Super Trouper

Duse: A Biography

by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 383 pp., $19.95

Neither in life nor on the stage did Eleonora Duse (1858–1924) correspond to the popular idea of a “great actress.” Never did she look at the audience the way Vladimir Horowitz used to look at the piano, with a sublime ferocity. “With her looks,” an experienced impresario said of her in her youth, “she will never make a career on the stage.” Even her lovers did not think that she was goodlooking. Gabriele D’Annunzio—admittedly one of the most odious men of the century—was no sooner reunited with her after a long absence than he wrote in his notebook that she had “a wretched little chin.”

Nor did she make any attempt to improve her looks. She never painted her face, on stage or off it. She never “had her hair done,” but was content to pull it straight back and let people say what they liked. If forced to dress up for some great occasion, she did not so much wear her new dress as put up with it.

On the stage she never “made an entrance,” even at moments like the beginning of La Dame aux Camélias, where it was customary for the leading lady to do everything except swing by her teeth from the chandelier. Instead of that, she “simply appeared, in a white dress,” William Weaver tells us in his new biography, “almost unnoticed among the guests, ‘not a woman of the world, but a girl in thought and feeling.”’ In fact her way of coming on to the stage often caused people who had never seen her before to say “When is she going to act?”

How insignificant she is!” a young actress said of her in Russia, “and her voice is nothing special, either.” But such people soon saw their mistake. On that same evening in Moscow, the two most famous actresses in Russia were weeping uncontrollably by the time Duse was through with Act II of a play that none of us is ever likely to see—Marco Praga’s L’innamorata. But when the evening’s traffic was over and Duse came out alone before the curtain, she once again became a person apart. “She came out always pale, tired, and sad,” one observer recalled later. She did not reply with a smile or a kiss of the hand, or any other gesture. She remained grave, still, and only as she went off, she bowed.”

A mysterious, paradoxical genius, but a genius beyond all doubt. It is common ground among those best qualified to speak that Eleonora Duse was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. A judgment that is shared by James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Chaplin, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, and John Gielgud is not to be set aside lightly.

She had many things against her. She was born and raised in a country in which the spoken theater is regarded to this day as opera’s ugly sister. She never …

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