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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 got to play the great classic repertory, or to work with a great ensemble company, or even with one that just stayed in one place and worked with a stable, loyal, and responsive public. Much of her reputation was owed to performances in which she worked with fatuous plays, with a backup company of second- or third-rate players, a rudimentary staging, and an audience of whom a great many had no idea what she was saying. These were not the circumstances in which Sarah Bernhardt in Paris triumphed in Phèdre or Athalie. Nor did Duse have Marcel Proust to perpetuate her art. A prey to undefined illnesses, she often had to cancel.

As to her private life, the least one can say is that she was a very bad picker of men. With Arrigo Boito, the composer of Mefistofele and the librettist of Verdi’s Falstaff and Otello, and later with Gabriele D’Annunzio, she had largely unsuccessful love affairs that are as tedious to read about as they were disagreeable and frustrating to live through. In fact she had bad luck all along the line, and as much in small things as in great. When she visited the US, fending for herself as best she could, and appearing in what one newspaper called “some of the worst plays that have ever been seen,” misadventure arrived in its more ludicrous forms. In 1903, for instance, when she arrived in Chicago on tour, five of her sixteen trunks were sent by mistake to her near-namesake, an otherwise unknown grocer named Harry Doose.

But then the very name of Duse has a dying fall, and it is for her biographer to explain how this much-abused woman, who seems hardly to have had a day’s happiness, who appeared without complaint in plays like Frou-frou and Divorçons, and who claimed in her early thirties to be “counting the days” till she could retire, could have changed the way in which many of the most gifted people of her time thought about the theater. “As I was watching Duse,” Chekhov once wrote, “I realized why we are bored in the Russian theater.” And then there is Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier still before him: “She plays the gaiety that is not happiness, and with a light laugh she plays all the arid darkness behind the laugh; she plays the state of not-wanting-to-think and the state of not-being-able-to-help-thinking; she plays the squirrel and the lark….”

It is for her biographer to make us run with the squirrel and soar with the lark. William Weaver comes to his task with serious credentials. Though too young to have seen her—she died just sixty years ago—he has lived for many years in Italy and has perfect Italian. A gifted translator, he is a professional music critic who has spent much of his life in Italian opera houses, great and small. He knows those theaters inside out. He knows the Italian public, and he knows the specific excitement that comes over a city when its theater, dark for much of the year, comes suddenly to life. He is at home in Italy to a degree that few expatriates there can claim.

Unlike other English-language biographers he is therefore completely at home with the scene in which Duse was raised, nurtured, and first made her name. He has worked on the great quantity of new material that has become available since Jean Stubbs published her life of Duse in 1970, and in particular he has read more of Duse’s love letters than should be expected of any living human being, even in the line of duty. Though he spares us much of the detail, he is aware of exactly how devious Boito was in his relation to Duse, and how egomaniacal, thoughtless, treacherous, and second-rate was D’Annunzio. Thanks to him, we know exactly what Duse meant when she wrote to Boito that after many years he was still “the ambiguous creature who had understood nothing, who has allowed nothing to be understood.” (“Even when I wrote to you,” she went on, “did you really read [in our days] my letters?”) As for D’Annunzio, Mr. Weaver has a phrase for his behavior to Duse that deserves a more general currency, so apt is it for many a less famous entanglement. The behavior in question, he tells us, was “disloyal, but not unmotivated.” And there it is best left, for what matters to us today about Duse is not her private tribulations but what exactly she did on the stage.

Here Mr. Weaver is strong, but not conclusive. He gives a fresh account of her years of apprenticeship. Duse was born a bête de théâtre, inured from infancy to the life of a “strolling player” who did not so much stroll as walk bare-foot from town to town in search of an audience no matter how grudging. He is also informative about the day-to-day newspaper criticism that was written as often as not by people without either standards or experience. In that regard, and with the help of exhumation squads in several countries, he builds up a solid portrait of the conditions in which Duse worked. (“The press has been hateful to me,” she once said, “but what does that matter? I want to prepare the work of the next century. It is like Wagner’s music, which was understood only later.”)

Himself an authority on Verdi and the author of a very good pictorial biography of the composer, Mr. Weaver has lived for much of his life with great music that did not have to wait for the next century. He has also lived with Italian audiences that crave the here-and-now, rather than an unfulfilled dream of the future.

I did not have the impression that Mr. Weaver is as familiar with the plays of Emile Augier, Victorien Sardou, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, and others with which Duse made do for much of her life. La Traviata without Verdi’s music, and Cavalleria rusticana without Mascagni’s, may well be diminished. But it was with those plays in their dis-musicked form that Duse had some of her greatest successes. Now that late-Victorian painting and late-Victorian music are being raked over and declared to be not quite so bad as was formerly supposed, it is at least possible that some merit could be found in the plays of the same date to which she gave so much of her best energies.

To have a true idea of the effect that Duse created we need to go to witnesses who were steeped in the theater, who had seen plays of that sort over and over again in one language after another and with the foremost performers of the day. James Gibbons Huneker was not a stringent critic by the standards of today, and he spread himself very thin indeed. But when we read the chapter on Duse and D’Annunzio in his Iconoclasts (1905) we get a sense of actuality in his scene-by-scene account of those terrible plays that we do not get from Mr. Weaver.

In D’Annunzio’s La Gioconda, Duse played the wife of a sculptor who has fallen hopelessly in love with his model. After nursing him back to health after an attempt at suicide on the model’s account, the wife decides to face her rival in the studio. At this point, Huneker tells us, D’Annunzio

throws wiredrawn analysis to the winds, and in a scene of peculiar brutality the women duel for possession of the gifted, worthless man. Here Duse’s imagination and technique are revealed. She must remain the refined woman, though her brain is afire, her soul in arms. In acrid terms of reproach and irony she defies the temptress of her husband, knowing full well that he is lost to her; in the very flush of defeat she would pluck victory by the sleeve. Startled by the ready assurance, enraged by the seemingly triumphant wife, the model rushes into the atelier, bent upon destroying her counterfeit in clay…

In despair before the looming catastrophe, Duse cries that she has lied, that her husband still loves his model. But it is too late. The struggle of the women is heard. A crash and a scream announce that the statue has been overthrown. With the shadow of eternal regret in her eyes, her hands wrapped in the wet cloths that bound the clay, Duse staggers from behind the draperies of the atelier. She has saved her husband’s statue, but her beautiful hands are hopelessly maimed. The scene is hideously cruel. And to top the crescendo of woe, the vascillating man runs in. “You, you you!” sobs his wife. “It is saved,” and the curtain blots out the agonizing situation from our eye, not from our memory.

Nor do I think that it is merely from loyalty to certain English judges of acting that I regret their nonappearance in Mr. Weaver’s pages. It is not that they were always favorably disposed to Duse. W. Graham Robertson said of one of her performances that “Duse, as was her custom, quite simply substituted her favorite character, the noble, oppressed, misunderstood Martyr, for the character in the play.” Maurice Baring said that “when you saw her in something domestically dramatic you thought how wonderful she would be in Shakespeare, but when she did play Cleopatra the part swamped her and you thought that she was a charming little Italian dressing up as a queen.” But then Duse played Cleopatra in a truncated and rearranged version of Shakespeare that would have seemed outrageous even in eighteenth-century England. Desmond MacCarthy had perhaps a truer idea of her potential when he spoke of Desdemona as a part “that is a pure and empty oval, asking for that beautiful variety that Duse could supply.”

Though a critic now mostly forgotten, MacCarthy had the gift of speaking to the reader as a friend and a confidant. “She excelled,” he said of Duse, “in reticence and minute fidelity; but it was always the reticence of a singularly thoughtful nature, though her part might be that of a flamboyant thick-skinned thruster like Sudermann’s Magda, and her fidelity was ever fidelity to herself.”

Duse was ever disappointed in her search for the great new play that would “prepare the work of the next century.” She was balked by the state of the Italian theater in her attempts to give Gordon Craig the freedom to undertake the new kinds of staging that he longed for all his life. Still, Duse found in Ibsen a play-wright who put the past behind him. There again, Mr. Weaver goes to many an obscure source for firsthand estimates of what she achieved. (He also tells us how Boito dismissed Ibsen as “an old Norwegian pharmacist who has taken to distilling rhubarb for the theater.”) But once again it is possible to prefer to any other account the considered judgment of Desmond MacCarthy.

Here he is on Duse as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts: “…a mother who was a queen among mothers. Notice not only what Duse expresses, but what she refrains from expressing—how passive she can be, how negative, how still, until the moment comes when her emotions are again in action…. She was a sweet queen of sorrows, exorcizing by the very sweep of her dress and the delicious pleading of her hands all battling, dun, northern harshness from the play.”

It is the tender immediacy of a passage such as this that I for one missed in William Weaver’s account of Duse’s hectic and, as it now seems, foredoomed career. Had he been writing about a great singer—Giuditta Pasta or Pauline Viardot, let us say—he would, I am sure, have found that same touch. I also regretted that Mr. Weaver did not attempt to go more closely into the matter of Duse’s persistent ill health. What was really wrong with her? Why did she have to cancel so often? What was it that made her lovers turn away from her, as if in embarrassment, and after a while go to such lengths to avoid her? What of the rumors that she had contracted a venereal disease from one of them? An almost centennial silence surrounds these questions, and this would have been the time and the place in which to break it, if breaking were possible. But, be these things as they may, Weaver’s chronicle surpasses all its predecessors in its care, its profusion of detail, and its close knowledge of the Italian background.

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