Fechter, Charles Albert (DNB00)

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FECHTER, CHARLES ALBERT (1824–1879), actor and dramatist, was born 23 Oct. 1824 in Hanway Yard, Oxford Street, according to the biography published in America, but according to Vapereau (Dictionnaire des Contemporains) at Belleville, Paris. His parents were born in France, the father, who designed for jewellers, being of German, the mother, it is said, of Piedmontese, extraction. Sculpture, which he learned from his father, was his earliest serious occupation. His first appearance on the stage was at the Salle Molière, a small theatre for amateurs, where, in 1840, he played in ‘Le Mari de la Veuve’ of the elder Dumas. After a few weeks at the Conservatoire, and a short and disastrous tour in Italy, as member of a travelling French company, Fechter returned to Paris. In December 1844, as Séide in the ‘Mahomet’ of Voltaire, and Valère in ‘Tartuffe,’ he made as pensionnaire his début at the Comédie Française. After playing other characters, in some of which he supported Rachel, he withdrew in a huff from the theatre and once more recommenced sculpture. An engagement in Berlin, in the course of which he played in drama, opera, and ballet, followed in 1846. The next year he played for a week or two at the Vaudeville, and came to London, where, at the St. James's Theatre, he appeared in a version of the ‘Antigone’ of Sophocles and in other pieces. An engagement in 1848 at the Ambigu Comique, in which, in ‘La Famille Thureau,’ he modelled on the stage a clay figure of Poetry, was interrupted by the outbreak of revolution. In ‘Oscar XXVIII,’ a satire by Labiche and Decourcelle on the revolution, he appeared at the Variétés, and he then, at the Théâtre Historique, played in various pieces of Dumas and of Paul Féval. In 1849 he was again at the Ambigu. During the two following years he was at the Théâtre Historique or at the Porte Saint-Martin. As Sylvain in the ‘Claudie’ of George Sand (Porte Saint-Martin, January 1821) he won the high praise of Théophile Gautier. From 1852 to 1858 he was at the Vaudeville, where, 2 Feb. 1852, he obtained his greatest triumph in France as Armand Duval in ‘La Dame aux Camélias.’ At this period Fechter was the first jeune premier in France. He returned to the Porte Saint-Martin, where, in ‘La belle Gabrielle,’ he had a fall which endangered his life. In 1857 he was, with M. de la Rounat, joint director of the Odéon. He resigned his post in consequence of the restrictions imposed upon him by the government in the interest of the Théâtre Français. Having on different occasions played in England, as member of a French company, he conceived the idea of acting in English. On 27 Oct. 1860 he appeared as Ruy Blas in a rendering of Victor Hugo's play at the Princess's. His French accent scarcely interfered with his success, which was pronounced. ‘Don César de Bazan’ followed, 11 Feb. 1861, and ‘Hamlet’ on 20 March of the same year. The reception of ‘Hamlet’ was enthusiastic, and the triumph was scarcely contested by the strongest sticklers for tradition. The text gained greatly in beauty and intelligibility by the abandonment of old traditions. G. H. Lewes declared that ‘his Hamlet was one of the very best, and his Othello one of the very worst, I have ever seen’ (On Actors and the Art of Acting, p. 131). ‘Othello’ was played 23 Oct. 1861. It was generally disapproved, and when ‘Othello’ was revived after the Christmas holidays he played Iago. ‘The Golden Dagger,’ an adaptation of ‘Les Couteaux d'Or’ of Paul Féval, was a failure. On 10 Jan. 1863 Fechter opened, as lessee, the Lyceum with the ‘Duke's Motto,’ from ‘Le Bossu’ of Paul Féval, in which he played Henri de Lagardère. His second season opened in October 1863 with ‘Bel Demonio,’ in which he played Angelo. Fechter then appeared as Fanfan in the ‘King's Butterfly’ (‘Fanfan la Tulipe’), 22 Oct. 1864; Robert Macaire in the ‘Roadside Inn’ (‘L'Auberge des Adrets’), 21 Jan. 1865; Belphegor in the ‘Mountebank,’ in which his son Paul, aged 7, appeared, 27 April 1865; Leone Salviati in the ‘Watch Cry’ (‘Lazare le Pâtre’), 6 Nov. 1865; Edgar in the ‘Master of Ravenswood,’ 22 Dec. 1865; and his original double rôle at the Théâtre Historique, Louis and Fabien dei Franchi in the ‘Corsican Brothers’ (‘Les Frères Corses’), May 1866. In these various characters he proved himself the best exponent of youthful parts on the English stage, and an eminently powerful actor in melodrama. Maurice d'Arbel in ‘Rouge-et-Noir,’ his own adaptation of ‘Trente ans de la Vie d'un Joueur,’ January 1867, and Claude Melnotte in the ‘Lady of Lyons,’ 16 Sept. 1867, were also successful. In November Fechter quitted the management of the Lyceum, and appeared, 26 Dec., at the Adelphi as Obenreizer in ‘No Thoroughfare,’ by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. After visiting Paris to superintend ‘L'Abîme,’ a version of ‘No Thoroughfare,’ produced at the Vaudeville 2 June 1868, in which, however, he did not himself act, he played at the Adelphi Edmond Dantes in ‘Monte Cristo’ 17 Oct. 1868, and the Count de Leyrac in ‘Black and White,’ 29 March 1869, a piece written by himself and Mr. Wilkie Collins. After twelve farewell performances at the Princess's, beginning 29 Nov. 1869, he started for America. On 2 March 1872 he reappeared at the Adelphi as Ruy Blas, and 2 June 1872 at the Princess's as Hamlet. His powers were not greatly impaired. The same year, however, he quitted England not to return. His first appearance in New York was at Niblo's Garden, 10 Jan. 1870, as Ruy Blas. On 12 Sept. 1870 the Globe Theatre, popularly known as Fechter's, was opened by him with ‘Monte Cristo.’ The experiment was brief. Fechter's imperious temper, aggravated by indulgence, involved him in private quarrels and in discussions in the press, and on 14 Jan. 1871 he played at the Globe for the last time. At the French theatre, New York, rechristened the Lyceum, to which he returned, this history was repeated. On 28 April 1873, after his return from England, he reappeared at the Grand Opera House, New York, in ‘Monte Cristo.’ On 15 April 1874 he opened the Park Theatre, Broadway, when he appeared as Karl in ‘Love's Penance,’ a play in a prologue and three acts, adapted by himself from ‘Le Médecin des Enfants.’ This was his last original part. He reappeared occasionally in Boston and other towns in his principal characters, most of which he had enacted in the United States. In 1876 he broke his leg. He then retired to a farm which he had bought at the little village of Rockland Centre, Bucks County, two hours' railway journey from Philadelphia. Here he lived, occupying himself principally with field sports, and sharing his room and table with dogs, for which animals he had a strong affection. Appearing on the stage at times, and as often disappointing his audience, he acquired gradually a character for dissipation, from which he found it ultimately impossible to recover. He died of disease of the stomach and liver 5 Aug. 1879, and on the 8th was placed in a receiving vault, Mount Vernon cemetery, Philadelphia, whence, the following June, his remains were removed to a grave, on which is a bust of the actor and the inscription ‘Genius has taken its flight to God.’ Fechter was an excellent, it may almost be said a great, actor. During many years he was the best lover on the English stage. His place since his death remains unfilled. His conception of Hamlet was in part due to the Rev. J. C. M. Bellew [q. v.], and various impersonations were coloured by his intimacy with Dickens and other literary men. His experience of the stage was of signal value to him. The two or three adaptations mentioned gave him some right to rank as a dramatist. He married, 29 Nov. 1847, Mlle. Rolbert, a pensionnaire of the Comédie Française, by whom he had a son, Paul, and a daughter, Marie, who became an operatic singer. A bust of him executed by himself is in the Garrick Club.

[Kate Field's Charles Albert Fechter, Boston, 1882; Pascoe's Dramatic List, 1879; Vapereau's Dictionnaire des Contemporains, Paris, 1880; Vapereau's L'Année Littéraire et Dramatique, various years; Lewes's Actors and the Art of Acting, 1875; Lucas's Histoire du Théâtre Français, 1863; Athenæum; personal recollection.]

J. K.