If Sarah Bernhardt was the greatest star of the 19th-century stage, Eleonora Duse was the greatest actress. Bernhardt made her reputation in such tragic roles as Racine’s Phèdre and Marguerite from Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias. Duse played her fair share of characters sentenced to overwrought deaths, but she adored the more neurotically unstrung heroines of Ibsen and was said to have given Stanislavsky the model for his revolution in acting. As drama critic for The Saturday Review, George Bernard Shaw had the opportunity to see these two great performers square off against each other in London. While admiring Bernhardt’s dazzling artifice and technique, he noted that she “does not enter into the leading character: She substitutes herself for it. All this is precisely what does not happen in the case of Duse, whose every part is a separate creation.”
Otho Eskin’s Duet imagines a final meeting between these two rivals, a deathbed scene in Pittsburgh where the ghost of Bernhardt visits an ailing Duse, whose years of debilitating touring are about to come to an unglamorous end. The hackneyed setup allows for a review of all the essential historical facts, most of which can be gleaned from Helen Sheehey’s valuable new book, Eleonora Duse, a straightforward biography that contains a good deal more drama than Eskin’s perfunctory theatricalization.
What makes the production, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, worth watching is the performance of Pamela Payton-Wright, who captures the suffering radiance of Duse in all its internal quiet and delicacy. Playing the “divine Sarah,” the accomplished Laura Esterman has in some ways the trickier challenge. We have fewer direct analogies to the majestic panther-like style of the French tragedienne than we do to the Italian actress who was the forerunner of the modern psychological tradition. Yet what lover of the art of acting could not be thankful for the chance to see two talented American veterans pay homage to predecessors of genius?