Early romantic accounts tell us that the world-renowned actress Eleonora Duse was born, in 1858, in a train, an appropriate setting for someone who was to spend most of her life on the move. But no, she was born in the northern Italian town of Vigevano. (A later international icon, Rudolf Nureyev, actually was born in a train—and his life was as nomadic, contradictory, and highly charged as hers.) In fact, there was nothing romantic about Eleonora’s childhood; it was hard in every way.
The Duse family had come down in the world from the days when her grandfather had been a famous and successful interpreter of Venetian comedy. Her father was a mediocre performer; her uncle, who now led the Duse family troupe, was not much better. And her mother, Angelica, with no theatrical background, ambition, or talent, had been forced by circumstance onto the stage. Eleonora grew up in an impoverished and often desperate touring company, performing in ramshackle theaters, in barns, in town squares. She made her debut at the age of four (as Cosette in a dramatization of Les Misérables; “Now scream—make the tears come, big tears!” her mother coached her), and when Angelica died of tuberculosis, the fourteen-year-old Eleonora found herself taking the company’s leading female roles. There was no one else.
She had almost no formal education—the company was never in one place for very long—and she had no friends; there was no time to make any. There was also, frequently, no fixed lodging, and often very little food. (“I know what hunger is,” she was to tell her daughter, “and what it means to see night approaching when shelter is uncertain.”) Perhaps worst of all for a sensitive child, there was the stigma of the theater. “Figlia di commedianti!” local children shouted after her—“Daughter of actors!”
Helen Sheehy begins her new biography, Eleonora Duse, with a colorized account of what many have seen as the turning point in Eleonora’s early career: the occasion when she played Juliet “in Verona’s ancient arena.” According to Duse herself, reminiscing many years later, she was fired by the idea of playing this girl her own age—she was fourteen—in Juliet’s own city. Every word she spoke 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!” Among Duse’s biographers, only William Weaver, in his highly informed Duse (1980), is dog-in-the-mangerish enough to suggest that the Giulietta e Romeo in which Eleonora found grace that day may not have been Shakespeare’s but a version by a Veronese “printer and autodidact, whose drama was a local favorite.”
The young Duse graduated from one touring repertory company to the next, always making a powerful impression—though not always a good one; there were those who found her unconventional looks off-putting, and her insistence on pursuing …