Life lessons from Eleonora Duse

To celebrate Stacy Martin Day, here's ten pearls of wisdom from the 19th-century life of Stacy's acting icon

Eleonora Duse

To celebrate this month's Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a series of takeovers, kicking off today with a Stacy Martin special. With a thinkpiece on Lars Von Trier's men, a Kaye Donachie Lightbox, a head-to-head interview between Stacy and co-star Sophie Kennedy Clark, and pieces on the satellite conducting a health check on earth and the Eleonora Duse that could teach us all some lessons. Keep checking our Stacy Martin Day page for more throughout the day. 

She may have died 90 years ago, but the gospel according to the Italian actress Eleonora Duse still rings true. Dazed charts the top ten pearls of wisdom to take on board from her illustrious life, including what to do to get over your ex and how to handle the press.    

JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE A CHILD STAR DOESN'T MEAN YOU HAVE TO LOSE YOUR SHIT

Before you shed a tear for the corrupted youth of today’s child stars, spare a thought for Eleonora (Bieber–take note). The daughter and grand-daughter of impoverished Italian actors, Eleonora was only four years old when she joined her family’s acting troupe and began a hefty work schedule that sent her touring across Europe, South America, Russia and the United States. She managed to pull it all off without any known criminal convictions or rehab stints. In her adult life she used her experience of early fame to become a mentor for younger stars. 

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora Duse with Matilde Serao, Francesco Paolo and Tristan Bernard

THE BEST WAY TO GET OVER SOMEONE IS TO GET UNDER SOMEONE ELSE

Eleonora didn’t have the best luck in love – her first lover, journalist Martino Cafiero, left her mid-pregnancy and she tragically lost the child. This didn’t perturb her, and she engaged in numerous passionate affairs with men and women throughout her 65 year life. Her lengthy list of lovers includes writer/prince Gabriele d’Annunzio and Italian feminist/cross dresser Lina Poletti.

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora's lesbian lover Lina Poletti

PAY YOUR OWN WAY

Eleonora shirked tradition at a time when many women relied on pocket money from their husbands. She established her independence early on in her career by setting up a theatre company and taking on the roles of manager and director. During her affair with d’Annunzio she provided more than just creative support – she also paid all of his bills, including the rent. 

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora's creative partner and lover Gabriele D'Annunzio

GET OVER YOURSELF

Eleonora coined a new acting technique that she described as an “elimination of self”. While other actors in the period were dependent upon a set of over the top stock expressions and lashings of make up for their portrayals, Eleonora internally connected with her characters to enable her performances to come to life. She shunned make up and opted for subtlety over artifice. She has been described as “the first modern actor” for her pioneering performance technique.   

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora Duse in La Locandiera, 1891

DON'T TAKE CRAP FROM ANYONE, EVEN IF YOU ARE SLEEPING WITH THEM

She had a long standing rivalry with actress Sarah Bernhardt. When Eleonora’s lover d’Annunzio cast Sarah in one of his plays over her, she promptly ended the affair. Although d’Annunzio had already written four plays for Eleonora, she wasn’t willing to stick around for such insolence.

Eleonora Duse
Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

NEVER COMPLAIN, NEVER EXPLAIN...

It’s working for Kate Moss, and it worked for Eleonora. While rival Sarah Bernhardt relished in the public gaze, Eleonora refrained from interviews and let her performances do the talking. Her elusiveness contributes to her legend – all that remains of her is one short film, Cenere, and the accolade of others.  

...BUT ENJOY IT WHILE IT LASTS

Not all publicity is bad publicity, as Eleonora discovered when she became the first woman and first Italian to be on the cover of Time Magazine in 1923. She enjoyed reverence from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who described her as “the finest thing I have ever seen on stage”. Anton Chekhov noted “I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking at Duse, I realised why Russian theatre was such a bore.”

Eleonora Duse
Eleonora on the cover of Time magazine, 1923 Time magazine

GET SOME FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Eleonora got herself some loyal followers in the shape of President Gover Cleaveland and his wife during her tour of the United States. The couple were in such awe of Eleonora that they attended every single one of her performances. This led to the controversial decision on Mrs Cleaveland’s part to host the first ever white house tea for an actress.

Eleonora Duse
Autograph card Aimé Dupont

BUT DON'T FORGET TO KEEP IT REAL

Eleonora stuck by her pals in their hours of need. When her close friend - American dancer Isadora Duncan - lost both of her children in a car accident in the river Seine, Eleonora rushed to her side. She spent several weeks counselling her at a seaside resort in Viareggio.

Eleonora Duse
Dancer and friend of Eleonora, Isadora Duncan

LEAVE YOUR MARK

Eleonora has been a muse to many artistic geniuses. A young James Joyce kept a portrait of Eleonara on his desk and modern dance pioneer Martha Graham worshiped at her alter. Her influence continues to flourish as Dazed takeover star Stacy Martin picks Eleonora as her definitive acting inspiration.  

Eleonora Duse
Portrait of Eleonora, 1891 llya Repin
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