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A rivalry for the ages – ‘Playing to the Gods’

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Sarah Bernhardt is one of the most legendary names in the world of the theater. She was the first global superstar actress, renowned for her beauty and talent on both sides of the Atlantic. Her performances were considered iconic, once in a lifetime experiences to behold. Her fame has transcended centuries; even today, lovers of the stage know her name and have heard of her exploits.

And yet … she had a rival. A rival whose naturalistic approach to acting bore a much closer resemblance to the modern theater than any of the highly stylized work being presented by Bernhardt. A rival who might have been even better. Eleonora Duse’s name has been lost to history, unfamiliar to all but the most devoted of theater historians, but in her heyday, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Berhardt’s greatness.

Peter Rader’s “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever” (Simon & Schuster, $26) takes a deep dive into this once-storied and largely-forgotten chapter of theater history, looking at the relationship between two women who ascended to the greatest heights of their profession, but took drastically different paths to get there.

In all the ways that matter, Sarah Bernhardt was the O.D. – original diva. She was brash and eccentric and fully empowered at a time when women were expected to be none of those things. She embraced the status that her talents gave her and wielded it forcefully and without regrets. She toured all over Europe and traveled to North and South America, giving command performances everywhere she went and making the modern equivalent of millions of dollars. She was considered to be the finest actress in the world, having imposed her mastery over the pose-driven traditional acting style that had long been the standard.

Eleonora Duse viewed the stage very differently, both in how she valued it and how she stood astride it. To Duse, the stage was almost a holy place, an arena through which the grace of the universe might flow. Eschewing the usual posing and posturing, Duse approached her roles from the inside out, channeling the spirits of her characters to create quieter, more intimate performances. She strove for genuineness and empathy rather than the bombast brought to the table by Bernhardt and the rest of the theatrical world.

Their lives were intertwined for decades; both women yearned to be viewed as the clear superior. Bernhardt sought to maintain her place in the sun, while Duse desired a chance to sit solo in the spotlight. Such disparate styles springing from comparable talents led to the choosing of sides – there were few who were on the fence in this particular debate.

“Playing to the Gods” follows both women through their careers, alternating between Bernhardt and Duse as they do battle by proxy, treading the boards all over Europe and beyond, all of it culminating in the fateful London faceoff of 1895, in which both women were in the same town, performing the same role in the same play (Marguerite Gautier in “La Dame aux Camelias” – known in English as “Camille” – by Alexandre Dumas, fils). After that, the rivalry cooled somewhat, though both women continued working into the 20th century.

Sarah Bernhardt put an indelible stamp on theatrical history; few stage actresses have ever achieved her level of fame and notoriety. She traveled with a veritable zoo of exotic animals and was a brazen and unapologetic shill for products. She was a performing icon before there was really any such thing as a performing icon. And her name lives on – even casual fans of the theater are at least vaguely familiar.

Eleonora Duse, however, may have contributed more to the actual craft than her better-known rival. Her internal, empathetic style was a precursor to the more modern styles championed by legendary teachers like Constantin Stanislavski and playwrights like Henrik Ibsen. Her emotional self-mastery opened the door for realism on stage – something altogether new by the standards of the day.

“Playing to the Gods” is compelling enough due to the story it tells, but Rader goes the extra mile; not only does he capture the details of each woman’s performative life, but he also mines the personal as well. Excerpts from correspondence, bits of juicy gossip, tales of affairs and exploits romantic and otherwise – it’s all here, all of it capturing a vivid snapshot of the mutual orbit held together by the gravity of these binary stars. Both women were larger than life – one from the inside out, the other from the outside in.

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.

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