S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 May 25, 1935: 22-27

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 mecum:

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 teeth.

Were you enrolled among Miss Duff's hopefuls, you would be called upon to repeat endlessly and with proper articulation such complicated abracadabra as:

Be'la-be'lei-be' le-be'li-be'lo-be'lu.
Me'ta-me'tei-me' te-me'ti-me'to-me'tu.

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 triangle.

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 immeasurably.

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 Comédie-Française, 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 in public:

The three grand divisions of the body Delsarte defined as follows:

The head—mental.

The limbs—vital or physical.

The torso—moral or emotional.

The head is divided and subdivided, as a vehicle for expression thus:

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 control.

Vital—The stomach, bowels, and sex organs—seat of the appetite.

Moral—The heart and solar plexus, the seat of affection and sympathy.

Or again:

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.

Or again:

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 admits, 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 than herself.

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