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Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever

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The riveting story of the rivalry between the two most renowned actresses of the nineteenth century: legendary Sarah Bernhardt, whose eccentricity on and off the stage made her the original diva, and mystical Eleonora Duse, who broke all the rules to popularize the natural style of acting we celebrate today. Audiences across Europe and the Americas clamored to see the divin The riveting story of the rivalry between the two most renowned actresses of the nineteenth century: legendary Sarah Bernhardt, whose eccentricity on and off the stage made her the original diva, and mystical Eleonora Duse, who broke all the rules to popularize the natural style of acting we celebrate today. Audiences across Europe and the Americas clamored to see the divine Sarah Bernhardt swoon—and she gave them their money’s worth. The world’s first superstar, she traveled with a chimpanzee named Darwin and a pet alligator that drank champagne, shamelessly supplementing her income by endorsing everything from aperitifs to beef bouillon, and spreading rumors that she slept in a coffin to better understand the macabre heroines she played. Eleonora Duse shied away from the spotlight. Born to a penniless family of itinerant troubadours, she disappeared into the characters she portrayed—channeling their spirits, she claimed. Her new, empathetic style of acting revolutionized the theater—and earned her the ire of Sarah Bernhardt in what would become the most tumultuous theatrical showdown of the nineteenth century. Bernhardt and Duse seduced each other’s lovers, stole one another’s favorite playwrights, and took to the world’s stages to outperform their rival in her most iconic roles. A scandalous, enormously entertaining history full of high drama and low blows, Playing to the Gods is the page-turning account of the feud that changed theater forever.


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The riveting story of the rivalry between the two most renowned actresses of the nineteenth century: legendary Sarah Bernhardt, whose eccentricity on and off the stage made her the original diva, and mystical Eleonora Duse, who broke all the rules to popularize the natural style of acting we celebrate today. Audiences across Europe and the Americas clamored to see the divin The riveting story of the rivalry between the two most renowned actresses of the nineteenth century: legendary Sarah Bernhardt, whose eccentricity on and off the stage made her the original diva, and mystical Eleonora Duse, who broke all the rules to popularize the natural style of acting we celebrate today. Audiences across Europe and the Americas clamored to see the divine Sarah Bernhardt swoon—and she gave them their money’s worth. The world’s first superstar, she traveled with a chimpanzee named Darwin and a pet alligator that drank champagne, shamelessly supplementing her income by endorsing everything from aperitifs to beef bouillon, and spreading rumors that she slept in a coffin to better understand the macabre heroines she played. Eleonora Duse shied away from the spotlight. Born to a penniless family of itinerant troubadours, she disappeared into the characters she portrayed—channeling their spirits, she claimed. Her new, empathetic style of acting revolutionized the theater—and earned her the ire of Sarah Bernhardt in what would become the most tumultuous theatrical showdown of the nineteenth century. Bernhardt and Duse seduced each other’s lovers, stole one another’s favorite playwrights, and took to the world’s stages to outperform their rival in her most iconic roles. A scandalous, enormously entertaining history full of high drama and low blows, Playing to the Gods is the page-turning account of the feud that changed theater forever.

30 review for Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever

  1. 5 out of 5

    Cindy Burnett

    Playing to the Gods is a must-read for theater fans. While I was familiar with Sarah Bernhardt, I had never heard of Eleonora Duse. Peter Rader effectively chronicles their life stories, the rivalry between the two women, and their lasting impact on acting. The book is chock full of drama and backstabbing including stolen lovers and scripts and attempts to outshine each other. My favorite part of the book was learning so many fascinating details about the two women and theatre and acting in gene Playing to the Gods is a must-read for theater fans. While I was familiar with Sarah Bernhardt, I had never heard of Eleonora Duse. Peter Rader effectively chronicles their life stories, the rivalry between the two women, and their lasting impact on acting. The book is chock full of drama and backstabbing including stolen lovers and scripts and attempts to outshine each other. My favorite part of the book was learning so many fascinating details about the two women and theatre and acting in general. Both women had a number of “firsts”. Eleanora Duse was the first woman to appear on Time Magazine’s cover and the first actor invited to the White House. Duse is also credited with revolutionizing acting. Sarah Bernhardt became the first international movie star based on the success of her 45-minute silent feature entitled ELIZABETH, QUEEN OF ENGLAND, which aired a year before Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract. Bernhardt was the first celebrity to support a cause – she rallied support for the United States to enter World War 1 to help end the war – leading THE NATION to conclude: “Her dedication to this cause. . . forged what we still assume to be the dimensions of the celebrity’s role in society. . . . the notion of the actor as our social conscience.” I found this last tidbit particularly fascinating with actors and athletes frequently wading into the political fray in recent times, and those who don’t like their views saying that this is a new concept- celebrities using their fame to support a cause or belief. Instead, celebrities using their platforms to espouse political and social views has existed just as long as the concept of a “celebrity” has. My rating would have been five stars but for some timeline issues. Instead of following a true linear time structure, the story jumps around a fair amount. Even when the format is linear, Rader drops in facts from years earlier that disrupt the flow of the story – I kept having to try and place these details that occurred previously in the correct context of the story. I have to say it drove me crazy, not enough to ruin the book but enough to make me frustrated multiple times. I still loved the book and will recommend it to anyone who has an interest in acting and theatre or who wants to read a fascinating nonfiction book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    Down through history (late 19th/early 20th century), two actors have held a position of honor and were worshiped by theater goers......Sara Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Their style was totally different and neither would probably be appreciated in modern times. (See my note at the end of this review). But during the height of the acting art in Europe, they were superstars. Bernhardt was the Jewish daughter, born out of wedlock to a prostitute and Duse was from a penniless family of traveling trou Down through history (late 19th/early 20th century), two actors have held a position of honor and were worshiped by theater goers......Sara Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Their style was totally different and neither would probably be appreciated in modern times. (See my note at the end of this review). But during the height of the acting art in Europe, they were superstars. Bernhardt was the Jewish daughter, born out of wedlock to a prostitute and Duse was from a penniless family of traveling troubadours. But both had a fire to succeed in the theater world and after a life of struggle, they attained their goal. Bernhardt was a generation older than Duse so she had a head start in the popularity poll and was a master of self-promotion. Her acting consisted of poses.....hands over the heart, hands raised into the air, falling on her knees.......very mannered. Duse, on the other hand, was an actress of long silences, slow deliberate movements and would be considered a Method actor of the Stanislavsky school. She was also extremely shy and avoided her fans and the press. They went head to head when Bernhardt was in her last years (she had one of her legs amputated) and Duse was the new girl in town. Although it appears that Duse was an actor to whom we could relate, it is Bernhardt that still stands out in theater history. This is an interesting biography of two women who ruled the theater and is recommended. Note: I went to YouTube and found short, grainy snippets of film of both actors in their last years. Very interesting and makes one wonder why they were so popular.

  3. 5 out of 5

    BAM The Bibliomaniac

    Netgalley #49

  4. 5 out of 5

    Evelina | AvalinahsBooks

    Such an intriguing topic! I remember grabbing this review copy months ago and being excited to read about something I wasn't even aware of. Maybe it's an odd choice, considering that I mentioned that I barely even go to theatre – but I think Playing to the Gods is relevant to all of us, rather than just theatre-goers. After all, we don't just see acting in the theatre anymore – acting has crossed over into the cinema and shows, so basically, it monopolizes most of our free time right now. W Such an intriguing topic! I remember grabbing this review copy months ago and being excited to read about something I wasn't even aware of. Maybe it's an odd choice, considering that I mentioned that I barely even go to theatre – but I think Playing to the Gods is relevant to all of us, rather than just theatre-goers. After all, we don't just see acting in the theatre anymore – acting has crossed over into the cinema and shows, so basically, it monopolizes most of our free time right now. What would the world be like, if what we saw in movies was acting with pathos, poses and loud voices? I couldn't have picked a better timing to read The Town in Bloom either – because Mouse, the main character, fails at acting mostly because she likes acting 'in the old way' – she follows Sarah Bernhardt's, one of the actresses from Playing to the Gods, style. Had Mouse tried the theatre at least 50 years earlier, she might have been accepted. But the way we understand acting right now has been mostly shaped by the Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who thought that to act, one has to transform into the character and become them emotionally. That radically differed from the acting style of all the days up to that point. So Playing to the Gods doesn't just talk about the rivalry of the two actresses – it talks about how acting as a concept has changed at the end of the 19th century and how it became part of our current culture. However, it's also not fair to say that it's just Eleonora Duse who shaped the way our entertainment works right now either – without Sarah Bernhardt, we might have never had Madonna, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga or other personality-marketing based cults – that's something Sarah Bernhardt invented. The rivalry between the two women is certainly interesting to read about, and Peter Rader writes it in an almost fiction-like style, so you won't have trouble following the story at all. It's one of the best nonfiction books I've read this year. Definitely recommended! I thank Simon & Schuster for giving me a free copy of Playing to the Gods in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion. Read Post On My Blog | My Bookstagram | Bookish Twitter

  5. 5 out of 5

    Karoliina

    I received an ACR through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review. I picked this up because I am very interested in Sarah Bernhardt and especially her portrayal of Hamlet. I hadn't heard of Eleonore Duse before and now that I have read this I know why; in the end she was overshadowed by Bernhardt's staggering fame. It's great that through Rader's book Duse's accomplishments will hopefully get more recognition. To be honest I was mostly expecting to read about the eccentricities of both divas and I received an ACR through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review. I picked this up because I am very interested in Sarah Bernhardt and especially her portrayal of Hamlet. I hadn't heard of Eleonore Duse before and now that I have read this I know why; in the end she was overshadowed by Bernhardt's staggering fame. It's great that through Rader's book Duse's accomplishments will hopefully get more recognition. To be honest I was mostly expecting to read about the eccentricities of both divas and thought the competition between them would be mostly petty but highly amusing. However, their artistic differences are genuinely profound and interesting, and although there is a good deal of inspiring, scandalous and tragic stories about both of them, the book goes far beyond just listing shocking facts about their lives. Even though the style is accessible, the heart of the book is academic and it has a clear, comprehensive argument that is interesting in its own right: the competition between these two women revolutionised acting and, in essence, created what we think of as good acting today. I got very caught up in the story of not just these two women but the history of acting as we know it, and ended up finishing this in one day. Playing to the Gods is one those non-fiction books that manage to be informative and very readable and engaging at the same time. The style overall reminded me of Sarah Bakewell, whom I absolutely adore (she's the author of At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer), and if you enjoy the contemplative, somewhat philosophical way she tackles subjects, you are likely to enjoy this as well. Like Bakewell, Rader makes a point of not just describing what happened, but stops to discuss and speculate what the meaning behind these events might have been, and most importantly, shows you why you should care about the topic in the first place.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    Thoroughly entertaining and informative dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, two of the most celebrated actresses of the 19th century. In chronicling their lives and careers, the author also explores the evolution of modern theatre and acting styles, plus the rise of celebrity culture. You can’t help thinking both women would have been keen social media users. A host of minor characters make an appearance and reading the book is to immerse yourself in the theatrical world. The na Thoroughly entertaining and informative dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, two of the most celebrated actresses of the 19th century. In chronicling their lives and careers, the author also explores the evolution of modern theatre and acting styles, plus the rise of celebrity culture. You can’t help thinking both women would have been keen social media users. A host of minor characters make an appearance and reading the book is to immerse yourself in the theatrical world. The narrative does jump about a bit too often, sometimes making it hard to keep the chronology straight. And the author’s stylistic tic of using the word “prior” for absolutely everything that happens in the past irritated me almost beyond endurance. But overall these are relatively minor quibbles and I very much enjoyed this fascinating and intelligently written book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    I know very little about theater and its vast actors and actresses but I know art and Sarah Bernhardt has been known to me since I saw Alphonse Mucha's work for her theatrical posters of Gismonda. His illustration of her propelled his career and brought attention to his door so I've always remembered her but Eleanora Duse, is, well was now, a complete unknown to me.  I do not regret that my lust for the cover brought me to this book, actually I am very thankful that I got to read this because Rad I know very little about theater and its vast actors and actresses but I know art and Sarah Bernhardt has been known to me since I saw Alphonse Mucha's work for her theatrical posters of Gismonda. His illustration of her propelled his career and brought attention to his door so I've always remembered her but Eleanora Duse, is, well was now, a complete unknown to me.  I do not regret that my lust for the cover brought me to this book, actually I am very thankful that I got to read this because Radar did more than just write about two actresses; he provided an in-depth look at who they were based from facts and misconstrued truths that they themselves perpetuated via gossips and rumors. Radar went beyond the women and into their past which also meant he took the reader into the countries history and world to get a better understanding of these women, their lives but even better their craft. I want to thank NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity to read this DRC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions listed are my own.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gianna

    An interesting read, not just about these two actresses, but also partially about the history of theatre, particularly in late Victorian times. I love biographies with a lot of context, so I can truly understand why these people think and act the way they do, and this book was great in that aspect. I had no idea about how different acting was up until Duse changed it, and how much of an influence she was on the world. The only negative thing was the awkward moments when the writer switched away An interesting read, not just about these two actresses, but also partially about the history of theatre, particularly in late Victorian times. I love biographies with a lot of context, so I can truly understand why these people think and act the way they do, and this book was great in that aspect. I had no idea about how different acting was up until Duse changed it, and how much of an influence she was on the world. The only negative thing was the awkward moments when the writer switched away from a linear story, dropping short sections of information without context. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    V. Briceland

    Actor Sarah Bernhardt would have claimed she single-handedly invented the cult of celebrity. She slept in a coffin—or at least made sure publicists announced she did—wore hats adorned with stuffed bats, and traveled with a menagerie of animals, including an alligator on a gold chain. Onstage and off, by portraying herself as exotic and bohemian, and making certain the press covered every aspect of her many, many love affairs, she ensured a life continuously in the public eye. Even into her sixti Actor Sarah Bernhardt would have claimed she single-handedly invented the cult of celebrity. She slept in a coffin—or at least made sure publicists announced she did—wore hats adorned with stuffed bats, and traveled with a menagerie of animals, including an alligator on a gold chain. Onstage and off, by portraying herself as exotic and bohemian, and making certain the press covered every aspect of her many, many love affairs, she ensured a life continuously in the public eye. Even into her sixties, she continued to play ingenues and teenagers with a wink to the audience, who turned out in droves to marvel at her old-school traditional acting, which for centuries had consisted of rigid and prescribed poses accompanied by declamatory readings. On the other hand, Eleonora Duse, fifteen years Bernhardt's junior, single-handedly cultivated a revolutionary style of acting very much the opposite of Bernhardt's. By submerging herself into the character, by feeling her characters' emotions and letting them play out spontaneously every performance, by letting the silences speak, she inspired Stanislavski and his later followers to create the movement we now call Method Acting. To Duse, her art was deeply spiritual—a commitment by the actor to the author's text. Where Bernhardt's audience never forgot Bernhardt was the center of every scene (always stage center and face forward), Duse shunned ego. She erected what we now call the fourth wall between herself and the audience, and vanished into the play, often covering her face or mumbling her responses while facing upstage. So revolutionary was Duse's approach that her American audiences coined the word 'doozy' to refer to her—something unprecedented and utterly unique. Peter Rader captures the rivalry of the two career women at the tops of their games and on the cusp of a transformative chapter in the history of the theater, when the rigid mannerisms of Bernhardt's generation were giving way to the avant-garde, naturalistic example of Duse. Although the two battled in a subdued way for years by assuming the same roles in their thoroughly different styles, the war went public in 1895 when the two women booked theaters across the street from each other in London, and opened in the same role of two productions in an identical play. A young George Bernard Shaw declared Duse the clear victor. From that event, Rader's Playing to the Gods becomes an almost-comic, certainly tragic, farce in which the two actors went at each other's throats . . . genteelly, of course. Bernhardt hijacked Duse's spiritual schtick, appearing in a number of plays as Christian saints and Buddhist martyrs; Duse calmly took Bernhardt's signature role of Camille to the White House, where Bernhardt had never been invited. Bernhardt publicly patronized Duse in Paris, behaving like a grande dame dispensing largesse to an unknown actress; Duse retaliated by attending one of Bernhardt's performances, where she remained standing, apparently rapt, for the whole play, drawing all attention from the diva onstage to herself. Bernhardt, in return, had special spotlights installed so that when she in turn attended a Duse performance, she was lit in a saintly, flattering, and attention-pulling manner. The sequence of triumphs and snubs exchanged by the two women reads like a lost E. F. Benson comedy of manners; Ryan Murphy might want to consider it for another season of Feud. The claws truly come out, however, when Bernhardt steals Gabriele D'Annunzio, Duse's playwright and lover, for both his plays and his masculine attentions. Rader's dual biography is an exciting read brought to life by the ambitions of two wildly-accomplished women at a remarkable time in the history of the theater. While Bernhardt remains the better-remembered of the pair, it's Duse's influence that has dominated the stage of today. Rader makes the case that it's possible, though, and perhaps advisable, to see beyond their squabbles and differences in order to appreciate them for the forces of nature they both were.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Allen Adams

    https://www.themaineedge.com/style/a-... Sarah Bernhardt is one of the most legendary names in the world of the theater. She was the first global superstar actress, renowned for her beauty and talent on both sides of the Atlantic. Her performances were considered iconic, once in a lifetime experiences to behold. Her fame has transcended centuries; even today, lovers of the stage know her name and have heard of her exploits. And yet … she had a rival. A rival whose naturalistic approach to acting b https://www.themaineedge.com/style/a-... Sarah Bernhardt is one of the most legendary names in the world of the theater. She was the first global superstar actress, renowned for her beauty and talent on both sides of the Atlantic. Her performances were considered iconic, once in a lifetime experiences to behold. Her fame has transcended centuries; even today, lovers of the stage know her name and have heard of her exploits. And yet … she had a rival. A rival whose naturalistic approach to acting bore a much closer resemblance to the modern theater than any of the highly stylized work being presented by Bernhardt. A rival who might have been even better. Eleonora Duse’s name has been lost to history, unfamiliar to all but the most devoted of theater historians, but in her heyday, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Berhardt’s greatness. Peter Rader’s “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever” takes a deep dive into this once-storied and largely-forgotten chapter of theater history, looking at the relationship between two women who ascended to the greatest heights of their profession, but took drastically different paths to get there. In all the ways that matter, Sarah Bernhardt was the O.D. – original diva. She was brash and eccentric and fully empowered at a time when women were expected to be none of those things. She embraced the status that her talents gave her and wielded it forcefully and without regrets. She toured all over Europe and traveled to North and South America, giving command performances everywhere she went and making the modern equivalent of millions of dollars. She was considered to be the finest actress in the world, having imposed her mastery over the pose-driven traditional acting style that had long been the standard. Eleonora Duse viewed the stage very differently, both in how she valued it and how she stood astride it. To Duse, the stage was almost a holy place, an arena through which the grace of the universe might flow. Eschewing the usual posing and posturing, Duse approached her roles from the inside out, channeling the spirits of her characters to create quieter, more intimate performances. She strove for genuineness and empathy rather than the bombast brought to the table by Bernhardt and the rest of the theatrical world. Their lives were intertwined for decades; both women yearned to be viewed as the clear superior. Bernhardt sought to maintain her place in the sun, while Duse desired a chance to sit solo in the spotlight. Such disparate styles springing from comparable talents led to the choosing of sides – there were few who were on the fence in this particular debate. “Playing to the Gods” follows both women through their careers, alternating between Bernhardt and Duse as they do battle by proxy, treading the boards all over Europe and beyond, all of it culminating in the fateful London faceoff of 1895, in which both women were in the same town, performing the same role in the same play (Marguerite Gautier in “La Dame aux Camelias” – known in English as “Camille” – by Alexandre Dumas, fils). After that, the rivalry cooled somewhat, though both women continued working into the 20th century. Sarah Bernhardt put an indelible stamp on theatrical history; few stage actresses have ever achieved her level of fame and notoriety. She traveled with a veritable zoo of exotic animals and was a brazen and unapologetic shill for products. She was a performing icon before there was really any such thing as a performing icon. And her name lives on – even casual fans of the theater are at least vaguely familiar. Eleonora Duse, however, may have contributed more to the actual craft than her better-known rival. Her internal, empathetic style was a precursor to the more modern styles championed by legendary teachers like Constantin Stanislavski and playwrights like Henrik Ibsen. Her emotional self-mastery opened the door for realism on stage – something altogether new by the standards of the day. “Playing to the Gods” is compelling enough due to the story it tells, but Rader goes the extra mile; not only does he capture the details of each woman’s performative life, but he also mines the personal as well. Excerpts from correspondence, bits of juicy gossip, tales of affairs and exploits romantic and otherwise – it’s all here, all of it capturing a vivid snapshot of the mutual orbit held together by the gravity of these binary stars. Both women were larger than life – one from the inside out, the other from the outside in. Lovers of theater and theater history will devour this book, an entertaining and immaculate look at a time that in many ways served as the primordial beginnings of the modern stage.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jennybeast

    Fascinating and well paced dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. I learned so much about both of them, about the development of acting, and about early cults of celebrity. I have talked more about this book with random friends than most things I can remember reading over the last couple of years -- both because I didn't know Eleanora Duse existed, despite my theater background, and because I didn't realize how much styles of acting have changed over time. The book itself is well b Fascinating and well paced dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. I learned so much about both of them, about the development of acting, and about early cults of celebrity. I have talked more about this book with random friends than most things I can remember reading over the last couple of years -- both because I didn't know Eleanora Duse existed, despite my theater background, and because I didn't realize how much styles of acting have changed over time. The book itself is well balanced, fairly exhaustive, and very carefully centered on their rivalry, which I think works well when you are covering two such large and documented personalities. Advanced reader's copy provided by Edelweiss.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jessica T.

    This biography reads like fiction. Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse were the most famous actresses of their day. This is a fascinating account of what theatre was and how the innovative Duse created what we know as drama today. I could go on and on AND ON about this biography but if you like biography and history (and a good rivalry) read it. (netgally)

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sam Law

    Sex. Rivalry. Betrayal. Reconciliation. Art. Read More Book Reviews at It's Good To Read Towering over all, the two greatest actresses of the 19th century challenging and competing with each other, in a time of turbulent change in both the acting world (with the advent of art nouveau and moving pictures), and the world at large (the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War). The prize at stake was the very soul of acting. This is a true story. Playing To The Gods relives the lives of two actresse Sex. Rivalry. Betrayal. Reconciliation. Art. Read More Book Reviews at It's Good To Read Towering over all, the two greatest actresses of the 19th century challenging and competing with each other, in a time of turbulent change in both the acting world (with the advent of art nouveau and moving pictures), and the world at large (the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War). The prize at stake was the very soul of acting. This is a true story. Playing To The Gods relives the lives of two actresses, one of whose name is still widely recognisable, the other whose name is now known only to drama students. Historically, both actresses lived at a time of great change. Up to about the 1870’s or so, being called an ‘Actress’ was equivalent to being called a prostitute. Acting then was primarily vaudeville-type shows, tickets cost mere pennies, and actresses usually ended as paupers, (to be buried in the potter’s field, not even worthy of a cemetery burial). Acting style was minutely described, with “poses” being the conduit for emotion (i.e. a certain pose for rage, for happiness, etc.). This was known as Symbolism, acting by physical mimicry. There was no emotion, no realism. It was all swooning and stage-left exits. Writing style was equally trite – tragedies ended in death, comedies in marriage. It was all very formulaic, predictable, and required nothing of the actors or audience. Sarah Bernhardt changed the perception of actresses, Eleanora Duse the nature of acting. French actress Sarah Bernhardt, born 1844, was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish courtesan, who had run away from Amsterdam with her younger sister to Paris. Paris was more permissive and accepting of such children, and of such ladies like her mother and their salons, and her mother’s success was such that Sarah went at seven years of age to a boarding school (with a less-than-inspiring debut as the Fairy Queen in a play called Clotilde), then at nine to a convent, to finish her education. She eventually joined Comedie-Francaise, a highly-respected acting troupe. She also joined the family business for a period, at this time. From these beginnings, she went on to star in some of the most popular plays (using the “posed” or Symbolic style) from the mid 1860’s to just after the First World War. The names include her signature role as Camille in La Dame Aux Camelias (by Alexandre Dumas), Theodora, Fedora and La Tosca by Sardou, and latterly L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand (who would succumb to the Spanish Flu of 1919). She also was comfortable playing male roles, such as Hamlet, but as early as 1869 she was playing Zanetto in Le Passant, by Francois Coppee. Her legend began with this role. She became larger than life, not caring what newspapers said of her in the theatre pages, so long as she was on the front page. She promoted her eccentricities, such as her travelling menagerie, her opulent lifestyle, her grandiose gestures, her myriad lovers. She could entertain equally as well on stage and in the bedroom (which may have been just another stage for her). The “witching music of her voice of gold” enraptured audiences and critics alike, and propelled her to stardom. She took full advantage, understanding the importance of merchandising herself. She created several firsts, for example becoming the first international move star (a full year before Chaplin). She WAS the Grande Dame of theatre. Eleanor Duse, an Italian actress born in 1858, had none of the advantages that Bernhardt had, such as they were. Born into a family of poor, wandering troubadours, her life from the start was characterised by rootlessness, restlessness, and loneliness. From these inauspicious beginnings (she from about four was used as a beggar in order to earn the family enough money for food), and without any formal training, she rose to become the greatest stage actress of her generation, possibly of any generation to that date, and her rivalry with Bernhardt stemmed from this. Duse debuted as Cosette, the orphaned waif in Les Miserables, learning early the lesson that for the audience to be entertained, the actor had to suffer. She had an isolated, lonely childhood, (naming only one friend), which fed her imagination and developed her deep inner spiritual life. Many years of literally walking the roads of Italy, Germany, Austria were to follow, until she had an epiphany in Verona, playing Juliet in the Shakespearean heroine’s hometown. A force, (known to her and select intimates from then forward as The Grace), revealed itself to her, and she was transformed. Acting had now become Art. Art would flow without effort, truth would channel through the artist to the audience creating a mystical communion, but the artist had to lose herself (i.e. destroy the ego) in the performance. Duse would be the model and inspiration for what would become the Method School of acting, and was the first major proponent for the emotional style of acting. She would revel in plays by Ibsen. She too would create some firsts, notably being the first actor or actress ever to be invited to the White House, and also the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. The American phrase “it’s a doozy” dates from their appreciation of her performances, when on tour in the US. While never short of lovers, Duse fell in love with the wrong guys, and suffered terrible emotional distress at their hands. Conversely, Bernhardt was always the one in control. Duse and Bernhardt were different in almost every conceivable way. Modest as opposed to flamboyant, retiring against extroverted, publicity-shy against publicity-hungry, these two women bestrode the acting world like colossi. Bernhardt had the early advantage, being some 15 years older, and already a star when Duse took her first steps upon the stage. Bernhardt had perfected the Symbolic school, and was worshipped wherever she went. Duse created a new style of acting, being more natural, using the pauses between the lines, and had to work hard to win over her audiences and critics, initially at least. Playing To The Gods perfectly narrates the growing confidence of Duse in her Art, and Bernhardt’s increasing awareness of this rising star. Bernhardt calls her “de vigne” in French, which to Anglophone ears sounds like divine, but means “of the peasantry, or ‘of the vines”. Bernhardt’s reaction is to go big, larger performances, more extravagant sets, increased publicity, but ever the survivor we see her changing her style, and re-writing her past, to become Duse-like near the end of her career. They stole each other’s lovers and scripts, they followed each other around the globe, and strove to out-perform each other in the roles they took. This epic rivalry (echoed by the 1963 tensions between Crawford and Davis in Feud) culminated in an act-off, a head-to-head staging by both actresses of the SAME play (Magda) at the SAME time in London – across the street from each other! The book is a fascinating insight into two incredible talents, their highs and lows, abject failures and stunning successes, the sexual shenanigans and unlikely partnerships. These iconic women were venerated and criticised by people whose names are still known today (Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and others). It was a time of legends, and this book details why Bernhardt’s name lives on, whereas Duse is almost obscure. It is a fascinating read, and thoroughly recommended. Not available until August 21st 2018. Acknowledgements: Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to review, in return for a free copy of the book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Mandell

    Sarah Bernhardt remains the most famous stage actress of all time, the subject of the play Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway. But during her lifetime she had a rival, Eleanora Duse. The two didn’t just compete; they represented opposing views of what acting, and the theater, should be, according to “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever." The author makes much of the two divas’ contrasting acting styles, Bernhardt with her extravagant flourish Sarah Bernhardt remains the most famous stage actress of all time, the subject of the play Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway. But during her lifetime she had a rival, Eleanora Duse. The two didn’t just compete; they represented opposing views of what acting, and the theater, should be, according to “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever." The author makes much of the two divas’ contrasting acting styles, Bernhardt with her extravagant flourishes, Eleanora spare and still, willing to turn her back to the audience, and have moments of silence. Or as Rader at one point succinctly describes the difference: Sarah posed. Eleanora paused. For all of the author’s pronouncements about acting, little of which feel fresh or insightful, "Playing to the Gods" is mostly a dual biography of two fascinating women, largely unfolding their separate stories in alternating chapters. My full review.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rosann

    Nice! I very much enjoyed Peter Rader's tale of two of the most powerful figures in theater history- Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse. These two actors represented in many ways a changing of the guard at the turn of the nineteenth century. Frenchwoman Bernhardt remains well known into the 21st century as the pre-eminent actress, promoter, provocateur of her age. Italian Duse is the publicity shy, fragile, creative force who introduced the wider world to a new way of stage communication---- to Nice! I very much enjoyed Peter Rader's tale of two of the most powerful figures in theater history- Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse. These two actors represented in many ways a changing of the guard at the turn of the nineteenth century. Frenchwoman Bernhardt remains well known into the 21st century as the pre-eminent actress, promoter, provocateur of her age. Italian Duse is the publicity shy, fragile, creative force who introduced the wider world to a new way of stage communication---- to become known as Method Acting. Yet little is known outside of theater historians. Yet Rader skillfully recreates the time when the theater experience was changing in every aspect from makeup, lighting, staging, directing, writing, and most especially the acting. He writes engagingly of Bernhardt, and Duse as their careers develop, wax, and wane. One whose name lives on and the other whose gift continues to give to the theater going public. It is well researched, entertaining, and well written.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Strawberry

    *I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review* Before the "Divine Feud" between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema, there was the on- and offstage rivalry between theatrical actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse in the late 19th/early 20th Century. Originally pitted against each other because they were the best/most popular actresses in their home countries (Bernhardt in France, Duse in Italy), Playing to the Gods *I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review* Before the "Divine Feud" between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema, there was the on- and offstage rivalry between theatrical actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse in the late 19th/early 20th Century. Originally pitted against each other because they were the best/most popular actresses in their home countries (Bernhardt in France, Duse in Italy), Playing to the Gods starts off by highlighting the actresses' different approaches to performing, as well as giving details of their controversial, yet oftentimes heartbreaking, personal lives. The "competition" between the two divas prior to them actually meeting included passive-aggressive banter and nationalistic slights, but once they were brought together to perform, the cattiness and tension were so high it makes Bette and Joan look like a couple of amateurs. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history of theater and acting, famous feuds, and biographies.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review I was very excited to read this book and it did not disappoint! I was mostly excited to read it because I am a huge Oscar Wilde fan and wanted to learn a little more about his connection to Sarah Bernhardt and I am glad that there was plenty on that subject in this book. I will admit, I did not know much about Eleonora Duse before I began this book, but it did not matter; there was plenty of backstory and information that I did not I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review I was very excited to read this book and it did not disappoint! I was mostly excited to read it because I am a huge Oscar Wilde fan and wanted to learn a little more about his connection to Sarah Bernhardt and I am glad that there was plenty on that subject in this book. I will admit, I did not know much about Eleonora Duse before I began this book, but it did not matter; there was plenty of backstory and information that I did not feel that my reading experience was hindered. What I found so interesting about this book is how difficult this subject matter must have been to write about. There is very little film evidence of these actresses, so all we really have to go on is firsthand accounts and newspaper reports about their plays and acting styles, not to mention the actresses' own words. With that being said, I think the author did a great job of describing the acting styles.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kristine

    Playing to the Gods by Peter Rader is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early July. A story told in elaborate, extensive tandem between 'The Divine' Sarah Bernhardt vs. 'The Duse' Eleanora Duse as they steal each other's spotlight, roles, inspirations, tour dates, and trappings of their personal lives. I can't say I've heard of the latter actress, although her otherworldly, ancestral plane acting method seems awesome. Similarly, the Duse's Italian modern, intuitive, natural style had spurned Playing to the Gods by Peter Rader is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early July. A story told in elaborate, extensive tandem between 'The Divine' Sarah Bernhardt vs. 'The Duse' Eleanora Duse as they steal each other's spotlight, roles, inspirations, tour dates, and trappings of their personal lives. I can't say I've heard of the latter actress, although her otherworldly, ancestral plane acting method seems awesome. Similarly, the Duse's Italian modern, intuitive, natural style had spurned traditional, predictable, somewhat over the top acting - the kind that a French Bernhardt was world-famous for. Duse had also embodied a kind of pained, shying from the light, Gothic figure, who expressed her Art where Bernhardt is primed for stardom, larger than life, and openly opulent.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    A fascinating look at Bernhardt (Queen of the Indicators) and Duse (Queen of the Actors) and how their two different acting styles ignited their profession and the world. While not a full biography of either amazing woman, this is an in depth look at their personalities (public and private), and their acting styles. The affect these two titans had on the profession is incalculable.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lily

    I did not like the subject material.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lady Alexandrine

    Before I read "Playing to the Gods" I haven’t heard about Eleonora Duse. It was fascinating to read about her role in the creation of modern acting. Of course I knew about Sarah Bernhardt, the great diva’s success and eccentrics, but I was able to learn much more about her early life and career from this book. Eleonora Duse The author wrote a fascinating account about lives of two great actresses and the rivalry between them. But what’s even more interesting the book shows the emergence of moder Before I read "Playing to the Gods" I haven’t heard about Eleonora Duse. It was fascinating to read about her role in the creation of modern acting. Of course I knew about Sarah Bernhardt, the great diva’s success and eccentrics, but I was able to learn much more about her early life and career from this book. Eleonora Duse The author wrote a fascinating account about lives of two great actresses and the rivalry between them. But what’s even more interesting the book shows the emergence of modern acting, as we know it today. Eleonora Duse around 1890 Eleonora Duse was a dedicated artist, who gave the spectators an unique experience of seeing real emotions on stage and connecting with something universal and authentic. Sarah Bernhardt by Félix Nadar in 1864 Both Sarah and Eleonora had many lovers and affairs that moved their careers forward. The author wrote a lot about their love affairs. Some of the details were quite embarrassing, especially the behaviour of an Italian writer and poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. Let me tell you… he was a total nutcase. Sarah Bernhardt portrait by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1879) Sarah Bernhardt reached an unimaginable celebrity status. What’s more she single-handedly invented the notion of celebrity. Her successful life and world-wide recognition changed the way that actors were perceived. Before Sarah Bernhardt actors were treated like outcasts and prostitutes. Sarah Bernhardt in 1879 What I enjoyed most about Sarah Bernhardt’s life was that she succeeded against huge odds. She was a daughter of a courtesan, she never knew her father. She had a horrid stage fright. Her acting abilities were harshly criticised at the beginning. She wasn’t remarkable at the acting school. Spectators complained that her voice was weak, her face looked ugly from a distance and she was too thin. Despite it all… she succeeded with flourish! Overall, "Playing to the Gods" makes a fascinating read. It is a must read for people excited about the history of theatre, lives of famous actors and acting in general. I received "Playing to the Gods" from the publisher via NetGalley. I would like to thank the author and the publisher for providing me with the advance reader copy of the book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    DNF - unless you have *deep* knowledge of late 19th century theatre this is a hard slog. I ended up skimming all the theatre details and just reading about their personalities and off-stage rivalry.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lorri Steinbacher

    Solidly told tale of theatrical rivalry and a great introduction to the history of theater. It made me want to learn more. Recently saw Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway so this filled in some gaps.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Diana Keener

    I knew of Sarah Bernhardt mainly as a historic reference and as the subject of the Alphonse Mucha posters but I must admit I had never heard of Eleonora Duse. This was a fascinating chronicle of their lives and their rivalry and the transition in theater at that time. It's non-fiction but it flowed like a novel and was enjoyable to read. I couldn't help but feel for both of these women as they experienced triumphs, betrayals and disappointments. Thanks to NetGalley for a digital ARC.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Linda Pilkerton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Brian Randall

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cosima demaglie

    GREAT READ! KEEPER! I LOVE IT, A must read, i could not put it down

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ginger Pollard

    A very slow read for me. More biographical than I thought, though some people will enjoy it. Just not my cup of tea, sadly. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Drewey

  30. 4 out of 5

    Steven

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