October 3, 1858 – Eleonora Duse:
“The weaker partner in a marriage is the one who loves the most.”
Eleonora Duse was one of the greatest actors of her era, or any era. She was famous for her work in the plays of William Shakespeare and for playing the great female roles of 19th century French drama, and especially, for introducing the new plays of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov to audiences. She was also well known for her tempestuous love affairs with both guys and dolls.
Duse was rather cryptic regarding her acting style. She claimed not to have a technique of any sort and scorned efforts to put her art into a science. What is known is that she had an almost religious approach to acting, seeking to “eliminate the self” and become the characters she portrayed. From accounts that I have read, her acting was not intuitive or spontaneous; she labored over her craft. Unusual for the period, she wore little make-up. She allowed her compulsions, grief and joys of her characters to use her body as their medium for expression, to the detriment of her health.
Duse was noted for her assistance to young actors during the early stages of their careers. She served as an inspiration to modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and the great stage star Eva Le Gallienne.
Duse was born allegedly in the third-class carriage of a train, near Vigevano, Italy. Her parents were part of a traveling troupe of players. She made her stage debut with them at four-years-old in one of the first stage adaptations of Les Miserbles.
Her childhood was filled with poverty and constant travel. Her mother died when Duse was only 13-years-old, and she took over her mother’s roles in the company, portraying characters way too mature for her age. Her first big success was at a theatre in Verona in 1873, where she was acclaimed for her performance in Romeo And Juliet, playing someone closer to her real age.
In 1886, Duse formed her own company. She had built up a varied repertoire including plays by Ibsen, Émile Zola, Shakespeare, Harry Euripides, Luigi Pirandello and Maxim Gorky. But, no playwright was more important to her than Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose plays she promoted, personally paid for and produced.
After meeting in 1895, d’Annunzio and Duse became lovers. The relationship, interrupted by Duse’s tours through Europe and the USA, remained frenzied and fervent. For the first decade of the 20th century, Duse rented a villa in Florence, her first real home. For a brief period, her life with d’Annunzio was productive and peaceful, yet passionate.
The couple’s closest collaboration was marred by betrayals and jealousies. D’Annunzio gave the lead role in La Citta Morta, which he had written for Duse, to her biggest rival, Sarah Bernhardt, with whom he had a series of dalliances. D’Annunzio’s manager had to stop Duse from burning down Bernhardt’s house.
Duse had many tempestuous affairs with other women also. In 1909, she began a relationship with a rebellious young Italian feminist who dressed as a man, Lina Poletti. This affair was intense, romantic and physical.
Duse also had a thing with the modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. She spent several weeks with Duncan at the seaside resort Viareggio in 1913, shortly after the famous dancer’s two children had drowned in a tragic accident.
Duse’s many love affairs with women included young actors in her company, plus the popular opera singer Yvette Guilbertm and with her costume designer Jean Worth, who was utterly devoted to her.
Duse held the Roman Catholic Church in high regard and expressed concern, if not exactly guilt, about how her life as an actor and her many love affairs.
She was plagued by illness and was sometimes ordered by her doctors to give up her career. In 1921, she embarked on a tour of major European cities to great acclaim, always accompanied by an oxygen tank.
In 1923, Duse took on a final American tour of 20 cities, after which she planned to retire to the Italian countryside. Her health was on the wane, but she refused to abandon the American engagements.
In the spring of 1924, near the end of the tour, Duse performed in Pittsburgh at the Syrian Mosque. While her performance was said to be stunning, Duse collapsed while taking her curtain calls. She developed a fever and she fell into a coma on Good Friday. On Easter morning she asked to see her actors. The next day she took that great final bow.
Visited by more than 10,00 fans, Duse’s body lay in state for six days in Pittsburgh and then was brought to NYC, where her hearse led a funeral procession directly to the pier of the Italian luxury liner Duilo, which returned her body to her beloved Italy. She is buried in the cemetery at Asolo.
Duse left this world as she entered it, on the road. Her acting left an indelible mark in the world of theater. She was noted for promoting a modern style of acting that brought subtlety and restraint on the stage, avoiding the overly theatrical and artificial. She was famous all over the world and she is still considered one of the greatest actors of all time.
What current, dark haired, dark eyed beauty with acting chops could portray Duse in a film treatment if her life? I am leaning towards Penelope Cruz with Baz Luhrmann directing and Nicole Kidman as Isadora Duncan and Javier Bardem as d’Annunzio. In fact, let’s go ahead and make it a musical.