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Eleonora Duse: A Recollection

ISSUE:  Summer 1925


I was fated never to meet Duse when she was last in London, and yet I knew how anxious she was that we should meet again. She was in no haste to see anyone; certain circumstances having obliged me to leave town somewhat hurriedly, I can but wonder what it would have meant to me had I met her. What else, but to have seen a wraith, the shadow of herself, and to have given her a last farewell?

When I gaze on Duse’s dead white face, her hollow cheeks, her huge dark eyes that glow like burning flames out of the intense pallor of her complexion, when I gaze on the passionate pallor of her lips, she seems to me almost a disembodied spirit. Those eyes have seen the eager hurrying faces of men and women, in the street, dramatic faces over which the disturbing experiences of life have passed and left their symbols at the mere sight of which one’s heart throbs up into one’s blood. Yes, and for all her wisdom, Duse has endured more than most women the agonies of sensations; yet never could her heart’s violence—in all its transports of love or of passion or of utter hatred—disturb the fixed contemplation of her vision.

Duse is the symbol of relentless Fate, of Destiny, remorseless, inevitable, taking us unawares; and, as in one of those wonderful figures of Rodin, Duse admired so enormously, she appears, even across the mystic gulf of the footlights, as an embodiment of that obscure Power which holds us, as it were helpless captives, in the hollow of his hand. So, as in Rodin’s figures where man and woman fight the eternal battle of Sex, the woman, softly, overcomes, to her own perdition. The man holds her in the hollow of his hand, as God holds man and woman; he could close his hand upon the fragile thing—the wraith, the fragile Duse, as it were —that nestles there, and could crush it: the hand will never close over her, she will always have the slave’s conquest.

Can Death ever quench an everlasting fire? There was an ardent flame in Duse’s blood; and, among her devouring passions, I find Cleopatra’s, who knew how much greater is the intoxication of loving than of being loved. There is a passage in one of the Lettres Portugaises, and no passage in that little golden book is more subtly true, in which the “learned nun,” so learned in the ways of love, pities her inconstant lover for the “infinite pleasures he has lost” if he has never really loved her. “Ah, if you had known them,” she says, “vous auriez eprouve qu’on est beaucoup plus heureux, et qu’on sent quelque chose de bien plus touchant quand on aime violemment que lorsqu’on est aime.” Cleopatra knew this as she knew everything belonging to the art of which she was mistress. And the Tragedy ends with a touch of grave pity over “a pair so famous,” cut off after a life so full of glory and of dishonour, and taking with them, in their passing out of it, so much of the warmth and colour of the world.

Eleonora Duse was the artist of her own soul, and it was her strength of will, her mastery of herself, not her abandonment to it, which made her what she was: a great impersonal force, rushing towards the light, looking to every form of life for sustenance, for inspiration: seeming always to live in every nerve and brain-cell with a life which was unslack-ening and sleepless. Having controlled nature into the forms of her desire, as the sculptor controls the clay under his fingers—like Rodin—she was a great artist, the type of the artist, and it was by an accident that she was an actress. Circumstances having combined in making her an actress, sharing it might be in the immortal fame of Rachel and of Ris-tori, she sleeps, one might hope, eternally among the Immortals, alone in one corner of the cemetery in Asolo that juts over a little promontory, above the valley—a few cypresses shade her from the noon, and the sun sets at her feet, behind the mountain. There is an austere grandeur in Asolo, perched high and lonely in its hills—but beloved of God in its beauty when the sun shines, or at night, when, under stars and moon, the plains below to the South and East, look like the sea.

In Il Fuoco La Foscarina is created after the image of Duse: Effrena is created after the image of D’Annunzio. He strikes the tragic note when, in their gondola at Venice, the woman he called Perdita did not answer, “the head bent as if in greater concentration, but in all her nerves she felt that indefinable quiver that the voice of her friend always called up when it unexpectedly revealed the vehement and passionate soul to which she was driven by limitless love and terror.” And in that superb sentence: “A troubled desire drew him to the despairing woman in whom the traces of every pleasure were visible—towards that ageing body saturated with endless caresses, yet still unknown to him.” It was as if he had heard at night, in the silence of the canals in Venice, the passing of the most ardent breath of Wagner’s music; the deadly passion of Tristan and Isolde; and at the moment, as it were, when the wretched carnal trembling shook the woman who had become the prey of an invincible power.

In the Trionfo delta Morte form, subject, are both found. This study in the psychology of passion is a book scarcely to be read without terror, so insinuatingly does it show the growth, change, and slowly absorbing dominion of the flesh over the flesh, of the flesh over the soul. Nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum, the epigraph upon the French translation, expresses, if we add to it the Odi et amo of Catullus, that tragedy of desire unsatisfied in satisfaction, yet eternal in desire, which is perhaps the most profound tragedy in which the human soul can become entangled. “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Tristan and Isolde:” it might have seemed as if nothing new could be said on a subject which is the subject of those two supreme masterpieces. But d’Annunzio has said something new, for he has found a form of his own, in which it is not Antony who is “so ravished and enchanted of the sweet poison” of the love of Cleopatra, nor Tristan who chooses to die that he may “live in love,” for the sake of Isolde, but two shadows of whatever in humanity flies to the lure of earthly love. Just because they are so shadowy, because they may seem to be so unreal, they have another, nearer, more insidious kind of reality than that reality by which Antony is so absolutely Antony, Tristan so absolutely heroic love. The lovers of the Trionfo delta Morte might well be ourselves, evoked in some clouded crystal, because they have only so much of humanity as to have the desires, and dangers, and possible ecstacies, and possible disasters, which are common to all lovers who have loved without limitation and without wisdom.

If things are as we see them, and if there is nothing inert or passionless to us in the world, every elaborate beauty which art can add to nature will be, at the utmost, no more than a reflection of some beauty actually and strangely seen there. With so personal an apprehension of the world, it is the world, always, that d’Annunzio made, his soul being no world to him. For to him action is not everything, as it is for most makers of drama; it is but one of the many modes of the expression of life. He has none of Wagner’s expression of the subconscious life, who said more of himself than any person of the drama has ever found in his own soul. Man, “the model of the world,” is seen living in his own universe, which he creates continually about him. If we begin with the inward world of thought and feeling, the flame is more devouring, the whirlpool is still more rapid. “It is with this movement,” wrote Pater, “with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off—that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves. Birth and gesture and death and the springing of violets from the grave are hut a few out of ten thousand resultant combinations,” gesture, birth and death: was not Michelangelo, adored by Duse and by d’Annunzio, supposed to be ignorant of the spiritual world, not knowing whether the consecrated Host might not be the body of God? Pietd—that is the subject of his predilection. What was the after-world to him? “A thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.”

Does one not find, inevitably, as the very foundation of all the Arts, the personality who creates? So Beethoven’s music moves to no distinguishable action, yet it is already awake in the void waters, out of which a world is to awaken. Did not Turner say: “The Sun is God?” What we, the modern, most desire, is the wine-god Zagreusfi, a Bacchus who has been in Hell; Dionysus, the God of Intoxication; the hoofed Satyr of Dionysus, drunk with the young wine of nature, surly with the ancient wisdom of Siienus, who brings the real, excessive, disturbing truth of things suddenly into the Illusion; and with these, Meredith’s wonderful image of Beethoven: “The wind seemed in his hair, and he seemed to hear with his eyes: his forehead frowning so.” Finally Stelio’s image of La Foscarina. “She rose to her feet quickly, writhing as if he had touched her. She opened her eyes wide upon him, as if to devour him with her gaze, her nostrils quivered, a fearful force heaved in her, her whole body, in vibrating, felt itself naked under her dress, as if the folds no longer adhered to her. She was most beautiful, most terrible, and most miserable.” Mr. Courtney referring to II Fuoco, says: “One gorgeous image runs through the book—the image of autumn, like a beautiful woman laid to rest in an opalescent grave, beneath the surface of the Venetian canals, where she can see above her the moving waters and the floating seaweed. It is the tragedy of La Foscarina’s soul, shamelessly laid bare for us in these pages.” So, as Le Vergini della Roccia is a shadowy poem in which beautiful ghosts wander as if seen in a great mirror; so II Fuoco is a kind of fugue or symphony in which many voices cry together out of many instruments, building the elaborate structure. There is something in Stelio which reminds me of Matho, sombre and passionate, who, maddened with love, “in an invincible stupor, like those who have drunk some draught of which they must surely die,” is literally the prey of Venus, which in the case of Flaubert’s creation, is as true to the ancient view of that passion as in the case of Stelio; both of them live with the intensity of savage and cruel beasts, a life “blinded alike” from every inner and outer interruption which might mean death’s interruption. In the book consecrated to Duse—the glorious and shameless, the invidious and superbly animal consecration which to less morbid minds than his would seem to be of the nature of a desecration—passion is no longer unconscious of everything but itself—it is aware of its term, and it is able to conceive of that term as something that must be neither death nor any other annihilation of the future. “That thing i can do which even love could not do,” says the woman, in the sublime certainty of her shame, preparing herself for the sacrifice which will restore her lover to himself and to his finer self, Art.


When, under the management of Mr. Charles Blake Cockran, Duse gave six matinees at the New Oxford Theatre, it was in “Ghosts” that she showed the supremacy of her genius. She purged this appalling and monstrous Tragedy from what otherwise would have been the unmitigated horror of one of those Tragedies of Blood in the age of Shakespeare. To the pure reason emotion is something petty, ridiculous, or useless, and the conflicts of humanity no more than the struggle of ants on an ant-hill. To Thersites’s “critique of pure reason” all the heroisms of the world reduce themselves to his fundamental thesis: “all incontinent varlets.”

In “Ghosts,” Ibsen’s pursuit of truth to its most secret-hiding place is not a sermon against sin: it sets a scientific dogma visibly to work, and watches the effect of the hypothesis. As this dogma is terrible and plausible and the logic of its working-out faultless we get one of the deepest thrills that modern art has to give us. In “Hedda Gabler,” which is closer to life than “Ghosts,” Eleonora Duse created Hedda over again, as a poet would have created her, and made a wonderful creature whom Ibsen never conceived, or at least never rendered; when she thrilled me by the spell of her imagination, I thought of Verlaine’s phrase, which has in it a kind of perverse wickedness and which appeals through the brain to the senses, “it magnetises our poor vertebras.” And then that voice of hers! It could be sweet or harsh, it could laugh or cry, could be menacing or caressing. And how every word told! Every word came to you clearly, carrying exactly its meaning: and, somehow, along with the words, an emotion, which you might resolve to ignore, but which seized on you, which went through and through you. Trick or instinct, there it was, the power to make you feel intensely; and that is precisely the final test of a great dramatic artist.

The art of Duse was to do over again, consciously, this sculpture of the soul upon the body. For there are, in great crises, minutes when the soul seems to stand back and look out of impersonal eyes, seeing things as they are; and at such moments one can become aware of actual plastic beauty and of sorrowful and passionate emotion as they interpret themselves, in successions of moods, upon the face. So, as when at the supreme moment of death one’s soul comes transformingly into the body, one sees the soul’s visible identity; so the art of the actor, which is supposed to give, above all things, this sense of the moment as it passes, vividly ought to contrive some vivacity in expression which shall more than compete with life itself. That is the effective thing; but what Duse did is, after all, the right thing. “Action,” with her as with Rimbaud, was “a way of spoiling something,” when once action “has mastered thought” and got loose to work its own way in the world. Duse’s art was like the art of Verlaine in French poetry; always suggestion, never statement, always a renunciation. And this art, so wonderful and so subtle, conquered almost the last obstacle, as it turned the one wholly external art. based upon mere imitation, existing upon the most devious terms of illusion, triumphing by exaggeration, into an art wholly subtle, almost spiritual, a suggestion, an evasion, a secrecy.

When Duse was on the stage, she did not appeal to us with the conscious rhetoric of the actress; she let us overlook her, with an intense consciousness which much ardent and passionate study had formed into a second nature. When she impersonated Magda or Gioconda, she made them live, suffer and exult: she instilled into them the primary not the primitive, emotion, because it was passion’s absolute self, which became personal because it was universal. I have often noticed that Duse’s greatest moments were the moments of the most intense quietness: she did not send a shudder through the whole house, as Sarah Bernhardt did, playing on one’s nerves as on a violin.

“La Gioconda” was the first play in which Duse had beautiful words to speak, and a poetical conception of character to render; and her acting in it was more beautiful and more poetical than it was possible to be in “Magda.” The play at its best is less dramatic than lyrical; at its worst it is horrible. The action is meant to be a symbol of the destroying and possessing mastery of beauty and of art; only, as a matter of fact, its author has modernized the idea into a form of grotesque horror, which makes the whole drama inartistic. Yet, whenever it was most imaginative it gave Duse her opportunity of being her finest self: so much so that her whole existence seemed to flow into a more harmonious rhythm, for all the extreme and intrinsic violence of its suffering; in which, with her passionate genius, she conveyed to us a profound sense of that beauty which is made up of endurance and the irony of pitiable things done in vain; here she embodied the creation of an Italian, of a great artist, of a great lyrical poet, and a creation made in her honour. So, as she spoke words in themselves worthy of her speaking, this lulling Italian prose was a continual delight to the ear, prose quite as melodious as verse; prose, however, to which all dramatic probability is sacrificed.

There was a time when Dumas fils was to France what Ibsen afterwards became to Europe. What remains of him now is hardly more than his first “fond adventure,” the supremely playable “Dame aux Camelias.” The philosophy of “Tue-la!” was the especial pleading of the moment, and a drama in which special pleading, and not the “fundamental criticism of life,” is the dramatic motive can never outlast its technique, which has also died at the coming of Ibsen. Think for a moment how the peasants speak in “The Powers of Darkness” of Tolstoi, an uncouth and horrible tragedy which is illuminated by a great inner light, the light of vision, in which there is not one beautiful word, but whose speech stumbles into a revelation of the naked soul. The ingredients are unchanging since “Prometheus:” no human agony has ever grown old or lost its terror and pity.

I have always preferred the novel, “La Dame aux Camelias” to the play Dumas founded upon it, a play which becomes a mere stage convention as it crosses the footlights; a convention which is much too pathetic to be convincing, which can never be mistaken for great literature the sentiment being that which, in its depravity, one associates particularly with Paris. “On peut tres bien vivre sans etre la plus heureuse des femmes;” that is one of the morals of the piece; and, the more you think over the questions of conduct, or of misconduct, the more you realise that you might just as well not have thought about them at all, might be another. This hectic, pathetic play has no more attraction than that of an inconceivably lesser “Manon Lescaut,” which is universal. Duse’s Marguerite Gautier was more like what one imagines Mademoiselle de Lespinasse might have been than the passionate courtesan Sarah Bernhardt made hysterical. Duse revealed to us the intense sufferings of this morbid wanton: only, she created in her a creature whose devotion is a part of ardour, to whom ardour is as simple as breath. In her moments, in her scenes, of absolute greatness, she made Marguerite the woman in love: not the woman in love with love.

In “La Princesse Georges” which Dumas defined as “Soul in conflict with Instinct,” Duse came into the play with the resolve to do what the writer had done; she concentrated herself upon every moment as if it were the only one, so that the result of her performance was miraculous in detail: only, one asks oneself, would the part have been a great part if detail were everything? As a matter of fact there is not one glimmer of imagination in this play where the characters talk and act according to the tradition of the stage.

The rhythm of one of Ibsen’s plays is like that of a diagram in Euclid: it is the rhythm of logic, and his characters who move about in a well-realised or an evasive world, who use probable or improbable words, who do necessary things, may owe some of their manner at least to the modern French stage, and to the pamphleteer’s world of Dumas fils. Now, were such a person as this Princess really to exist, she would only have on the stage a melodramatic existence. Here we are too much aware of the strings of the marionettes, as we ask ourselves where are the three stages, truth, philosophy, conscience, which Dumas offers to us in his preface as the three stages by which a work of dramatic art reaches perfection? Nowhere; but, as I wrote: “Duse of all actresses the nearest to nature, was born to create beauty, that beauty which is the deepest truth of natural things. Why does she after all only tantalise us, showing us little fragments of her soul under many disguises, but never giving us her whole self through the revealing medium of a masterpiece?”

When Mrs. Patrick Campbell played the part of Paula, a fantastic and delightful contradiction, half gamine, half Burne-Jones, she confused Gur judgment, as a Paula in real life might, and left us attracted and repelled, and, above all, interested, I remember Duse’s lamentation over the fact that only a certain number of the plays she trailed with her over Europe were on the level of her intelligence, and of her capacity for expressing deep and profound, tragic and passionate, human emotion; and simply because—as one is aware—her acting was a criticism of the severest imaginable kind, under which, as under a solvent acid, poor work dissolved. So, what is skin-deep in Paula as conceived by Pinero, became a real human being, a human being with a soul, in the Paula conceived by Duse. Pinero, in nearly all of his plays, suggests nothing, he tells you all he knows; he cares to know nothing but what immediately concerns the purpose of his play. The existence of his people begins and ends with their first and last speech on the stage; and yet he has a cynical intelligence which is much more interesting than the uncertain outlook of most of our playwrights. When Duse brought profound tragedy, the tragedy of a sinful soul, before us, the play could not stand it. There was Duse, with none of the inevitable words that ought to have rendered a scene of spiritual loneliness really great: there was Duse, a chalice for the wine of imagination, but the chalice remained empty. Wrhile I watched her destroying the illusion of the play and proving over again the supremacy of her own genius, I thought, feeling her repugnance, of the woman herself, who, as she listened to music, seemed to remember, and to drink in nourishment for her soul, as she drank in perfume greedily from flowers, from roses, as she possessed a book or a picture, almost with violence.

When i watched Duse’s “Magda,” I could conceive, for the time, of no other. Realising the singer as being just such an artist as herself, she played the part with hardly a suggestion of the stage, except the natural woman’s intermittent loathing of it. She had been a great artist, but that was nothing to her. “I am I,” as she would have said, and she has lived. And we saw before us, all through the play, a woman who had lived with all her capacity for joy and sorrow, who had thought with her capacity for seeing clearly what she was unable, perhaps, to help doing. She did not act, that is, explain herself to us, emphasise herself for us. She let us overlook her, with a supreme unconsciousness, a supreme affectation of unconsciousness, which is of course very conscious art, an art so perfect as to be almost literally deceptive. I do not know if she played with exactly the same gestures every night after night, but I can quite imagine it. She had certain little caresses, the half awkward caresses of real people, not the abrupt curves and convolutions of the stage, which always enchanted me beyond any mimetic movement I have ever seen. Having cleared away all that was not wanted, Duse would begin to create, and she created out of life itself an art which no one before her had ever imagined; not realism, not a copy, but the thing itself, the evocation of thoughtful life, the creation of the world over again, as actual and beautiful a thing as if the world had never existed.


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