Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever

Sarah Bernhardt remains the most famous stage actress of all time, the subject of the play Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway. But during her lifetime she had a rival, Eleanora Duse. The two didn’t just compete; they represented opposing views of what acting, and the theater, should be, according to “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever” (Simon and Schuster, 277 pages) by Peter Rader.

The author makes much of the two divas’ contrasting acting styles, Bernhardt with her extravagant flourishes, Eleanora spare and still, willing to turn her back to the audience, and have moments of silence.  Or as Rader at one point succinctly describes the difference: Sarah posed. Eleanora paused.

Eleanora Duse as Cleopatra in 1887
Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra 1890

In 1895, when Bernhardt was 51 and Duse was 37, they each starred in different productions of the same play “Magda” in London theaters that were across the street from one another. George Bernard Shaw declared Bernhardt’s acting  “childishly egotistical,”   Duse’s “the best modern acting I’ve ever seen,” and pronounced that the Italian actress had annihilated the French actress in the role. “Annihilation is the only word for it.” Some three decades later, the year Bernhardt died, Charlie Chaplin would make a similar judgment, after seeing Duse during her final American tour, in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” in Los Angeles: “Eleanora Duse is the greatest artiste I have ever seen. Her technique is so marvelously finished and complete that it ceases to be a technique…Bernhardt was always studied and more or less artificial.”

On the other hand, critic Max Beerbohm said the exact opposite about the divas’ performances in “Magda,” finding Duse “a great egoistic force” and appreciating Bernhardt’s “majesty, awe and beauty.”

The author delights in the divas’ mutual efforts to upstage and sabotage one another.

Duse took Bernhardt’s signature role of Camille to Washington D.C., where she was feted by President Grover Cleveland and moved from the theater pages to the front page, where Bernhardt had resided for decades. Shortly afterward, Bernhardt performed Camille, in Paris, in the stripped down, simplified manner that was Duse’s trademark.

Duse took Bernhardt’s manager. Bernhardt took Duse’s lover, the poet Gabriel d’Annunzio. He exploited both women, getting them each to agree to perform his debut play, Bernhardt in Paris, Duse in Italy

Bernhardt lent Duse the theater she owned in Paris to perform without charging rent, making a grand show of her largesse – but then arranged for a spotlight to shine on her box seat during the Duse’s performance so that her fellow theatergoers would divide their attention between the diva on stage and the diva in the audience

When they finally met each other in 1897, “the two women grasped each other so tightly,” remarked the Count who had arranged the encounter, “that it looked like a mad wrestling match.”

But the bulk of “Playing to the Gods” is a dual biography of two fascinating women, largely unfolding their separate stories in alternating chapters. For all their rivalry, and the supposed contrast in their styles both on and off the stage, the truth is they had enough in common so that it becomes hard to keep straight which cad abused which diva, and who made which triumphant tour. Although they were 14 years apart in age, and the teenage Duse had idolized the world-famous Bernhardt, the life and times of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse seem to merge; the author suggests their rivalry resulted in their influencing one another’s acting. They even died within a year of one another, Bernhardt in 1923, Duse in 1924.

Both of their stories offer a glimpse into the life of a serious and beloved stage actress of the 19thcentury, .(The clever title refers both to the sense of the Divine that infused the artistry of both women, especially Duse, but also to the industry term for the seats in the very back of the house.) Together, according to the author, they also helped elevate the public’s respect for women in the theater, and increased opportunities for those who came after them: The number of women who declared their profession as “actress” rose from 780 in the 1870 U.S. Census to 15,432 in 1910.

Still, there’s plenty that is distinctive about each performer.

Few readers will object to a rehashing of Bernhardt’s familiar eccentricities. She paraded around her pet alligator, owned a chimpanzee named Darwin, and indeed traveled with such a menagerie that she included a zookeeper on staff during her tours. She boasted of having bedded a thousand men, including Napoleon III, which helped launch her career, and Edmond Rostand, playwright of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Bernhardt made a point of performing what were called “trouser roles.” She’s best known now for essaying the title role of Hamlet, but she launched her career portraying a man, and, nearing 60, became a national icon of France by starring as the 21-year-old heir to the throne of Bonaparte in Rostand’s L’Aiglon.

The illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, who herself dabbled in the family profession, Bernhardt became what the author claims to be the first modern celebrity. If that is so,  she might also be the first actor-activist. Bernhardt, a target of anti-Semitism her whole life, not only stood up for the falsely accused French officer Alfred Dreyfus. She is said to be the one to convince Emile Zola to write “J’Accuse,” and indeed (according to a riveting if suspect account in the book) protected him from an angry mob outside his home.

The author speculates why Bernhardt’s name lives on, while Duse’s far less so. Bernhardt was savvy about publicity; Duse was usually press shy. (On the eve of a tour of the United States, Duse declared “I intend to adhere to my resolution, even in a country like America, where, I am told, exaggerated advertising is absolutely necessary. I believe there is in the United States a public that is cultured, educated and impartial, and that is the only public which interests me.”) Bernhardt created a larger than life persona on stage and off. Duse “dissolved” into her roles.

One can make too much of these differences, though. Duse got plenty of publicity during her lifetime; she was the first woman that Time Magazine put on its cover.  It was in homage to La Duse, as she was called, that Americans created the word “doozy,” as in “that’s a doozy” –which the author defines as “measuring something outstanding and thoroughly unique”

Duse popularized Henrik Ibsen, and embodied the naturalistic style of acting he championed. Ibsen is said to have named the main character of “A Doll’s House” after Eleanora.

Whatever the reason why Duse is no longer the household name that Sarah Bernhardt remains nearly a century after their deaths, “Play to the Gods” benefits from her relative obscurity. We feel enlightened by her life and by her view, such as the spiritual roots of her acting.   “The theater sprang from religion,” she’s quoted as saying. “It is my greatest wish that somehow, through me, in some small way, they may be reunited.”

For all of the author’s pronouncements about acting, little of which feel fresh or insightful, it’s most refreshing for him to quote La Duse saying:  “I have never known and will never know how to act. These poor women in my plays have so entered my heart and my head…I stand by their side, with them.”

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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