“Only three actresses in our generation possessed that supreme quality,
Genius: Eleanora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane.”
— Arthur Symons, legendary English drama critic
One hundred years ago today, the world lost Réjane, one of the most famous, trail-blazing actresses of her time. The charismatic Réjane was dubbed “the Queen of the Boulevard,” because she performed in the Boulevard theatres of her native Paris for more than thirty years. Along with Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, and Ellen Terry, Réjane (née Gabrielle Reju, 6 June 1856) helped shape the theatre we know today. Truly a modern woman, Réjane championed naturalism and toured the world, performing for audiences and royalty alike. She went on to run her own Théâtre Réjane, at 15 Rue Blanche, which is still standing today as the Théâtre de Paris.
A working mother long before the phrase was coined, Réjane had two children with Paul Porel, the prominent Director of the Odéon (the second national theatre of France) and later the Vaudeville. As part of their divorce proceedings, in 1904, Porel attempted to stop performances Réjane had agreed to give because, as her husband, he had not given her permission to do so. When the civil tribunal of the Seine sided with Réjane, they cleared the way for her to sign her own contracts — which married women were not yet permitted to do.
Réjane, a dead woman, also breathed new life into me, a living one. I stumbled on to her story in 2006, when in a Bennington, Vermont farmhouse, when my dear family friend Marianne Wilson “Willie” Finckel, Réjane’s granddaughter pointed to the Toulouse-Lautrec print in her living room and said, “That’s my grandmother, Réjane.” I’d spent my childhood in museums staring at paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, wishing I could climb in and see his world. Suddenly, it was as if Willie handed me a personal portal through which I could enter the gilded world of my favorite artists. Réjane was also depicted by Sergeant, Boldini, and Beardsley, amongst other artistic luminaries of her time.
Willie brought out a trove of letters, mainly from Réjane to her daughter (Willie’s mother), family photos, professional photos, and numerous magazine and newspaper articles on Réjane, including glowing reviews of her work. My instant obsession with telling Réjane’s story only grew over the several years after that inspiring night. When Willie died the following year, the family continued to support my devoted interest to telling Réjane’s story.
Réjane is also said to have partly inspired the character of Berma in Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. On June 14, 1920, Marcel Proust — Réjane’s friend and tenant — stood at her deathbed, alongside her son. As someone whose own life has been entirely affected by Réjane, I think often of what Proust wrote about her: “I have an obsessive devotion to Réjane, a great lady who has worn in succession the masks of comedy and tragedy, and has given totally of her intelligence and heart to create countless superb roles. I was infected with a recurring sadness, which even now, after all these years, overwhelms me again.”
My first play, O Réjane, which premiered in 2014, was created with many talented artists — including Musical Collaborator Adrien Reju, Willie’s grand-daughter and Réjane’s great-great granddaughter. Réjane’s story paved for me the path I now walk, that of storyteller and working mother. Today, I offer my thanks to her for inspiring me and, I hope, scores of women after. It is vital that Réjane’s story — and the stories of countless other women throughout history — be firmly written into our common history alongside those of their male counterparts.
About Ilana Turner
Ilana Turner was nominated for the 2014 L.A. Stage Raw Playwriting award for her award-winning play, O Réjane (2014). She developed O Réjane with the support of Réjane’s descendants, including her great-great granddaughter Adrien Reju, who co-wrote music for the production. Turner is currently working on a book about Réjane, and a film adaption of O Réjane. Turner received the Max K. Lerner Fellowship for Ollie & D, Inkwell Theater (2019). She was a member of The Vagrancy writers’ program and Blossoming Festival for play Slur (2018–19). Sugar Coat It was published in LGBTQ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny (Applause Books). She was Coordinating Producer for “Designing Hedwig,” on Criterion Collection Special Edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2019). Turner also develops for television and film. As an actress, she has appeared in numerous commercials; in shows and films streaming on HBO, Netflix, SyFy, and more; and has premiered two plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She holds a B.A. in theater & dance from Hampshire College. Member SAG, AEA, Dramatists Guild, and the Playwrights Center. She lives in Los Angeles. @itoverdrive