Eleonora Duse was born into a struggling family of itinerant actors in Vigevano, Italy. When she was 4, she made the first of her many stage appearances with the Duse-Lagunaz Troupe. They would set up in town after town, quickly constructing a little stage at the end of a park, or in one of the many piazzas. Two boards and a passion is all an actor requires.
At age 14, when Eleonora played Juliet at Verona, critics began to take notice. But it wasn't until 1878 in Naples that 20-year-old Eleonora's career took a turn toward stardom. Her performance in the title role of Emile Zola's Thérése Raquin met with both critical and audience acclaim, in agreement that "a woman's anguish had never before been played with such truth."
Becoming a star was easy for the talented young actress, but remaining a star required some strategy. Having recognized that Italian audiences were becoming bored with the old, traditional repertory, Duse borrowed a page from Bernhardt's playbook, and developed a repertoire of plays by contemporary French dramatists. For three years she acted in several plays by Dumas the younger, scoring triumph after triumph. In 1884 she created the title role in the latest Dumas play, Denise, as well as the role of Santuzza in Giovanni Verga's Cavalleria Rusticana.
She successfully toured South America, then returned home to form her own company. With it, she made headlines touring Europe, then finally the U.S., where she triumphed despite the fact that she couldn't (didn't?) speak a word of English. All her performances were in Italian, yet Americans flocked to them.
In 1894, she embarked on a long and tempestuous love affair with the young poet, Gabriele D'Annunzio. In his novel, Il Fuoco (The Flame of Life), published in 1900, he tells the story of their love. Duse acted in two of his dramas — La Gioconda in 1898 and Francesca da Rimini in 1902.
It has been said that Duse was capable of subtle and controlled gestures — a "method actress" before "the method" was ever defined — and was able to blush and turn pale at will. She was described as "restrained," an actress "who lived her roles." She became the character she was playing. Quite the opposite of Bernhardt, who molded the character into her own personality.
For reasons of ill health, Duse retired from the stage in 1909, but financial losses incurred during WW1 forced her to return to work in 1921. Her talents were undiminished, but poor health intervened, causing some gaps in her schedule. She appeared in London and Vienna, then embarked on an American tour, which ended in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when she collapsed on stage and died. Her body was returned to Italy where, according to her wishes, she was buried in the small cemetery of Azolo.
NOTE: If you want to read more about this great tragedienne, I urge you to repair to your public library and check out "Eleonora Duse • A Biography" by Helen Sheehy, published in 2003. Of course, if you wish to remain where you are, surf on over to Amazon. They'll sell you a copy.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/