Duse, La Magnifica

The great Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1859-1924) was born this calendar day. Often spoke of in terms of rivalry with Sarah Bernhardt, in reality Duse was considered by many, including George Bernard Shaw, to be the greatest international actress of her day. The fact that she is less well-remembered today probably owes to the fact that she only made one film Cenere (1917).

Duse was third-generation theatre folk. Born in Lombardy, she joined the family acting troupe at age four. From the time she was in her twenties she became associated with the great female classical roles, as well as contemporary melodramas and the works of Ibsen. For a time in the 1890s her lover and collaborator was playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio. The relationship ended harshly when d’Annunzio offered his play La Citta Morta first to Bernhardt rather than Duse. The bisexual Duse is almost as widely known for her string of relationships as she is for histrionic career: in addition to d’Annunzio there was journalist Martino Cafiero, actor Teobaldo Checchi (whom she married), actor Flavio Ando, poet Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist), feminist Lina Poletti, and (some think) Isadora Duncan. She was also a close friend and mentor to Yvette Guilbert, and friends with Eva La Gallienne.

Duse toured Europe, the United States and South America many times. She initially retired following a triumphant U.S. tour in 1909 during which she was embraced by President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, who saw every performance during her Washington run, and invited her to tea at the White House, the first first actress to be so honored. In 1921 she returned to acting. She was on a successful tour of the United States in 1924 when she died of pneumonia in — of all places — Pittsburgh.