DUSE: A Biography by William Weaver

DUSE: A Biography

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Where did the genius come from? What made her the supreme artist and woman? No biographer can answer these questions. He can only set forth facts, present evidence. . . . Insofar as possible, I have let her--and those who saw her and knew her--tell the story."" Thus, drawing on much previously unpublished material (letters, diaries), Weaver offers an almost documentary-style biography of legendary Italian actress Eleanora Duse--without much shape or interpretation, but informed throughout by Weaver's extensive background in Italian literature (as translator) and culture (as opera authority). Weaver promptly deglamorizes Duse's child-actres beginnings as part of a ""strolling player"" family, stressing the harsh realities and then--when young Eleanora shifts to finer stages--the ""culturally retarded"" nature of Italy's legitimate theatre. Tour after tour is doggedly, sometimes amusingly, slightly tediously described. Duse's ""restless, independent nature, her passion for privacy, her protectiveness towards her art"" all emerge through: her brief marriage; her stormy affair with ""patient, temporizing, exasperating"" composer/ playwright Arrigo Boito (their love letters are ""particularly tiresome,"" Weaver drily notes); the even rockier one with poet Gabriele D'Annunzio--who wrote unwieldy poem-plays for her, betrayed her professionally, romantically, and exposed their private life in an unpleasant novel. (As for Duse's later intense woman-friendships, Weaver thinks that sexual liaisons were ""unlikely."") And, quoting from both gushing and sneering critics, Weaver does a solid, if unexciting job, of evoking the Duse performances--from Dumas and Sardou in the 1880s to Ibsen's Ghosts in the 1920s (plus some filmmaking). Ever-soulful Eleanora isn't the liveliest company through this rather stately life-history. But some of her letters do flare with engaging temperament; the backgrounds for all those tours are shrewdly textured (Weaver leans a bit smugly on US provincialism); and this--the first major Duse biography in nearly 30 years--is sure to become the standard reference.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich