The French Actor on the London Stage: Charles Fechter

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    Abstract

    Charles Fechter (1824-1879) was known by many of his mid-century admirers as the best lover on the London stage. According to the majority of his biographers the actor was London-born, but of French extraction and raised for the most part in France. He began his stage career in Paris, first achieving success in amateur circles before joining the Comédie Française. Having taught himself more or less fluent English, he returned to London in 1860, performing at the Princess’s before taking over the lease of the Lyceum in 1862. Over the next decade he alternated between London and Parisian appearances, before sailing for America. Though he first came to English prominence in legitimate drama—primarily for his unconventional Hamlet in 1861—Fechter’s particular style was deemed to be more suited to mid-century melodrama. The American critic Henry Austin Clapp describes him as ‘a master of the exterior symbolism of the histrionic art’, and the actor’s own annotations to his acting copy of Othello reflect the focus he placed on the development of his character through gesture, posture, movement, and other superficial markers. Although this external focus was perfectly suited to the mid-century melodramatic stage, Fechter’s French mannerisms, and particularly the accent and intonations he was unable (or unwilling) to erase entirely, divided the London audiences and critics. Anticipating Clapp’s scathing dissection of his pronunciation of particular words and the want of taste shown in the later American audiences who accepted him, some English commentators reacted to the actor’s choices as specifically (and unnecessarily) French, and as unsuited to the London stage. Others either dismissed the accent and mannerisms altogether, ignoring Fechter’s nationality to assess both positively and negatively his basic skills as an actor, or saw the particularly French aspects of his representations as adding to the actor’s broader appeal. Foremost among the latter group was Charles Dickens, who saw and admired Fechter’s Hamlet and quickly added the Frenchman to his group of actor-companions. Many studies have looked at the temporary star turns taken by French actors in London, with the performances of, for example, Sarah Bernhardt and Rachel coming in for a particularly large amount of analysis. Fechter, however, who chose to work alternately in Paris and in London and who performed in both French and English, has escaped this focus. Using published reviews, letters, and the plays in which he appeared—including Fechter’s own adaptations and his annotated Othello—I propose to examine how this often overlooked actor was both received as the London stage’s greatest lover and at the same time considered particularly French, and how this seeming contradiction reflects contemporary London theatre-goers’ divergent reactions to anything French on their stages.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages17
    JournalCahiers Victoriens and Edouardiens
    Volume86
    Issue number86
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2017

    Keywords

    • Charles Fechter
    • Hamlet
    • melodrama
    • Princess's theatre
    • acting technique
    • London theatre
    • Acting technique
    • Melodrama
    • Princess's Theatre
    • Fechter (Charles)

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