Eleonora Giulia Amalia Duse (October 3, 1858-April 21, 1924)

She was superb in Ghosts, and in The Lady from the Sea she was perfection. There is none like her, none!’ Dame Ellen Terry speaking on her friend Eleonora Duse, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their remarkable families by Michael Holyroyd, Chatto & Windus, Great Britain, 2008

Duse created characters with simplicity-no gesticulating or declaiming. Small and unprepossessing, she had a soft voice but played tortured and betrayed women.” Oscar Wilde speaking about Eleonora Duse, Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius by Barbara Belford, Random House, 2000
Eleonora was born to a traveling troupe of Italian actors called, the Duse-Lagunaz troupe including her parents Alessandro and Angelica Duse who found a room at the Inn of the Golden Cannon where she was born at two in the morning on Sunday, October 3, 1858.  Although, her father, Alessandro longed to be a painter he didn’t pursue that lifestyle; instead, marrying Angelica who was already acting with the troupe throughout Vigevano, Lombardy, Italy. Their first child, a son, died in childbirth leaving Angelica with an ache that never healed. She was very protective of young Eleonora and knew instantly that her daughter had the talent to become an actress. She recognized that spark and told her daughter she was meant to become a great actress one day! 

Five year old Eleonora Duse with her mother Angelica Cappelleto Duse in 1863

At the age of only four, in 1892, Eleonora tottled out on stage as Cossette in Les Miserables. Talk about an acting debut for such a little one. She was frightened but her father held her hand and said comforting words to her. She was expected to cry on cue but didn’t know how to at that age, so someone in the troupe hit her on her legs to make her cry. Her mother said, “Don’t be afraid. You know it’s only pretend.”  A year later and afterwards, through those early troupe years her name appeared on the handbills. The troupe traveled and acted throughout Italian villages even making it to Yugoslavia and Poland acting in such plays as The Count of Monte Cristo.

 Alessandro Duse, Eleanor's father, 1880s

Eleonora’s father, Alessandro, was distant and quiet spending time away from his family while traveling with the acting troupe. It was her mother who shaped the woman she would become as well as the actress. They bonded immediately deepening their mother daughter nurturing instinct. It was during the years when she was twelve years old that her mother began getting sick in and out of hospitals. Sadly, nobody seemed to know what her mother’s illness was.  To deal with her parent’s strained marriage, the pressure of acting and the worry and fear of her sick mother, she lost herself in acting becoming other people thus beginning a cycle of coping mechanisms when her life would become unpredictable.  

I can only suppose that it was this happy childhood memory that Eleonora flashed back to in her mind. It was May of 1873, at the age of 14, that she performed the role of Juliet from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet believing it was meant to be because of a charming story her father told her as a little girl. The story of how her parents met in a rural village near Verona, Italy. Alessandro wrote down in his notebook the first time he saw a dark haired, dark eyed beautiful woman taking care of the flowers in her window box. He wanted to go and talk to her but it took a long while for him to find the courage.  He walked that same path passing her on the road day after day for months until finally he walked up the stairs of her house that lead to the balcony. There he saw her and asked her to marry him. Her name was Angelica Cappelletto. Eleonora thought the name sounded so much like Capulet! Her parents were later married and the rest is family history I suppose! 

Four months later, in September of 1873, Eleanor’s mother was in hospital in Ancona on the Adriatic and Eleanor was in Tuscany when a knocking came at her door. Eleanor remembers, “Mama dead” were the words she read on a telegram. Her mother Angelica Duse died alone in her hospital room and Eleanor fell into grief, “A sound like something was broken in the air a silence, all an emptiness.” Her father grieved alone at the age of fifty-two. He did not understand his daughter’s depression and she had no girlfriends to talk to. She kept her mother’s picture with her always showing it to nobody.  Following Angelica’s death the acting Duse troupe disbanded. Her father acted in minor parts and Eleanor lived nomadically acting in supporting roles sporadically during 1874 to 1878.  

Without her mother she now truly felt alone. She had nobody waiting for her after her performances, nobody sought her company out and nobody wanted her or so she thought. She began acting again with the Ciotti-Belli-Blanes troupe where she met a director and actor named Giovanni Emmanuel. He was not romantically interested in her but professionally loved the way she acted and performed on stage, “She was an actress who gripped your heart an crushed it as if it were a handkerchief.”  Giovanni asked her to join his theatre production company as a leading actress and leave her acting troupe for good. The problem was she was contracted with the troupe but against her father’s wishes, now an independent adult, she joined Giovanni at his company. The troupe sued Eleonora, a battle which played out in the newspapers. Giovanni’s company countersued the troupe paying them 5,000 lire to be rid of them. All press is good press and in this case it worked in their favor. Eleonora Duse starred in fifteen different repertory plays at Teatro dei Fiorentini, Giovanni’s company in Naples. 


Eleonora Duse undated during her acting years. The photograph reminiscent of Julia Margaret Cameron 

Eleonora Duse played Electra in Oreste by Vittorio Alfieri on April 26, 1879. She wore a revealing tunic made of wool.  When she played Ophelia in Hamlet, she wore her thick dark hair in two braids over her lace collar of her white dress carrying a bouquet of flowers. Using flowers as a prop would become her signature in many of her roles. After Ophelia’s mad scenes during the fourth act, she received five curtain calls. The critics said, “An Electra to be sculpted. An Ophelia to be painted.”  Later that year, she was in Paris, France, to act in Alexandre Dumas’ Le Demi-Monde. She played Marcelle, an innocent young girl who after being dumped by her husband became a prostitute searching for another husband. This was the belief in French society since there were no divorce laws. For the author and playwright, Dumas wrote this pay after having an affair with a courtesan. According to Eleonora’s first biographer, Olga Signorelli, “Eleonora herself was also pure and virginal at this time.” Indeed, she was portraying a very sexualized prostitute and fighting off overly amorous young men at the stage door looking for a conquest.

Life was about to imitate art for Eleonora in meeting her first real female friend, Matilde Serao. She wrote stories and articles for local newspapers and worked in a telegraph office in Naples. Back in Italy, Matilde was very outgoing, very sexual and dated a lot. She took Eleonora out on the town and became her confidante. They had lots in common and it would be Matilde who would introduce Eleonora to the man who would become her first lover and husband, Martino Cafiero. She was just twenty years old and he was twenty years older than she. He was considered unattractive, with a receding hairline, bushy eyebrows, a sharp nose and a thick mustache. He worked for a local newspaper with Matilde where he organized concerts, festivals. 

Now no longer the doomed Desdemona she starred in Emile Zola’s new play Therese Raquin, adapted from his earlier novel.  It was July 1879 and Eleonora Duse was a hit according to critics starring as Therese in Zola’s play. Sadly, happiness was to come to an end for the actress known simply as Duse. Becoming pregnant with her lovers child, the acting company sponsoring the play fell into bankruptcy and Eleanor left Naples after her lover Cafiero told her he did not want to marry her. She begged and pleaded with him still deeply in love and carrying his child, “Save me from this frightening enemy that follows me and oppresses me. Save me from the solitude of my silent room.” She went to the town of Turin, in Italy still pregnant, showing, and still acting. She wrote letter upon letter to him all of which he ignored. It is said that Duse contemplated suicide as her baby moved inside her. With her pregnancy progressing she longed for her Martino asking herself 'is this what love truly is?'

They say God moves in mysterious ways well he sent an angel to Duse in the form of her long lost father, Alessandro. He saw her walking to the theatre, held his hands on his head and said, “So it’s true.” As her father he could have contacted Martino and demanded he do right by her and marry her but of course he didn’t. He did nothing. He asked her how many months she was and she answered seven. Later that month he moved to Pisa with a touring group. Eleanor was again left alone; another form of abandonment weaving a thread through her life but what did the fates exactly have in mind for her? It is not known exactly when but soon after she suffered a miscarriage. While recuperating and being looked after by her friend Matilde, she received a visit from Martino who wanted to have sex with her. She refused him and he left in a rage.  Abandoned by her father and her former lover, she suffered the same maternal loss and pain as her mother; the loss of a son. As she lay in bed she pressed two tiny rose leaves close to her heart taken from the ground where her son was buried. She kept them in a gold locket she wore underneath her dress along with a photograph of her mother. 

Tebaldo Checchi, husband of Eleonora Duse

By 1880 her health is recovered and she is back acting. Her father keeps tabs on her from afar. It is while acting with The Rossi Company that she meets fellow actor, Tebaldo Checchi. He courts her and they marry on September 7, 1881. She is already five months pregnant with their daughter, Enrichetta. He truly loves her but admits to having some sorrow for her previous treatment by Martino. He is never away from her side and loves her completely. For it is four months later on January 7, 1882, in Turin, Duse gives birth to Enrichetta. She writes her father, “It is today that I had my Enrichetta. At the moment I’m writing you the little one has left with her father for a small town nearby. Everything went well. I’m writing you from bed but I feel fine. My Enrichetta is darling and healthy as a flower and is my benediction-I ask your benediction-I asked her Grandmother Enrichetta to bless her and she did.” 
Eleonora Duse with her daughter, Enrichetta 1887

 As with any tale, nothing good lasts forever and in the case of Eleonora’s marriage their dynamic as a couple changed. They acted as the years went on, they doted on their daughter but Checchi travelled a lot and was rarely home. She acted all the time and he would not let her rest for long.  It was a accepted marriage by the end of it. She was bitter and neglected by him sexually, he was having open affairs and she finally snapped splitting from him upon finding him in bed with a fellow actress. She wanted him sexually but he for whatever reason no longer desired her once she had their child.  This is quite common now but during the nineteenth century was not discussed or was looked upon as solely the woman’s fault. 

 Eleonora Duse in Venice, Italy, 1894. Guiseppe Primoli photograph

Duse created her own company with actor, Flavio Ando, named compagnia della Citta di Roma. She had an affair with Arrigio Boito, a playwright. She and her daughter lived in Venice and over the years, she gained much recognition and was making a lot of money for the time. By 1892, she toured in major cities, such as New York and London. She met Gabriele d’Annunzio a poet and playwright in 1895 where she would perform one of her most well known roles as ‘La Citta morta’ The Dead City. When they broke up, he wrote a scandalous account of their relationship called The Flame il fuoco causing a great scandal. This did not affect her acting in any way although, it did start a rivalry with actress Sarah Bernhardt. In 1909 Duse retired. She was 46 and wanted to focus on her health and her daughter. 
During her retirement she took time off to co-write and star in a silent Italian film, ‘Cenere’ (Ashes) by Febo Mari in 1916. She played Rosario Derios an unmarried woman in a small village whose lover abandons her before the birth of their son. She gives full possession of her son to her one time lover believing she will not be able to take care of him. She gives the boy a sacred amulet before he leaves and when he grows up he tries to locate her haunted by her absence. 

It was not until 1921 that Eleanora Duse stepped onto a stage at the age of 63. Two years later, in 1923, she toured America with her last touring company.  Her final performance was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 5, 1924 but she took ill after the show.  Eleonora Duse died on April 21, 1924 of pneumonia in her hotel room at Hotel Schenley.

To anyone who wants to watch Eleonora Duse's 1916 silent Italian film it is online,



Kevin Marsh said…
What a fascinating story and at times a tragic life. Its good to read about a successful woman from a time wehn men seemed to dominate. It was much harder for a woman to achieve greatness especially with the burden of childbirth and nurturing.
Some lovely photographs. I have been to Dame Ellen Terry's house in Tenterden, Kent where I'm sure there must be more references to Eleonora Duse.
Thank you Kimberly for sharing.
Kimberly Eve said…
I was very impressed with her theatrical achievements given all the heartbreak and loss. I had a look through Ellen Terry's autobiography and there are several mentions of 'Duse.' She mainly describes going to see her plays during her years with Henry Irving. She raved about Duse and he did not agree with her acting prowess!
I hope to visit her house in Kent one day. I've seen photos online, and it looks gorgeous.
Eamonn said…
Fantastic - great article and a fascinating woman.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Eamonn,
I'm so glad you enjoyed my article. Thank you for commenting.