Some Random Notes on a Casual Meeting With Eleonora Duse


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 6. Ed. Arthur Hornblow. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1924. p. 22, 66.

TWENTY years ago I first saw Duse. It was her last appearance in America at the end of what had not been a particularly profitable tour. She had insisted on playing the dramas of D'Anunzio though the public had wanted Camille and Magda. Her final performance at the Metropolitan, however, had consisted of an act of each of her more famous rôles. As I look back through the years I recall Magda's return to her father's house and how marvelously Duse's fluent hands moved over the back of his chair, as she looked about the familiar room that had harbored her innocence.

Two years ago in Paris I saw her again. It was in Sacha Guitry's dressing-room. I had been there talking to him between the acts when she unexpectedly came in. He had told me how she had refused to allow him to pay the customary courtesy of having her box decorated with flowers. She had wanted to be inconspicuous. Of course, I faded out of the way as soon as I could. She did not linger long but came out into the corridor in a nervous, excited manner. Then she suddenly remembered she had forgotten something.

"Oh, mon chapeau! J'ai oublié mon chapeau," she exclaimed in her peculiarly vibrant voice, as she rushed back.

When she was here last winter I recalled the scene to her. "Oh, yes. Sacha had asked me to go back to see him and I did en camarade. But I was so confused in his loge. It was so full of people and noise. How can he stand having people there like that when he is playing a rôle? . . . I had to leave pleading a headache. I was so confused. That's why I left my hat and wrap...."

We were sitting in her simple suite at her hotel in New York shortly after her reappearance on the same Metropolitan Opera House stage. There were flowers about; but nothing had been altered from its habitual furnishings. Her personal manager had arranged the meeting for me.

WHEN she heard that I did not want to interview her for publication, but merely wished to talk to her about plays and things, she consented to see me the very next day. Her horror of the formal interview had no limits. All her life she had suffered by what she had been made to say. I was told that, failing to get anything tangible from her, things were invented. It happened that once she had just received a half dozen pairs of scissors which she had sent to be sharpened. When the interviewer saw them lying on the table, the news was shortly given to the world "that Madame Duse had a passion for collecting scissors." Such experiences had made her shy in meeting strangers.

Of course, I was terribly fussed. I knew she spoke no English and that I would have to speak French. When the door of her suite was opened I confess, in the darkness, I nearly mistook her companion for Duse herself. Somehow, it would have been natural for Duse to have opened the door! When she finally came in from her bedroom, she went straight to her personal manager without looking at me. Then, when he greeted her and mentioned my name, she turned quickly towards me with a measuring glance, her lips murmuring a greeting as she extended her hand, which I saluted in Continental fashion.

Though immediately impressed by the aura of her personality, I could not help but note the economy of her movement. It was all so natural and yet there was no confusion in the way each particular move was unconsciously registered. There were strands of white hair among the iron-grey that had nearly turned. Her face was sallow, without color, yet oddly enough not so wrinkled as I had expected--except the brow. Her neck seemed a bit gaunt; her high cheek-bones perhaps more prominent than in the early Lenbach painting. Yet she looked almost the same as she had seemed in that memorable return in The Lady of the Sea. Her eyes remain most vivid to me--dark, mysterious yet kind. I had expected something more wan and languid, too--an epic woman bowed by a world of personal sorrow. But when she began to speak almost immediately with great rapidity and without any hesitation in searching for her words, I felt an unsuspected personality. Not once during the half hour, which she graciously granted me, was there any lessening of her verbal attack or vitality. Somehow, this gave me quite a shock since, just before, her manager had told me as her train left Paris she had huddled in the corner of her compartment asking timidly, "Do you think there is a place in America even for me?"

I HAD no difficulty in following her French though she had a pronounced Italian accent. She very generously divined my meaning when my phrase halted in confusion; for I was recording my impressions of her and trying to think in another language. She instantly asked me if I had a play that would suit her. I knew the great problem which confronted her on a tour was the fact that, as had been her custom, she had engaged her company by the year, whether they played or not. Acting so seldom as she did and with a limited repertoire, which, however, necessitated a fairly large company, it was practically impossible to make her touring financially profitable. With this in mind I had therefore come to suggest to her the possibility of an evening of one-act plays, which, being frequently altered, would yet allow her public a chance to see her in a variety of rôles, and with simple scenery. The idea appealed to her immensely. She had never thought of it before and she immediately saw its value to her peculiar demands, since people really came to see her act and not the plays themselves in a foreign language.

"It is practically impossible for me to find new rôles," she said. "The Italian dramatists now only write for young women stars. The problem of the young alone seems interesting to the public--not the old. I understand it is the same here in America. Do you think you could find me such rôles among your writers? There are so many problems that come late in life. But the older woman seems no longer interesting in the Continental drama. I feel I shall find something here that I can use. I cannot explain it. As I came nearer to America I felt my own vitality increasing. And I do feel so much vitality here. I have so many young people coming to the theatre to see me. But I must change my repertoire. I realize my present plays are not suitable. I cannot play Camille and Sardou. I am too old. And then times have changed and I, too, must have new things. Perhaps I could more easily find a repertoire of one-act plays."

When I suggested the possibility of an international program of such plays her eyes lighted with the idea.

"I might do two on an affiche, with some music between. That would be enough. In fact, I had thought of doing The Riders to the Sea for my return; but it was too short a play in which to make my reappearance after an absence of twenty years. . . . I understand you have written many one-act plays. Have you any that would suit me?"

I had brought one along which I had translated into French especially so she might read it. I apologized for the condition of the pages, for, to tell the truth, I had carried it over Europe in the hope that I might have an occasion of presenting it to her.

"Oh, I am used to that. If a manuscript is all done up beautifully I am a little suspicious of it. I like to see a manuscript that has been worked over." I told her I had written it six years before with her in mind. "Why didn't you send it to me? I should so like to have been remembered. . . . Yet six years is a long while when one is young. . . . Perhaps if I don't think it suits me you will write me something else? It is so hard to find plays which suit me--now."

There was a momentary glance as though looking far away. "Tell me," she asked, "how do your young artists endure playing every day? Your young Eva Le Gallienne tells me she must give nine and ten performances a week and that often a play will run for a year or more continuously . . . How can one keep the springs of creation fresh? And yet they seem so willing to learn. . . . They do not come to see me act because I am handsome or young. . . . Perhaps I have something to give them." Then she called for her companion to bring the Sunday paper. "Yet there seems to be nothing but beautiful women in your theatre." And as she pointed to a famous star in a bathing suit she added with a shy smile: "That is not art, that is nature."

We spoke of actors abroad and I find, in the hasty notes I made after I left, but one reference: "Lucien Guitry is a great actor in the great tradition. His son, Sacha, is all that is best in the modern school--its skill, its cleverness and perhaps he has some of its faults."

When I rose to go she sat on the arm of the couch fingering the manuscript I had brought her. Her eyes accidentally fell on a phrase which was a sort of text upon the title-page. "I like that," she said, "Les arbres morts restent longtemps debout" -- dead trees stand long.

She smiled enigmatically and I kissed her hand as I left her standing there.

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