On 28 February 1905 Joyce saw Eleanora Duse perform in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.
The performance took place on 28 February 1905 at the Teatro Verdi. Duse was considered the leading Ibsen actress of the day, and though Joyce had seen her perform before, he hadn’t seen her perform in a play by Ibsen. He prepared himself by buying and reading a copy of Rosmersholm the day before the performance, but both the play and the performance disappointed him. He told Stanislaus the play was badly constructed, and that Duse was a fading star. The character she played, Rebekka West, was not half as interesting, he thought, as the central character Rosmer.
Joyce had seen Duse for the first time when he visited London in 1900 with his father on the proceeds of his Ibsen article for the Fortnightly Review. He saw Duse perform in two D’Annunzio plays at the Lyceum: La Gioconda and La Città Morta. (Joyce’s copy of La Gioconda is dated May 1900, the same time he went to London.) During the visit, they met William Archer, Ibsen’s English translator, who claimed that Duse was a better actress than her great rival, Sarah Bernhardt.
Though he had only seen her in D’Annunzio’s plays, Joyce reckoned that Duse would be well suited to playing Ibsen’s heroines. When he heard that she had spoken disparagingly of Ibsen’s realism in an interview, he claimed that, with just a half an hour’s conversation, he could convert her. Joyce was so taken with Duse that he sent her an adulatory poem, though he received no acknowledgement from her and later destroyed his own copy of the poem. Even so, before he left London, he got a photograph of her which he kept on his desk for a long time.
Eleanora Duse was born in 1858 and began acting at a young age. After an affair with Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist), she had an affair with Gabriele D’Annunzio starting in 1895. He wrote four plays for her, but their relationship broke up when he gave the lead role in the premiere of La Città Morta to Duse’s rival, Sarah Bernhardt. La Duse, as she was known, toured extensively in Europe and America. Though she retired from acting in 1909, she started performing again in 1921, and died in July 1923 in Pittsburgh while on tour.
Years later, Joyce told Herbert Gorman of a dream he had in which he saw Molly Bloom wearing an opera cloak, her hair slightly grey, and looking like la Duse. One of the central images in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is a ghostly white horse, which is perhaps the source of the white horse mentioned in ‘The Dead.’
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, Stanislaus: My Brother’s Keeper, London: Faber & Faber, 1958.
McCourt, John: The Years of Bloom – James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2001.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.