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 her unconventionally realistic acting style offended certain managers. Others found her strange but thrilling. When she was twenty and playing leading roles in a first-rate company, she allowed herself to be seduced by an influential newspaper editor/man-about-town in Naples, and to become pregnant by him. He abandoned her and the baby died. Soon after, she married an undistinguished actor in her company, Tebaldo Checchi, more for protection and counsel, as she acknowledged, than out of love. Her second child, Enrichetta, born in 1882, was the product of this union. Less than two months later, Sarah Bernhardt, at the height of her glory, came to Turin and enjoyed her usual triumph—exciting Duse, who was to say, “Only she was spoken of in the city, the salons, the theatre. One woman had done that! And, as a reaction, I felt liberated, I felt I had the right to do what I wanted, something other than what was imposed on me….”
What she wanted to do was to challenge Bernhardt’s position as the world’s leading actress, and she was already well on her way to succeeding; by her mid-twenties, she was a major force in the Italian theater. And she had done it by imposing a new man-ner of acting that was diametrically opposite Bernhardt’s—she was “natural” rather than stylized, simple rather than declamatory, life-sized rather than larger than life. Her repertory, however, under which she was already chafing, was mostly conventional and Bernhardtian—La Dame aux camélias, Fédora, Frou-Frou. One breakthrough came with Giovanni Verga’s verismo Cavalleria rusticana; another with Thérèse Raquin, adapted from Zola; another with one of her few comedies, Goldoni’s La locandiera, in which she went on charming the world for decades.
Throughout her career she was on the lookout for more serious roles. She succeeded in Sudermann’s famous Magda—a mix of Ibsen and the typical Bernhardt melodrama—and in Pi-nero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Her sometime lover and lifelong friend Arrigo Boito translated Antony and Cleopatra for her—eliminating most of the historical elements and therefore most of Antony. She tried Goethe’s Egmont in Berlin, acting in Italian while the rest of the cast spoke German. She thought she found greatness in the plays of her lover Gabriele d’Annunzio. She did find it in Ibsen: A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm, Ghosts, The Lady from the Sea—plays, particularly the last, which were her mainstays in the later years of her career. Alas, she never played Chekhov, and although the young Pirandello admired her, she never appeared in his work.
In order to impose her methods, she formed her own company and was soon touring everywhere—triumphant in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg. In the spring of 1885—she was twenty-six—she sailed for South America, opening in Rio (as Camille). At her benefit performance she was presented with diamonds, emeralds, pearls, and—from the Emperor—a heavy gold bracelet. By this time she had acquired a lover—her leading man—and shed her husband; Tebaldo Checchi was no longer an asset. As for Enrichetta, she was carefully left behind and was never to be part of Duse’s daily life—that is, the life of the theater. “Enrichetta an actress? Ah! No, no! Not while I live!”
The central attachment in this period of her life was to Boito, the composer of Mefistofele and librettist of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff. He was considerably older than she was, a brilliant, sympathetic but private and fastidious intellectual, who, Sheehy tells us, eventually “began to reveal impatience with Duse’s suffocating neediness and her volatile emotions….” Not surprisingly, the romantic relationship cooled and died, but he remained a faithful mentor until his death.
When she was in her late twenties, a friend saw her as an “excitable, morbid creature…an egoist who loves suffering.” By the time she was thirty-five and celebrated throughout the Western world, she was, according to an early biographer, yearning for “an art in which her epoch would discover its greatness.”1 She was ready, in other words, for Gabriele d’Annunzio, who both promised greatness and would all too readily satisfy her love of suffering.
Duse’s relationship with d’Annunzio was the turning point of her life. He was five years her junior and already Italy’s most famous writer—famous not only for his searing lyric poetry and impassioned literary and political manifestos but for his scandalous love affairs, which he publicized in over-heated novels. When he and Duse began their affair, there were an aristocratic wife and three children stashed out of sight, to say nothing of a glamorous and highly vocal mistress. His attractions were not physical—it was his voice, his mesmeric life force, his “genius”—yet it was he who released her sexually. As for him, he had the satisfaction of more or less owning Italy’s most exalted actress, who would carry his plays around the world—plays that were generally considered lacking in dramatic validity. No doubt he had felt genuine passion for her early on, but it faded; after all, by the time she reached forty she was old. She seems to have concurred, frequently referring to him as “my son.”
Duse had always been in fragile health, and she was indeed aging prematurely, whereas d’Annunzio’s appetite for younger and prettier women was insatiable. As he explained to her in a letter dated 1904, when their relationship finally ended, “My imperious need of the violent life—carnal life, the life of pleasure, physical danger, gaiety—has taken me far away…can you hold this need against me?” Apparently, she couldn’t. Five years earlier, she had staged La gloria, possibly his worst play. “The opening night audience in Naples,” Helen Sheehy tells us,
tried to stop the play and threatened to turn into a mob. A large claque whistled and booed and called out for d’Annunzio’s death. Not even Duse’s fame and reputation could stop the uproar…. Where was d’Annunzio while she was defending his play? “Me?” d’Annunzio told his friend Scarfoglio, “I was busy raping a nun!” In fact, while Duse was onstage, he had a “quick fuck” in the dressing room of a young actress who played a sister of charity in the play. Duse heard about the remark and the fornication, and she was furious.
But not furious enough to leave him. That same year he wrote to a friend,
She is in the grip of a kind of evil demon that gives her no peace. The most profound tenderness, the purest devotion, are of no avail! She sees, on all sides, falsehood and intrigue around her.
The sweet creature becomes unjust and cruel towards herself and towards me, irreparably.
What exactly did he expect?
If he had only betrayed her sexually, it would have been painful enough, but he also betrayed her professionally. Behind her back he gave a new play to her great rival, Bernhardt. Even more traumatic: illness forced her to postpone another new play, at which point he handed it over to a much younger actress who had once been her protégée, and then demanded that Duse surrender the costumes she had already had made for herself. Duse accommodated him, and suffered the further humiliation of seeing the play and its young actress score a great success. Nevertheless, she went on producing his plays—at tremendous cost to herself. His leaden Francesca da Rimini almost bankrupted her, and when she insisted on touring America with an all-d’Annunzio repertory, it was a near disaster; she was forced to add Magda to the repertory. No wonder that one of her managers “reacted to every d’Annunzio play as if he had been offered the stinging end of a scorpion.”
Finally, there was d’Annunzio’s novel Il fuoco—“The Flame”—which appeared in 1900 and became an immediate sensation in Italy and abroad. It was a rhapsodic, semi-pornographic account of his relationship with Duse in which she is portrayed as an aging woman desperate for sex, consumed by jealousy and a Phaedra-like passion for a younger man. (“They had fought together as though in combat, breath against breath, heart against heart; they had joined together as though in combat, they had tasted blood in their saliva….”) The book, set in Venice, is a delirium, and almost unreadable. Duse—“La Foscarina” in the book—is the quintessential fin-de-siècle all-consuming woman:
Poisoned by art, weighed down by voluptuous knowledge, with the taste of ripeness and corruption in her eloquent lips, with the dryness of her vain feverish hands that had crushed the juice from deceitful fruits, with the traces of a hundred masks on her face that had imitated the wildness of all mortal passions…. Why was she joining her despairing vision to the magnificent purity of youth?
Wilde’s Salome lurks in the background.
D’Annunzio’s pathology manifests itself throughout. “The woman’s whole body had suddenly become a huge absorbing mouth that sucked him in entirely,” he writes. And her embrace is compared to “the arms of a corpse that stiffen around a living man.” But the dominant image is of “poison”—a word that runs through the book:
The poison burned through every fibre of her being. With him at the furthest point of pleasure, she had experienced a spasm that was not quite death but yet was beyond life.
Does this passage offer us literature’s first female orgasm? (Henry James fails to comment on it in his guarded appreciation of Il fuoco.) D’Annunzio could have offered the intensely private Duse no greater humiliation than to parade her sexual behavior before the world. Yet it seems that she read pages of Il fuoco as d’Annunzio was writing it. She wrote to her manager, who was anxious about its possible effect on her career,
I know the book and I have authorized its publication. Because my suffering, whatever it may be, does not count, when it is a question of giving another masterpiece to Italian literature…. And besides, I am forty years old…and I am in love!
The relationship between Duse and d’Annunzio lingered on, Duse abandoning herself to a mania of jealousy, making violent public scenes. In one three-month period in 1899 she had bombarded him with 162 telegrams as well as dozens of letters. Not until 1904 could she write to him, “Today I say to you: farewell—we are two—But I dead.” Although she loyally went on presenting his work, they didn’t meet for eighteen years. The drama had finally played itself out for her.
After d’Annunzio, it was at first business as usual—Scandinavia, the Balkans, South America. Duse entered into a collaboration with the renowned young French director/manager Lugné-Poe. She encountered and befriended Isadora Duncan, and employed Isadora’s beloved Gordon Craig to design new sets for Rosmersholm—an episode that ended in disaster when his megalomania came up against her professionalism. And then her health began to give out and her will faltered; clearly, she was suffering from a deep depression. In January 1909 she stopped acting. She spent the war years, 1914–1918, in Italy, quietly assisting soldiers and their families, her only professional activity the making of her one film, Cenere (Ashes), a mother-son drama that gives us glimpses of her luminous presence. The immediate postwar years she spent in aimless drifting. Only in 1921, driven in part by financial necessity, did she go back to the theater, opening to tumultuous acclaim in Turin, in The Lady from the Sea. The audience, Sheehy recounts, “all stood and cheered. ‘Viva Duse! Viva Italy!'” She had been off the stage for twelve years.
By now, she had gone beyond celebrity. The scandal of Il fuoco behind her, she was perceived as a spiritual force; her rare performances—sometimes no more than two a week—were greeted as near-religious occasions. On her final American tour, early in 1924, her body collapsed; the weak lungs she had inherited from her mother betrayed her—she needed oxygen tanks in the wings to keep her going. It was in Pittsburgh, a city she hated, that she was stricken with pneumonia. She struggled through her last performance and was carried back to her hotel. “I do not want to die here,” she said, but she did die there.
Her body was taken first to New York, where thousands lined the streets outside the funeral parlor. Among the tributes was a bouquet from Mussolini, the Duce, with the inscription “To Italy’s First Daughter.” She had recently rejected his offer of a state pension, but d’Annunzio, hearing the news of her death, sent a telegram to his one-time political rival:
The tragic destiny of Eleonora Duse could not be accomplished more tragically. Far from Italy the most Italian of hearts has died. I ask that the adored body be returned to Italy at the Government’s expense. I am certain that my pain is the pain of all Italians. Listen to my prayer, and answer.
Mussolini listened, and complied.
The testimony to Duse’s greatness as an actress is almost universal. The most famous assessment came from George Bernard Shaw in several reviews that convincingly propose that Duse was far superior to Sarah Bernhardt. Shaw speaks of the “extraordinary richness of her art,” “this rare consummation,” her “magical skill.” Perceptive observers everywhere were overwhelmed by her powers. The young Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Sheehy tells us, “compared her Vienna debut to the ancient Great Dionysia in Athens.” To the most respected American theater critic, Stark Young, she not only understood Ghosts and The Lady from the Sea better than Ibsen did, but she “does not exemplify the art of acting so much as she illustrates the fundamentals of all art.” To Eva LeGallienne, in her hagiographic book on Duse, she was “the incarnation of everything that the theatre, in its very highest form, could be.” Chekhov, seeing her in Moscow, wrote to his sister, “I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling that I understood every word…. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Nazimova: “She is art. She is inspiration itself.” Chaplin: “Eleonora Duse is the greatest artiste I have ever seen.”
It’s almost a relief to turn to Max Beerbohm, Shaw’s successor on The Saturday Review. “I am willing to take Duse’s technique on trust,” he writes, “but I cannot rave about it: I can but consume myself with envy of my colleagues, and wish I had made a better use of my opportunities for learning Italian.” On a less impish note, he writes,
I cannot surrender myself, and see in her the “incarnate womanhood” and “the very spirit of the world’s tears” and all those other things which other critics see in her. My prevailing impression is of a great egoistic force; of a woman overriding, with an air of sombre unconcern, plays, mimes, critics and public…. I dislike it. I resent it. In the name of art, I protest against it.
In the Twenties, the great English actress Sybil Thorndyke said, “Duse had the universal spirit. She was humankind; that is why, to me, she is greater than all others.” But Beerbohm wanted her to play specific characters, not humankind; no one was more allergic than he to the ineffable.
Many aspects of Duse’s nature and history are open to reconsideration, and Sheehy’s book is in certain respects a refreshingly corrective one. But sometimes the evidence she presents is slim. She gives us Duse as a mother repelled by her child. “Who can you tell, for example,” Duse wrote to Boito,
about the sadness, the physical, yes physical repulsion, alas, of a hand that touches you? The heart goes back and forth all day between the desire to help, and the instinct that revolts, because of a word, some minor thing, some character trait that reminds you, implacably, of its origin—the father’s like that—in her, and you see him. No—it’s horrible!
It is horrible, but it is counterbalanced by a stream of testimony from others of Duse’s concern and affection for Enrichetta. Her strongest impulse toward her daughter was to keep her away from the theater, to raise her as a proper, upper-class girl in convents and German or Swiss boarding schools. No one was going to run after her child shouting “Figlia di commedianti!” And she succeeded: Enrichetta married a sober, God-fearing Englishman, and raised two children who eventually entered the Church. Mother and daughter met and spent time together, but no one could call their relationship an intimate one. Duse chose not to attend her daughter’s wedding, in 1908, writing to a friend, “I’m happy to have her married far away, where my name isn’t profaned by legend.” (Shades of Stella Dallas!) She had always been her daughter’s sole support, however; as Sheehy wittily points out, she “may have been a bad mother, but she had been, by the standards of the day, an exemplary father.” It’s telling, though, that whereas Duse saved Enrichetta’s letters, Enrichetta burned hers.
Sheehy’s treatment of Tebaldo Checchi is also one-sided. She has nothing good to say about this sadsack, for whom even Duse had kind words in later years, and who is warmly praised as a decent and devoted man by biographers who knew her. Sheehy prefers to believe, on the basis of what she acknowledges to be “circumstantial evidence,” that on that first South American tour, Tebaldo took sexual advan- tage of a thirteen-year-old girl in the company. To Duse’s friend and early biographer E.A. Rheinhardt, however, Tebaldo’s nature “was great and magnanimous.” Perhaps more significant is the testimony of Matilde Serao, a famous writer who had been the closest of friends to Duse since the early Naples days. She wrote to Reinhardt that in later years the image of Tebaldo “became ever more beautiful to Eleonora.”
More than her numerous predecessors—there are at least seven biographies in English—Sheehy makes much of Duse’s extraordinary capacity for flattery, her relentless pursuit of those who could help her. It was Matilde Serao who “taught Duse practical techniques of ingratiating herself with prominent families, and the art of utilitarian flattery and self-promotion, which Duse would use on society leaders and critics for the rest of her life.” Indeed, Sheehy is the only biographer who sees Duse less as the victim of her first seducer than as an ambitious, attractive actress happy to be taken up by an influential and sophisticated but physically unattractive man. (D’Annunzio, as we have seen, was no beauty either.)
Wherever she went, Duse made friends who did their best to help her—rich ladies or ardent young women in particular, who would leave their homes to travel with her when she demanded companionship. What she could offer them was affection and the apparently enviable opportunity to serve her. On her first American tour she was befriended by the highly respected and well-situated Gilder family, whose New York home became a refuge for her. “I bankrupt myself to tell you that I love you,” she cabled Helena Gilder on her return to London. The Gilders reciprocated by commissioning a cast of her right hand. Only a few weeks ago, there was an auction on e-Bay for a note from Duse to a Portuguese duchesa: “Tendres amitiés!” “Thinking of you always! Love from your Leonore!”
But that she flattered her adoring fans and accepted both gifts and service from them doesn’t mean that Duse was hypocritical. She was clearly swift in her affections, and sincere—in the short run. Generous to young actresses, quick to pity, her own sufferings made her sensitive to the suffering of others. Her friend Jeanne Bordeux, whose biography appeared in 1925, only a year after Duse’s death, sums her up convincingly:
She had a dual personality in the fullest meaning of the phrase. She was a superb intellect, capable of doing the most absurd things; she was grand in thought and action, and she was petty. She was the personification of refinement, and in anger violent almost to the point of vulgarity. Sincere, but changeable as the wind; stubborn, yet easily influenced; strong to defend, easy to offend; a woman of intense desires, passionate friendships, that in a second might change to ardent dislikes. Hopelessly extravagant, mean to the point of stinginess with herself, generous to the extreme with those who had her sympathy…. A divine, difficult mistress, a tender, loving companion—until someone or something changed her…. Adorable, impossible.
Even more than Duse craved social respectability, she aspired to the intellectual and the cultured. Like so many autodidacts, she was a fanatical reader, carting trunk-loads of books around with her on her endless tours: Emerson, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Wilde’s De Profundis, Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Shelley, Byron, Goethe, Sophocles, Shakespeare…. Her friendships were not only with rich people who could be of practical use to her; if anything, she was more interested in cultivating men she could revere, like Rilke—who admired her deeply but, Sheehy tells us, saw the humor in her overwrought responses, suspecting that “because of her temperament she needed to dramatize the most ordinary moments”—and Romain Rolland, who records her quoting Plotinus. Her lack of formal education, in one biographer’s words, “made her the eternal disciple.”
With her colleagues—that is, with the actors she hired for her various companies—she was demanding and inspiring, veering from aloofness to generosity, but never matey. By far the most convincing account we have of her as a professional comes from a young, obscure actor, Guido Noccioli, who played tiny roles on Duse’s South American tour of 1906–1907 and kept a journal. (It was published in English in 1982 as Duse on Tour, with a superb introduction by its translator, Giovanni Pontiero.) Here we see her close up, under pressure, and at times out of control. “I am the one who pays here. And I demand and fully intend to have things done my way.” “After all, I am the Eleonora Duse who has done more than anyone else to enhance the reputation of Italian drama throughout the world.” At one rehearsal,
A stream of recriminations came pouring out from her lips like lava from a volcano…. It is impossible to capture in words the bitterness, anger, and spite that consume the Signora at such moments. The rest of the cast looks on in terror—that is the only word to express our dismay.
In extenuation, consider what Eva LeGallienne has to say about the “restless, feverish climate of theatre life,” with all the
entanglements…laid before the actor-manager—the “star”—who is expected to untangle them and solve them. Such a climate is not conducive to the attainment of spiritual serenity.
Noccioli’s journal has the ring of truth—and none of the narcissism you might expect from a young actor in the presence of a great star. (No wonder he vanished from the theater world.) Observing Duse closely, he sees that she is uneven in performance. “The Signora muddles line after line! The actors who have to converse with her do not know where to turn. The prompter shouts himself hoarse but to no avail.” He believes another actor “to be correct when he claims that La Duse of today is no longer the artist of former years.” And yet he can say, in summation,
To question anything with Eleonora Duse is quite impossible. For she possesses the most extraordinary powers of persuasion…. Her voice is so heavenly! Her teeth so perfect, her smile so winning! That is how La Duse strikes one: for, despite everything, despite the fact that she is about to celebrate her fiftieth birthday, despite the lines on her face and her grey hairs, La Duse is beautiful!
This was Duse in extremity, after d’Annunzio and before her voluntary exile from the theater. On her return to acting in 1921, only three years before her death, she apparently had reached a transcendent purity of expression that conveyed to the audience an aura of spiritual exaltation. She was, in fact, being seen in semi-religious terms—perhaps the only stage performer in history whom audiences literally worshiped. William Weaver comments, “For her cult she was more than an artist: she was virtually a saint.” Rheinhardt assures us, “She went on and on like St. Catherine of Siena.” Saint Teresa of Avila is evoked as well. But Jeanne Bordeux trumps the saint ace, assuring us that
in the last ten years of her life Eleonora Duse walked very close to the Divine Son, bearing nobly her Cross, as in fact she had borne it from birth, fulfilling to the best of her ability the mission for which she was sent into the world.2
The discrepancy between the late sanctification and the early notoriety Duse had earned for her revolutionary sensuality on stage is startling. As her career got underway, reviewers everywhere, Sheehy points out, “remarked on her wild passion. Critics lingered over descriptions of her sensuous mouth, languid eyelids, nostrils that flared in anger, caressing fingers, and supple body.” “In La Dame aux ca-mélias, instead of kissing Armande Duval chastely and traditionally on the forehead, her Marguerite kissed him on the lips, as if she were drinking him in one last time.” Forty years later, she is Saint Catherine of Siena, if not Our Lord Himself.
One trajectory that can be compared to Duse’s is that of Greta Garbo, who began as the steamiest actress ever to have appeared on the screen, her love scenes with her real-life lover John Gilbert shocking the world, and who ended as a hypnotic enigma of whom the world was in awe. Garbo’s childhood was as unhappy and sordid as Duse’s; her looks, at first, as questionable. She, too, was whimsical, perverse, aloof, completely determined on having her own way. Like Duse, she had a circle of adoring friends whom she counted on and used, but she was even more emotionally withholding than Duse (who did give herself completely once, though disastrously, to d’Annunzio). Both women were at heart outsiders, although Duse, as an international stage actress, had to be out in the world, whereas Garbo, insulated by MGM, could and did seal herself off from her surroundings. Garbo’s famous resistance to the intrusions of the press was foreshadowed by Duse, who hated being interviewed, proclaiming that artists “belong to the public and to the critics only in that moment in which we appear on stage.” Once, turning to a reporter in New York (who presumably spoke Italian), she insisted, “I wish to be left alone.”
Helen Sheehy points out how her “convincing portrayal of an artist without ambition who cared only for art and nothing for publicity” only added to Duse’s legend, and this of course was true of Garbo as well. But Duse’s impulse toward privacy, even on occasion toward anonymity, also reflected a deep shyness and insecurity; she escaped her childhood but never overcame it. For all her proclaimed suffering, she lived most fully when she was inhabiting other women. She said it herself: “We actors bear a curse: being separated from life, not understanding human beings beyond those we pretend to be on stage, acting what other men live.” As for Garbo, she hardly seems to have lived at all off-screen. Can it be this ultimate loneliness that gave these two women their mystery and allure? Were they worshiped because they were unreachable—and remain, despite all the biographies, unknowable?
December 18, 2003