A filmmaker and screenwriter’s biographical account of two 19th-century theater divas and their fabled feud.
As Rader (Mike Wallace: A Life, 2012) notes, before the rise of French acting superstar Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) in the 1860s, popular theater was little more than a vaudevillian “social experience.” Actors earned neither money nor respect for their work. Bold and charismatic, Bernhardt took the “highly stylized” art of acting, which portrayed archetypes rather than real human beings, to a level never seen before. Her efforts and her eccentricities—e.g., traveling with a pet alligator and sleeping in a coffin—along with her scandalous affairs, earned the French actress wealth, fame, and legions of adoring fans all over the world. While the world reveled in the on- and offstage antics of “The Divine One,” Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), an actress 14 years Bernhardt’s junior, was gaining national attention in Italian newspapers. The flamboyant Bernhardt’s temperamental opposite, Duse gravitated toward naturalistic stage representations and portrayed her characters as “multidimensional, shaded, and complex” figures. Duse first saw Bernhardt appear in an 1882 production of her signature play, La Dame aux Camélias. Enchanted by the older actress’s talent and success, Duse made Bernhardt her role model. As critics across Europe began to take positive notice of Duse’s revolutionary acting methods, they also began to critique Bernhardt for her “dated style.” Soon the two divas began poaching plays, playwrights, and even lovers from each other. Before Bernhardt was able to perform playwright Giacomo Giacosa’s rendering of La Dame on Broadway in 1891, for example, Duse performed Giacosa’s translated version for Italian audiences first. Several years later, Bernhardt took poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio—whom Duse adored like no other—as her lover. Delightfully readable and informative, Rader’s book examines a rivalry that defined modern theater while also exploring the origins of modern celebrity culture.
A well-researched and thoroughly entertaining dual biography.