–by Michael Pierce
PLAYING TO THE GODS: SARAH BERNHARDT, ELEONORA DUSE, AND THE RIVALRY THAT CHANGED ACTING FOREVER by Peter Rader. Published August 21, 2018 by Simon and Schuster.
June 14, 1894.
The Muse was in attendance that night, at the theater in London where the younger actress was performing in La Dame aux camellias, a play that had always been one of The Muse’s favorites. She herself had taken on the role of Camellia hundreds of times, and she was anxious to see the younger actress, with her different style of acting, give her interpretation of the role. By the time she got back to her hotel that evening, Sarah Bernhardt knew she was looking at the future of theater, and she wondered what her future would hold.
Eleonora Duse had admired Bernhardt since she first decided to become an actress. The two women had a lot in common. They both came from broken homes, they both supplemented their incomes and funded their respective projects by working as courtesans, each keeping (and sometimes sharing) wealthy lovers to provide necessary cash, and talented lovers to write plays exclusively for them.
Their rivalry, for the most part, was polite. They each toured the world numerous times, usually one within a year or two of the other, playing the same roles, but with vastly different styles. Sara was a “poser,” from the old school of stagecraft, where one never turned their back on the audience, and emotions were conveyed not only through heavily made up faces, but also with great gesticulations of the hands and arms, accompanied by loud voices.
Eleonora immersed herself in the roles she played. She drew her emotions from her life experiences, she acted with her eyes, she acted with silence, when necessary. She turned her back on the audience, she acted with her emotions taking over her entire body, she took her characters into the shadows of the footlights when she felt it was necessary. In her later years she would be the inspiration for Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, two founders of The Group Theater, considered to be the birthplace of method acting.
Peter Rader has presented us with a riveting story of two great women, one of whom is still well known to most people today, while the other has faded into the background of history. The best thing that Rader has done, with his book, is to reintroduce all of us to the work of Eleonora Duse and her importance to modern film and theater. He had a multitude of sources to utilize, as both actresses’ careers were well documented in earlier biographies, diaries, letters, and newspaper articles. Bernhardt and Duse lived long enough to become part of the early days of motion pictures, and samples of their work can be found on YouTube.
Marlon Brando studied acting under Stella Adler. During one class, Adler told her students to imagine they were chickens, and they had just heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. While other students ran about the room clucking and gesticulating like upset chickens, Brando remained in his seat and calmly laid an egg. Adler questioned him as to why, and Brando replied “I’m a chicken. What do I know about bombs?”
I like to think that Duse would have been sitting right alongside him.