First, a fiery allegory - the reviewer's house is burning down! After tossing the cats out of the window, she has time only to save one object before fleeing: either a compact disc reissue of Sarah Bernhardt declaiming from Phèdre or an old sepia-tinted postcard of Eleonora Duse in D'Annunzio's La Città morta. Quick! Which to choose? The Bernhardt has always been a source of deep hilarity: given the primitive acoustic equipment (the original recording was made in 1903), the fabled French actress sounds like Minnie Mouse on speed. She gabbles her way through 'Oui, Prince, je brûle pour Thésée' at a mad, cartoonish pace, 'r's unrolling wildly in every direction. (Watch your head!) The reviewer dotes on her deranged-chipmunk tones, and has even been known to mimic them - along with accompanying pops and blops and funky squeaks - for the enjoyment of select companions. How to live without her?
Yet the carte postale of Duse might seem even more cherishable. Despite her Post-Modern household location - propped up like a jokey little icon next to the Body Shop bottles on the bathroom shelf - Duse exudes, well, a certain sublimity. She's all in black, in some kind of elegant, judicial-looking, Portia-like robe, and leans against a Greek column on a terrace, head tilted up to the heavens. She's obviously standing on a stage - there's a pale cardboard mountain and painted cataract in the far distance - but something in the mute classicism of her pose undoes any sense of theatricality. She doesn't lend herself to parody in the way that Bernhardt does: she's austere, pure removed. Nor does she need to reel off alexandrines to make an effect. You can tell just by looking she's One Tragic Babe. What to do? (Gasp, splutter, cough cough!)
LRB 14 December 2000 | PDF Download