Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora Duse

Before there was Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Anna Maria Alberghetti on the screen, there was Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) on the stage. She certainly was the Grand Lady of Italian theater and a true international star. She was the most fluent and expressive actress of her day and created afresh every role she played, and was different in each of them. She achieved a unique power of conviction and verity on the stage through intense absorption in the character she was portraying—“eliminating the self” as she put it—and letting the qualities of the character emerge from within, not imposed through artifice. Her gift was in marked contrast to the talented contemporary star of the French theatre, Sarah Bernhardt, who was a great technician, but who always strove to project her own personality from the stage, whatever character she might be playing.(1858-1924)

ASSOCIATIONS: Stage actress
Lived 19th

Eleonora Giulia Amalia Duse, often known simply as Duse, was born in Vigevano, Lombardy in 1858 to Alessandro Vincenzo Duse (1820–1892) and Angelica Cappelletto Duse (1833–1872). She came from a family of actors (both her father and her grandfather, Luigi, were actors from Chioggia, near Venice). Her family traveled constantly in Italy, for a time as part of a theatrical troupe owned by the Duse family. Her father, Alessandro, was enthralled with acting, although not very successful at it. Her mother, Angelica, who was less enthusiastic, performed female roles when needed by the family’s traveling theatrical company. She was stricken with tuberculosis, and often could not perform at all. It was not unusual for the family to leave her behind, resting in a hospital or guest house, when the troupe moved to another Italian town to perform. (There is speculation that the “weak lungs” that afflicted Eleonora throughout her life were the result of the same disease that eventually killed her mother).

As the only child of her parents, Eleonora’s childhood was lonely and terror-filled. She joined the traveling troupe at the age of four, and first performed at that age in a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, playing the part of Cosette.

She was able to attend school only when the family remained in the same place for a period of time. Wherever she did go to school, she noticed that she was treated by the other children as an outsider. Because of the family’s poverty, she at first worked continuously, traveling from city to city with whichever troupe her family was currently engaged. (Some of these theatrical companies were very respectable; some were distinctly second-rate). By the age of 14, when she played Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Verona, her talents were already being recognized by critics.

Since she was by nature sensitive and quiet, she also suffered from the constant turmoil of the acting world—the rivalries, the tantrums, and the continual financial uncertainties of her family. Some biographers believe that such a childhood made Eleonora “introspective” and contributed to her remarkable talent as an actress to convey inner turmoil by subtle gestures, facial expressions or tones of voice. Later, however, she saw her childhood differently, believing that it caused strong emotions that she kept in check as a child but revealed as an adult in her stage art. “The outlines of my art,” she wrote, “developed themselves in that condition of anguish and weariness, of fever and repugnance, in which my sensibility became a manner almost plastic, like the incandescent material we saw glass workers holding at the end of their tubes…. On certain evenings, on a wall covered with copper saucepans, I could see myself as in a mirror, in an attitude of pain and rage, with a face I could not recognize.”

In September, 1872, when she was 14, she was handed a telegram as she came offstage during a performance. It contained the news that her mother had died in another town, where she had been left by the family because she was too ill to travel. Eleonora was devastated, but continued to travel with her father, acting in various companies. At the age of 21, the theatrical entrepreneur Giovanni Emanuel saw her perform and hired her as part of his troupe for the Teatro dei Fiorentini (Theater of the Florentines, named for a nearby church, San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini) in Naples. She became the second female lead, subordinate to the actress Giacinta Pezzana, who was noted for her diction and beautiful voice. Far from resenting the upstart Eleonora, Pezzana proved to be a generous mentor and helped her develop her acting skills to a much higher level. Even with this training, she did not have much success in winning a starring role until 1879. In that year she won great acclaim for her performance in Naples of the title role in Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, playing opposite Pezzana, with audiences and critics united in the opinion that a woman’s anguish had never before been played with such truth. This marked the turning point of her career.

That same year, the entrepreneur Cesare Rossi, who favored more natural styles of acting than the “heroic” or flamboyant styles popular at the time, hired Pezzana and Eleonora for his company in Turin. When Pezzana left the company in 1881, Eleonora became “prima donna.”

In 1882 she had an opportunity to watch Sarah Bernhardt perform when she toured Italy. She declared that Bernhardt’s performances were “an emancipation,” and she began to show more confidence in her own acting. The French actress’s success in modern roles gave Eleonora the idea also of appearing in plays by contemporary, up-and-coming French dramatists, for she had discovered that Italian audiences were bored by the stale, melodramatic pieces that formed the traditional theater repertoire. For three years she acted in a number of plays by Alexandre Dumas fils. The first of these was as Lionette in La Princesse de Bagdad (The Princess of Baghdad) in which she scored a triumph. Adding to her personal sense of accomplishment was her success in this role that had been one of Pezzana’s failures. She followed this up with Cesarine in Dumas fils’ La Femme de Claude (Claude’s Wife). Then, in 1884, she created the title role of Dumas fils’ latest play, Denise, and also the part of Santuzza in Giovanni Verga’s play Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry).

By adopting plays which were a large part of Bernhardt’s repertoire (which Eleonora used in Italian translations), she was virtually inviting comparisons between her acting ability and that of Bernhardt, particularly since she usually opened her theatrical tours with a performance as Marguerite Gautier in Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of Camelias), which was a Bernhardt standard. Critics complied by comparing Eleonora’s style of acting, which was subtle and often emphasized the psychological nuances of the characters she played, with the performances of Bernhardt, who often let her own personality show through whatever roles she played. (When Eleonora performed in Paris in 1897, Bernhardt graciously made her own theater available, but on opening night, when Eleonora seemed excessively nervous, Bernhardt drew most of the attention by receiving a constant stream of visitors to her box in the theater. Although the two also performed in separate portions of plays at a joint benefit, they never became confidantes or even friends. In fact, in her memoirs, Bernhardt wrote of her: “Eleonora Duse is an actress more than an artist…. [S]he walks in paths that have been traced out by others…. [S]he is a great actress, but she is not an artist”).

By this time, Eleonora’s career was in full swing and her popularity was beginning to climb. With Rossi’s company, she toured South America in 1885, but after her return to Italy she left his company and formed her own company, the Drama Company of the City of Rome, and with it toured throughout Europe as well as the United States. As head of her own company, she assumed the additional responsibilities of both manager and director, in addition to acting.

Eleonora’s Marriage and Romantic Affairs

While achieving success in her professional life at this time, her personal life was filled with sorrows and failures. In 1879, she began an affair with an audience regular, the newspaper editor Martino Cafiero. At 38 years of age, Cafiero was more than 15 years her senior at the time, but he was able to introduce her into the fashionable world of Naples, including yachting clubs and museums. She loved the exposure and the attention that this brought her. The affair ultimately ended when she told Cafiero that she was pregnant, and he left her. The child, a boy, died a week after his birth. Cafiero refused to acknowledge him and remained unmoved when the boy died. He was openly cruel to her after that, returning a photo she sent him of her and the baby, which he inscribed with a word implying she was a whore.

In 1881, Eleonora agreed to marry an actor in the Rossi troupe, Teobaldo Checchi (pseudonym of Tebaldo Marchetti), who declared that he wanted to give her respectability and to protect her from Rossi, who had a predatory reputation toward the women in his troupe. The couple had a daughter, Enrichetta, born in 1882, who was often left in the care of an older couple when Eleonora went on tour.

Eleonora and her husband became permanently estranged during the theatrical tour of Rossi’s company in South America in 1885, when she began a shipboard romance with her leading man, Flavio Ando. By some accounts, Checchi discovered Eleonora and Ando together in Ando’s stateroom; other accounts say that Eleonora caught Checchi in bed with a 13-year old and looked to Ando to console her. The affair with Ando, however, lasted only for a short time. (Eleonora commented that Ando was “pretty, but dumb”). She told her husband, Checchi, that she did not need his money for her or her daughter’s support. Divorce was impossible for them because of the laws of Italy, so when Eleonora returned to Italy, Checchi remained behind in South America.

The incident evoked negative publicity for Eleonora in Italy and may have contributed to the tendency of the Italian theatergoers to be cooler to her talents than audiences throughout the rest of Europe. Newspapers charged that she had abandoned her husband, and Checchi relished and fed the negative publicity. He complained that he was impoverished and “banished from the land of my birth.”  However, Eleonora worked to see that her daughter retained a relationship with her father over the years, and when Checchi became Argentine counsel in England, Enrichetta was sent there periodically for visits with him.

Between 1887 and 1894 she had an affair with the Italian poet Arrigo Boito, perhaps best remembered as Verdi’s librettist. Their relationship was carried out in a highly secretive manner, presumably because of Boito’s many aristocratic friends and acquaintances who would not have approved of her. He badgered her to abandon the theater, which he despised. She, of course, ignored these entreaties. Even after their relationship cooled, they kept in contact (their voluminous correspondence over the years still survives), and she was devastated by his death in 1918.

Eleonora’s tour of Russia in 1891 was the beginning of her career as a celebrated international star. Between 1892 and 1902, she gave more than 100 performances in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Russia, and made three trips to the United States. Her finely nuanced performances or “quiet acting,” which was initially less impressive than other flamboyant acting styles, began to have an impact. Her performance in Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of Camelias) in Vienna was hailed as a major triumph over Bernhardt. One member of her audience in Russia noted that at the beginning of a play, Eleonora seemed “insignificant and the voice nothing special” but that by the third act, much of the audience was “sobbing.”

Eleonora spoke in an ordinary, everyday voice most of the time on stage. Though her stage voice was seldom described as beautiful, she used it to project subtle changes in her character’s emotion. “Her voice was not an actor’s voice,” wrote one member of her audience. “Like everything else about Eleonora it was natural; not the pseudo-naturalness acquired in a classroom or studio, but true naturalness.”  “Her acting is entirely quiet acting,” added another critic. “She does not roar or shout, nor does she throw herself up and down the stage, like a demented steamroller.”

Seeking to expand her repertoire even further beyond the available French and Italian plays, Eleonora found that she had a special affinity for the women portrayed in the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She incorporated translations of Ibsen’s plays into her work, including productions of A Doll’s House in 1891 and Hedda Gabler in 1905. It was said that her acting of Ibsen’s heroines implied that she was always holding something in reserve, that she understood personality quirks which the characters in his plays chose not to reveal. In fact, to the title role in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, she brought a demonic quality, a touch of the fantastic. This was so deeply troubling to Ibsen when he saw her perform it, that he felt she had gone beyond the frontiers of realism.

Eleonora had a thousand faces; her physical command, range, and choice of gesture were superb; and she had a different way of walking for each part. Yet the total effect was of more than “naturalistic” acting; she acted not only the reality, she also “commented” on the characters she played. (For example, she “knew” far more about Nora in A Doll’s House than Ibsen’s heroine could possibly have known about herself). One of her critics wrote that she played what was between the lines; she played the transitions. A tremor of her lips could reveal exactly what went on in her mind; and, where the character’s inner life was lacking, because the dramatist had failed his task, she supplied motivation herself. To watch her was to read a psychological novel.

Such artistic achievements, however, did not come easily, as became clear when the diary of a young actor in her troupe was published. It portrayed a demanding, irritable Eleonora —the diary generally referred to her as “Madame”—who was constantly fearful that things would go wrong onstage and was often nervous and imperious in dealing with others in her troupe.  Her contemporary, the actress Eva Le Gallienne, probably described this dichotomy best in her biography The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse, calling her “a mystic driven by a desire for perfection,” achieving her artistic triumphs from personal victories over herself through intellectual and spiritual struggle. But she added that this observation did not mean that she was an exemplary woman. “Many people thought of her, with good reason, as intolerant, spoiled, and selfish,” she wrote. “To me she was not only the greatest actress I have ever seen but a rare, generous, and extraordinary human being.”

Eleonora’s generosity became legendary. Asked what her fee would be to perform in a benefit, she asked about the pay that would be given to a child actor with a very minor role. Then she requested the same amount: usually 10 francs. When the famous dancer Isadora Duncan lost both of her children in a drowning accident, Eleonora sought her out to try to comfort her during Duncan’s visit to Italy in 1913.

Also, Eleonora could be courageous. She was the first to perform Ibsen’s plays in Italy. His plays forced audiences to reexamine the moral foundations of their being. Late-nineteenth-century audiences expected to be entertained and distracted from the cares of present-day life. Eleonora courageously brought Ibsen’s dramas to Italian audiences forcing them to be uncomfortable in confronting their personal moral positions and those of their societies. She also dared to perform Ernst Renan’s L’Abesse du Jouarre (The Abbess of Jouarre, 1886), which concerned an abbess who, when condemned to death, decides to give herself to her childhood sweetheart shortly before her scheduled execution. This play was shocking both in dialogue and in action for late-nineteenth-century Italian audiences.

Eleonora Duse and Gabriele D’Annunzio

From 1894 to 1904, Eleonora maintained an intense professional and personal relationship with the poet, novelist, and dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio (a sexual libertine and an extreme Italian nationalist, who had much to do with the rise of Mussolini and the creation of Fascism; a World War I air hero, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in the 1920s, and the leader of a rogue army that captured Fiume in 1919). Accounts of their first meeting differ, the most dramatic being that D’Annunzio blocked Eleonora’s path as she came offstage after a performance and shouted praise for her performance. At the time, she was 36; he was five years younger. They traveled together when she performed in other countries, including a joyous journey to Egypt and Corfu.

Eleonora financially supported D’Annunzio, giving him money to rehabilitate his villa; the profit from a single performance by her paid the rent on his villa for a year. “I love you—I love you—I love you,” she wrote him. When friends suggested that D’Annunzio was undeserving of her love, she replied, “I have two arms, one’s called Enrichetta[her daughter], the other Gabriele D’Annunzio. I cannot cut off one without dying.”

The years with Eleonora proved the most creative of D’Annunzio’s life, but he gave very little of his work to her. When he wrote La Citta Morta (The Dead City, 1897), Eleonora returned from a tour eager to play the lead, but he gave the play to Sarah Bernhardt instead. When Eleonora begged him to write for her, he produced Sogno d’un Mattino di Primavera (Dream of a Spring Morning, 1897), which proved to be an inferior drama. Although Bernhardt was unable to make La Citta Morta a success, Eleonora placed it in her repertoire and performed it until audiences came to accept this tale of a brother’s passion for his sister. She spent 400,000 lire of her own money mounting a production of his play Francesca da Rimini (1901), taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Although it was unsuccessful in Italy—there was a near riot during the performance in Rome— Eleonora kept the production going until it was hailed in Berlin and Vienna.

Eleonora rehearsed for D’Annunzio’s next play, La Figlia di Iorio (The Daughter of Iorio, 1903) more than she had rehearsed for any other. When she fell ill, he promised to give her more time to prepare for the part, and then gave the part, instead, to a younger actress, Irma Gramatica, who had great success with the role. Eleonora believed that she had been robbed of the chance to give D’Annunzio a complete dramatic triumph.

D’Annunzio exploited his partnership with Eleonora in his most profitable writing, the novel Il Fouco (The Flame, 1900), which portrayed an aging actress obsessively in love with a much younger poet. Eleonora read the story in manuscript, offered her suggestions, and refused to condemn the book publicly. “I thought of it as true art,” she said. “I tried to defend it.”

In 1904, D’Annunzio ended the relationship almost as quickly and casually as he had started it when he transferred his affections to a younger woman, the Marchesa Alessandra di Carlotti Rudini.

Eleonora’s Tours of the United States and of England

Eleonora’s first trip to the United States in 1893 was not a great success, largely because she canceled a number of performances for reasons of poor health. Also, American critics were initially baffled by her “quiet acting.” On her arrival in the US, she wrote that she saw “not a gleam of art, but only railways, cars, and business. … I thought of trusting myself to the sea again and going straight back to Italy.”  She balked at the constant requests for publicity photographs and interviews. “Will you tell me,” she asked one interviewer, “why women workers who work during the day have the right to rest at night while I, who work at night, cannot dispose of my own afternoons?”

Her 1896 and 1902 tours in the US were much more successful. When she was in Washington, DC in 1896, President Grover Cleveland with his wife and his Cabinet attended all of her performances. Mrs. Cleveland shocked Washington society by giving, in Eleonora’s honor, the first-ever White House tea held for an actress.

A London tour in 1895 was also a major triumph, eliciting not only an invitation to perform before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, but also rapturous praise from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who declared:  “I should say without qualification that it is the best modern acting I have ever seen. The extraordinary richness of her art can only be understood by those who have never studied the process by which an actress is built up.”

Retirement and Attempt at Film

Eleonora Duse retired in 1909, only five years before the start of World War I, mainly for health reasons. During the war, she suffered financially, because the two nations that usually accounted for most of her income, Germany and Austria, were “enemy” countries to Italy. She was also seriously injured when her face slammed into a car windshield during a 1916 automobile accident. She rejected an invitation to travel to America in 1916 to make a film with the famed director D.W. Griffith, with whom she was not impressed, saying that his The Birth of a Nation (1915) had “nothing beautiful in it.”

However, she did agree to appear in a silent film, Cenere (Ashes 1916), made in Italy. She later explained her return to acting in this production (after seven years in retirement) by stating: “I have been persuaded to create the character of Rosalia Derios, from the novel by Grazia Deledda, because it seemed to me that in the sorrowful figure of the mother, all sacrifice for her son, a figure moving in an austere and solemn landscape, would assume the total and clear plastic and spiritual significance that the silent theater must force itself to realize.” She co-wrote the screenplay with Febo Mari, her director and co-star.

Eleonora initially had high hopes for Cenere to open a new career for her in film acting. However, the picture was a financial flop, possibly because of her prematurely graying hair, but more importantly because her subtle methods of acting did not translate well to the silent screen. She had expressed deep respect for the source material and its potential as a film, but upon seeing the finished product, she was disappointed in both the production and her performance. “I made the same mistake that nearly everyone has made,” she said after viewing herself on screen. “But something quite different is needed. I am too old for it. Isn’t it a pity?”

Later Years and Death

In 1921, Eleonora came out of retirement once again and resumed acting. Her acting powers were undiminished, but her health was still not good and interfered somewhat with her late career. She had a triumphant tour of major Italian cities, which was a source of special satisfaction to her. She had always won more recognition in other countries than in her native Italy and this tour showed her how much she was beloved as an actress by the Italian audiences. Increased costs ate up most of the profits, however, and she added tours of London and the United States to her itinerary in 1923. The new Italian government of Benito Mussolini offered her a lifetime retirement pension, but she refused, requesting instead that the government reimburse the members of her acting troupe should something happen to her during her tour abroad.

This request was almost a premonition of what was going to happen. Choosing to walk from her hotel in Pittsburgh to a nearby theater instead of taking a taxi, she was caught in a freezing rain storm while she and an assistant looked for an unlocked stage door of the theater. By the time they found an unlocked door that was located on the other side of the theater, she was exhausted. She was able to complete her performance that evening, but afterward she returned to her hotel room with a high fever. Newspapers reported that her “perennial lung problem” (most likely inherited from her mother) had reappeared. On April 21, 1924, Eleonora Duse died in Pittsburgh of pneumonia.


What followed made clear that she had become an international treasure. A brief funeral service was held in Pittsburgh. Then, a train bore her body north to New York, where so many people wanted to file past her coffin that tickets had to be issued for the four days she lay in state. The boat that took her body back to Italy landed in Naples; then her coffin was taken by train over much of Italy—past silent crowds in Florence, Bologna, and Rome, where another funeral was held. She was buried in the cemetery of Sant’Anna in Asolo (where she had made her home for the last four years of her life) in the Province of Treviso, Region of Veneto, Italy. In accordance with her wishes, her gravestone was inscribed simply with the words “Eleonora Duse 1858–1924.”

On July 30, 1923, Eleonora became the first woman (and the first Italian) to be featured on the cover of the four-month-old news magazine, Time. Her daughter Enrichetta donated some of her mother’s items to the state in 1933. These items are preserved in Asolo in the Museo Civico. In 1968 her granddaughter, Eleonora Ilaria Bullough (aka Sister Mary of St. Mark, a Dominican nun), donated the last items of the family’s collection to the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice.

Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
“Duse, Eleonora (1858–1924).” Encyclopedia.com website;
Le Gallienne, Eva.  The Mystic in the Theatre:  Eleonora Duse.  Carbondale, Illinois:  Southern Illinois University Press (Arcturus Books Edition), 1973.

“Historical Figure:  Eleonora Duse.”  Histouring website;
Nagler, Alois M. “Eleonora Duse:  Italian Actress.”  Encyclopedia Britannica website, April 17, 2021;

Nightingale, Benedict. “The First Modern Actor.”  The New York Times, September 7, 2003. (Review of Sheehy, Helen. Eleonora Duse:  A Biography. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2003);

Wikipedia website.

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