Duse, Eleonora (1858–1924)

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Duse, Eleonora (1858–1924)

First international stage actress and the most charismatic and honored actress of her time who was renowned for the subtlety, depth, and psychological insights of her stage portrayals. Born Eleonora Giulia Amalia Duse on October 3, 1858, in the town of Vigevano, Italy; died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 1924; daughter of Alessandro Duse (an actor) and Angelica Cappelletto Duse; married Teobaldo Marchetti Checchi, in 1881 (estranged after 1885); children: (with Martino Cafiero) a son who died within a week of his birth; (with husband) daughter Enrichetta Checchi (b. 1882).

Appeared on stage at age four in a production of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862); joined the company of Cesare Rossi (1879); triumphed in a production of Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1879); became prima donna in the Rossi company (1881); attended performances of Sarah Bernhardt in Italy (1882); became estranged from husband during tour of South America (1885); formed her own company (1886); first performed Heinrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1891); made successful theatrical tours in Russia, Vienna, and Berlin (1891-92); met Gabriele D'Annunzio (1894); performed in U.S. (1893, 1896, 1902); performed in London, including a command performance for Queen Victoria (1895); performed in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1898); triumphed in her own production of D'Annunzio's Francesca da Rimini (1904); retired from the stage (1909); made silent film Cenere (1916); resumed acting (1921); performed in London and U.S. (1923).

To many in Europe and the United States, the Italian actress Eleonora Duse was "the incomparable Duse," a stage artist of unsurpassed dramatic power. As the first international stage actress, she gave performances which drew plaudits from George Bernard Shaw, invitations to a reception at the White House, and a command performance at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria . Her triumphant tours of European capitals and the United States drew raves from critics and audience members alike. "She was a revelation of dramatic art to me," wrote one member of her audience. "She was unique—the juggler of human emotions." "The reason why Duse in the greatest actress in the world," responded another critic, "is that she has a more subtle nature than any other actress…. No play has ever been profound enough … for this actress to say everything she has to say in it."

Eleonora Duse was born into the world of the theater. Her family traveled constantly in Italy, for a time as part of a theatrical troupe owned by the Duse family. Her father Alessandro Duse was enthralled with acting, although not highly successful at it. Her mother Angelica Cappelletto Duse , who was less enthusiastic, performed female roles when needed by the family's traveling theatrical company; stricken with tuberculosis, she often could not perform at all. It was not unusual for the family to leave Duse's mother behind, resting in a hospital or guest house, when the troupe moved on to another Italian town. There is speculation that the "weak lungs" which afflicted Duse throughout her life were the result of the same disease that eventually killed her mother.

Although some of Duse's biographers perpetuated the romantic myth that she was actually born in a train approaching that small Italian town of Vigevano, there was no train line to Vigevano at the time; Vigevano itself is accepted as the town of her birth. Her childhood was lonely and terror filled. An only child, she was able to attend school only when the family remained in the same place for any period of time. Wherever she went to school, she noticed that she was treated by the other children as an outsider. Sensitive and quiet, she also suffered in the constant turmoil of the acting world—the rivalries, the tantrums, and the continual financial uncertainties of the family. Some biographers believe that such a childhood made Duse "introspective" and contributed to her remarkable talent as an actress to convey inner turmoil by subtle gestures or tones of voice.

Duse saw her childhood slightly differently, believing that it caused strong emotions that she kept in check as a child but revealed as an adult in her stage art. "The outlines of my art," she wrote, "developed themselves in that condition of anguish and weariness, of fever and repugnance, in which my sensibility became a manner almost plastic, like the incandescent material we saw glass workers holding at the end of their tubes…. On certain evenings, on a wall covered with copper saucepans, I could see myself as in a mirror, in an attitude of pain and rage, with a face I could not recognize."

Duse's first appearance on stage came at age four, when she played Cosette in a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Some of the theatrical companies her family worked for were very respectable; some were distinctly second rate. She was only 14 when she was handed a telegram as she came offstage during a performance. It contained the news that her mother had died in another town, where she had been left by the family because she was too ill to travel.

From 1884 to 1924 the name [Duse] stood for the most potent magic of which the theater is capable. To those her saw her—and thank God, I am old enough to be one of them—that magic still remains undiminished and unsurpassed…. I saw the stage take on an added dimension. I felt the vast audience grow still and sit as though mesmerized in the presence of a frail, worn woman…. I saw "the impossible" come true.

—Eva Le Gallienne

Father and daughter continued to act in a variety of companies. When Duse was 21, the theatrical entrepreneur Giovanni Emanuel saw her perform and hired her as part of his troupe for the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples. She became the second female lead, subordinate to the actress Giacinta Pezzana , who was noted for her diction and beautiful voice. Far from resenting Duse, Pezzana proved to be a generous mentor; Duse scored her first success in 1879 in Naples, playing opposite Pezzana in Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin.

That same year, the entrepreneur Cesare Rossi, who favored more natural styles of acting than the "heroic" or flamboyant styles popular at the time, hired Pezzana and Duse for his company in Turin. When Pezzana left the company in 1881, Duse became "prima donna." She began to acquire more confidence in her acting and made a success of the younger Alexandre Dumas' The Princess of Baghdad, which had been one of Pezzana's failures. Duse came to enjoy some of her roles, writing of her performance in Romeo and Juliet, "Words slipped from me with strange ease, almost involuntarily in delirium. When I fell lifeless on the body of Romeo, the howl of the crowd … was so violent that I was frightened."

She also began an affair with an audience regular, the newspaper editor Martino Cafiero. At 38 years of age, Cafiero was more than 15 years her senior, but he was able to introduce her into the fashionable world of Naples, including yachting clubs and museums. The affair ended when Duse told Cafiero that she was pregnant, and he left her. The child, a boy, died only a week after his birth. In 1881, Duse agreed to marry an actor in the Rossi troupe, Teobaldo Checchi, who declared that he desired to give Duse respectability and to protect her from Rossi, who had a predatory reputation toward the women in his troupe. A daughter, Enrichetta, who was born in 1882, was often left in the care of an older couple when Duse went on tour.

Duse and her husband became permanently estranged during a theatrical tour of South America in 1885, when she began a shipboard romance with her leading man, Flavio Ando. By some accounts, Checchi discovered Duse and Ando together in Ando's stateroom. The affair did not last long—Duse commented that Ando "was pretty, but dumb"—but Duse told her husband she did not need his money. Divorce was impossible for them, but, when Duse returned to Italy, Checchi remained behind in South America.

The incident evoked negative publicity for Duse in Italy and may have contributed to the tendency of the Italian theatergoers to be cooler to her talents than audiences throughout the rest of Europe. Newspapers charged that she had abandoned her husband; Checchi complained that he was impoverished and "banished from the land of my birth." Duse worked to see that her daughter retained a relationship with her father, however, and when Checchi became Argentine counsel in England, Enrichetta was sent there for periodic visits.

Even before Duse announced in 1886 that she would form her own company, she had begun to develop a distinctive style of acting. A significant influence on her was Arrigo Boito, a composer and poet with whom she had her most long-lasting and professionally rewarding relationship. When they met, she was 25 and he was 40. Boito knew the world of the theater better than Duse, and he was a friend of luminaries such as Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Verdi (for whom he was a librettist). He wrote her often, encouraging her to persevere despite her frequent bouts of ill-health and depression.

In addition to promoting "naturalness" in acting, Boito also encouraged Duse to view the theater in terms of achieving lofty ideals, of perfecting oneself, and of "cultivating the spirit." Encouraged by Boito to read a wide range of literature, she also began an intense study of foreign languages (although, throughout her career, she would perform only in Italian). In 1888, she appeared as Cleopatra (VII) in his translation (done specifically for Duse) of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Even after the Duse-Boito relationship cooled, they kept in contact, and she was devastated by his death in 1918.

Another influence on Duse was the appearance in Italy in 1882 of the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt . Declaring that Bernhardt's performances were "an emancipation," Duse began to show more confidence in her acting and abandoned many of the standard Italian plays of the day, which were essentially dramatized novels or opera librettos transformed into plays. She incorporated into her repertoire works by the major French playwrights, such as the older and younger Alexandre Dumas and Victorien Scribe. By adopting plays which were a large part of Bernhardt's repertoire (which Duse used in Italian translations), Duse was virtually inviting comparisons between her acting ability and that of Bernhardt, particularly since she usually opened her theatrical tours with a performance as Marguerite Gautier (Alphonsine Plessis ) in The Lady of Camelias, which was a Bernhardt standard.

Critics began to compare Duse's style of acting, which was subtle and often emphasized the psychological nuances of the characters she played, with the performances of Bernhardt, who often let her own personality show through whatever roles she played. When Duse performed in Paris in 1897, Bernhardt graciously made her own theater available, but on opening night, when Duse seemed excessively nervous, Bernhardt drew most of the attention by receiving a constant stream of visitors to her box in the theater. Although the two also performed (in separate portions of plays) at a joint benefit,

they did not become confidants or even friends. In fact, in her memoirs, Bernhardt wrote of Duse, "Eleonora Duse is an actress more than an artist…. [S]he walks in paths that have been traced out by others…. [S]he is a great actress, but she is not an artist."

Duse's tour of Russia in 1891 was the beginning of her career as a celebrated international star; between 1892 and 1902, she gave more than 100 performances in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Russia, and made three trips to the United States. Her finely nuanced performances or "quiet acting," which was initially less impressive than other acting styles, began to have an impact. Her performance of The Lady of the Camelias in Vienna was hailed as a major triumph over Bernhardt. One member of her audience in Russia noted that at the beginning of a play, Duse seemed "insignificant and the voice nothing special" but that by the third act, much of the audience was "sobbing."

Duse spoke in an ordinary, everyday voice most of the time on stage. Though her stage voice was seldom described as beautiful, she used it to project subtle changes in her character's emotion. "Her voice was not an actor's voice," wrote one member of her audience. "Like everything else about Duse it was natural; not the pseudo-naturalness acquired in a classroom or studio, but true naturalness." "Her acting is entirely quiet acting," added another critic. "She does not roar or shout, nor does she throw herself up and down the stage, like a demented steamroller."

One writer was impressed that "the outline of the motionless face is remarkably mobile, capable of endless nuance." "Here was a young woman," wrote still another critic, "who could grip your heart night after night in the theater and crumple it like a handkerchief." She had an ability both to cry and to blush at will; audiences marveled at seeing a slight pink color appear on her face, darken, and then spread across her face and neck (an effect which was quite obvious to most in the audience, since Duse generally wore little, or no, stage makeup).

"There were," wrote one member of her audience, "periods in the play in which she enabled us to dispense with language. It was not necessary for us to understand what she was saying, because we understood what she was feeling. The greatest feat which an actor can perform is to take the audience beyond the barriers of speech." Still another insisted that "she is absolutely unrivalled at playing hysterical and nervous parts. I have never seen anything like her on stage, with the exception of Sada Jacco , the Japanese actress." "Across her face flit the 'agonies' … of the modern, anaemic, overwrought woman," commented one of her admirers. "She excels in the delineation of listless, nervous, hysterical half-mad souls."

Seeking to expand beyond the available French and Italian repertoire, Duse found that she had a special affinity for the women portrayed in the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She incorporated translations of Ibsen's plays into her work, including productions of A Doll's House in 1891 and Hedda Gabler in 1905. It was said that her acting of Ibsen's heroines implied that she was always holding something in reserve, that she understood personality quirks that the characters in his plays chose not to reveal.

Such achievements did not come easily, as became clear when the diary of a young actor in her troupe was published. It portrayed a demanding, irritable Duse—the diary generally referred to her as "Madame"—who was ever fearful that things would go wrong onstage and was often nervous and imperious in dealing with others in her troupe. The actress Eva Le Gallienne called her a mystic driven by a desire for perfection, but she added that this observation did not mean that Duse was an exemplary woman. "Many people thought of her—with good reason, as intolerant, spoiled, and selfish," she wrote. "To me she was not only the greatest actress I have ever seen but a rare, generous, and extraordinary human being."

Duse's generosity became legendary. Asked what her fee would be to perform in a benefit, she asked about the pay that would be given to a child actor with a very minor role. Then she requested the same amount: 10 francs. When the famous dancer Isadora Duncan lost both of her children in a drowning accident, Duse sought her out to try to comfort her during Duncan's visit to Italy in 1913. And Duse could be courageous. She was the first to perform Ibsen's plays in Italy and dared to perform Ernst Renan's L'Abesse du Juarre, which concerned an abbess who, when condemned to death, decides to give herself to her childhood sweetheart shortly before her scheduled execution.

From 1894 to 1904, Duse maintained an intense professional and personal relationship with the poet and dramatist Gabriele D'Annunzio. Accounts of their first meeting differ, the most dramatic being that D'Annunzio blocked her path as she came offstage after a performance and shouted praise for her performance. She was 39; he was five years younger. They traveled together when she performed in other countries, including a joyous journey to Egypt and Corfu.

Others saw D'Annunzio as a vain womanizer of short stature, narrow shoulders, and an "androgynous softness." Duse saw a sensuous poet of animalistic intensity who would raise Italian drama to unprecedented levels. As a young actress, Duse had been content to do the available melodramatic plays, believing that

their very banality gave her opportunities to be creative. The more mature Duse lamented the dearth of quality plays, complaining that, "Once more, I am the bearded lady, squeezing my soul over the framework of rotten vulgar pieces." The playwright Luigi Pirandello, who saw Duse perform in his youth and whose plays would later revolutionize the Italian theater, remarked that the story of her career was that she had either failed to find the right author or found the wrong author.

Duse financially supported D'Annunzio, giving him money to rehabilitate his villa; the profit from a single performance by her paid the rent on his villa for a year. "I love you—I love you—I love you," she wrote him. When friends suggested that D'Annunzio was undeserving of her love, she replied, "I have two arms, one's called Enrichetta, the other Gabriele D'Annunzio. I cannot cut off one without dying."

The years with Duse proved the most creative of D'Annunzio's life, but he gave very little of his work to her. When he wrote La Citta Morta (1897), she returned from a tour eager to play the lead, but he gave the play to Bernhardt instead. When Duse begged him to write for her, he produced Sogno d'un Mattino di Primavera, an inferior drama. Although Bernhardt was unable to make La Citta Morta a success, Duse placed it in her repertoire and performed it until audiences came to accept this tale of a brother's passion for his sister. She spent 400,000 lires of her own money mounting a production of his play Francesca da Rimini , taken from Dante's Divine Comedy. Although it was unsuccessful in Italy—there was a near riot during the performance in Rome—Duse kept the production going until it was hailed in Berlin and Vienna.

Duse rehearsed for D'Annunzio's next play, La Figlia di Iorio, completed in 1903, more than she had rehearsed for any other. When she fell ill, he promised to give her more time to prepare for the part, then gave the part, instead, to a younger actress, Irma Gramatica , who would have great success with the role. Duse believed that she had been robbed of the chance to give D'Annunzio a complete dramatic triumph.

D'Annunzio exploited his partnership with Duse in his most profitable writing, the novel Il Fouco (The Flame of Life, 1900), which portrayed an aging actress obsessively in love with a much younger poet. Duse read the story in manuscript, offered her suggestions, and refused to condemn the book publicly. "I thought of it as true art," she said. "I tried to defend it." In 1904, D'Annunzio ended the relationship when he transferred his affections to a younger woman, the Marchesa Alessandra di Carlotti Rudini .

Duse's trip to the United States in 1893 had not been a great success, largely because she canceled a number of performances for reasons of poor health and because American critics were initially baffled by her "quiet" acting. On arrival in America, she had written that she saw "not a gleam of art, but only railways, cars, and business." "I thought," she wrote, "of trusting myself to the sea again and going straight back to Italy." She balked at the constant requests for publicity photographs and interviews. "Will you tell me," she asked one interviewer, "why women workers who work during the day have the right to rest at night while I, who work at night, cannot dispose of my own afternoons?"

Her 1896 and 1902 tours in the United States were much more successful, drawing President Grover Cleveland and his Cabinet to many of her performances and culminating in a special reception for her at the White House. A London tour in 1895 was also a major triumph, eliciting not only an invitation to perform before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle but also rapturous praise from George Bernard Shaw, who declared that "I should say without qualification that it is the best modern acting I have ever seen. The extraordinary richness of her art can only be understood by those who have never studied the process by which an actress is built up."

Eleonora Duse retired in 1909, only five years before the start of World War I. During the war, she suffered financially, because the two nations that usually accounted for most of her income, Germany and Austria, were "enemy" countries. She was also seriously injured when her face slammed into a car windshield during a 1916 automobile accident. She rejected an invitation to travel to America in 1916 to make a film with the famed director D.W. Griffith—his Birth of Nation struck her as having "Nothing beautiful in it"—but she agreed to appear in a silent film, Cenere, made in Italy. The picture was a financial flop, possibly because of her prematurely graying hair but also because her subtle methods of acting did not translate well to the silent screen.

In 1921, she resumed acting. A triumphant tour of major Italian cities was a source of special satisfaction, since she had always won more recognition in other countries than in her native Italy. Increased costs ate up most of the profits, however, and she added tours of London and the States to her itinerary in 1923. The new Italian government of Benito Mussolini offered her a lifelong retirement pension, but she refused, requesting instead that the government reimburse the members of her acting troupe should something happen to her during her tour abroad.

It was almost a premonition: choosing to walk from her hotel in Pittsburgh to a nearby theater, she was caught in a freezing rain when she and an assistant could not find an unlocked stage door. By the time an unlocked door was located on the other side of the theater, she was exhausted. She was able to complete her performance but returned to her hotel room with a high fever. Newspapers reported that her "perennial lung problem" had reappeared. On April 21, 1924, she died in Pittsburgh of pneumonia.

What followed made clear that she had become an international treasure. A brief funeral service was held in Pittsburgh. Then a train bore her body north to New York, where so many people wanted to file past her coffin that tickets had to be issued. The boat that took her body back to her native Italy landed at Naples, but her coffin was taken by train over much of Italy—past silent crowds in Florence, Bologna, and Rome (where another funeral was held). She was buried at the cemetery of Sant' Anna. In accordance with her wishes, her gravestone was inscribed simply with the words "Eleonora Duse 1858–1924."


Harding, Bertita. Age Cannot Wither: The Story of Duse and d'Annunzio. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1947.

Le Gallienne, Eva. The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse. London: Bodley Head, 1966.

Pontiero, Giovanni, ed. and trans. Duse on Tour: Guido Noccioli's Diaries, 1906-07. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1982.

Symons, Arthur. Eleonora Duse. NY: Benjamin Blom, 1927 (reprinted 1969).

Weaver, William. Duse: A Biography. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

suggested reading:

Carlson, Marvin. The Italian Stage from Goldoni to D'Annunzio. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1981.

Rheinhardt, E. A. The Life of Eleonora Duse. London: Martin Secker, 1930.


Duse's voluminous correspondence is widely scattered. Much of her correspondence is housed in the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, Italy. Her letters to D'Annunzio are in the Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, Gardone, Italy. In the U.S., there is some material in the Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas. Her letters to Boito were published in Paul Radice, ed. Eleonora Duse Arrigo Boito: Lettre d'amore. (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1979).

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois