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Theatrical Lives : A New Biography of Eleonora Duse

By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 28 January 2004—Helen Sheehy's contribution to the ever-growing industry that is the life of Eleonora Duse may not be ground-breaking but does furnish us with a well-told tale, one that draws on several previously unknown sources including a 35-page memoir by the subject herself. Unfortunately, we are not given any major insight into Duse's art as the performer never discussed or described her work. The facts of her life remain nonetheless the basis for a fascinating story.

That she was the model for two such different Russian theatrical schools as those of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, that many theatrical figures of the early 20th century were sucked into the maelstrom, that she crossed the paths of such eminent personalities as Gabriele d'Annunzio (her long-time lover), Arrigo Boïto, Isadora Duncan, Edward Gordon Craig, Rainer Maria Rilke, her great rival Sarah Bernhardt—all this is indisputable.

While Bernhardt was one of the last of the old declamatory school, Duse lived her characters. Those plays in which they acted the same roles, La Dame aux Camellias or La Citta Morte, for example, made it clear that Bernhardt was looking back to another era while Duse looked forward.

One of the tragedies is that Italy lacked the political and artistic impetus to create a national theater for her (and d'Annunzio). D'Annunzio is the other major character in this story, a seemingly detestable creature though Sheehy contends that he was not a tool of Mussolini as is commonly thought. Nor did he push her out of La figlia di Iorio as many have stated—in fact he needed her box office appeal—but Duse herself knew that she was too old for the role.

Sheehy's recounting of Isadora Duncan translating for Craig and Duse is amusing, though like the actress's cinematic career, it was a one-off experience. Duse returned to the United States for a final tour in 1923 at the age of 65, exhausted, dying in Pittsburgh.

Duse does not come across as particularly sympathetic, though she was able to attract the support, both financial and emotional, of a wide range of personalities, most of whom seemed more than content to serve her needs. The way in which she treated her daughter Enrichetta is emblematic—every encounter finds Duse ill. The affection she lavished on others, however intermittent, became dutiful (in)attention where Enrichetta was concerned.

Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse
A Biography
by Helen Sheehy
Hardcover: 400 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, August 2003
ISBN: 0-375-40017-6

Joel Kasow is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of


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