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Playing to the Gods

Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever

About The Book

The riveting story of the rivalry between the two most renowned actresses of the nineteenth century: legendary Sarah Bernhardt, whose eccentricity on and off the stage made her the original diva, and mystical Eleonora Duse, who broke all the rules to popularize the natural style of acting we celebrate today.

Audiences across Europe and the Americas clamored to see the divine Sarah Bernhardt swoon—and she gave them their money’s worth. The world’s first superstar, she traveled with a chimpanzee named Darwin and a pet alligator that drank champagne, shamelessly supplementing her income by endorsing everything from aperitifs to beef bouillon, and spreading rumors that she slept in a coffin to better understand the macabre heroines she played.

Eleonora Duse shied away from the spotlight. Born to a penniless family of itinerant troubadours, she disappeared into the characters she portrayed—channeling their spirits, she claimed. Her new, empathetic style of acting revolutionized the theater—and earned her the ire of Sarah Bernhardt in what would become the most tumultuous theatrical showdown of the nineteenth century. Bernhardt and Duse seduced each other’s lovers, stole one another’s favorite playwrights, and took to the world’s stages to outperform their rival in her most iconic roles.

A scandalous, enormously entertaining history full of high drama and low blows, Playing to the Gods is the perfect “book for all of us who binge-watched Feud” (Daniel de Visé, author of Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show).


Playing to the Gods PROLOGUE
César Ritz checked his pocket watch as the lavish carriage rolled into the roundabout. It was June 14, 1894—a quarter past ten in the evening. Right on schedule, thought Ritz, snapping his fingers at the footmen and adjusting his waistcoat in anticipation of the celebrity guest. She was a personal favorite of his, the Grande Dame of the theater, the greatest actress the world had ever known.

The hotelier forgave her many eccentricities, such as her penchant for traveling with a pet alligator—one that enjoyed champagne, no less. As the general manager of the Savoy, London’s premier hotel, it was Ritz’s job to cater to the whims of his customers, particularly the artists. When Claude Monet insisted on room 618 with its perfect view of Waterloo Bridge, it became the subject of a dozen canvases.

Artists had their desires; the hotelier accommodated them. What happened behind closed doors remained private. Ritz instructed his staff with the maxim: See all without looking; hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile.

Earlier that week, Ritz had quietly escorted the Prince of Wales and a “companion” to the honeymoon suite. Five floors up, the young Oscar Wilde was smoking opium-laced Egyptian cigarettes, sipping absinthe, and carrying on in ways that would soon put him on trial for committing “homosexual acts of gross indecency.”

Everyone had his or her secrets, and the actress arriving that evening at the canopied roundabout of the Savoy was no exception. She flaunted her private affairs, in fact, to fuel her fame, which had been unsurpassed until now. As a footman opened the carriage door, Ritz inclined in a respectful bow to the dazzling figure that emerged, draped in jewels: the Divine Sarah Bernhardt.

The hotelier kissed her hand, taking pains not to seem obsequious but conscious that the aging actress might require a little extra attention this evening. Sarah had just returned from a performance at the Drury Lane, where she’d witnessed, for the first time, the spellbinding acting of her archrival: Eleonora Duse, who was leading a quiet revolution on the stage.

To showcase her radically new style of acting, the Italian Duse had chosen a very old play: Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias, written in 1848 as a novel first, then adapted by the author for the theater. The play was popular around the world, quite risqué in its time—a poignant melodrama about a sickly courtesan in love with a client who leaves her to die alone. It was the signature role of Sarah Bernhardt, who had made a career of playing the part in capitals across the world. Now, Eleonora Duse was taking Bernhardt’s play to those same capitals, forcing critics to make a choice between the old and the new. Sarah felt the affront, no doubt; how could she not? But the rivalry was not personal for Eleonora—not yet, at least. In fact, Sarah had been her idol.

A generation younger, Eleonora had risen to international stardom from a penniless family of itinerant troubadours. For the last decade, she’d been disrupting the Western theater world with a singular style that was both subtle and provocative, rooted in her body, yet profoundly mystical. Like a temple priestess performing an incantation, her power lay in the silence between the words—the realm of thought and intention—where she invited the audience to meet her as cocreators. By ignoring the crowd completely, she provoked people to sit forward in their chairs and read her mind. And by disappearing into the world of the play, she became the antithesis of Sarah Bernhardt, which is perhaps why Duse has largely been forgotten.

Sarah never disappeared. No one sobbed as well as Bernhardt, no one despaired, no one died. When people paid to see the great “Sarah Bernhardt,” the actress gave them a show they would never forget. She relished her star power and the profound impact it had on her audiences; her roles were riveting and indelible. By the sheer enormity of her stage presence, Bernhardt had transformed the theater world, lifting acting from the disrepute into which it had fallen and raising it to its original stature as a true art.

Before Bernhardt’s time, popular theater had been more vaudeville than opera, a largely social experience. Opera glasses panned the crowd as much as the performance. Actors were outcasts, actresses were courtesans—and when they died, they were buried, by law, in the local potter’s field. The rising bourgeoisie who paid to see actors on the boards wouldn’t have them in their cemeteries.

It cost pennies to buy a theater ticket, a pittance, and no one got rich as an actress—until Sarah. Her talent was such that she had earned the attention of the royals who had avoided “popular” theater. They had preferred Puccini to Pirandello. And why shouldn’t they?

The actor’s craft was a highly stylized affair, delivered in shrill voices within tableau-like blocking. Actors did not pretend to portray multidimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings; they were archetypes—the Empress, the Lover, the Evil Authority Figure, the Beloved—reenacting the human passion play for our entertainment.

Acting was a paint-by-numbers enterprise. There were manuals that showed you how to do it—a book of “poses” that represented the entire gamut of emotions, from devastation to rage. If a certain line called for “curiosity,” for example, one need look no further than page nineteen of the Handbook of Theatrical Poses by Alamanno Morelli (Prontuario delle pose sceniche, published in 1854 and widely read). Any literate actor could assume the “curiosity” posture as prescribed:

Listen with maximum interest, torso bent at the waist; head forward, somewhat turned; mouth open; right hand partially opened near the face . . . right foot forward, leg bent at the knee; left heel back.

It was absurdly specific. Yet talented actors were masters of these poses, reproducing them time and again in perfect detail, like championship athletes. They became known for their technical virtuosity in certain signature roles, often repeating the most popular speeches two or three times in spontaneous encores within a scene; this brought the drama to a standstill but delighted the adoring crowd. It was maddening to modernists like Duse and others who wanted theater to mirror real life. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen noted dryly that actresses in Norway “always swooned on the left of the stage and always with a handkerchief in their left hand.”

The writing was equally rote. Tragic plots invariably ended in death or suicide; comedies, in marriage. Attending the theater became a passive, predictable experience. Many in the audience might have already seen the play, often several times—so it was hardly necessary to pay close attention.

Then writers began creating more original plays. And certain actors were attempting to elevate the craft by performing the poses with such artistry that the theatrical tableaus became like living poetry. The undisputed master of this was Sarah Bernhardt, who continued to dazzle, even in her fifties, the average life expectancy for a Victorian woman.

Sarah seemed immortal; she continued to perform the plays that launched her—and no one played the coquette quite like her. But it was in tragedy that she truly shone, facing her doom with such pathos that it left her audience in tears. “By her extraordinary power of swooning,” commented Jean Cocteau, “she filled the arms of the world.”

Sarah’s success was unparalleled. In her numerous tours of America, she occupied seven train cars, steaming from town to town on the “Bernhardt Special” as if she were on a presidential whistle-stop. As writer Henry James remarked: “She is too American not to succeed in America.” She understood, like no one else, that a star’s image could—and should—be manufactured; the more outsized, the better. In the words of critic Jules Lemaître:

Sarah Bernhardt . . . is eminently a Russian princess, unless she is a Byzantine empress or a begum of Muscat, feline and impassioned . . . eccentric, enigmatic, woman-abyss, woman I know not what. . . . She could enter a convent, discover the North Pole, have herself inoculated with rabies, assassinate an emperor, or marry a Negro king without astonishing me.

Sarah invented the culture of the exotic, eccentric celebrity. There would be no Lady Gaga without Bernhardt—no Madonna, Cher, Liberace, Bowie, or countless others. As the world’s first superstar, Sarah originated the notion of merchandising herself through product endorsements, from aperitifs to beef bouillon. She commissioned a series of striking posters by Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha, which fans on every continent could collect. There were also souvenir postcards (“cabinet cards,” as they were known) of Sarah in every conceivable role and situation, including asleep in her signature coffin—a practice rumored to feed her understanding of death and dying, which was her theatrical specialty. Sarah Bernhardt was known by millions, and she remains so to this day. At the height of her career, not a day went by without her name appearing somewhere in print. This was by design. It was a strategy.

As much as Sarah adored the spotlight, Eleonora Duse shied away from it. While deeply private about her offstage life, she would bare it all in the footlights—an actress who felt her roles with such intensity that they exhausted her. Despite being fourteen years Sarah’s junior, Eleonora did not have nearly the stamina of Bernhardt, who booked twice as many shows during her endless tours, lasting two years or more. Yet Duse’s work was revolutionary—and now Bernhardt had witnessed it for herself.

César Ritz could tell that the experience had unnerved the diva. But he also knew that Sarah was damned if she’d let it show to the dowagers scrutinizing her from the Savoy lobby.

“Did you order the bananas for Darwin?” Sarah asked Ritz as he escorted her through the grand entryway. Darwin was her chimpanzee.

“But of course, Madame,” responded Ritz, who is credited with coining the phrase “the customer is always right.”

Before Ritz could whisk Sarah into his newly installed Otis elevator, they were accosted by a reporter who asked the question of the hour: “What do you think of Eleonora Duse?”

Sarah had a quick answer, rehearsed and ready: She’s of the vine [meaning: a peasant], not an actress.

Delivered in French, the line produced the expected amusement. Elle n’est pas une actrice, elle est de vigne. It was a play on Sarah’s own trademark descriptor: divine.

• • •

The house at the Drury Lane Theatre had been packed that night. One hour after curtain, the buzzing audience was finally gone, save a solitary figure perched up in “The Gods,” the cheapest section of the house—so high up as to be in the realm of Mount Olympus. It was the only ticket Tebaldo Checchi could afford; he was fortunate to have obtained a last-row seat at all. Everyone in London was clamoring to catch a glimpse of the Italian sensation. Tebaldo, a Neapolitan, had traveled all the way from Uruguay for the experience. He’d seen Duse before, of course, countless times. He had even shared the stage with her. But this was different. Tonight her performance had been transcendent.

Tebaldo had been surrounded by students and impoverished artists, all eager to witness the artistry of La Duse, as she was known. None of them could afford opera glasses, which made it difficult to perceive the action on the distant stage. A world-class actress like Bernhardt knew to tilt her head backward to allow her voice to rise and reach those “popular” seats, with poses and gestures broad enough to be read by the back of the house.

Not so with Duse. She did just the opposite, turning upstage, having a private moment at the coat rack or mirror, speaking sotto voce. And yet all of this somehow carried to the uppermost balcony as an invisible pulse of energy. It had astonished Tebaldo.

At times, Duse had sat in silence—simply thinking onstage while the audience watched, either intrigued or utterly confused. It was scandalous in certain quarters, which held that the ticket-buying public paid to hear grand speeches, not these curious pauses best left to rehearsals. Why would an audience want the burden of having to guess what the actress might be thinking?

Attempting to read the mind of Eleonora Duse had been a central preoccupation of Tebaldo Checchi: they had been husband and wife. But even in their four years together, he had never been able to get inside her head. Checchi was a journeyman actor from Naples; Duse, a theatrical prophet. Her thoughts ran at a different frequency, which is why their relationship never really stood a chance. The wedding had been impulsive. Eleonora had been suicidal at the time; he swooped in, savior and protector. She needed his kindness and quiet support, and was grateful for it. But that was all in the past.

The last time Tebaldo had seen Eleonora was ten years prior, when they were on tour together in South America, several winters into their unsteady marriage. It was during that tour that she and Tebaldo had decided to separate. He stayed in Uruguay. But they had a child together—a girl, whom Tebaldo missed terribly. That’s why he had traveled from South America to England in 1894: he had planned to demand visitation rights. But Tebaldo made the mistake of first seeing Eleonora perform.

That moment when Eleonora, as the ill-fated courtesan Camille, had allowed her eyes to flicker through a series of emotions, from indignation to shame, then a flash of embarrassment punctuated by a sudden blush . . . it was astonishing. Eleonora had developed such uncanny control of her instrument that she was able to blush at will—which is why she walked the stage without makeup. It made her, by all accounts, even more beautiful. But it was the beauty of her performance that had stunned Tebaldo.

Critics had remarked that Duse didn’t have a technique. She acted from intuition—a sense that took her places where no other living actor dared to tread. One choice in act 3 had caused the crowd to let out a collective gasp, for Eleonora had broken the three most elementary rules of stagecraft:

1. Never turn your back on the audience.

2. Never deliver lines while in motion. Any trained actor would know to face the crowd squarely and assume the traditional posture required for that particular speech.

3. Declaim your lines with authority, not sotto voce, as she had done, so that her words were barely audible.

And yet Eleonora’s choices seemed natural. It hardly mattered that the line was inaudible. This was one of theater’s best-known plays. The English crowd was perfectly capable of following along, whether the play was performed in the original French, or, in this case, in Italian. Indeed, since the text was well known, there was a certain genius to Eleonora’s choice of going for something subdued—to make her choices small and intimate.

Not only did Duse ignore the audience, she seemed entirely unaware of it. This was radical. As Goethe had stated unequivocally in his 1803 Rules for Actors: “the player must always divide his attention between two objects . . . between the person to whom he is speaking and his audience.” Now, nearly a century later, Eleonora was shunning the audience altogether.

Tebaldo found it electrifying, this voyeuristic thrill of observing someone who seemed completely unaware of being “seen,” a person at her most vulnerable. From his perch in the balcony, he felt like he had been watching the actors muddling their way through the very drama of the human condition.

Do you know how theater originated? Eleonora had once asked him after a performance, her dark eyes lighting up as they inevitably did when she talked about mysticism. Though completely unschooled, Eleonora had read voraciously her entire life, particularly books on spirituality.

Theater began as an offshoot of religion, she explained, with the singular purpose of helping us to understand what it means to be human—in all its poignancy, humor, and devastation. As our ancestors gazed up at the stars, trying to fathom our purpose, the high priest(ess) of the tribe—the shaman—would recount the stories of the past, enacting the different roles (the Hero, the Beloved, the Antagonist), allowing his body temporarily to become “possessed” and letting the spirit archetypes channel through him. This was the original acting, Eleonora whispered. It meant dissolving the ego.

“I call it ‘The Grace,’?” she said, admitting that the presence didn’t “visit” her every performance. But in those moments when The Grace flowed through her, Eleonora felt connected to the entire universe.

Tebaldo heard the words but could not quite fathom their meaning ten years earlier. Now he had seen The Grace with his own eyes. He wanted to weep.

• • •

It hadn’t always been a rivalry. A generation older, Sarah had been something of a mentor to the young Italian, and certainly had paved the way for her success. In Eleonora’s youth, Sarah was already an icon—summoned to royal courts, a visiting artiste on the same level as Mozart. “It would be hard to imagine a more brilliant embodiment of feminine success,” said Henry James, one of Sarah’s most loyal fans.

In her twenties, she had famously walked away from the prestigious Comédie-Française to form her own company, a bold but brilliant move that had inspired Eleonora Duse to do likewise. But success had come much more slowly for Duse.

Odd as it may seem today, it was considered frivolous at the time, even harmful, for an actress to “feel” the part she was playing. As critic and philosopher Denis Diderot had written in The Paradox of Acting (published in 1830): “Extreme sensitiveness makes poor actors; while absolute lack of sensitiveness is a quality of the highest acting.” His bizarre argument went as follows:

If the actor were full, really full, of feeling, how could he play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success? Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out and cold as a marble at the third.

For Diderot, acting was more akin to an athletic performance than an art—it required physical discipline. The ideal actor should feel nothing and be a master of physical mimicry. This antiemotional acting by imitation, or “indication,” was known as Symbolism or the Symbolic style. It’s what audiences had come to expect. If actors attempted to act more naturally, they were often booed from the stage. Michel Baron, the favorite pupil of French playwright Molière, attempted “to speak and not declaim,” and he was hissed at by the seventeenth-century Parisian public.

The “struggle” between emotionalism and antiemotionalism—represented perfectly in the rivalry between Duse and Bernhardt—went back to Roman times and the very origins of the theater. William Archer, in his famous 1888 essay, Masks or Faces?, cited a first-century Roman rhetorician:

Quintilian . . . is very explicit on the subject of stage tears. . . . “The great secret . . . for moving the passions is to be moved ourselves; for the imitation of grief, anger, indignation, will often be ridiculous, if our words and countenance alone conform to the emotion, not our heart.”

To mimic the feeling from the outside in, as Sarah would do, was useless trickery, a disservice to the audience. Quintilian’s counsel to actors: “Let our speech proceed from the very state of mind which we wish to induce in the judge.”

But Quintilian was in the minority. Summoning an emotion on command was devilishly difficult, especially in colossal amphitheaters that seated tens of thousands. It was far easier to employ a language of gestures and masks, systematized by actors and accepted by the public as shorthand symbols. These millennia-old conventions—the tricks of the trade—were now woven into the very fabric of the theater. The idealized poses had become the hallmarks of great acting.

When the unschooled Eleonora began her career in the 1860s, she had certainly not been exposed to the writings of Diderot or Quintilian. Without any formal training, she simply began acting from the inside out—allowing her feelings to guide her on the stage. Those who recognized Duse’s genius were floored by it. Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski would one day codify Duse’s craft into what would become the basis of method acting in America. But the Duse method, known as verismo (“realism”), was an abomination to Sarah Bernhardt and many others, who felt it made theater pedestrian. A tragic drama like La Dame aux camélias needed to be performed with grandeur. Sarah felt that Eleonora’s work was returning the art to the ignominy from which she had lifted it.

By the following year, in the summer of 1895, the Duse-Bernhardt rivalry would reach its apogee in an extraordinary theatrical event: both actresses were booked to perform across the street from each other in London—in the very same play.

After years of competition, onstage and in their private lives, the two stars would finally be performing head-to-head in the decisive showcase of their radically different styles. Both actresses had their ardent proponents, and it was by no means clear which would prevail.

Ultimately they would each have an extraordinary impact: one would leave an enduring mark on the theater, the other would live in our imaginations forever. The path to this legacy, however, would be marked by high drama and low blows.

About The Author

Paola di Florio

Peter Rader is a writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor who has worked for Hollywood’s leading film and television studios over a career spanning three decades. The author of Playing to the Gods and Mike Wallace: A Life, he has mentored writers and taught classes and workshops at the Los Angeles Film School, the California State University system, and Harvard University. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 21, 2018)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476738390

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Raves and Reviews

“Thrilling [and] deeply researched. [Rader] has a sizzling way of delivering 100-year-old scandals.”
The New York Times

Playing to the Gods is the best sort of dual biography, deftly intertwining the lives of two fascinating people. Rader masterfully plays these powerful women off each other. This is the book for all of us who binge-watched Feud.”
—Daniel de Visé, author of Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show

“Rader’s fluid narrative moves from stage to boudoir with grace and intrigue, pitting two great theater rivals against one another in an epic battle of styles that elevates both to the iconic status they deserve.”
—Michael Sucsy, writer, director, and producer of Grey Gardens

Playing to the Gods argues that the Duse-Bernhardt rivalry, dragging on for years, was more than just personal, it was crucial to the art of modern acting.... [Rader] has done his research and he clearly has sympathy for his leading ladies.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Writing in a style both humorous and romantic, and throwing in juicy tidbits (catty notes, cheating lovers) all along.... This entertaining chronicle illustrates how both women captivated audiences and made a lasting impact on the theater.”
Publishers Weekly

“Palpably sensuous. Rader brings surging back to life two 19th century theatrical titans and the world they inhabited. Bravo!”
—Scott Eyman, bestselling author of Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stuart

“Theater buffs will love the way Rader captures a global moment in theater—Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw all make appearances. A fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book.”

“Lovers of theater and theater history will devour this book, an entertaining and immaculate look at a time that in many ways served as the primordial beginnings of the modern stage.”
The Maine Edge

“Delightfully readable and informative, Rader’s book examines a rivalry that defined modern theater while also exploring the origins of modern celebrity culture. A well-researched and thoroughly entertaining dual biography.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Entertaining and insightful. Rader has taken two legendary figures from theater’s past and put flesh on their bones—bringing them to life, charting their amazing careers, and illuminating their impact on the modern stage.”
—Richard Zoglin, author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century

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