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Eleonora Duse: A Biography


Eleonora Duse: A Biography

Sarah Bernhardt achieved international celebrity at a time when
acting was primarily a pictorial art, and she clung to that style
long after it had come to be regarded as old-fashioned, in the
latter part of the 1800s. Even after the turn of the century,
playing Phèdre in London, she employed a meticulously
choreographed series of poses, sometimes remaining motionless for
as long as thirty seconds before she glided into the next position.
Edmond Rostand called her "the queen of posture," and Helen Sheehy
--- apparently no great admirer of Bernhardt --- adds with a
straight face that her specialty was death. Bernhardt's name
nevertheless appears frequently in Sheehy's biography of Eleonora
Duse. Sheehy's examination of how Duse differed from Bernhardt, who
in most ways exemplified everything that was believed to be
desirable in an actor, makes her contributions and innovations more
easily appreciated, particularly for readers with little or no
knowledge of the theater.

Duse (doo-ZAY) had learned the fundamentals of acting as a member
of her family's troupe, a struggling, itinerant theater company
that depended on each day's small income to pay for the day's bread
and a bed for the night. While still quite young she had exhibited
a strong empathetic imagination, among other "magic gifts" spoken
of by her mother. Her unusual empathy first manifested itself in
her sensing life in inanimate objects such as chairs and other
household items, which she would talk to for hours at a time,
asking for no reply.

When she was 14, with a decade of acting experience behind her,
Duse found herself in Verona playing Juliet, a girl her own age,
and she experienced an uncanny sensation of actually becoming the
incarnation of Shakespeare's character. Later she would speak of
the harmony she felt that day and of a state of grace through which
she was united in communion with the audience. Sheehy associates
this event with the Dionysian concept of acquiring power over
others through surrender of the self. For the rest of her life,
Sheehy says, guided by "a secret voice" that she said was "an echo
of the pain of the world," Duse would seek and find this state of
grace and self-abandonment.

Duse harbored a profound mistrust of language and probed deeply
beneath the lines of her characters to discover --- and to portray
--- what she called the invisible side of life. While Bernhardt was
always Bernhardt, Duse disappeared within her characters, and
although she always spoke her lines in Italian, she communicated
their thoughts and feelings in ways so surpassingly subtle and yet
so clear that her audiences seemed always to understand --- without
understanding why.

Duse wore no jewelry and her costumes were always simple and
austere, much alike in color and line from role to role. Nor did
she wear makeup, which in her view amounted to a mask. As it was,
responding naturally to incidents affecting the character she
played, she startled audiences by suddenly becoming deathly pale or
blushing brightly, according to circumstances.

It was seeing Duse onstage that inspired the great Russian director
and teacher Stanislavsky to establish the famed Moscow Art Theatre,
and to his students he always said her acting represented the ideal
toward which they should strive. At a time when Stanislavsky was
working to "codify" Duse's art, to identify a method by which to
"reproduce" a character night after night, Duse was achieving
something far greater, Sheehy says. She was creating a new woman, a
new human being, in performance after performance. In this sense,
she never repeated herself and never needed or wanted to reproduce
what she had accomplished earlier.

Duse refused to portray women as they were conventionally
represented on the stage. She wanted to reveal to audiences "the
immense gap between accepted ideas of woman and what a woman really
was." Among the plays in which she found this opportunity were
La Dame aux camélias and Le Demi-Monde, by
Alexandre Dumas fils, who felt deep sympathy, as Duse did,
for unmarried mothers and illegitimate children and who championed
divorce and paternity laws. Plays of Henrik Ibsen, such as A
Doll's House
, naturally became part of her repertory, and so
did works by the poet and novelist Gabriele d'Annunzio, with whom
she was for a time romantically involved.

Mention of Duse's relationship with d'Annunzio suggests another
point that ought to be made --- that this biography, unlike many
biographies, is essentially a very good story, a story that Sheehy
allows to unfold naturally, without unnecessary intrusions. Her
analysis is everywhere clear and concise, as it is always
interesting and enlightening, the product of wide and thoughtful

Though Sheehy, unlike Duse, is necessarily limited to words, she
has produced a biography that enables readers to come as close as
one could reasonably expect to both the visible and the invisible
worlds of an actress who may have been simply the best.

Reviewed by Harold V. Cordry on January 21, 2011

Eleonora Duse: A Biography
by Helen Sheehy

  • Publication Date: August 19, 2003
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375400176
  • ISBN-13: 9780375400179