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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Drawing on newly discovered material, including Duse’s own memoir, and unpublished letters and notes, Sheehy brings us to an understanding of the great actress’s unique ways of working: Duse acting out of her sense of her character’s inner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.
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Who calls? I am here. What is your will?" Repeating the lines of Shakespeare's Juliet, Eleonora Giulia Amalia Duse walked through the Palio gates into Verona on a Sunday in May 1873. She was fourteen. Slender and small-waisted, she moved with easy strides, using her whole body as one accustomed to walking great distances. Her long dark hair was shot through with bronze strands highlighted by the sun. In repose, her striking features-large, heavy-lidded black eyes, high, broad cheekbones over a square jaw, a patrician nose, and generous mouth-suggested the purity of classic sculpture.
Already a stage veteran of ten years, Eleonora was the leading lady in her family's troupe, a struggling, itinerant theatre company engaged to perform Romeo and Juliet that afternoon in Verona's ancient arena. As she walked, Eleonora rehearsed her lines that she had copied into a notebook. "I was choked with anxiety," she recalled.
Juliet, she imagined, had walked these same streets of swirling gray stones, looked up at the same red-roofed buildings, visited the same palazzi of local pink limestone, rosso di Verona. Perhaps Juliet had crossed the Scaligero bridge by the old castle and gazed into the depths of the Adige, which wound like a ribbon through the city. The sun bathed everything in glowing light, but at each street corner Eleonora expected to see a sombre funeral procession and Juliet's iron coffin.
In the Piazza Erbe, which had served as a market for almost two thousand years, Eleonora made her way through the stands shaded by white umbrellas. She stopped by the splashing Roman fountain with its statue of a woman
representing Verona. Using all of her money, she bought pale pink roses. They would serve as a prop for Juliet-an idea suggested by her parents' first meeting, a family story her father, Alessandro Duse, had recorded in his diary. One day, walking along a street, he had felt flowers and leaves rain down upon him. He had looked up and into the eyes of a dark-haired girl tending her window box. Day after day, he followed the same path until he found the courage to walk up the stairs to her balcony. Finally, he did speak to her, and they married. Eleonora's mother's name was Angelica Cappelletto, which sounded hauntingly similar to Capulet.
From the Piazza Erbe to the arena was a short ten-minute walk. Finished by the Romans in the first century a.d., the arena could hold 25,000 people, almost half the population of Verona, in unbroken stone tiers of rosso di Verona. Throughout the centuries, the vast stone oval had hosted gladiator fights, mock sea battles, bullfights, fairs, equestrian performances, and grand opera. Small theatre companies like the Duse-Lagunaz troupe set up their wooden stage-their two planks and a passion-at one end of the arena, roped off a section of the seats, and charged only a few pennies for the late-afternoon performances.
Entering into the sunlit arena from the shadowy, underground corridors, Eleonora looked up at the tall grasses that grew from the crumbling parapet. A breeze stirred, and she felt her energy rise. Intoxicated by the fever of her imagination, the clear light, the dark blue sky, and the scent of the rose bouquet she carried, "the words flowed with strange ease, almost spontaneously," she remembered, "and I could hear them through the constant drumming of my heartbeat."
During the performance that day, when Juliet first met Romeo at the
ball, Eleonora allowed one of her roses to drop at his feet. Later, from her balcony, she plucked the petals one by one from a rose, as if she were laying bare her heart, and they floated down to him. As the tragedy neared its end, the sun began to set, turning the top stone tier a fiery red. Under a "sky white as pearl," Eleonora heard the bells of the churches of Verona and "that almost sea-sound which quieted when I appeared." Mingling love with death, she covered Romeo, who lay in the tomb, with the last of her roses, and they wilted in the heat. When she stabbed herself with Romeo's dagger and fell upon his body, "the crowd let out such a great roar that I was terrified."
Struck by the coincidence of playing a girl of her same age in Juliet's own city, and acting as Juliet herself might have acted, Eleonora believed she was the reincarnation of Shakespeare's character. Before she spoke, every word seemed "to go right through the heat of my blood. There was not a fibre in me that did not contribute to the harmony. Oh, grace, it was a state of grace!"
In this state of boundless grace, she felt an "indescribable sense of abandonment." "Someone lifted me up," she recalled. "They held the torch close to my tear-stained face; it was crackling very loudly, it smelled of resin and was red and black with flames and smoke."
"I was Juliet," she explained. "I must have looked like death itself."
In becoming Juliet, Eleonora Duse found herself. The feeling that surged through her, undoing the boundaries of her personality and uniting her in communion with the audience, was terrifying, uncanny, and as ancient as Dionysus, the god of the theatre, who embodies two opposing principles, the "ecstasy of power over others and the ecstasy of self-surrender." For the rest of her life, because she became most herself when acting other selves, she would seek this state of profound grace and ecstatic abandonment. "Art, like love," she said, "is insatiable."
Guided, she said, by a secret voice, a voice she called an "echo of the pain of the world," Duse aimed for a "transformation of life." Her grandfather Luigi Duse had taken off the traditional commedia dell'arte mask to reveal his human face. Eleonora Duse freed herself from the superficial mask of stage makeup and then she stripped away another mask. She opened her soul and revealed a woman as a human being. Her singular journey revolutionized the theatre and our understanding of what it means to be human. Duse's art embodied the past, the exact present, and the future. She was the first modern actor.
Speaking in Italian in theatres around the world, Duse was understood. Audiences, critics, and especially other artists were moved and responded to her art with acclamations and an outpouring of tributes at times so extreme as to be worthy of a deity. Critics scoured their vocabularies for words to describe her acting and yet words seemed inadequate. How could they describe what they had never seen before?
In the characters she portrayed-and she acted women only-Duse expanded the very idea of Woman. With sprezzatura, a seemingly effortless grace, she revealed the immense gap between accepted ideas of woman and what a woman really was. Once, she was told that in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, she was acting the drama of the female spirit. "No!" she replied, "the drama of everyone." Because she believed that language, the very words themselves, were ambiguous, cloudy, and contradictory, she ransacked her scripts, digging beneath the lines of her characters not to reveal certainty, but to portray what she called the invisible side of life. Duse's humanistic art
and her revolutionary approach to language anticipated the complexity, fluidity, and impermanence of the modern world. In Duse's acting, as in her personality, there was nothing fixed, no national boundaries, no boundaries at all-there was only a human being, alive, ever changing, and ultimately tragic.
The world of the theatre, an active, ephemeral world that moves from light into darkness, is a metaphor for life-and death-itself. Duse understood this. After seeing her work, Konstantin Stanislavsky sought to codify her art. Duse rejected theories of art and "dared not define" her own art. While Stanislavsky sought a method to reproduce the character night after night, Duse aimed for something more. She strived to create a new woman, a new human being, in performance after performance. "Through discipline," she wrote, "with incessant control, with incessant self-domination, and squandering one's own person and soul to become a consciousness . . . to conjure from the center and journey to the most secret heart of things, not the reality of life, but the dream." Like Donatello, she wanted her art to be a new language: "the outward rendered expressive of the inward; the body instinct with spirit; the soul made incarnate."
She resisted all efforts to dissect her art. When the first biography was published about her, she wouldn't read it because she believed an academic could never understand her. Urged endlessly to write her autobiography, she refused. Except for some scribbled pages of memories, she never wrote a memoir. Unsentimental about her life, she refused to turn it into publicity or mythology. Experience had taught her fame was enhanced by mystery, and privacy created more fascination than self-promotion.
At twenty-four, with two decades of acting behind her, when pushed by a persistent critic to explain her art, Duse offered a parable instead. As a child she had been given a beautiful puppet. Intrigued by the puppet's moving arms and legs and smiling mouth that opened and closed, she had destroyed it when she took it apart to see how it was made. "And it's art that you wish to talk about?" she chided the critic. "It would be like trying to explain love." Those "who pretend to understand art, understand nothing," she told him bluntly. Years later, she wondered, "Who is it that arrives at art without an understanding of life?"
After she had become an international celebrity, Duse was asked which country she preferred. "The crossing," she replied. When Duse was born she had no country, and the journey would always be more important to her than any nation. The image of the sea flows through her writing. She grew up near water-the Adriatic, the lagoons and canals of Chioggia and Venice, the Adige and the Po Rivers, and the smaller rivers and streams of northern Italy. She called herself a "passionate colorist," who preferred the "emerald sea of the Adriatic with its red sails" to the blue waters and white sails of the Mediterranean. One of her earliest memories was of her father dropping her over the seawall at Chioggia into the Adriatic and then diving in beside her. She thought of herself as a child of the sea and her life as a voyage. The theatre was her ship-the shifting planks under her feet, the air she breathed, the light she moved in. She lived in this world without self-consciousness, with the bold directness and easy grace of a creature in its natural habitat.
The world outside the theatre-the solid, bourgeois, literal world of permanent homes, schools, and churches-seemed fictional and remote. Because she was an actor and a nomad, she did not and could not belong to that middle-class world. She was an outcast, with the social standing of a Gypsy. Humiliated and ashamed, she never forgot the taunts she received from other children, who shunned her and cursed her as the daughter of commedianti, third-rate, lowlife actors.
Without formal schooling, she learned to read from the scripts they performed. Economics, philosophy, psychology, and politics she absorbed from her daily life. It was a hard school. At times, she was forced to beg. Begging is performing, after all, and poverty a powerful motivation. Eleonora learned to say one thing and think something else. She learned to read faces and gestures, and to know when a harsh word masked a generous heart. Brutal necessity made her acutely aware of her audience. She learned how to use her body and her voice-to know which delicate movement of the arm, what cunning bend of the leg or quick bow of the head, what subtle phrase spoken with enticing sweetness or silent glance with wet, pleading eyes would cause the centimes to fall into her outstretched hand.
All the different coins and money confounded the tourists. The lira nuova d'Italia, equivalent to the French franc, was used in Sardinia; the Austrian lira, equal to 87 centimes of the lira nuova, was used in the Austrian-controlled Venetian territories; and the French gold napoleons were the most desirable coins of all and good anywhere. The money reflected the confusing political reality. But for Eleonora, money simply meant bread to eat and a bed for the night. Economics and politics were personal. How do I survive? Whom do I have to please? Actually, it was a state not unlike the real world of mid-nineteenth-century Italy.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, had called Italy the garden of the world. It contained the fruits of the past in art, architecture, and poetry as well as the seeds for a new beginning. After visiting Italy, Henrik Ibsen said he didn't know how he had existed before. In Rome in 1866, Ibsen wrote the icy Nordic drama Brand. He wrote A Doll's House at the seaside in Amalfi and wrote Ghosts in Sorrento. Henry James shared Ibsen's view. When James arrived in Rome in 1869, he told his diary, "At last, for the first time, I live."
At the same time that foreign artists basked in the sun, soaked up history, and created their art while living cheaply and well, native theatre artists coped with simple survival. Rossini's and Verdi's operas were acclaimed around the world, the tragedians Tommaso Salvini and Adelaide Ristori were applauded in Paris, London, Moscow, and New York, but the Italian theatre, overshadowed by opera, and its audiences diminished by political unrest and poverty, was neglected and forgotten. Ristori and Salvini performed mostly Shakespeare and popular French plays. Censorship had stifled Italian literature, and the most gifted writers wrote libretti instead of plays.
Italy, which had not yet become a country, was uncertain, turbulent, and filled with so many plot twists and turns that politics resembled melodrama. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Count Metternich of Austria played the evil villain, leading the Congress of Vienna to repress the principles of democracy, liberalism, and nationalism awakening across Europe. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class were inevitable, though, and revolutions stirred across Europe and in the ten small states that made up the Italian peninsula. The revolutionary hero Giuseppe Mazzini founded a secret society called Young Italy and worked for a dream that had eluded Italians for centuries, a united Italy under one flag.
In 1848, Venice blockaded Austrian forces and declared itself a republic, the independent island of Sardinia forced the Austrians to retreat from northern Italy, the pope was expelled from Rome, and a Roman republic was proclaimed. That year Elizabeth Barrett Browning watched celebrations of Italian unity from her Casa Guidi windows in Florence. Like many foreigners drawn to Italy, she felt liberated there. In her farseeing poetry, she championed the Risorgimento, Italy's desire for freedom and unification, but she also spoke out for the future and a wider humanity reaching to the millennium. "No more Jew nor Greek then," she wrote, "taunting / Nor taunted: no more England nor France! / But one confederate brotherhood planting / One flag only, to mark the advance, / Onward and upward, of all humanity." The celebrations were short-lived. The Austrians regrouped, regained control of Lombardy and Venetia in the north, and French forces restored the pope in Rome.