Sunday, April 21, 2013

HOTW: Eleanora Duse

For this weekend's heroine, we're going to take a quick look at Italian actress Eleanora Duse, who died on April 21, 1924, and was known in her time as a great innovator in the theater (and whose style is still very influential!)

Duse was born in Lombary October 3, 1858, and was literally an actor all her life--her father and grandfather had a troupe, and she started appearing regularly onstage from the age of 4.  As she grew older, she toured Europe, South America, the US, and Russia, gathering fame wherever she went as well as reputation for a naturalistic style (which she called "elimination of the self," a disappearing into a role).  She became best-known for her roles in plays by Ibsen and d'Annunzio.

As well as a very busy life onstage, she had a turbulent love life.  After an affair with journalist Martino Cafiero, which ended after a stillborn child followed soon after by Cafiero's own death, she married actor Teobaldo Checchi in 1881 (they had one daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce when Duse fell in love with another actor, Flavio Ando).  After Ando, there was poet (and Verdi librettist) Arrigo Boito.  Around the same time she started her own troupe, which added management responsibility onto her acting and made her already poor health worse.  Her affair with playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio (which was both professional and romantic) ended when he gave the lead role in his new play La Citta more to her great rival Sarah Bernhardt.  (Unlike Bernhardt, who was flamboyant and loved attention, Duse was very private and low-key, both in her life and her acting style.  She said, "If I had my will, I would live in a ship on the sea and never come nearer to humanity than that!"  Among others, Shaw and Chekov preferred Duse).  Later in life she had affairs with women, including Italian suffragist Lina Poletti, and possibly Isadora Duncan)

On a US tour in 1896, Duse was received by President and Mrs. Cleveland (who caused a scandal by inviting a--gasp!--actress to tea at the White House).  She was painted by Sargent, and the first woman on the cover of Time, among other successes.  She retired in 1909 (though she did give a few performances in 1921), and became known as a great mentor to younger performers and writers (including Martha Graham).  She said the meaning of life and art was "To help, to continually help and share, that is the sum of all knowledge; that is the meaning of art."

She suffered from bad health all her life, made worse by constant touring, and died in Pittsburgh on a US tour in 1924.  Her body lay in state for a few days in New York City before being sent back to her home in Asolo, where she was buried in the cemetery of Sant'Anna, which is still a pilgrimage site for theater lovers.

A couple sources on her fascinating life:
William Weaver, Duse: A Biography (1984)
Helen Sheehy, Eleanora Duse: a biography (2003)

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