Cenere | Selby Wynn Schwartz
Updated: Mar 28
In 1916 Eleonora Duse made a film, her only film. It was the story of a woman who was left pregnant and must give up the baby. It is not until her hair is as white as bones, her hands gnarled, her dark eyes dimming, that her son comes back to her. There is a shadow on her face. He has returned, but everything is too late now. She opens her arms and there is death already waiting.
The film was called Cenere: ashes. It was filmed in grey silence in the middle of the war. At the end, the body of Eleonora Duse is borne away in the arms of crowd, a tumult of hands holding her, a very old woman in a headscarf gazing at her face and saying something.
But of course in 1916 nothing could be heard in film. Eleonora Duse, who had gone into a dark room to see herself pictured in cinematographic precision, strained forward to catch the words that the old woman pronounced upon her death, or perhaps her life. Eleonora Duse demanded that the projectionists run the film again. But the only sound was the rapid little clicking of time running forward, scene to scene, ash to ash.
Selby Wynn Schwartz writes about gender, queer performance, and the politics of embodiment. Her articles have appeared in Women & Performance, PAJ, Dance Research Journal, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. Her first book, The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and their Afterlives (University of Michigan Press, 2019), was named a 2020 Lambda Literary Award Finalist.