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...