Posts Tagged 'anton chekhov'

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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