Playing to the Gods is compelling enough due to the story it tells, but Rader goes the extra mile; not only does he capture the details of each woman’s performative life, but he also mines the personal as well. Excerpts from correspondence, bits of juicy gossip, tales of affairs and exploits romantic and otherwise—it’s all here, all of it capturing a vivid snapshot of the mutual orbit held together by the gravity of these binary stars. Both women were larger than life—one from the inside out, the other from the outside in. Lovers of theater and theater history will devour this book, an entertaining and immaculate look at a time that in many ways served as the primordial beginnings of the modern stage.
Playing to the Gods argues that the Duse-Bernhardt rivalry, dragging on for years, was more than just personal, it was crucial to the art of modern acting ... this book is better read as biography (the lives practically tell themselves) than as cultural history ... I wish Mr. Rader had explained why 19th-century audiences had such an appetite for female anguish. Instead, he ticks off the hardships the women experienced to get to their virtuosic portrayals of agony ... For students of #MeToo, there’s plenty to think about in this book. Many of the aristocratic cads these actresses took up with sound like certain notorious Hollywood executives. Both women faced unwanted pregnancies alone ... Mr. Rader...has done his research and he clearly has sympathy for his leading ladies. But in a dual biography, each moment has to illuminate the whole. Too often, here, the storytelling is cramped or flattened or sounds like a screenplay, which in fact, is how he originally conceived it.
There is nothing new in Rader’s book that has not been covered by the many biographers of Bernhardt and Duse. His dual-biography structure allows him to highlight the ways their lives and careers both parallel and contrast. Rader has a breezy style that keeps the reader fascinated. Playing to the Gods is a useful entry into the careers and lives of these two extraordinary artists.
TMZ meets theater history gravitas in this deliciously entertaining and informative dual biography ... Archetypal prima donnas Miss Thing 1 and Miss Thing 2, the French Bernhardt and Italian Duse tread the boards again in Rader's text. This is up any thespian's proverbial Alley Theatre, but general readers interested in the development and curse of modern celebrity will also be jazzed.
Neither woman has exactly suffered from biographical neglect—Rader is not even the first to combine their stories—and his book, which originated as a screenplay, is casually sourced and prone to ascribing thoughts to historical persons without explanation. He also devotes much attention to his subjects’ love lives ... Reveling in such anecdotes and breathlessly cross-cutting between narratives, Playing to the Gods nonetheless succeeds in demonstrating that the two women were essentially competing on different terms.
Rader’s well-researched text utilizes diary entries, letters, and reviews, which he weaves together to paint each diva’s life, from childhood to death. Theater buffs will love the way Rader captures a global moment in theater—Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw all make appearances. A fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book.
Delightfully readable and informative, Rader’s book examines a rivalry that defined modern theater while also exploring the origins of modern celebrity culture. A well-researched and thoroughly entertaining dual biography.6
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 ... This entertaining chronicle illustrates how both women captivated audiences and made a lasting impact on the theater.