It doesn’t come as a surprise that Peter Rader’s “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever” began as a screenplay. The simultaneously opulent and tragic world of the theatre around the turn of the century manifests itself vividly through Rader’s attention to detail, and the cast of characters that flicker in and out feel robust and authentically refined. The story itself is one that would surely captivate fans of period pieces or good old-fashioned feuds. Everything that would make it a brilliant biopic adapts exquisitely into long-form prose. Everything except the main two characters, Sarah and Eleonora, who may have gotten a bit lost in the translation.
There is so much to unpack when it comes to Sarah Bernhardt, a larger-than-life actress whose histrionics on and off the stage became and remains legendary across the world. Her proposed rival in the book is Eleonora Duse, whose acting and persona is much quieter than Sarah’s but whose unique approach and talent sparked a revolution in theatre and an envy in Sarah. In depicting the ensuing competition, Rader plays up the atmosphere surrounding the two women and meticulously captures the world’s reaction to each blow, but this external noise drowns out the merely-hinted-at complexities of each actress. The tethering of the women’s passion and vulnerability to the various men they had relationships with serve as the most problematic distortion of the book.
However, what the story gains from Rader’s narrative is an invigorating look at the evolution of art from something staged and dramatic to something realistic and genuine. Comparing Duse’s concept of “the Grace” to the Impressionists, Modernists, and contributors to Art Nouveau who were breaking ranks and shocking the art world, the book shifts surprisingly into an observation on the call to give the entire soul over to one’s passion.
Rader also explores how this shifting artistic dynamic led to some more shaded and complex roles for females in the theatre. Both actresses merge with the rise of the “New Woman” which fought to show that women could express femininity through raw emotion rather than continually remaining prim and proper. Both Sarah and Eleonora also managed to elevate the profession of an actress from something once perceived to be little nobler than a prostitute to one of the most coveted and respected careers.
In this sense, it’s baffling how the book manages to so eloquently capture the feminist and artistic legacy of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse while clouding the lives of the women themselves in extraneous details perhaps better relegated to a couple of frames of mise-en-scène.
As always, that’s just one girl’s opinion. Let me hear yours! Leave a comment below or on The Folding Chair’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest and let me know if there are any books you’d love to see a review of in the future!