The biography is Sheehy's first since her 1996 tome on actress Eva Le Gallienne—a Duse admirer who herself wrote a book on the grand dame.
Duse lived from 1858 to 1924, and during her adult life had only one rival on the world stage, France's Sarah Bernhardt. She was famed for what was considered, at the time, a very naturalistic style of acting. She eschewed make-up and fancy costumes. Her style emphasized inner life, as opposed to external flourishes, and she played up the ordinary, as opposed to grand, origins of each character. This approach was epitomized in her groundbreaking work with in the plays of Ibsen. Duse performed in Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House and Rosmersholm when many still disapproved of the Norwegian's raw social dramas. A masterful craftsperson, she could famously blush and blanch on command. Equally well known was her ability to hold a stage and audience with long, evocative silences.
Eleonora Guilia Amalia Duse was born to an Italian actor-manager and first acted—as Juliet—when she was only 14. She lost her mother that same year. In her early 20s, she triumphed in such pieces as Sardou's Bourghesi di Pontarcy, Augier's I Fourchambault and Dumas' The Princess of Baghdad. Later successes included La Dame aux Camelias, Therese Raquin and Cavalleria Rusticana. Disliking publicity, she avoided reporters and seldom granted interviews.
Personally, her life was dominated by a series of unfortunate relationships with cruel and manipulative men who used and then discarded her. By Martino Cariero, a Naples newspaper editor, she had a child, whom the father disowned. Her lover Arrigo Boito, a librettist for Verdi, disliked the theatre and encouraged her to abandon the stage. Her most important relationship was with poet and playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio. She appeared in many of his overripe poetical plays and greatly helped in elevating his reputation—since diminished—as a dramatist.
Duse frequently toured the world. She played engagements on Broadway: La Gioconda in 1902; and The Lady from the Sea and Ghosts in 1923. The Italian genius died of pneumonia in, strangely enough, Pittsburgh, after a performance of Porta Chiusa. "Eleonora Duse: A Biography" is 380 pages long and retails at $32.50.