You may have noticed -- how could you overlook it? -- that book reviewers straining to express enthusiasm about biographies are using the term "novelistic" with abandon. "This story," they're fond of saying, "is told with all the gusto of a really good novel." Let's put our cards on the table: Biographies, especially the best of them, don't read like good novels. There's no reason why they should. A reviewer who tosses around words like "novelistic" to describe a work of scholarship isn't merely capitulating to lit-crit cliché; he (or she) is engaging in downright seduction.

The biographer's art is based, first and foremost, on detailed research. That's why it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to combine historical accuracy with a Tom Clancy-ish flourish. Constrained by the historical record, conscientious biographers seldom penetrate the minds of their subjects in the imaginative way that novelists do. And the competing demands of storytelling and inclusiveness create a tension that keeps biographical narrative from working up the head of steam which is a sine qua non of popular fiction. Yet, while biographies proceed at a less driving pace than novels, there's no reason why they can't be compelling. Helen Sheehy's Eleonora Duse: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 382 pages; $32.50) is a case in point.

Sheehy is the author of two admirable books about pioneering figures in modern American theater, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones (1989) and Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography (1996). Her Eleonora Duse is the first major study in two decades of the great Italian actress who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Duse, like Eva Le Gallienne and Margo Jones, triumphed as a stage director and producer in a day when those roles were performed almost exclusively by men. Duse is a natural subject for Sheehy to pursue after her book on Le Gallienne: Duse was Le Gallienne's role model (also an acquaintance); and Le Gallienne, late in life, wrote a biography of the Italian actress, The Mystic in the Theatre.

Duse -- or "La Duse," as she was known at the height of her career -- was Sarah Bernhardt's chief rival on the European stage and, along with Bernhardt, one of the first global (or nearly global) superstars. Eighty years ago, when Duse's funeral cortege paused in New York City on the journey from Pittsburgh, where she died, to burial in Asolo, Italy, more than 3,000 fans greeted the hearse outside the Upper East Side church in which her body was to rest for 72 hours. American poet Amy Lowell, who was a devoted fan, wrote: "I cannot imagine how many there must have been in the whole three days, thousands and thousands of them." That, of course, was in the infancy of sound recording and motion picture technology. Over the years, inevitably, much of Duse's fame has evaporated.

Fifteen years younger than Bernhardt, Duse was born in 1859 in lower Lombardy where her parents, who were roving players, were performing. By age four, she was acting professionally and, at 14, had become the ingénue of her family's theatrical troupe. Duse's childhood, like the rest of her life, was nomadic, marked by sorrow and hard work. When she was 13, she lost her beloved mother. Seven years later, abandoned by her lover, she gave birth to a son who died in infancy.

As a young adult, Duse quickly established herself as a popular actress, then as an influential producer-director. She overcame the poverty of her early years, but a penchant for men and theatrical projects that drained her bank account guaranteed financial worries throughout her life. Impetuous and wildly emotional, Duse lived an offstage drama as tempestuous as the saga of any heroine she played on stage. Her love life was a roundelay of uneasy alliances; her marriage was ill-starred; and her relationship with her daughter, Enrichetta, was chilly and tense. The vertex of Duse's emotional history is her notorious, long-lasting affair with poet-dramatist-politician Gabriele d'Annunzio, who treated her miserably but wrote juicy roles for her to play and kept her passion on the boil for many years.

Duse cultivated an aura of mystery as the keynote of her public relations campaign, yet she spilled her secrets into the letters she wrote incessantly. Her surviving correspondence, with its careless revelations, makes Duse easy pickings for biographers. Her letters and journals, and those of others in her circle, include profound insights as to Duse's feelings and her special brand of neurosis during most periods of her life. Since 1924, when she died, shelves of books and dissertations have been written about the woman. Some -- like Bertita Harding's Age Cannot Wither (1947), which concentrates on her affair with d'Annunzio -- are breathless and exploitative. Others, such as Le Gallienne's little volume, approach the level of hagiography. In between are solid if uninspiring efforts like William Weaver's Duse: A Biography (1984), the last major American biography prior to Sheehy's.

Helen Sheehy
Helen Sheehy
In writing about Duse, Sheehy has had the advantage of previously confidential documents and a handwritten memoir by the actress that have recently come to light. This new biography offers a more detailed portrait than earlier efforts as well as a sense of immediacy uncommon in biographical works, and Duse's offstage voice comes through loud and clear. Sheehy situates the actress's story in the context of theater history and the politics of the day, and she makes a strong case for Duse as the founder of modern acting technique. What she can't provide is a more vivid notion than the best of the past biographers as to the magic of Duse in performance.

The record of reviewers and historians is clear: Duse's characterizations packed a special wallop for the audiences of her day. Though remembered for touring indefatigably in classics (Shakespeare's Cleopatra was a staple) and melodramatic warhorses such as La Dame aux camélias and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, she appeared in numerous groundbreaking works such as Zola's Thérèse Raquin, Ibsen's A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, and d'Annunzio's La città morta. From an early age, she developed a low-key style which defied the predictable histrionics of 19th century actors and eventually inspired Konstantin Stanislavsky, who saw her during one of her Russian visits. Duse's on-stage responses seemed spontaneous, genuine, and unrehearsed. Her gestures and facial expressions were detailed but understated. And because of the new gas lighting (and, later, electricity), theaters were, for the first time, illuminated sufficiently for such subtlety to be effective.

The place to discover precisely how Duse smashed the icons of 19th century theater is Le Gallienne's Mystic in the Theatre. Having grown up in Paris, Le Gallienne understood the old guard; observing Duse at first hand, she absorbed what was innovative in the older actress's approach to her craft. When watching Duse, Le Gallienne writes, "one thought of Rimbaud's saying: 'Action is a way of spoiling something.' She had worked [in her acting] to eliminate everything that was nonessential." Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello sounded the same note by describing Duse's technique as "internally very simple, bare, almost naked" and "the quintessence of a pure, lived truth."

Le Gallienne says that "[w]hen Bernhardt acted, you knew she was doing something extremely difficult superlatively well. With Duse, you were not aware that she was 'doing' anything; it was so effortless; it seemed so easy; no wonder so many people failed to realize the immense discipline behind it all. Yet with this ease, this seeming indifference to effect, Duse had a power that subdued an audience in a way which even Bernhardt's fireworks failed to do. Never have I known such silence in an audience. There was literally not a sound in those vast, crowded houses."

Only an eyewitness like Le Gallienne can bring the reader into contact with a long-ago performance. What Sheehy achieves, on the other hand, is a vibrant yet accurate evocation of her subject's character and personality. Sheehy is never better than at the outset of Eleonora Duse, when she introduces the actress, aged 14, arriving in Verona to perform Romeo and Juliet. "[P]laying a girl of her same age in Juliet's own city, and acting as Juliet herself might have acted," the ingénue is transported to a "state of boundless grace." Once on stage, "every word seemed 'to go right through the heat of my blood,'" writes Sheehy in Eleonora's voice (relying on Il fuoco, d'Annunzio's roman à clef based on memories that the actress shared with him when she was in her 40s). This is Duse on the verge -- if you'll pardon the threadbare phrase -- of finding herself."

Writes Sheehy, "The feeling that surged through her, undoing the boundaries of her personality and uniting her in communion with the audience, was terrifying, uncanny, and as ancient as Dionysus, the god of the theatre, who embodies two opposing principles, the 'ecstasy of power over others and the ecstasy of self-surrender.' For the rest of her life, because she became most herself when acting other selves, she would seek this state of profound grace and ecstatic abandonment. 'Art, like love,' she said, 'is insatiable.'" Sheehy demonstrates that even the most scrupulously documented biography, though denied overall the narrative urgency of fiction, may nonetheless contain savory, psychologically insightful moments that demand to be called "novelistic."