Eskins and the show's director, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, are not widely known, but the play features two of the New York stage's best character actresses in the story's juicy leads. Laura Esterman, who has acted in Marvin's Room, Good as New, Freedomland and Cranes, plays The Divine Sarah. Pamela Payton-Wright, who was recently seen in Fifth of July and spelled for Vanessa Redgrave during her brief absence from Long Day's Journey Into Night, will be La Duse.
The two thespians were considered the greatest actresses in the world during much of their lifetimes (Bernhardt died in 1923; Duse, who was much younger than Bernhardt, passed away in 1924). Artistically, however, they couldn't have been more different. The French Bernhardt's fame, established in melodramas by Dumas fils and Sardou, was firmly rooted in the cult of personality that surrounded her. She struck beautiful poses and hit her dramatic "points" like clockwork. With her sculpting career, many lovers and habit of sleeping in a coffin, she made for consistent newspaper fodder.
Duse, meanwhile, pursued a modern playing style in the plays of her lover Gabriele D'Annunzio and Henrik Ibsen. Critics notes her naturalistic, integrated playing style, her eschewing of make-up, corsets and jewelry, and her ability to find the drama between the words and in long silences. She ostentatiously abhorred publicity, though she cultivated the favor of critics and editors privately through flattering letters.
The two were great rivals, and with good reason. Their repertoires often overlapped; The Lady of the Camellias was a huge success for both. D'Annunzio, Duse's longtime lover, gave his first play to Bernhardt. In 1895, both actresses simultaneously appeared in competing London productions of Hermann Sudermann's Heimat, resulting in a famous review in which George Bernard Shaw compared the two (he preferred Duse). A couple years later, Duse made her debut in Paris, the Divine Sarah's kingdom. Bernhardt graciously allowed her rival to use her very own theatre, but was infuriated when Duse revealed a repertoire consisting of the French actress' greatest hits.
The play depicts a surprise encounter between the two; the ghost of the recently deceased Bernhardt visits Duse in her dressing room just before a Pittsburgh engagement (after which Duse would fall sick and die herself). Also featured in the play, as the various men in the two divas' lives, is Robert Emmet Lunney. *
A new biography of Duse by Helen Sheehy was recently published by Knopf.