Saturday, October 02, 2010

Heroine of the Weekend

Saturday already, and I'm wrapping up the WIP to send in Monday, and getting ready to take my dog Victoria to Pugfest (a fundraiser for Pug Recsue) later today, but first it's time for this weekend's Heroine. We'll take a look at Italian actress Eleonora Duse, born on October 3, 1858.

Duse (as she was often known) was born in Lombardy to an acting family, and she joined the family business at the age of 4. They were poor and she was forced to work pretty much continually, traveling from city to city. As she grew up she became well-known for her emotional style and gained more and more fans, until her fame spread and she embarked on very successeful tours of the United States and South America as well as Russia and all of Europe. In a time where most actors used stiff mannerisms and stereotypical expressions, she was famous for her technique of "elimination of self," a sort of Method acting she used to connect emotionally with her characters. In private, she was reserved and introverted, rarely giving interviews (unlike her rival Sarah Bernhardt, who never said no to publicity!). But she was generally considered a genius of the theater, and later became the best-known interpreter of the works of Ibsen.

As well as for her talent and elegant style, she was well-known for her series of romantic affairs. In 1879 she met the journalist Mattino Cafiero in Naples, but he left her less than a year later when she was pregnant with their child. The child and Cafiero both soon died, and Duse then joined a new theater company and met handsome actor Teobaldo Checchi, whom she married in 1881. They had a daughter, Enrichetta, but divorced in 1885. By this time her star was on the rise, and she went off on tour to South America and formed her own company. Affairs followed with Arrigo Boito, a poet best known as Verdi's librettist (they remained friends until his death many years later), and playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio, a man 5 years her junior who wrote 4 popular plays for her. Their affair ended when he dared give Bernhardt the lead in his new play La Citta morta. In 1909 she embarked on an affair with a woman, Lina Poletti, and was rumored to be involved with Isadora Duncan.

In 1896 Duse became the first actress to attend a tea in her honor at the White House on her US tour (President and Mrs. Cleveland attended every Washington performance). Everywhere she went she was applauded and lauded. It was said "...she allowed the inner compulsions, grief and joys of her characters to use her body as their medium for expression, often to the detriment of her health." She retired from acting around 1909, but still mentored many young actresses and artists, including Emma Gramatica, Yvette Guilbert, Martha Graham, and poet Amy Lowell. She suffered from ill health most of her adult life, but continued her grueling schedules of touring and work.

In 1916 she made a short film, Cenere ("Ashes"), and corresponded with DW Griffith about working together, though nothing came of it. In July 1923 she was the first woman to be on the cover of Time magazine. She died April 21, 1924 in Pittsburgh while on a tour with her company of the US. She lay in state in New York for 4 days before being sent back to Italy, where she is buried in the cemetery of Sant' Anna in Asolo.

Some sources:
William Weaver, Duse: A Biography
Helen Sheehy, Eleonora Duse: A Biography

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