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 perfect “book for all of us who binge-watched Feud” (Daniel de Visé, author of Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show).
Screenwriter Rader makes his first foray into nonfiction with this delectable tale of two feuding stage actresses at the end of the 19th century. Sarah Bernhardt (1844 1923), the better known of the two, commanded the stage, never disappearing into her roles. Wildly popular and a self-promotional genius, she transformed acting from disreputable entertainment to high art and mined her professional and private lives to invent the "eccentric celebrity" archetype. Born in Paris to an unmarried Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt used sex to secure patrons and break into acting. Eleonora Duse (1858 1924), born to a family of wandering Italian troubadours, first appeared on stage at age four. She later adopted an acting method different from her idol Bernhardt, disappearing into her characters. Her revolutionary style ushered in a new era of acting that threatened to leave Bernhardt behind. Writing in a style both humorous and romantic, and throwing in juicy tidbits (catty notes, cheating lovers) all along, Rader follows the careers of both women, leading to their 1895 dueling stage performances in London (in which Bernhardt intentionally tried to undermine Duse by putting on the same play Duse had already planned but premiering two days earlier) and the subsequent escalation of their rivalry (in which Duse "hijacked" a role from Bernhardt in a performance for the U.S. president). This entertaining chronicle illustrates how both women captivated audiences and made a lasting impact on the theater.