OUR FINEST TRANSLATOR from Italian, William Weaver, has now produced a prudent and painstaking biography of a legendary figure -- not just an actress, certainly not an entertainer, but a sort of ideological force in the theater. Eleanora Duse, who died on tour in Pittsburgh in 1924 at the age of 66, was held up to an international public and to the world of art as the embodiment of Ideal Womanhood by a prodigious group of artists and intellectuals, including Chekhov, Rodin, and Joyce, Berenson, Claudel and Shaw, Hauptmann and Pirandello, Willa Cather and Stark Young.

But of all Duse's biographers I have consulted, Weaver is the first to have been scrupulous about facts which must have some relation to the myth of Total Humanity she incarnated. And from the facts thus examined, the contours are plain: a laborious childhood in a family of "strolling players" and a grubby initiation into a routine of pseudo-operatic melodrama; an adolescence which discovered sensuality and Shakespeare at the same moment -- hence an illegitimate child and a triumph as Juliet before she was 20; a gradual conquest of womanhood and the Italian public, and of a culture outside the theater, which bore her on a wave of triumphs until her fatal -- deadly -- encounter with D'Annunzio.

Details as Weaver elicits them are credibly mean, and the life they document is almost invariably melancholy. Yet what a relief, to those of us who must abide by so many awe-stricken memories, to learn that the Lovers-of-the-Century (as my parents thought of Duse and D'Annunzio) were not entirely the appalling pair palmed off on us by the silliness of that generation's press agents. Duse's previous affair with Arrigo Boito, a composer and Verdi's last librettist, a man of authentic artistic discernment, was evidently more marking in her life, and more meaningful for her work, than her obsession with the younger poet, a charlatan of genius but no playwright. Weaver's clearest contribution, I believe, is here -- in the weight of influence he attributes to Boito, and in the rueful acknowledgement that the actress' enslavement to D'Annunzio and his powerless plays was the rock on which even her genius split.

We see -- and it is a terrible perception -- how what should have been a great artistic career became merely gratuitous, committed by financial necessity to the boulevard thrillers of Dumas and Sardou (Sarah's repertoire), though aspiring to the new world Duse so early recognized in the works of Ibsen, of Chekhov, of Maeterlinck. Yet the mature actress performed very little of the contemporary art she prized, and only one Shakespearean role (Cleopatra, which Boito translated for her -- from French!). She fell short of the poetic creations she inspired in Hofmannsthal and Rilke. As this very professional biography dryly reveals, the actress was the modern theater's Forlorn Hope, but almost never its actuality. Duse was the greatest theatrical instrument known to her age, but she performed mostly virtuoso trash and the mimic-tragedies of D'Annunzio. One season of Ibsen (three plays), one play by Verga, one performance of Gorky -- that's the reckoning for drama. For theater, of course, the story is different.

IN THE THEATER Duse's capacity to illumite human gesture, voice, and silence was -- regardless of vehicle -- unique, and from our own distance unaccountable. Weaver begins his book with an admission that he himself had known little or nothing about this artist and her myth until he saw the film fragment Cenere (ashes) at the Museum of Modern Art, and then suspected that the dim legend could be -- across the decades -- realized. But biography alone, however scrupulous, cannot account for the world-wide hysteria around this little Italian-speaking lady (always very much a lady, with nothing of the "star's" self-dramatization about her). The nagging lack I must ascribe to Weaver's book is his failure to speculate about the mythological Duse. Many have set her resonance down -- or up -- to a matchless identification with neurosis; Eva Le Gallienne took a different tack, suggesting that the actress was a mystic, a sort of fanatic without God. Weaver offers no theories whatever, abiding by the mystery with his severely marshaled account of her career and as many adumbrations of her inner life as his sources warrant.

I should like to suggest, after brooding over Weaver's biography, a source of Duse's historic appeal. It seems to me that the actress "staged" a quality, an inflection which was prized by all characteristic art of the period (1880-1914). Call it an apprehended unity of being, the sense that even the marginal regions of behavior were accessible to individual consciousness, that the boundaries between dream and reality, vision and blindness, past and present, male and female even, were no longer to be perceived as contradictory or oppositional, but rather as shifting, complementary, reversible. From all the accounts so shrewdly quilted into Weaver's biography, Duse was incomparable in her capacity to incarnate this unity, this conviction that one woman's consciousness had made the world one flesh. Such, to my reading, is the rationalization of Duse's myth. The reality which underlies and perhaps contradicts that myth is described in Weaver's fine book, exacting and cautious. But is not even this distinction between myth and fact the very sort that Duse on the stage could transcend?