A new biography, the first in two decades, of the legendary actress who inspired Anton Chekhov, popularized Henrik Ibsen, and spurred Stanislavski to create a new theory of acting based on her art and to invoke her name at every rehearsal.
Writers loved her and wrote plays for her. She be-friended Rainer Maria Rilke and inspired the young James Joyce, who kept a portrait of her on his desk. Her greatest love, the poet d’Annunzio, made her the heroine of his novel Il fuoco (The Flame). She radically changed the art of acting: in a duel between the past and the future, she vanquished her rival, Sarah Bernhardt. Chekhov said of her, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking at Duse, I realized why the Russian theatre is such a bore.” Charlie Chaplin called her “the finest thing I have seen on the stage.” Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish watched her perform with adoring attention, John Barrymore with awe. Shaw said she “touches you straight on the very heart.”
When asked about her acting, Duse responded that, quite simply, it came from life. Except for one short film, Duse’s art has been lost. Despite dozens of books about her, her story is muffled by legend and myth. The sentimental image that prevails is of a misty, tragic heroine victimized by men, by life; an artist of unearthly purity, without ambition.
Now Helen Sheehy, author of the much admired biography of Eva Le Gallienne, gives us a different Duse—a woman of strength and resolve, a woman who knew pain but could also inflict it. “Life is hard,” she said, “one must wound or be wounded.” She wanted to reveal on the stage the truth about women’s lives and she wanted her art to endure.
Drawing on newly discovered material, including Duse’s own memoir, and unpublished letters and notes, Sheehy brings us to an understanding of the great actress’s unique ways of working: Duse acting out of her sense of her character’s inner life, Duse anticipating the bold aspects of modernism and performing with a sexual freedom that shocked and thrilled audiences. She edited her characters’ lines to bare skeletons, asked for the simplest sets and costumes. Where other actresses used hysterics onstage, Duse used stillness.
Sheehy writes about the Duse that the actress herself tried to hide—tracing her life from her childhood as a performing member of a family of actors touring their repertory of drama and commedia dell’arte through Italy. We follow her through her twenties and through the next four decades of commissioning and directing plays, running her own company, and illuminating a series of great roles that included Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Marguerite in Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias, Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Hedda in his Hedda Gabler. When she thought her beauty was fading at fifty-one, she gave up the stage, only to return to the theatre in her early sixties; she traveled to America and enchanted audiences across the country. She died as she was born—on tour.
Sheehy’s illuminating book brings us as close as we have ever been to the woman and the artist.
From the Hardcover edition.
About Helen Sheehy
Helen Sheehy is the author of Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography; Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones; and All About Theatre. She lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
Q: What drew you to Eleonora Duse?
A: I’ve worked in and written about the theatre for three decades. For me and for other theatre people, Duse is the ultimate actor as well as the first modern actor. Over time, Duse’s image has distilled into that of a soft, tragic heroine, victimized by men and by life, a kind of pure artist without ambition. When I began the work, I wanted to answer the questions that had always plagued me when I read about Duse. I wanted to discover all the gritty, telling, sometimes transcendent and sometimes unpleasant details of her daily life as a woman and as a working artist.
Q: Why is she considered the first modern actor?
A: She transformed the art of acting and inspired Stanislavsky to create his “method.” Acting, as represented by Duse’s greatest rival, Sarah Bernhardt, was extremely stylized, sometimes no more than a series of poses. Duse rebelled against this style. Duse connected voice, body, and thought to reveal the inner life as well as the outer form of a character. She also freed her body from the corset, and wore no make-up so that every subtlety could be seen clearly. She dug beneath the lines of her script to reveal what she called the invisible side of life. At the same time Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious and Ibsen was exploring the unconscious in his plays, Duse was giving flesh to those ideas onstage and revealing a woman as a human being, not an object.
Q: There have been other biographies of Eleonora Duse–what does yours provide that the others don’t?
A: The two most recent biographies of Duse in English were published in 1984, almost two decades ago. My biography draws on important discoveries such as Duse’s autobiographical writings; dozens of unpublished letters; new information about Duse’s relationships with other artists, including John Barrymore; and new information about Duse’s enduring female friendships. I discuss topics that were avoided or glossed over by earlier biographers, including the birth and death of Duse’s illegitimate son, her antipathy for her husband, and her troubled relationship with her daughter. Supported by my interview with Duse’s granddaughter, Sister Mary Mark Bullough, I explore Duse’s relationship with her daughter in detail. I’ve also drawn on the latest Italian theatre scholarship, which has examined Duse’s legacy extensively.
Q: Why did Duse have such tragic love affairs?
A: I don’t think her love affairs were “tragic”–Duse survived her lovers, sometimes by juggling several love affairs at once. Duse was a complex, difficult woman and she chose complex, difficult, demanding, but fascinating men–Martino Cafiero, her first lover and the father of her illegitimate son, wouldn’t marry her; Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist, was afraid to commit to her; and poet and playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio used her for his own artistic purposes.
Q: Did you learn anything about Duse that surprised you?
A: Yes. She was a sexpot! In her youth, Duse’s popularity was partly a result of her enormous sex appeal. Marilyn Monroe had a photograph of Duse with her when she died, which is fitting, since as a young actress, Duse was the Marilyn Monroe of her time. Men adored her. Duse used her sensuality onstage by touching her acting partners, kissing the male lead on the mouth instead of the traditional cheek or the forehead. She used her body in supple and sexy ways, too, curling up like a cat, stretching provocatively, all allowed of course because she had freed herself from the corset and from the traditional constraints of ladylike behavior.
Q: What is Duse’s greatest contribution to the acting art?
A: She moved it forward by the example of her own art. This was something she sought to do consciously and why she continued to act until she died. “The actor vanishes without a trace,” Duse said. “Therefore she must use her ambition in the service of the art form, the only way not to be futile and ephemeral.” Wherever Duse performed, actors flocked to see her, and today, film and theatre people continue to study her. They collect her letters and memorabilia, and they look up to her because she elevated the actor’s art and transformed it.