Playing to the Gods
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.

Playing to the Gods Details

TitlePlaying to the Gods
Author
ReleaseAug 21st, 2018
PublisherSimon & Schuster
ISBN-139781476738376
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Biography, History, Plays, Theatre, Historical, Literature, 19th Century

Playing to the Gods Review

  • Cindy Burnett
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • BAM The Bibliomaniac
    January 1, 1970
    Netgalley #49
  • Karoliina
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Gianna
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • V. Briceland
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Jennybeast
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Jessica T.
    January 1, 1970
    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)
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  • Sam Law
    January 1, 1970
    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.
    more
  • Sam Law
    January 1, 1970
    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, 2018Acknowledgements:Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to review, in return for a free copy of the book.
    more
  • Rosann
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Kristen
    January 1, 1970
    *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.
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  • Emily
    January 1, 1970
    I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest reviewI 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 reviewI 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.
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  • Kristine
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Lady Alexandrine
    January 1, 1970
    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 1890Eleonora 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 1864Both 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 1879What 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.
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  • Diana Keener
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Cosima demaglie
    January 1, 1970
    GREAT READ! KEEPER! I LOVE IT, A must read, i could not put it down
  • Ginger Pollard
    January 1, 1970
    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.
  • Kelley
    January 1, 1970
    Let me start by saying my only draw to this book was that it was historic and about 2 inspiring women. I had very little interest in the actress/stage part of this book, but despite my indifference, the author really was able to make me interested. By the end I was searching the motion pictures of these two women on youtube and watching them in action.Just one of these stories would have been interesting and inspiring enough. They both, independently, are quite interesting from birth to death. B Let me start by saying my only draw to this book was that it was historic and about 2 inspiring women. I had very little interest in the actress/stage part of this book, but despite my indifference, the author really was able to make me interested. By the end I was searching the motion pictures of these two women on youtube and watching them in action.Just one of these stories would have been interesting and inspiring enough. They both, independently, are quite interesting from birth to death. But to weave these two stories together just adds a whole level of intrigue that brings them even more alive. This book is long, but I do think that everything contained here is worth of being included.It took me a while to get through this, just based on the times that I devote to tablet reading (not my favorite). Overall this was quite a tale. I'm glad I selected it to read.
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  • Annette Jordan
    January 1, 1970
    A fascinating and well researched account of not one but two incredible women, their careers, their personal lives and their legacies are all examined in this entertaining and informative book. While the name of Sarah Bernhardt is recognizable to this day as one of the greatest actresses of all time, that of her "rival" ( as described in this book) Eleanora Duse has faded into the past, remembered only by those with an interest in the theater. This is no accident, as Bernhardt thrived on fame, a A fascinating and well researched account of not one but two incredible women, their careers, their personal lives and their legacies are all examined in this entertaining and informative book. While the name of Sarah Bernhardt is recognizable to this day as one of the greatest actresses of all time, that of her "rival" ( as described in this book) Eleanora Duse has faded into the past, remembered only by those with an interest in the theater. This is no accident, as Bernhardt thrived on fame, and at times on infamy and scandal too, while Duse preferred to avoid the fame, and wished to concentrate only on her "Art". Despite the differences in their ages, they did tread the boards during the same time period, leading to a rivalry between the women that at times overflowed into the personal as well as the professional. This well written book catalogs the histories of both women, and how their upbringings, personal lives and relationships impacted on their careers, while also examining how their different acting styles showed the evolution of theatre from the stiff formal style favoured in the pre Victorian and Victorian ears to the more natural style typified in the works of more modern writers such as Ibsen. This progression made for an interesting read, and helped to drive the narrative of the book, but the real heart of the book is the relationship between these two very different but very successful and determined women. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in women who lead extraordinary lives, and also anyone who has an interest in acting or the theatre, the author has done a really great job of taking a lot of historical detail and making it accessible to even the most casual of readers. I read and reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.
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  • Jill Elizabeth
    January 1, 1970
    How fascinating this was! I was familiar with both actresses, although like most people, more so with Bernhardt than Duse. The two women were pitted as rivals, yet shared a startling number of qualities (chief among them perseverance and an extraordinary unwillingness to accept the role others tried to slot them into). Their careers were exceptionally dramatic (perhaps not surprising, given the field they both excelled in), as were their lives (most notably in the romantic, financial, and famili How fascinating this was! I was familiar with both actresses, although like most people, more so with Bernhardt than Duse. The two women were pitted as rivals, yet shared a startling number of qualities (chief among them perseverance and an extraordinary unwillingness to accept the role others tried to slot them into). Their careers were exceptionally dramatic (perhaps not surprising, given the field they both excelled in), as were their lives (most notably in the romantic, financial, and familial arenas). They WERE theater in the early twentieth century, and the cult of celebrity was forever shaped by the opposing paths and approaches the two took to fame and publicity. Their marks - particularly Duse's - on modern acting and staging cannot be overstated either. From method acting to the very language we speak (I had no idea "doozy" was coined after Duse!), these were exceptional women who lived larger than life lives, largely independently - at a time when most women were barely treated as more than possessions... The battle royale between the two actresses and their wildly different approaches to acting and theater was exceedingly entertaining to read - particularly given the state of the world throughout the course of their careers. Rader's writing style was engaging and entertaining, offering not only a great story but also a history lesson, taking the reader on a detailed (but not overly so) trip through European history, the history of theater, and even the rise of cinema.
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