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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.

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