Playing to the Gods by Peter Rader
Published by Simon; Schuster, 248 pages, $26

In the 19th century, a great rivalry developed, but it wasn’t between sports figures or politicians. It was between actresses, as teacher and Harvard grad Peter Rader details in Playing to the Gods. Viciously colorful battles were fought around the world by Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse—onstage and off. Bernhardt, often clad in silk and jewels, was bold and dramatic. Duse exuded a dreamier ethos, melting into characters in what she everlastingly proclaimed was her art—a routine touted decades later by Stanislavski as method acting.

The two played some of the same roles, including Camille in Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias. There were a multitude of betrayals involving men, including playwright d’Annunzio, a narcissist extraordinaire who wrote a part for Duse while dating her, only to later give it to Bernhardt. Duse, however, had usurped Bernhardt’s manager, while Bernhardt allegedly bedded Napoleon III—one of her estimated 1,000 lovers. The energy that Rader describes throughout the book includes passionate letters and reviews that are as dramatic as the theater.

Admiration, envy and high-stakes insecurity swirled around their relationship. Rader writes about how Bernhardt, while attending a Duse play, had a spotlight shining on her theater box. As time passed, Oscar Wilde wrote for Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin loved Duse, and Henrik Ibsen named Nora in A Doll’s House after Duse. Tapping into his background in Hollywood, Rader delivers a zesty sophisticated picture of the gigantic lives these stars lived.

From page 96: “Sarah was feted at every port by emperors and kings. And they were not her only admirers—impetuous young men fought duels over her, others wrote sonnets. In Buenos Aires, Bernhardt had amused herself by taking two lovers in their early twenties. ‘Ah, Sarah! Sarah!’ rhapsodized one eighteen-year old poet. ‘Sarah is grace, youth, divinity! I am beside myself. My God, what a woman!’ ”

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