Eleonora was an Italian actress born in October, 1858. Born into a family of actors, she began her career at the age of four, and soon became a trailblazer in her craft. Her “style” was different from anything anyone had ever seen. She didn’t just “play” the characters she took on; she became them.
This artist spotlight is based on the book Eleonora Duse: A Biography by Helen Sheehy
What surprised me most about Duse was that despite her fame and despite her remarkable success and bravery in the theatre, she was actually a very unhappy women. She often felt isolated and under appreciated and, from what I gathered in this biography, she seemed to always be grasping for something more. She might have been technically fulfilled artistically, but she wasn’t fulfilled in her “real” life.
Our exterior world is not what makes us happy. The more I read and the more I learn, the more I’m realizing that happiness truly is a choice. Although she (of course) could not have known it while she was alive, this woman has “survived” as one of the greatest actresses of all time, and yet clearly there is more to life than becoming a transcendent immortal memory.
With that said, as I read this biography I felt myself overwhelmed with passion for what I do. She described her art, and was similarly described by others, in a way that made me turn each page with both care and obsession. I wish I could have met this woman. I wish I could have seen her perform.
She is the embodiment of a true artist, and best of all: She was entirely self taught.
“Eleonora schooled herself by reaching out to her audience and adjusting to their response, and by trying out the different effects she called up from her past, from her observations, from her study of the script, and from her imagination. Her musical, slightly nasal voice conveyed subtle nuances of meaning. [She was not] conventionally beautiful, but her facial expressions, responsive to every fleeting thought, were free of convention, and thus beautiful with quivering, spontaneous life.”
Since we cannot actually see her perform, in one section of the book a theatre critic compares Duse’s art to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Before reading on, take a moment to listen to this piece of music. What words immediately come to mind for you?
In the beginning, I hear suspense. I can feel the power that bubbles underneath the surface of the notes. It’s quiet, but in a foreboding sort of way. Someone in the comments below the above video referred to the piece as both chaotic and beautiful. Funny… that’s what life is like isn’t?
Then it gets louder. More intense. You can feel the waves and the climb to the climax. All of which must have existed in her performances. And yet, at the same time, the symphony feels “unobtrusive,” “easy” and “without effort.”
“A gesture of complete appropriateness and divine surprise – the surprise of what is expected and yet beyond and better than all expectations”
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that this, exactly, is what we as artists should be working toward. When done correctly, “great” acting appears to exert no effort at all.
I definitely can’t describe Duse’s theory better than she can. If you are at all interested in the art of the actor, I know that you’ll really appreciate this direct quote from the actress herself. Helen Sheehy (her biographer) thought the following accurately captured the essence of her art:
“I have known Wagner in Venice… and I saw in Wagner what I feel in his music, a touch of something a little conscious in his supremacy. Wagner said to himself: “I will do what I want to do, I will force the world to accept me’; he succeeded, but not in making us forget his intention. The music, after all, never quite abandons itself, is never quite without self-consciousness. It is tremendous sensuality, not the unconsciousness of passion. When Beethoven writes music he forgets both himself and the world, is conscious only of joy, or sorrow, or the mood which had taken him for its voice.”
Above all, what I’ve learned is that believing in yourself is “the” obvious necessary ingredient to producing great art. You have to know, and know with conviction, that what you have to offer has value.
And then of course there’s the value of hard work and curiosity — curiosity about both life and your art. In short: Read!
I started reading biographies of famous Artists in December. Since then I have read about Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, and (of course) Eleonora Duse, and the one thing all three women have in common? They each had voracious appetites for knowledge. They were each interested in philosophy, psychology, and great works of fiction. Lastly, they all spent much of their free time with their nose in a book, soaking up as much knowledge as they could in the time they were with us.
Despite the variation in each of their stories (and the untimely and tragic deaths of two of the three), I am so inspired by each of these women.
Memorable Quotes From Eleonora Duse: A Biography, by Helen Sheehy
*These are some of the quotes from the book which I found to be the most memorable. They are about her art, her presence, and her passion. Enjoy.
“He [Beerborn – a theatre critic] perceived what no other critic had expressed – the sheer force of her will. That will has raised her from the terrible poverty of her childhood to the pinnacle of art and fame. D’Annunzio, who poeticized her will into a myth, understood the tremendous human effort she had made.”
“Without work, without risk, life is nothing.” – Duse
“She sought to evoke the quivering wordlessness of emotions of the body and to express the quickening agitation of thought with no separation between the two, her goal being not to please or capture the audience, but to connect and create with them.”
“What Stanislavsky yearned to replicate in the acting of Duse and Salvini was a “physical freedom, in the lack of all strain. Their bodies were at… the inner demands of their will.”
“Duse was then a magnificent creature, in the full power of life and intelligence” Isadora Duncan recalled. “When she walked along the beach she took long strides, walking unlike any other woman I have ever seen.”
“Critics and other artists marvelled at Duse’s ability to reinvent the character and not repeat herself night after night. “Naturally I have a general picture of the role, but the details change depending upon my mood and the sensations of the day.”
“Theatre critic Elliot Norton, then a student at Harvard, was most impressed by Duse’s silence. “She held you,” he said. She never did anything that was in any way theatrical, but it focused your eyes on her, and it made you think there was something extraordinary in her mind and heart.”
“If some mysterious strength appeared (unsaid) from the depths of me, it was not, then a projection of art, but, something far stronger: passion for life. It was life that I sought, that I wanted” life; it illuminated me and slipped from my hands every evening, every evening, when I thought to grasp something of the secret of life, of the reason of our life, this at least; then art took possession of it (with me as medium) and stole the answer from me – and I remained, afterwards as if emerging from a hallucination, exhausted and alone, and with an irrepressible strength that the next day made me resume my war, and my defeat — !” – Duse
“The greatest joy for an actress isn’t acting on a stage full of light, in front of a theatre full of people that listen in silence, eager to clap and cheer. Do you know what our greatest joy is? When towards evening we arrive all alone at the stage door and go down a long half-lit corridor and climb the stairs to find our companions that wait for us at the rehearsal. There are a few lights on the stage, long, oblique shadows from the wings, the orchestra seats are deserted, the boxes are empty berths. There’s nothing but we artists, poor actors, dressed in everyday clothes, our only companion the poet who has written the work that we must learn. We are just there ourselves, together, without strangers, without intruders and we think only of our work and not of the applause of all these unknown people that other evenings fill the theatre. In these moments, I feel I’m with my family. And sometimes I have the childish illusion that we are hidden there, in the half-light, as if for a conspiracy, a plot, something clandestine and pleasantly dangerous. All the rest is nothing more than noise, chaos, vanity, fatigue and bitterness” – Duse
*If you found Eleonora Duse as fascinating as I did, you’ll enjoy these additional resources which were mentioned in the biography
- This is one of the most famous essays on the art of the actor. Shaw had the great privilege of seeing Duse perform, and this essay is largely about her.
The Mystic in the Theatre: Elenora Duse by Eva LeGallienne
- This is another biography that was written by a close personal friend of Duse’s. She might be biased, but in this book LeGallienne attempts to understand and break down the “secret” behind Duse’s Art.
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