Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora
Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever
by Peter Rader
Simon & Schuster. 275 pages, $26.
THE TITLE of this book is an exaggeration that grows out of another exaggeration that is this book’s thesis: that Sarah Bernhardt typified an “old school” of unnatural stage acting that consisted of moving from one stylized pose to the next, while Duse introduced a new, realistic style that actors have adopted ever since, hence “changing acting forever.” Bernhardt relied on lavish productions about bigger-than-life historical figures; Duse played simple, usually contemporary women. Bernhardt used overly dramatic declamation, Duse meaningful pauses and half-whispered lines. And so on.
This is mostly unfair to theater history. Actors have chosen between the grand, declamatory style or a more intimate, personal one since at least the 17th century, if not before, and continue to do so today.