Biography of Italian Actress Eleonora Duse Part 1

About the famous Italian actress Eleonora Duse considered to be one of the greatest performers of all-time.


ELEONORA DUSE (1859-1924)

Many who saw her perform considered Eleonora Duse (pronounced doo'za) the greatest actress of her time-perhaps of all time. Although Victor Hugo admiringly called her "Duse the God," to most theatergoers she was simply "Duse." This Italian actress shunned makeup and traditional acting technique for more naturalistic theater. "I make up my soul, not my face," she said. Performing only in Italian, Duse transcended language barriers to win international acclaim. Such was her art that critics reported they could see a character's thoughts flash through her mind. If the character felt embarrassed, Duse blushed. If the character experienced fear or horror, Duse visibly paled. Moreover, she was said to possess a seemingly magical ability to compel such ordinary objects as chains, flowers, and shawls to perform for her. In La Dame aux Camelias, for example, a rose bloomed as Duse's Marguerite felt hope, then withered in her hand as that hope turned to despair.

Born into a family of traveling actors, Duse played her first role at age four but demonstrated little real ability until she reached fourteen. Then, cast as the 14-year-old heroine of Romeo and Juliet in the fictional Juliet's own Verona, Duse seemed actually to become that star-crossed young lover. With this first glimmering of stardom, she found herself completely alone. Her long-ill mother died while Duse was performing, and her father left soon after to pursue a belated career in art.

This pattern of triumph on stage and unhappiness off dogged the actress throughout her life. In 1878, Duse won impressive critical praise in the title role of Zola's Therese Raquin. But an ill-fated romance with aristocrat Martino Cafiero that year left her pregnant, unmarried, and unhappy. Their illegitimate son lived only one week. In the 1880's she was hailed as a prodigious talent in Italy, Russia, Austria, and Germany, but her marriage to character actor Tebaldo Checchi fell apart when she became infatuated with Flavio Ando, her leading man.

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