The diaphragm, regarded so casually and irresponsibly by the
uncomprehending, is, for Frances Robinson-Duff, the
cornerstone of all philosophy, the élan vital of all
inspiration, the matrix of the arts. Among the most
cherished of her bibelots is an impressive bronze statue
which belonged to the late David Belasco, bearing the
sibylline motto, "Life Playing on the Diaphragm." It
represents an ecstatic musician who holds firmly grasped
between his knees, in a semi-recumbent attitude, a beautiful
woman swooning expectantly. In his other hand, firmly
grasped, is a bow which he wields rhapsodically across the
lady's middle. In the same room there is a photograph of Mr.
Belasco's expressive hands tenderly holding this art work.
Mr. Belasco understood the diaphragm. So, after a certain
amount of prompting from Miss Duff, did the late Enrico
Caruso. To attempt a mastery of any of the dramatic arts
without such an understanding, without an ability to control
it as a virtuoso violinist controls his instrument, is, Miss
Duff believes, to ride headlong for failure and despair. In
all the great moments of life, she says, from the moment
when the doctor slaps the baby to give it its first lesson
in breath control to the final yielding of the spirit to the
dark powers, the diaphragm is the protagonist.
This preoccupation with the diaphragm is, in the case of
Frances Robinson-Duff, neither an eccentricity nor an
obsession. She claims that it is based upon as sound and
fundamental and practically demonstrable and scientific a
principle as Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the
blood. The foremost dramatic coach in America, Miss Duff
attributes her eminence to her understanding of the
importance of this organ in dramatic expression. Actors and
actresses pay Miss Duff to transmit to them that
understanding. Before she launches her pupils into the
higher regions of interpretation, they are subjected to an
elaborate physiological instruction which makes them
conscious of their diaphragms and of breath control.
Consider, for example, Exercise IV from Miss Duff's vade
Relax the jaw, open the mouth, etc., following
instructions as given in first exercise. Lean tip of
tongue against lower front teeth. As you draw the
diaphragm muscle in roll tongue upward and forward in
height until both sides of same touch upper eye-teeth.
The two pectoralis major muscles should raise the chest
as high as possible in order to aid in supporting the
tongue at this point of the exercise. Reverse movement
of diaphragm, as the tongue slowly unfolds into bottom
of mouth, to the normal position against lower front
Were you enrolled among Miss Duff's hopefuls, you would be
called upon to repeat endlessly and with proper articulation
such complicated abracadabra as:
Among Miss Duff's pupils are the theatrically great: Miss
Ina Claire, Miss Helen Hayes, Miss Katharine Hepburn, Mr.
Osgood Perkins, Miss Mary Pickford, Mr. Tonio Selwart, Mr.
Kenneth MacKenna, Miss Miriam Hopkins, Miss Ruth Chatterton,
Miss Carol Stone, Miss Fay Bainter—to mention only a very
few. She has made all of them diaphragm-conscious, and
therein, according to Miss Duff, resides their success.
Breath control is a shibboleth which only those who have
studied with her may utter. Man o' War, Miss Duff will tell
you, ran a mile and a quarter on one breath; and in varying
degrees, metaphorically speaking, her pupils may perform
similar miracles. Across the tea table Miss Duff will easily
demonstrate the resource of her diaphragm by intoning yards
of French Alexandrines, heroic exercises from the plays of
Racine and de Musset and Shakespeare, with as little
breathlessness as you and I experience in uttering the
veriest monosyllable. Her pupils can do likewise. From this
control comes that gracious attribute known as reserve. The
diaphragm dominated, you may go on forever giving expression
without draining either yourself or your audience. When, for
example, Miss Ina Claire, whose diction, of all the stars,
is the most effortless and lapidary, first went to Miss
Duff, she came a cropper trying to carry out one of Miss
Duff's dicta—that vitality is personality. Miss Claire, in
an effort to be vital, began to jump about the stage, but
she ran short of breath. It was evident that her diaphragm
was still her boss. When, by patient exercise, she put the
offending organ into proper submission, she could be as
vital and athletic as she liked.
So thoroughly do even the most eminent of Miss Duff's pupils
rely on her histrionic wisdom that they consult her on the
minutia; of the parts they play, taking her with them on the
road sometimes before the metropolitan ordeal. Or they will
even come East to confer with her before undertaking an
important role in Hollywood. Thus, only recently, Miss
Miriam Hopkins studied with Miss Duff before going West to
interpret Becky Sharp. To such of her pupils as have not yet
arrived, Miss Duff will teach not only breath control but
how to achieve ease and authority, how to gesture, and how
to walk. There are—especially since Hollywood—marginal cases
of the prematurely celebrated, and to these Miss Duff will
convey those essentials which, in the dizzy ascent to fame,
they have been too busy to acquire. And with the arrivés
themselves, who have achieved stardom with or without
her aid, she will explore patiently all the subtleties and
possibilities of a role, so that often the pupil is
proficient even before the first rehearsal.
David Belasco, whose testimonials to Miss Duff as a "great
teacher" are in evidence in her atelier, often expressed
gratitude to her for what she did for his artists. Other
managers—notably Mr. Jed Harris—have been less complaisant.
With that meteoric impresario, Miss Duff has had two notable
clashes. The first involved Miss Ina Claire when she
appeared briefly and provincially for Mr. Harris in "The
Gaoler's Wench," the play by Edwin
Justus Mayer later produced in
New York by Mr. Joseph Reed as "Children of Darkness" with
Miss Mary Ellis as the star. Miss Duff was coaching Miss
Claire, but Mr. Harris was producing and directing the play.
Unbeknownst to Miss Claire, Mr. Harris imperially summoned
Miss Duff to his office and there informed her that as there
was not room on the crest of Olympus for two colossi, one of
them must retire, and he suggested that it be Miss Duff.
Miss Duff acquiesced. Miss Claire, however, who when whetted
may become truculent, heard of the incident and indignantly
demanded of Mr. Harris to know how he dared to summon to his
office a woman so busy as Miss Duff. She insisted that Miss
Duff be permitted to see her performance in Brooklyn.
What Miss Duff saw caused her horror. Mr. Harris, she said, had
put the brilliant Miss Claire "outside the triangle." There
was the stage peopled with actors of various distinction,
and the most distinguished of all, the admitted Star, not
even on it. For, in Miss Duff's astronomy, not to be "in the
triangle" is not to be in the constellation at all. Miss
Duff's theory of the triangle is based on a principle of
theatrical optics to this effect: that at any given moment
the eye of the auditor may take in only a segment of the
stage, triangular in shape, and that this triangle is
dominated by whatever object or person is placed at its
apex. (The expression "upstage" comes from the desire of the
actor to sustain himself at this apex.) Inset in the ceiling
of the throneroom of Miss Duff's temple at 235 East
Sixty-second Street, where she instructs her pupils, is a
specially designed crystal skylight which represents the
"double triangle." One triangle represents the stage, the
other the audience. They are joined by a heavy line which in
France, in the tradition of the Comédie-Française, is called
the rampe de feu, the barricade of fire. Miss
Duff will tell you that once you are outside the boundaries
of the triangle on the stage you might as well he dead. When
Miss Duff entered the Brooklyn theatre, she saw that Miss
Claire was already dead, and went backstage to inform her of
her passing and the reasons therefor. The corpse, however,
showed life to such a degree that there was an altercation
with the impresario himself in which for the first time in
his triumphant history that incorrigible Quixote took the
count. Mr. Harris permitted Miss Claire to get private
instruction in her role from Miss Duff, and forthwith Miss
Duff saw to it that Miss Claire got well inside the
Miss Duff's second contest with Mr. Harris arose over Miss
Katharine Hepburn. Miss Duff had been adjusting Miss
Hepburn's diaphragm for some years, and it was doing well.
With Miss Hepburn's engagement by Mr. Harris for "The Lake,"
there came a clash between Mr. Harris and Miss Duff
over the disputed province. Mr. Harris forbade incursions,
as a sculptor might forbid collaboration on a master work.
To be a Svengali is a one-man job, and the momentarily
bewitched Miss Hepburn succumbed; "en grippe"
with Mr. Harris, Miss Hepburn neglected the Duff
fundamentals. Moreover, having been in Hollywood and away
from regular instruction, Miss Hepburn had allowed her
diaphragm to drift. When she returned East to do "The Lake,"
it was maladjusted and her jaws and tongue were unfree.
Since her instrument was ill-conditioned, the flutings
inspired by Mr. Harris emerged inevitably as sweet bells
jangled, and the opening night was something of a disaster
for the star. But Miss Hepburn has character. She
immediately returned to Miss Duff and the fundamentals. The
critics who saw the play a second time reported in the
public prints that the star's performance was improved
Miss Duff, whose life was to be spent in the world capitals, was
born in Bangor, Maine, in 1878. Her father, Colonel Charles
Duff, was a British mining engineer who had interested
himself in a copper lode at Blue Hill, Maine. Her mother was
Sarah Robinson-Duff, a Bangor girl, who became a teacher of
singing when Colonel Duff began new mining operations in
Korea. Sarah Robinson-Duff's book, "Simple Truths Used by
Great Singers," is dedicated: "To My First Pupil—Mary
Garden." It is not surprising in the first chapter of this
book to find Mrs. Duff emphasizing the importance of the
diaphragm and of emancipated tongue and jaws.
Frances Duff's ambition from the time she was a child of eleven
was to teach, and Shaw's dictum "He who can does. He who
cannot, teaches" is controverted by her own career, for she
acted successfully on the professional stage for eleven years.
After four and a half years in Germany, where she was sent
as a child, and where she met Rubinstein and Fanny Zeisler
and grew familiar with the Wagnerian operas, Frances
returned to this country and went to Chicago, where her
mother was successfully established as a singing teacher
with the young Mary Garden among her pupils. In Chicago
Frances became a pupil of Mrs. Millward Adams. Mrs. Adams
had studied in France with a pupil of the great Delsarte
himself, so that Miss Duff's succession from the Master is
unbroken. (Her reverence and adoration of Delsarte is so
great that when she tells you of his early struggles in
Paris, her eyes fill with tears.) At Mrs. Adams' studio,
Miss Duff met Julia Marlowe, who thought her very promising,
and who urged her to join her company, impressing upon her
the necessity of proving and demonstrating the true value of
her technique before hoping to become a great teacher.
Actually, Miss Duff had a genuine disinclination for a stage
career. She was not, she felt in the first place,
good-looking enough. In the second, she wanted to teach. In
the third, her mother had moved to Paris, was a reigning
success as a singing teacher, and the artistic life of
Europe flowed through her drawing-rooms. While she toured
with Miss Marlowe in Texas and Montana, Miss Duff yearned
for the ampler cultural life of the French capital. But as
she intended to teach acting, her mother insisted that she
have actual experience in the art, and Miss Duff remained on
the stage for eleven years, playing in London as well as in
New York. During this period, she had opportunities for
satisfying her passion for teaching: Young Thomas Meighan,
sent to succeed Vincent Serrano on tour, received vigorous
diaphragmatic instruction, Miss Duff being, even then, well
grounded in the fundamentals. For this tuition Mr. Meighan
was to be grateful many years later, when the silent films
became articulate. Finally, when Miss Duff was playing in
"The Sorceress" of Sardou in the New Amsterdam Theatre with
Mrs. Pat Campbell as the star, the voice from Paris became
too insistent and Miss Duff gave up forever practice for
theory, doing for teaching. Her successor in the part of
"The Sorceress" brought her daughter to Miss Duff for
instruction only the other day.
In Paris, Miss Duff was to remain for twenty-five years; with her
mother, she returned to America six months after the war.
The first decades of this century were a fascinating
creative period in France: at her mother's atelier, which
she shared, Miss Duff met Saint-Saens and Richepin, Reynaldo
Hahn and Mary Garden, Coquelin and Sarah Bernhardt and
Chaliapin and Mounet-Sully. With André Bacqué of the
she, as she herself amiably puts it, "punched diaphragms"
busily for many years, feeding the French stage with actors
who were sophisticated breathers and whose jaws and tongues
were unyoked. In response to a query about
diaphragm-punching, Miss Duff said that it helps to
stimulate the action of the diaphragm, which is itself a
suction pump, and to increase the power of expelling the air
from the lungs. It is this power which produces tone. The
practice of punching is a conventional professional staple.
Go into the greenroom of the Comédie-Française any
night and the actors will not regale you with any nonsense
about mood or atmosphere or temperament. More likely, if
they believe in you, they will ask you to punch their
diaphragms, or do it themselves vigorously and with the
approving exclamation "Ça marche!"
In the war, Miss Duff worked as a nurse with the French army. Her
training made her valuable in thoracic cases, helping
soldiers with smashed lungs to learn to breathe again. When
she returned to America, Miss Duff devoted a good deal of
her time to strengthening the lungs of undernourished and
cardiac and tubercular children at Bellevue Hospital, but
her success in training actresses transplanted from Paris to
New York very soon allowed her little time for
extracurricular activity. There flocked to her amateurs and
chorus girls ambitious to become actresses, actresses
ambitious to become better actresses, opera singers with
acting ambitions, ministers craving the better to exhort
their flocks, public speakers, politicians eager to ease
their deliveries, even society girls pelvically frail and
seeking vigor. One of her first pupils was Nora Bayes, and
among those who have had instruction are Gladys Glad and
Mary McCormic, Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Olive Fremstad, Kay
Laurell and Lucien Muratore, Clark Gable and Marcia Van
Dresser, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Ernest Schelling, who wanted
to be more at ease at his lecture recitals for children, and
the entire Stone family.
Into what an elaborate world does Miss Duff introduce these
hopefuls! A world of intricate physical discipline, of
complex decorum. A few brief quotations from the manual
which she hands her pupils will show you what minute zonings
and dissections you must endure before you can be eloquent
The three grand divisions of the body Delsarte defined
The limbs—vital or physical.
The torso—moral or emotional.
The head is divided and subdivided, as a vehicle for
The forehead is mental, the nose and cheeks moral,
the lips and jaw physical.
The upper lip is mental, the lower lip physical, the
corners of the mouth are moral.
From the tension or slackness of the corners of the
mouth the whole of the emotional state of the nature
can be read, and never errs.
The torso, like the head, is divided into three parts:
Mental—The chest, being the seat of honour and
Vital—The stomach, bowels, and sex organs—seat of
Moral—The heart and solar plexus, the seat of
affection and sympathy.
There are three important laws to remember in
expression, i. e., the Laws of opposition, parallelism,
and rhythm. Opposition of the limbs and body expresses
great things, tragic effects and strong emotions.
Parallelism expresses small, dry and mental conditions.
Close mental concentration checks the flow of stimulus
throughout the body, and however it may develop the
brain, does so at the expense of vitality and health.
Delsarte classed movement into three characteristics:
the Static, the Dynamic, and the Semeiotic.
The Static is the life of the movement.
The Dynamic is the action of forces through the Static.
The Semeiotic is the spirit and essence of movement.
From the firm basis of these and other generalizations is
developed an elaborate series of "aesthetic gymnastics"
which the pupil must practice. They are, Miss Duff herself
arduous and tiring, but so are all the exercises which
constitute the humdrum training in any art or craft. Faced
squarely with the question of what relation all this has to
such a modern notion as, for example, "naturalistic acting,"
Miss Duff exhibits no confusion. In whatever school you may
be, she will tell you, you have to be heard and felt, and to
he heard and felt you have to learn the fundamental
physiological principles, just as a writer of no matter what
school must learn grammar and spelling. With inaudibility in
the theatre, with the slovenliness of attitude, voice, and
gesture of much that passes for acting on the current stage,
Miss Duff has no patience. Her professional code insists on
certain minimal criteria, just as in the well-behaved
drawing-room you expect no one to appear in braces or B.V.D.'s. Take, for example, the outrage of the "spread
base." The spread base means standing with your feet apart,
and American young women, Miss Duff says, are much more
likely to indulge in it than well-bred Continental girls
because they lead a freer and more sporting life generally.
With Signor Benassi, a distinguished actor who for many
years supported Mme. Duse, Miss Duff went to see an American
play in which, in one scene, the hero proposes marriage to
the heroine. During the scene, Signor Benassi leaned over to
Miss Duff and said, "Is he asking her to sleep with him?"
When Miss Duff explained that it was a respectable proposal
of marriage, Signor Benassi couldn't understand it, because
the heroine had received the proposal with a spread base.
Miss Duff’s engagement book is as thickly serried as the daybooks
of the greatest surgeons, politicians, and executives. There
is, in the close-pencilled pages, no islet of white for
relaxation. At one end of the throneroom on the top floor of
the East Sixty-second Street house there is a raised dais,
and on it a crimson velvet upholstered chair where the
maîtresse sits. In front of the chair is a
reading stand such as conductors use, and on this the
oeuvre at which the pupil happens to be working. The
pupil does his or her exercises under the triangular crystal
skylight, and flanked on one side by the statue of "Life
Playing on the Diaphragm" and on the other by a tall screen
covered with photographs of French actors in kirtles, opera
singers, and stage luminaries of every degree of intensity.
The house itself is furnished entirely with the furniture
transplanted from Mrs. Duff's Paris ménage. Miss Duff's
father died some fifteen years ago and her mother about a
year ago. The room in which Mrs. Duff lived is kept intact
except for a canary, who is permitted to twitter there. In
the several volumes of Miss Duff's memory books there will
be found a fascinating welter of memorabilia from the Great
Days: innumerable photographs of herself and her mother with
Caruso and Mary Garden—nostalgically humorous snapshots with
the men encased in those old-fashioned heavy lifebelts that
look like cages; letters and photographs of Bernhardt, Duse,
Clyde Fitch, Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Mounet-Sully; press
notices of her tours with Annie Russell and Julia Marlowe;
dinner invitations from British equerries, reprints of
newspaper letters written by Miss Duff when for a time she
was a Paris correspondent for the Washington Post;
newspaper headlines affirming and denying Miss Duff's
engagement to Burton Holmes (the engagement was never a
fact, Miss Duff says, though it was true that Mr. Holmes
used to ride half the night to see her, for what reason she
could never definitely ascertain); grateful letters from
mothers whose sons died in Miss Duff's arms during the war;
a letter from Miss Elisabeth Marbury in 1901 offering to
lend her money, and another, twenty-one years later,
congratulating her on her success; a letter from Nora Bayes
on the road asking Miss Duff to be sure to see her the
following week, when she would be playing the Riverside
Theatre in New York, as she felt herself in need of stimulus
and instruction; letters from grateful pupils; photographs
of French and Italian military men and of Miss Duff in
nurse's costume in French hospitals among her wounded boys.
Miss Duff herself is ample and handsome, looking like a
patrician Roman matron in modern dress, with a superb
speaking voice and imperial carriage. She, at least, in a
disordered time, lives in a regulated world where a kiss on
the palm of the hand means one thing ("vital in nature") and
a kiss on the back of the hand means something quite
different ("moral in nature"). Miss Duff's cosmogony is
fixed, and her place in it. If her pupils waver, she
worries—especially about her girl pupils whose artistic
destinies are sometimes flawed by complications with men.
Enrico Caruso once confessed to her that he was a bad
husband because before he sang he was in a state which he
himself described as "niente," owing to
nervousness, and after singing he was in a similar state
owing to exhaustion; and that he sang three times a week.
Miss Duff is herself the most vivid tribute to the integrity
of her theories, for her own energies are unquenched and
radiant, and when the ease with which she surmounts the
incessant ardors of her profession is commented upon, she
deprecates the tribute, bestowing the praise entirely on a
familiar entity stronger and more responsive and responsible