Monday, April 18, 2016


It wasn't long ago that I found a brief online biography of Italian actress Eleonora Duse. The biography made reference to how Shaw "gave his nod to Duse" in her unspoken rivalry of years with Sarah Bernhardt. Shaw praised Duse, we read, "in an adamant oratory quoted by biographer Frances Winwar." 

I was, of course, curious about the exact words of that "adamant oratory" and I immediately turned to Winwar's biography in search of the words by Shaw. Winwar, in his Wingless Victory - A Biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Eleonora Duse, indeed refers to the occasion when both actresses "decided to play Magda, Duse at the Drury Lane and Bernhardt at Daly's Theater" in what the author calls a "duel for supremacy." He goes on to describe how Shaw "voted unqualifiedly for Duse and defended his choice with trenchant oratory." No source, alas, is provided for this episode. 

A similar account is provided in Taranow's biography of Bernhardt, where he refers to Shaw as a "passionate Ibsenite" who "was negatively sensitive" to Bernhardt's performances. 

A much later biography of Duse (by Helen Sheehy) includes a reference to the same critical piece by Shaw and his opinions on Duse's performance. This time, we are only a little luckier in reading that it was written soon after Shaw had begun writing for The Saturday Review

Once this information is provided, it is easy to turn to any of the excellent edited collections of Shaw's dramatic criticism in order to find the relevant article. Specifically, "Duse and Bernhardt" (that was its title) was published on June 15, 1895. The full text of the article is available HERE. has also digitized this text and made it publicly available HERE. Other collections where the article can be read include Bernard F. Dukore's The Drama Observed (Vol. II, pp. 366-371)

Since I know you are more than capable of reading the article yourself and drawing your own conclusions, I will only bring to your attention how this article has been quoted and used in other media as an example of superb dramatic criticism and as the epitome of a certain kind of approach to acting. An approach that, as Shaw's article suggests, can tell "the difference between an effective part and a well-played one."

After the 2006 Academy Awards, for example, Shaw's less-than-Solomonic judgement on these two actresses was borrowed to illustrate how "beauty in acting has less to do with good genes (or a great plastic surgeon) than with the representation of human truth."

The rivalry between both icons of acting (together with the observations by Shaw) was dramatized in 2003, in a "frightening" face-off

"Duse and Bernhardt" was also included as an external element in a more recent adaptation of this historical competition, "The Ladies of the Camellias"

In fact, Shaw's "un-Shavian rapture" is the basis of Sheehy's biography of Duse, as suggested by this New York Times review.

In a more distant, convolute connection, Shaw is quoted in a review of a ballet coreography based on Duse's professional life (in German).  

Well, I hope this gives you an idea of how relevant a drama critic Bernard Shaw still is. I'm sure you all have your favorite in the Duse-Bernhardt duel, but nothing compares to Shaw's critical essays. 

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