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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Eleanora Duse by Lee Strasberg and selections from "The Mystic in the Theater" plus vintage article on Duse



"Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" was Duse's first performance in New York in the early twenties. The Lady from the Sea played at the old, huge Metropolitan Opera House. I sat two thirds of the way back in the orchestra, but Duse's voice floated easily through the theater. It was somewhat high pitched. Having had difficulty with her voice n her youth, she has trained herself to use it in some particular fashion. What was extraordinary was that the voice did not seem to be projected toward you; rather, it simply seemed to float toward the audience.

What I did see was something unusual: a presence, a sense of something taking place before my eyes that was at once fleeting in its presentation but frozen in my awareness. It was like a lingering taste.

When I walked away from the performance, I had a somewhat confused reaction, a conflicting response. Certainly what I had seen was something unusual, but where was the acting that I had come to expect? Where were the moments of emotional outburst? At that time, I did not know the play well, and it was acted in Italian. But I remember thinking that the moment that Duse pleaded with her husband to permit her to away with the stranger, and he finally consented, the most wonderful smile shone on her face. Duse had a strange way of smiling. It seemed to come from the toes. It seemed to move through the body and arrive at the face and mouth and resembled the sun coming out of the clouds. When she smiled, I thought to myself: "This is really what the play is all about. This is really what she wanted all the time. She didn't really want to go, she just wanted the freedom to choose. "
And as I kept thinking over that scene, it suddenly occurred to me: "What am I saying? I saw a play that I don't really know, in a language that I don't really understand, and the actress told me what the play is all about."

Duse demonstrated to me that acting was not only emotional outbursts, or even the presentation of depths of emotion.  In her, I saw a moment to moment awareness of the life of the character. Duse had the most extraordinary facility of just sitting on the stage and creating a person who was thinking and feeling, without the particular intensity that ordinarily characterizes emotional behavior. "

"The next play I saw Duse in was Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. I can still see her as Mrs. Alving sitting on the sofa talking to Pastor Manders. Her chin was supported on her hand in a thoughtful gesture which had been caught by some of the photographs of her. Here was a person sitting, thinking, talking; and without my being able to follow the text of the play, it was very clear that the words were sounding within her. Duse was able to find gestures which were not merely natural but most expressive of what would be difficult to suggest any other way.  In Act 1, when Mrs. Alving looks offstage, she spies Oswald flirting with Regina; suddenly the hidden past appears before her. It was as if waves swept onto the stage and enveloped Duse at that moment. Her arms suddenly brushed upwards as if the wall were falling on her. But her hands flailed hopelessly, as if the wall werer made of cobwebs that clung to her hands and enveloped them. She seemed to be struggling to free herself.

With her gestures, Duse was not only real, she was also revealing the theme of each play, or each scene. Of all the actors I have seen, Duse was the most perceptive in trying to embody the theme of the play. Her gestures often became a heightened expressiveness. Michel Checkhov called these kinds of gestures "psychological gestures."

...Many years after I had seen Duse, I was taken by Cliford Odets to meet Charles Chaplin. Chaplin seemed to me to be the epitome of the professional actor. He couldn't do anything just by talking. His discussions were always accompanied by demsonstrations that he illustrated with his entire being. Clifford said, "Lee, why don't you tell Charlie of your memories of Duse?" That was all that was necessary to set Chaplin off. In the next hour, Caplin demonstrated all styles of acting, the difference between Japanese and Chinese acting, the way in which Italian actors worked always with a prop. He wound up with an imitation of Duse. Yet, this great mimic could not capture her style, because there was nothing that she did outside the scene and the character.  She had no mannerisms of her own and therefore it was impossible to imitate her. She was merely a vehicle for the idea of the play."

--Lee Strasberg

as Cleopatra


The Mystic in the Theater
Eleanora Duse
By Eva Le Galliene

some selections:

“An actor may be in full command of his external resources. But if he is unable to evoke within himself the various emotional states implicit in the action, the audience may admire the dexterity of his performance, but it will not be deeply stirred. On the other hand, he may be personally involved to the point of actual suffering, to the point of shedding ‘real tears,’ but if his instrument betrays him and fails to communicate his feelings, his efforts will be wasted, and the audience will remain unmoved. The art of acting is the art of communication; to deny this is to deny its reason for existing. Duse may have given the impression of being totally oblivious to the audience’s presence, but she was always deeply aware that, in the final analysis, it is the business of the stage actor to convey the content and meaning of the play. No one could have done this more completely than she did.”

“There can be no generalizations as far as the art of acting is concerned. There can be no overall “method”—above all, no short cuts. Each actor must find his own way for himself.”

“She always studied her parts more through mental concentration—through meditation, in fact—than through any great external activity at rehearsals. 
She would sit alone for hours, in front of an open window, visualizing each character, listening for the sound of its voice, searching for its inner life, striving to lose herself in it through her imagination and her will.

This singleness of purpose, this power of “one-pointed” concentration—of action through inaction—was the foundation of that discipline of the spirit which enabled her, to ever greater extent as she developed as an artist, to eliminate self, and become a clear channel for that higher force it was her aim to serve.”

“A woman reporter for the New York World, wishing to write a story on “Eleanora Duse behind the scenes,” managed to get herself engaged as a ‘super’ for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. This was in 1896. No one suspected this woman was a journalist; her ruse succeeded, and the next day her article appeared. 
“During the entire evening, the dressing room door stood open…Instead of sending messengers, Duse walked around the stage until she found one of the actresses and took her into the dressing room where there was an animated discussion over dresses in French. Then when the time came for the performance to begin:
On the upper right wings, sitting on top of a barrel, was Duse. Apparently she was lost in thought. She rested her mouth on her half doubled hand with the gesture she used so often during the play itself. Apparently she was getting further and further away from herself by the look in the eyes when she raised them…I concluded she was assuming Santuzza and imagined she had forgotten the existence of everybody else. The curtain was ready to go up. The church bells chimed. In a second Duse had roused. With a quick gesture of her hand she motioned the group to start across the stage.”

“Duse had succeeded in making of her body an instrument capable of responding effortlessly to the slightest shade of thought and feeling. All her movements, the tones of her voice, the gestures of her hands, seemed the inevitable outcome of the moods and emotions of the character she was portraying. Once she had forged this perfect instrument on which she could rely, once she had gained complete control of all the externals of her art, she was free to forget them, and could concentrate on perfecting the hidden, more mysterious facets of her craft: the means of bringing about, in herself, the actual thoughts and passions of the women she gave life to on the stage, secure in the knowledge that these thoughts would be unerringly communicated.”

more on Duse:

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