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Eleonora Duse: the First Great Modern Actress

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The early feminist icon who challenged theatrical convention.

Eleonora Duse was an Italian actress who challenged theatrical convention. As a performer in the late 19th century when elaborate gestures, exotic costumes and lavish decors were the norm, Eleonora Duse stunned audiences with her truthfulness and intense absorption in the characters she played. She wore no make-up, she was a master of subtle body language and vocal modulation, and her aim was to eliminate the self and become her character. She achieved worldwide popularity and was acknowledged as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, as well as an early feminist icon.

Today she is often credited with having inspired modern acting; the Russian theatre director Stanislavsky saw her as the perfect actress, and was greatly influenced by her when he created his acting method.

So what was the secret of her genius and why is she largely forgotten today? And with no recordings of her voice, how do we know she was such a great performer?

Joining Bridget Kendall is Dr Anna Sica, Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Palermo in Italy, author of The Murray Edwards Duse Collection, and D’Amore e D’Arte, the letters written to Duse from her Russian lover Alexander Wolkoff, soon to be published in English. Professor Paul Fryer, the co-editor of an essay collection on Eleonora Duse and Cenere (Cenere is the Italian word for Ashes, the title of the silent film Duse made in 1916, and the only record of Duse actually performing). Paul Fryer also directs the Stanislavsky research centre at the University of Leeds. And Dr Enza de Francisci, a lecturer in Translation studies at the University of Glasgow who specialises in the critical reception of Duse’s plays, and is the author of A 'New' Woman In Verga And Pirandello: From Page To Stage.

  • Produced by Anne Khazam for the BBC World Service

Publicity contact: CC2

DateThursday, 28 July, 2022
Time10:00 am -
10:50 am