The Italian actress, her supporting cast, and hundreds of extras populate this diffuse biography.
When Eleonora Duse died at age 65 during a US tour in 1924, more than 20,000 adoring fans lined the streets of Manhattan, throwing roses and carnations at the cortege bearing her corpse. What made Duse a legend? Why did her performances literally bring John Barrymore to his knees? Why did acting guru Lee Strasberg proclaim it would take 100 years to comprehend her technique? The answers are scattered through a myriad of detail that Sheehy (Eva Le Gallienne, 1996, etc.) culled from letters, press accounts, and other histories during her prodigious research. But the text never fully conveys the impact of Duse’s acting, perhaps because the author seems to have no overarching theme. Sheehy stints on the theater-shaking confluence of Duse’s talent with Ibsen’s plays, spending far too much time instead with walk-ons in the actress’s biography. (Need one know, for example, that Count Giuseppe Primoli, who appears in passing, was known as “GeGe” to his friends?) The treatment of Duse’s personal life is more evocative, but distasteful: the actress comes across as tiresome, manipulative, and melodramatic. She had a distant relationship with her daughter, who was shipped off to boarding schools so the diva could perform. Duse haughtily refused to talk to most reporters, yet shrewdly cultivated friendships with publishers and writers who might provide favorable coverage or write plays for her. Her remarks often sound like lines from bad plays. At 36, she told a friend, “I’m in the summer . . . and summer is so close to autumn and that is the end.” It’s not surprising to learn that Duse felt her acting brought her closer to reality than did her life, which she regarded as a fiction.
More breathless than breathtaking.