Eleonora Duse: accidental actress, natural talent
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Eleonora Duse

Actress - Vigevano 03/11/1858 - Pittsburgh (USA) 21/04/1924


The life of Eleonora Duse seems like a voyage full of sensational occurrences.

From a humble and poverty stricken childhood to fame and the spotlights later on in life.

Eleonora was born in Vigevano in 1858. Descendent of a long-standing family of comics, she had a nomadic childhood. She startled acting at a young age in her father’s theatrical company and at the age of four she was in Chioggia in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo in the interpretation by Cosetta. From this moment onwards the stage was the backdrop for her whole life.

In 1870 she substituted her mother as leading lady in Francesca from Rimini by Pellico and in the Pia de' Tolomei by Marenco. However her success as an actress was really established in 1870 at the Arena of Verona when she played the leading lady in Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. Between 1873 and 1878 she played various parts until she found fame in Naples in Fourchambault by Emile Augier. Her passion for acting took her on the road to success.

The friendships and love affairs with famous personalities and the collaboration with famous actors like Cesare Rossi were important for her career. In 1879, she gained her first success in Teresa Raquin by E. Zola and from 1880 onwards she became known as the best actress in the world.

In this period she attained major acclaim for The Princess of Baghdad, La moglie di Claudio (The Wife of Claudio), The Lady of the Camelias and many other plays by Sardou, Dumas and Renan.

In 1881 Eleonora Duse married Tebaldo Checchi, an actor in her theatrical company with whom she had a baby named Enrichetta. Unfortunately, the relationship was unhappy and ended with a separation.

In 1884 she made her entrance into Milan during the height of the season with the production of Cavalleria Rusticana, by Giovanni Verga. Here she met Arrigo Boito, musician and poet who wrote libretti for Verdi: a love story started that introduced her to the clandestine world of Milanese love affairs.

From 1889 onwards Eleonora was involved in various tournèe abroad, in Europe, Egypt, Latin America and in the United States. When she returned to Italy she founded her own company, the Dramatic Company of the City of Rome, with Flavio Andò and in 1895 she met Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet with whom she had a relationship for ten years and who introduced her to the world of literature.

Over time the actress improved her culture, strengthening her inbred talents and constantly bettering herself. She moved on to the works of Ibsen like: The Lady from the Sea, Edda Gabler, Rosmersholm that she played for the first time in Florence in 1906 with scenery by Gordon Craig.

She reached the pinnacle of her success in 1909 then she stepped out of the limelight to return again in 1921 with The Lady from the Sea by Ibsen.

She died of pneumonia on April 21st 1924, in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), during her American tournée.

Her body was transported back to her homeland at the expense of the Italian government on the ship “Duilio”, on May 13th. She was buried in Asolo (Treviso).

Anecdotes and curiosities

While Eleonora received her first success playing Juliet in the Shakespearean drama in the Arena of Verona in 1873, her mother Angelica died in hospital, afflicted with a serious illness.

Her love affair in 1879 with Martino Cafiero, director of the Corriere del Mattino, produced a daughter who died at birth.

Related places

November 22nd 1888: Teatro Manzoni

Anthony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare, adapted by Boito

February 9th 1891, Teatro dei Filodrammatici

A Doll’s House by Ibsen

March 20th 1901, Teatro Lirico

La città morta (The Dead City) by d'Annunzio

June 13th 1904, Teatro Lirico

Monna Vanna by Maeterlinck

December 11th 1905, Teatro Lirico

Rosmersholm by Ibsen

Museo Teatrale della Scala

There are two oil paintings, one by A. Volkoff the other by E. Kaulbach, which depict Duse on the stage.

Grand Hotel et de Milan

Duse stayed in the famous hotel on various occasions. She is included in the Libro d’Oro register of the hotel.

Sources and documents

Enciclopedia Multimediale Rizzoli-Larousse, Milano 1998

Enciclopedia Encarta 2000, Microsoft 2000

Enciclopedia della donna, Fabbri Editori, Milano 1964

Weaver William, Eleonora Duse, Bompiani, Milano 1985.

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