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The mother of modern theater

Eleonora Duse: A Biography, Helen Sheehy, Alfred A. Knopf: 400 pp., $32.50

August 24, 2003|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Eleonora DUSE transformed the nature of acting. Though she died nearly 80 years ago, her influence lives in the work of movie stars today, men and women schooled by the generation of American acting teachers who had seen Duse perform when they were young and half a century later still held her up to their students as the exemplar of what an actor could be. Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who agreed about virtually nothing else, both worshiped her. "The Theatre will require the next hundred years to deal with what Duse represented," Strasberg told his students at the Actors Studio. "There is none like her -- none," English actress Ellen Terry marveled in 1893. Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky was inspired by Duse's artistry to create his famous "system," which continues to dominate actor training.

What was so extraordinary about her? How did an actress who performed only in Italian, in plays that (with the major exception of Henrik Ibsen's works) are forgotten today, make such an enduring impression across the globe and across the decades? Writing with passion and sensitive attention to detail, Helen Sheehy, author of several previous theater biographies, combines evocative quotes from people who saw Duse onstage with her own well-informed commentary to make palpable the electrifying emotional charge of Duse's acting and to elucidate its historic effect. "She was the first modern actor," Sheehy avers. "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."

The world was very different in 1873, when the 14-year-old Duse gave her breakthrough performance as Juliet. Acting in those days was "bombastic and exterior ... primarily a pictorial art," writes Sheehy, displaying an ability to place her subject in context that distinguishes the entire book. After seeing international star Adelaide Ristori play Lady Macbeth, the impudent Eleonora remarked, "I felt an overwhelming urge to straighten my room."

Duse, who had been onstage since age 4, came from a more naturalistic tradition. Her grandfather, whose red velvet waistcoat she kept all her life, was a star of the commedia dell'arte, famed for the spontaneity of his acting. The family's fortunes had fallen considerably by the time she became leading lady of their struggling, itinerant troupe, but at 14, Duse already was sure there was more to a performance than posing. As Juliet, she later recalled for her lover Gabriele d'Annunzio, "The words flowed with strange ease ... I could hear them through the constant drumming of my heartbeat.... There was not a fibre in me that did not contribute to the harmony. Oh, grace, it was a state of grace!"

Duse rarely found that state of grace in daily life, where she frequently indulged in the hysterical self-dramatization she never permitted herself while acting. Her marriage (to a mediocre actor) lasted barely three years, and she freely confessed a visceral physical repugnance for the daughter who reminded her of that unhappy union. Her friendships were intense but strictly on her terms; women who were initially embraced as "guardian angels" or "daughter" found themselves unceremoniously dropped when they ceased to be useful.

Her two most important love affairs were with men she hoped would write plays to fulfill her vision of a new theater, Verdi librettist Arrigo Boito and literary bad boy D'Annunzio. Only her voracious reading seemed to make her as happy as performing; it's no accident that she was one of the first to insist that an actor must serve the text, not vice versa. She was enormously appealing and charismatic, but she was not very nice. Sheehy is frank about Duse's faults but doesn't waste our time bemoaning them. The author understands that an artist's personal life is interesting primarily for its effect on her art, especially in the case of someone like Duse, who lived to work.

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