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Eleonora Duse: A Biography (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe – 19. August 2003


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Helen Sheehy is the author of Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography; Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones; and All About Theatre. She lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

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Chapter 1

Who calls? I am here. What is your will?" Repeating the lines of Shakespeare's Juliet, Eleonora Giulia Amalia Duse walked through the Palio gates into Verona on a Sunday in May 1873. She was fourteen. Slender and small-waisted, she moved with easy strides, using her whole body as one accustomed to walking great distances. Her long dark hair was shot through with bronze strands highlighted by the sun. In repose, her striking features-large, heavy-lidded black eyes, high, broad cheekbones over a square jaw, a patrician nose, and generous mouth-suggested the purity of classic sculpture.

Already a stage veteran of ten years, Eleonora was the leading lady in her family's troupe, a struggling, itinerant theatre company engaged to perform Romeo and Juliet that afternoon in Verona's ancient arena. As she walked, Eleonora rehearsed her lines that she had copied into a notebook. "I was choked with anxiety," she recalled.

Juliet, she imagined, had walked these same streets of swirling gray stones, looked up at the same red-roofed buildings, visited the same palazzi of local pink limestone, rosso di Verona. Perhaps Juliet had crossed the Scaligero bridge by the old castle and gazed into the depths of the Adige, which wound like a ribbon through the city. The sun bathed everything in glowing light, but at each street corner Eleonora expected to see a sombre funeral procession and Juliet's iron coffin.

In the Piazza Erbe, which had served as a market for almost two thousand years, Eleonora made her way through the stands shaded by white umbrellas. She stopped by the splashing Roman fountain with its statue of a woman

representing Verona. Using all of her money, she bought pale pink roses. They would serve as a prop for Juliet-an idea suggested by her parents' first meeting, a family story her father, Alessandro Duse, had recorded in his diary. One day, walking along a street, he had felt flowers and leaves rain down upon him. He had looked up and into the eyes of a dark-haired girl tending her window box. Day after day, he followed the same path until he found the courage to walk up the stairs to her balcony. Finally, he did speak to her, and they married. Eleonora's mother's name was Angelica Cappelletto, which sounded hauntingly similar to Capulet.

From the Piazza Erbe to the arena was a short ten-minute walk. Finished by the Romans in the first century a.d., the arena could hold 25,000 people, almost half the population of Verona, in unbroken stone tiers of rosso di Verona. Throughout the centuries, the vast stone oval had hosted gladiator fights, mock sea battles, bullfights, fairs, equestrian performances, and grand opera. Small theatre companies like the Duse-Lagunaz troupe set up their wooden stage-their two planks and a passion-at one end of the arena, roped off a section of the seats, and charged only a few pennies for the late-afternoon performances.

Entering into the sunlit arena from the shadowy, underground corridors, Eleonora looked up at the tall grasses that grew from the crumbling parapet. A breeze stirred, and she felt her energy rise. Intoxicated by the fever of her imagination, the clear light, the dark blue sky, and the scent of the rose bouquet she carried, "the words flowed with strange ease, almost spontaneously," she remembered, "and I could hear them through the constant drumming of my heartbeat."

During the performance that day, when Juliet first met Romeo at the

ball, Eleonora allowed one of her roses to drop at his feet. Later, from her balcony, she plucked the petals one by one from a rose, as if she were laying bare her heart, and they floated down to him. As the tragedy neared its end, the sun began to set, turning the top stone tier a fiery red. Under a "sky white as pearl," Eleonora heard the bells of the churches of Verona and "that almost sea-sound which quieted when I appeared." Mingling love with death, she covered Romeo, who lay in the tomb, with the last of her roses, and they wilted in the heat. When she stabbed herself with Romeo's dagger and fell upon his body, "the crowd let out such a great roar that I was terrified."

Struck by the coincidence of playing a girl of her same age in Juliet's own city, and acting as Juliet herself might have acted, Eleonora believed she was the reincarnation of Shakespeare's character. Before she spoke, every word seemed "to go right through the heat of my blood. There was not a fibre in me that did not contribute to the harmony. Oh, grace, it was a state of grace!"

In this state of boundless grace, she felt an "indescribable sense of abandonment." "Someone lifted me up," she recalled. "They held the torch close to my tear-stained face; it was crackling very loudly, it smelled of resin and was red and black with flames and smoke."

"I was Juliet," she explained. "I must have looked like death itself."

In becoming Juliet, Eleonora Duse found herself. The feeling that surged through her, undoing the boundaries of her personality and uniting her in communion with the audience, was terrifying, uncanny, and as ancient as Dionysus, the god of the theatre, who embodies two opposing principles, the "ecstasy of power over others and the ecstasy of self-surrender." For the rest of her life, because she became most herself when acting other selves, she would seek this state of profound grace and ecstatic abandonment. "Art, like love," she said, "is insatiable."

Guided, she said, by a secret voice, a voice she called an "echo of the pain of the world," Duse aimed for a "transformation of life." Her grandfather Luigi Duse had taken off the traditional commedia dell'arte mask to reveal his human face. Eleonora Duse freed herself from the superficial mask of stage makeup and then she stripped away another mask. She opened her soul and revealed a woman as a human being. Her singular journey revolutionized the theatre and our understanding of what it means to be human. Duse's art embodied the past, the exact present, and the future. She was the first modern actor.

Speaking in Italian in theatres around the world, Duse was understood. Audiences, critics, and especially other artists were moved and responded to her art with acclamations and an outpouring of tributes at times so extreme as to be worthy of a deity. Critics scoured their vocabularies for words to describe her acting and yet words seemed inadequate. How could they describe what they had never seen before?

In the characters she portrayed-and she acted women only-Duse expanded the very idea of Woman. With sprezzatura, a seemingly effortless grace, she revealed the immense gap between accepted ideas of woman and what a woman really was. Once, she was told that in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, she was acting the drama of the female spirit. "No!" she replied, "the drama of everyone." Because she believed that language, the very words themselves, were ambiguous, cloudy, and contradictory, she ransacked her scripts, digging beneath the lines of her characters not to reveal certainty, but to portray what she called the invisible side of life. Duse's humanistic art

and her revolutionary approach to language anticipated the complexity, fluidity, and impermanence of the modern world. In Duse's acting, as in her personality, there was nothing fixed, no national boundaries, no boundaries at all-there was only a human being, alive, ever changing, and ultimately tragic.

The world of the theatre, an active, ephemeral world that moves from light into darkness, is a metaphor for life-and death-itself. Duse understood this. After seeing her work, Konstantin Stanislavsky sought to codify her art. Duse rejected theories of art and...

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An Interesting and Enlightening Biography 25. August 2003
Von Bookreporter - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Sarah Bernhardt achieved international celebrity at a time when acting was primarily a pictorial art, and she clung to that style long after it had come to be regarded as old-fashioned, in the latter part of the 1800s. Even after the turn of the century, playing Phèdre in London, she employed a meticulously choreographed series of poses, sometimes remaining motionless for as long as thirty seconds before she glided into the next position. Edmond Rostand called her "the queen of posture," and Helen Sheehy --- apparently no great admirer of Bernhardt --- adds with a straight face that her specialty was death. Bernhardt's name nevertheless appears frequently in Sheehy's biography of Eleonora Duse. Sheehy's examination of how Duse differed from Bernhardt, who in most ways exemplified everything that was believed to be desirable in an actor, makes her contributions and innovations more easily appreciated, particularly for readers with little or no knowledge of the theater.
Duse (doo-ZAY) had learned the fundamentals of acting as a member of her family's troupe, a struggling, itinerant theater company that depended on each day's small income to pay for the day's bread and a bed for the night. While still quite young she had exhibited a strong empathetic imagination, among other "magic gifts" spoken of by her mother. Her unusual empathy first manifested itself in her sensing life in inanimate objects such as chairs and other household items, which she would talk to for hours at a time, asking for no reply.
When she was 14, with a decade of acting experience behind her, Duse found herself in Verona playing Juliet, a girl her own age, and she experienced an uncanny sensation of actually becoming the incarnation of Shakespeare's character. Later she would speak of the harmony she felt that day and of a state of grace through which she was united in communion with the audience. Sheehy associates this event with the Dionysian concept of acquiring power over others through surrender of the self. For the rest of her life, Sheehy says, guided by "a secret voice" that she said was "an echo of the pain of the world," Duse would seek and find this state of grace and self-abandonment.
Duse harbored a profound mistrust of language and probed deeply beneath the lines of her characters to discover --- and to portray --- what she called the invisible side of life. While Bernhardt was always Bernhardt, Duse disappeared within her characters, and although she always spoke her lines in Italian, she communicated their thoughts and feelings in ways so surpassingly subtle and yet so clear that her audiences seemed always to understand --- without understanding why.
Duse wore no jewelry and her costumes were always simple and austere, much alike in color and line from role to role. Nor did she wear makeup, which in her view amounted to a mask. As it was, responding naturally to incidents affecting the character she played, she startled audiences by suddenly becoming deathly pale or blushing brightly, according to circumstances.
It was seeing Duse onstage that inspired the great Russian director and teacher Stanislavsky to establish the famed Moscow Art Theatre, and to his students he always said her acting represented the ideal toward which they should strive. At a time when Stanislavsky was working to "codify" Duse's art, to identify a method by which to "reproduce" a character night after night, Duse was achieving something far greater, Sheehy says. She was creating a new woman, a new human being, in performance after performance. In this sense, she never repeated herself and never needed or wanted to reproduce what she had accomplished earlier.
Duse refused to portray women as they were conventionally represented on the stage. She wanted to reveal to audiences "the immense gap between accepted ideas of woman and what a woman really was." Among the plays in which she found this opportunity were La Dame aux camélias and Le Demi-Monde, by Alexandre Dumas fils, who felt deep sympathy, as Duse did, for unmarried mothers and illegitimate children and who championed divorce and paternity laws. Plays of Henrik Ibsen, such as A Doll's House, naturally became part of her repertory, and so did works by the poet and novelist Gabriele d'Annunzio, with whom she was for a time romantically involved.
Mention of Duse's relationship with d'Annunzio suggests another point that ought to be made --- that this biography, unlike many biographies, is essentially a very good story, a story that Sheehy allows to unfold naturally, without unnecessary intrusions. Her analysis is everywhere clear and concise, as it is always interesting and enlightening, the product of wide and thoughtful reading.
Though Sheehy, unlike Duse, is necessarily limited to words, she has produced a biography that enables readers to come as close as one could reasonably expect to both the visible and the invisible worlds of an actress who may have been simply the best.
--- Reviewed by Harold V. Cordry
4 von 5 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Insightful, artful biography of the mother of modern acting 8. September 2003
Von Andrew F. Saxe - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
As the New York Times has called this an "exemplary biography", there seems little reason to add a review by the average reader. However, you do not need to be an expert in theatre history to find this book a great read.
I had never heard of Duse before Sheehy's work, yet the author makes a convincing argument why the Italian actress is one of the founders of modern acting - a woman who presented a powerful, natural style of acting that George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chapin, and John Barrymore found overwhelming to behold. Duse created a compelling counterpoint to the highly stylized form perfected by Sarah Bernhardt and she presented a standard of a new acting for all performers in the twentieth century to emulate. Today, we are unaware as we watch film or television, that we are watching Duse's heirs.
Sheehy goes beyond her central thesis of Duse's acting career to describe a very flawed woman. Sheehy enumerates Duse's poor choices in lovers, her neglect of her daughter because of the girl's physical resemblance to Duse's discarded husband, her indulgence in self-pity and hypochondria, and her manipulative use of society friends for favors and loans. Sheehy does not shy away from her hero's defects, but neither does she wallow in them.
This book is of obvious value to people of the theatre or with special interest in Italian culture. For the general reader, it is an artful biography of a compelling and important cultural figure.
5 von 7 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
The Mother of Modern Acting 22. September 2003
Von louienapoli - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Lee Strasberg, Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and dozens if not hundreds of others who had the privilege of seeing Duse on stage describe it as if they saw a saint, someone supernatural in her ability to convey thought, feeling, emotion, subtext and that extra something that's finally indescribable. The name Duse has been synonymous with the highest possible attainment in acting, even though she is little known outside the theater. Helen Sheehy has written a detailed, even scholarly biography that stands head and shoulders over the other previous bio in English, by William Weaver. Sheehy succeeds, as far as one can, at analyzing and dissecting otherworldly Genius. But the excellence of Sheehy's book also makes it an unbearable tease. Duse was a stage actress. No traces of her greatness remain, save one thirty minute film that is maddeningly difficult to obtain; for some reason, showings of the film are as rare as UFO sightings. In my mind the film has attained the status of a relic. And I've yet to see it. Frustration aside, Sheehy does much to unveil the very private views of her subject on art and life. I certainly wouldn't recommend this bio to anyone with only a casual interest in acting or theater; however, for anyone with a substantial interest in dramatic art, this bio is simply a must.
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An amazing life 16. Oktober 2013
Von rosemary oconnell - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
This amazing woman and her life with so many amazing peolple. Especially interested in Boito as one Verdis Librettists
and her relationship with him. What a gal
1 von 1 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Five Stars 3. Juli 2014
Von Shawn McAllister - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
Exactly as described.
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