Eleonora Duse was an Italian theater actress. She was one of the most important Italian theater actresses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the undisputed symbol of modern theater, even in its most emphatic aspects.
Born in Vigevano from a family of clodiensi actors, she grew up and spent her childhood between the nomadism and the amateurism of the wandering company of her father Alessandro Vincenzo Duse (1820-1892) and her mother Angelica Cappelletto (1833-1906), going on stage since child. In 1862, Eleonora, only 4 years old, played the part of Cosetta in a theatrical version of The Miserables.
In 1878 he conquered the role of first love in the company Ciotti-Belli Blanes, and just twenty years old he was in charge of a company with Giacinta Pezzana. Some memorable performances, such as Teresa Raquin by Émile Zola, soon gave her public adoration and the enthusiasm of the critics. In 1879 he will enter the semisabile Compagnia di Torino of Cesare Rossi, where he will bring to maturity his poetics that collected the legacy of the past but which together broke with the tradition of the first half of the nineteenth century.
It is in this period, the eighties, that the Duse will make the choices of repertoire that will mark his artistic career and his career. A repertoire that will allow her to express her feeling of crisis with respect to the era she was part of. Given the substantial absence of a dramaturgy in Italy, the texts that he chose and preferred were mostly the French bien faite pièce: modern, worldly, with a strong appeal for the renewed tastes of the public change of the late nineteenth century.
But in the hands of Duse the dramas of Victorien Sardou and Alexandre Dumas son became scores to be dismantled in order to be then filled with the personal message of the Duse that wanted to undermine those bourgeois values, then represent them as they presented themselves in reality. The themes that the Duse wanted to address were the thorniest and most representative of bourgeois society of the time: money, sex, family, marriage, the role of women. The portrait of a politically correct society emerged, but in reality hypocritical, shimmering in the window but marching in substance, hegemonized by a god-money regulator of every human relationship; a world in which it is impossible to experience sincere emotions.
Then female interiority emerged as well as Duse lived his: an alienated, neurotic interiority. His repertoire was modern and of strong appeal: from the verism of Cavalleria rusticana by Giovanni Verga, where he played Santuzza, to the aforementioned dramas by Victorien Sardou and Alexandre Dumas son, which were part of the repertoire of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Between the two actresses a rivalry was born which divided the theater critics.
In 1881 Eleonora Duse married Tebaldo Checchi, an actor in his company; the union, from which a child was born, Enrichetta, soon proved unhappy and ended with a definitive separation. In 1884 the Duse was linked to Arrigo Boito, who adapted for her Antonio and Cleopatra. The relationship with Boito always remained secret and lasted, between ups and downs, for several years. In this period, the actress attended the Scapigliatura circles, and her repertoire was also enriched by the dramas of Giuseppe Giacosa, a friend of Boito. In the 1890s, Eleonora Duse brought the dramas of Henrik Ibsen (Doll's House, The Woman of the Sea) to Italian scenes. In 1909 Eleonora Duse left the theater. A few years later, in 1916, he played his only film, Cenere, based on the homonymous novel by Grazia Deledda. A few months before his death he made his last stay in Viareggio, at the villa of the shipowner Riccardo Garré, in August 1923; he died during the last American tour, in Pittsburgh, on April 21, 1924.
In 1882 in Rome he met Gabriele D'Annunzio for the first time: the latter is a charming young man full of curls, recently taken down by the Abruzzi, but already with three published works. He appears before the Duse and with melodious words he proposes tout court to lie with him. Eleonora dismisses him with disdain, but perhaps also with a secret complacency (on that day he describes it: Already famous and very attractive, with blonde hair and something burning in his person).
In 1888 in Rome at the Valle theater, Eleonora, which on stage has just been redeemed by misguided joys and has in the face handfuls of fake coins and died of tuberculosis and love in the guise of the unfortunate Lady of the Camellias, is still starting in sighs and tears in his dressing room. And here is a young man, slim, slim, but all shots and elegance, suddenly come out of the dim light of the corridor and shout with peremptory enthusiasm: O great amateur !. Eleonora a little 'scared, looks at him for a moment and continues. The young man is D'Annunzio.
In June 1892 D'Annunzio wrote a dedication (Alla divina Eleonora Duse) on a sample of his Roman Elegies. From the book the desire for an encounter with the author is born in Eleonora. And in the encounter he abandons himself to the grasp of those clear eyes, he is surprised to forget all his bitter wisdom of life and to enjoy the flattery they express.
The fundamental moment both in life and in the artistic career of Eleonora Duse was the definitive meeting in Venice, in 1894, with Gabriele D'Annunzio, then just over thirty years old. The tempestuous sentimental and artistic bond that was established between the actress and the young poet lasted about ten years, and contributed decisively to the fame of D'Annunzio. Eleonora Duse, already famous and acclaimed in Europe and overseas, brought on the scene the dramas D'Annunzio (The dream of a spring morning, La Gioconda, Francesca da Rimini, The dead city, The daughter of Iorio), often financing herself the productions and assuring them the success and the attention of the critics also outside Italy. Nonetheless, in 1896 D'Annunzio preferred Sarah Bernhardt for the first French performance of La ville morte.
Periods of closeness and collaboration between the two artists alternated with crises and breakdowns; D'Annunzio rarely followed the actress on his tours, but in 1898 he rented the fourteenth-century villa of the Capponcina in Florence in the Settignano area, north-east of Florence, to approach the Porziuncola, the home of Eleonora. In 1900, D'Annunzio published the novel Il fuoco, inspired by his relationship with Eleonora Duse, arousing lively criticism from the admirers of the actress. After their separation, Gabriele lived the rest of her life (she survived fourteen years), melting into the memory of the actress. In fact, at the news of the actress's death, now old, she seems to have murmured "She died that I did not deserve".