands. She will join the forces of the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin, where she will take the principal part in an important new piece to be produced next Autumn." The article went on to suggest that her reputation for being an over-amiable manager may have led to her decision, pointing out that "amiability and economy are not always compatible."
Two days after Mme. Rejane's death, the June 16, 1920 edition of the New York Times carried this touching obituary with no by-line. It's long, but worth reading:
"Though Rejane lacked the personal distinction and the elevated style which carried Bernhardt and Duse to the pinnacles of poetic drama and of popular applause, she was no less original and valiant as an artist; in one respect she excelled them both. She was the supreme comedienne of her time. Of the crimson passions and golden voice of Bernhardt she had no touch; nor yet of the lovely, twilight spirituality of Duse, which blended in such strange harmony with her unaffected and infinitely modulated naturalism. But as an interpreter of everyday character of the subtleties, the emotions and the absurdities of the modern woman, Rejane had no equal. As Bernhardt modernized the tradition of Racine, (Rejane) modernized the tradition of Moliere.
"It is for this reason mainly that Rejane was the least known of the three to the outside world. Tragedy is a strong wine that holds its heady quality throughout the seven seas, but comedy is a vintage which, though rare and exquisite in its native valley, turns flat in transportation. Rejane was French, Parisian, to the subtlest nerve. Of a hundred masterly strokes of characterization, one may perhaps be caught in dull, descriptive words. That was the case in Henri Becque's satiric masterpiece, 'La Parisienne.' The play opens with a scene of conjugal jealousy. Clotilde is concealing from Lafont a letter — from another. He commands, he rages, and she rides the storm of his dull, masculine passions like a petrel. He becomes tearful, sentimental, moral. 'In remaining faithful to me,' he says, 'you are worthy, honorable; the day you deceive me —' She interrupts the homily with a start. 'Hush!' she says, going quickly to the door. 'My husband is coming.' It is the first the audience has known that Lafont and Clotilde are not man and wife. That stroke of satire upon Parisian infidelity is of course the work of sardonic Henri Becque. But it was Rejane who embodied it; and the manner in which she contracted the airy insolence of Clotilde's demeanor toward her lover with the equally insolent realism toward her husband spoke new volumes of feminine lore to the Parisian playgoer.
"Two plays, neither of a very high quality, provided vehicles for a world tour. 'Mme. Sans-Géne' showed her comedy talent at its raciest and most unmistakable. 'Zaza' similarly developed her emotional power. Moreover, both were familiar to the public in translation. There were many who found her less compelling in the parts than local actresses. It is true that her stage lacked glamour and her art the more obvious appeal. But her characterizations were masterpieces of native color and detailed finesse, as they were of emotional vigor and abundant comic spirit. Molier would doubtless have appreciated Bernhardt and found in Duse a strangely kindred spirit. He would have adored Rejane."
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