“In the end, it is not applause that is the best reward for an actor. It is a consciousness that he or she will live in the hearts and memory of the audience".
The titles of books and movies about her are quite meaningful and of one voice: The Star of Two Continents, The Life of Modjeska, Fair Rosalind, Starring Modjeska, Triumphant Women. Words of one of her memorial epitaphs are very intriguing: “She broadened minds with her art and nurtured hearts. She spread the glory of Polish art beyond the oceans. In her glory, she sought the glory of the nation. She lived by doing good.” Who, therefore, was she?
She also gave birth to her children out of wedlock: Rudolf and Maria. Their father, Gustaw Zimajer, invented the stage name "the Modrzejewskis" after they had performed in an amateur show in Bochnia for victims of a mine disaster. The success of that performance led to the creation of a small, family-like touring company under the directorship of Konstanty Łobojko.
Their chances of success were limited. However, as Modjeska would write: "And I also had my dreams".
Those dreams were fulfilled, insofar as theater historians, both Polish and American, have placed her atop a very high pedestal.
Her daughter Maria died tragically at age 4. Her son Rudolf, after graduation from an elite engineering school for in Paris, became the distinguished bridge designer Ralph Modjeski in the United States.
During 1861–1865, she performed widely in the province of Galicia in southeast Poland; first in a traveling provincial troupe, later in the cities Lviv and Chernivtsi.
Her first husband and manager, Gustaw Zimajer, wanted her to play on the German-language stage. A visit to Vienna was not successful – the queen of the stage at that time was Karolina Wolter.
In 1865, with her sons, she left Zimajer and returned to Kraków, where Adam Skorupka and Stanisław Koźmian were creating a modern theatre, a place for stars and for teamwork. The exceptional talent of Modjeska was discerned and appreciated by a director at this theater, Jan Tomasz Jasiński, who began commissioning her in more important roles.
Over four seasons, she played over 100 roles. She started with “roles of naive lovers” in contemporary plays. Her performances in her Kraków era (1865–1868) were summed up the following descriptions: “she was already a mature and conscious realist,” and she was “a vivid person taken straight from nature.”
Adrienne in Adrienne Lecouvreur by Sardou and Legouvé would become one of her principal roles; played as her debuts in Warsaw, San Francisco, New York City and Boston, and enthusiastically received everywhere.
Attention of critics was drawn by scenes of madness performed by Modjeska: as Maria in Marie-Jeanne, ou la femme du peuple by Adolphe d’Ennery and Gustave Lemaine, Prakseda in Carpathian Mountaineers (Karpaccy górale) by Józef Korzeniowski, and lastly and most famously as Ophelia in Hamlet by Shakespeare, played in Poland and America.
Ophelia would remain long in her repertoire; her interpretation of this role would change. The great American theater critic William Winter would write about this role: “Her scene of madness was so realistic that I felt shivers on my skin when I looked straight in her eyes.”
Her Shakespeare roles during this era included not only Ophelia but also others among her well-known roles, which she also played for years: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Lady Anne in Richard III. Many of these she would hone for years; and new roles would come.
“In place of stiltedness, a truth of emotion came in, honed by a restraint in using effects". This applied mainly to her tragic roles.
Among her Polish repertoire was Barbara Radziwiłłówna by Alojzy Feliński, a pseudo-classical tragedy in verse, Anna Oświęcimówna, a tragedy by Mikołaj Bołoz Antoniewicz, Królowa Jadwiga (Queen Jadwiga), a drama, and Halszka z Ostroga (Halszka from Ostróg), both by Józef Szujski.
"How much heart, what noble soul she put into this unspoken meaning with her eyes," a Kraków critic wrote. Years later, William Winter concluded: "In theater history, an instance rarely happens of such absolute unity between the imagined and real representation."
This is an opinion quite in accordance with Modjeska's own. "I need to see myself in the role totally, from head to foot. If I don't see this, if I don't hear my voice in the role, then I know I am not able to play it convincingly."
For this role and for several others, music was composed by Ignacy Nikorowicz.
In the Kraków period, there was also, a lead role in the comedy Maiden Vows by Aleksander Fredro. Again, a critic pays tribute to her eyes: “in early scenes, those admirably beautiful eyes staring at indefinite remove […] slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, they invigorate with a spark of emotion, turn to earthly hope and radiant with her anticipation of happiness. ”At this time, there was also a rivalry, with Antonia Hoffmann who was playing Klara in the Fredro play.
In this same period, there also came a particular role – that of a man: Adam Kazanowski in a comedy by Szujski, Dwór królewicza Władysława (The Court of the Prince Władysław). It proved a unique occasion to see the remarkable charm of Modjeska's figure more closely, usually hidden beneath long dresses; beautiful ones, by the way, and sometimes designed by her.
12 September 1868 may have been the happiest day of her adult life. In the university church, St. Anna, in Kraków, she married Karol Chłapowski from a gentry family in the Wielkopolska region, with an outstanding tradition of patriotism. Chłapowski had been imprisoned in Moabit in Berlin for some months, by the Prussian authorities.
He accompanied her for years; they were together in Paris though marriage to an actress did not meet approval with his family at first, even more so because Modjeska didn’t think of stopping her stage career. But later she was accepted absolutely, and well received at Chłapowski residences at Żegocin, Turwia and Kopaszewo. The motto on the family coat of arms was “Strive toward good”.
Modjeska played repertoire typical for this era, successfully rivaling other actresses from the company as well as the guest stars. In Warsaw, she began with the Adrienne role. However, her ambition went further. She introduce to the Warsaw stage plays so far forbidden by censorship. First of all, Maria Stuart by Juliusz Słowacki, and his Mazepa (the censor didn’t give approval for Balladyna), along with Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet (played for the first time in Warsaw in a translation from the original), Hamlet (played despite resistance by the censor), Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing.
The price she paid for recovering her son was quite high – she paid it to Zimajer, who in 1866 stole their son Rudolf from her Kraków dressing room, agreeing to give him back only in exchange for a high ransom.
In 1870, she fell sick from typhus. In 1874, her protector Maria Kalergis Muchanow died, jaundice set in and the censorship allowed her to perform less and less. It was time for a change. A time for change, because time flies – in 1876, Modjeska completed her 36th year and as she wrote then about one of her roles: “Life is in movement! Life is hard work! Life is pain! It is ten thousand times better to suffer and live – than stay asleep.”
“And also I had my dreams,” she writes in her verse “Sen artysty,” translated into English by Oscar Wilde as “The Artist’s Dream.” This dream, present since early in her youth, the most fearless, was to play Shakespeare – in English – in his homeland. On the basis of this mood, she would write later to a friend: “Crazy is the one who doesn’t like to go higher if he/she only can.”
In Modjeska’s salon, the idea for a great expedition was born – of crossing the ocean.
Taking part in the preparations:
Henryk Sienkiewicz, future laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature.
Adam Chmielowski, the future Brother Albert, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, nota bene elevated to that position by Pope John Paul II, who had written a play about him, Our God’s Brother (including a scene with Modjeska).
The choice became California. Why?
Officially, she takes leave to recuperate, yet it's because she didn’t know spoken English, because she didn’t know any roles in English. Best for achieving this was seclusion, far from reporters who needed to take as sufficient the information that the group of Poles was creating a community in Anaheim, California, a colony in the Brook style – a commune of world-famous artists famous.
Why in Anaheim? Certainly because it was located a reasonable distance from San Francisco. And also because German colonists predominated there, which simplified communication for the newcomers.
The deciding element was proximity to San Francisco, a city at the end of world but also a city with seven theaters, and where the California Theatre directed by John McCullough hosted the biggest stars of American and European theater as guests.
There, one could learn what an American theater was, and about its actorship. There, one could risk a debut – far from Europe. But necessarily in English: her dream about Shakespeare was always to be presented in England, but Modjeska refused to play him there in Polish.
In San Francisco, she signed an early 3-year contract with Harry J. Sargent. Her first tour lasted 5 months and included 17 cities, among them New York City, Washington and Boston, so important for her future career.
In New York City, she performed for the first time on 22 December 1877 in the Fifth Avenue Theatre rented by Sargent for up to 5 weeks. She lived in an apartment of the most expensive hotel, the Clarendon, which would become her favorite.
In the beginning, Modjeska played the reliable Adrienne under new directorship, the veteran Dion Boucicault. New actors (her lead partner was “Mr. Burroughs”), and also new stage situations. “I was terribly scared and payed worst than ever […], despite of that there was no end to the applause.”
The top authority among critics – and later her friend – William Winter proclaimed in New York's Tribune an unequivocal verdict: “Madame Modjeska is a great artist.” Others add: “Huge success” (The Mail), “The greatest actress since Rachel” (New York Times), etc., etc. American theater fans begin Modjeska scrapbooks.
• Modjeska as a queen of advertisement. Her picture in the role of Gilberta from Frou-Frou was on candies, on Petersburg cigarettes made by the Epir brand. In America, she advertised Waterman ink pens, powder for cleaning teeth, Madame Rècamier creams and perfumes; she becomes a face of the Larkin company
• Fashion for Modjeska: dresses à la Modjeska, hats à la Modjeska, dishes named after Modjeska, sweets endorsed by Modjeska – to this day, they are still produced in the U.S. by two companies.
In London again. The Chłapowskis make necessary acquaintances: Hamilton Aide, Alfred Tennyson who reads her his poem Poland (“I like the old man for that”), queen’s chaplain – Satnley, Robert Stanley, Robert Browning, Gustave Dore, young Oscar Wilde, whom she later gives recommendation for his trip to America.
London. Royal Court Theatre 1880. London debut of Modjeska: next version of The Lady of Camellias.
Severe exam. The prince and princess of Wales at the audience, actresses: Mary Stirling, Madge Kendal, Effie Marie Bancroft, Ellen Terry; some of them didn’t hide her agitation.
There is Sarah Bernhardt in London; she comes to her performance, to her wardrobe, she complements Helena and admits that she cried. „The Illustrated London News” will write about both of them giving their portraits. Constance, the name of the character, will be played up to 63 times.
The premier of Maria Stuart; the British elites at the audience, among them the prime minister Glandston with his son Herbert, lady Bancroft, Bronson Howard, J. P. Simpson, George Augustus Sala, Dion Boucicault. The reviewer could write: “In each inch a queen, indeed! Nobility in suffering, queen majesty in face of death.”
London premiere in the Princess Theatre of Adrienne Lecouvreur, and of one Shakespearian role, Juliet, then later in Odette by Sardou. By the end of June 1881, a benefit for Modjeska at the Princess Theatre. Irving, Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, the Kendals, John Lawrence Toole – hard to find an equally beautiful set of stars.
Nevertheless, a feeling of need stayed with her. She played in 1882 in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, however they fail in creating a subsidized theater. Little of Shakespeare in the repertoire. She would not fulfill her dreams about Shakespeare in Great Britain.
In 1885, she returned for a short tour with 30 people of Henry E. Abby’s team.
Return to America for new Shakespearian roles, for money, for justly deserved signs of admiration. Books about her appear: in England by Mabel Collins, The Story of Helena Modjeska (Madame Chlapowska) in 1883. America can not be bested – that same year, Helena Modjeska by J.T. Altemus appears.
Painters don’t like to be last. In Poland, Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz finished the great portrait of her. In Boston there is portrait by Carolus-Duran. A new one is painted by Wyatt Eaton – in 1883, a pencil sketch is published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, while in 1884 Frank Fowler will show an oil portrait in New York City.
America is fascinated by Madame Modjeska's strange, incomparable way of performing and, first and foremost, by her costumes. Gilberta and Odette are occasions for this fascination.
“She wore skirts made from a pale pink silk embroidered in front with roses and forget-me-nots. The bodice and train in glitter silk, in light wheat hue. The long bodice had embroidery fitting the skirt and high ruffles around the shoulders. Along its ends, a satin drape cascaded to a long train. This train was lined to fit the skirt. The coat atop it was of blue glittering velvet lined in swan down. For her second costume, worn in the act played in the gambling den, a white glittered satin bodice and skirt. Heavy plaiting around the bottom of the skirt was decorated with white sprays. The bodice ended in point forms at front and back, and from the back point hung a long white satin train. A ribbon of heavy diamond pendants was on her neck. The last costume: black, densely decorated with black jet.”
For her next tour, managed by Karol Chłapowski with Fred Stinson as a director, Modjeska starts in the Grand Opera House in Chicago, playing Rosalind. The excellent Helena Modjeska Company is composed of Maurice Barrymore and his wife, Georgiana (née Drew), Charles Vandenhoff, William F. Owen, Mary Shaw; they travel with the Barrymore children: Ethel (to whom Modjeska becomes godmother) and Lionel, with John later joining them – the Modjeska legend remains in the Barrymore family to this day.
Great success, but a question remains – where is my home? My theater and family homes? An answer to the last question seems more and more clear. Karol Chłapowski and Ralph Modjeski receive U.S. citizenship, and she also accepts it. So, America? On 28 December 1885, Ralph marries his finacée, Felicja, in a Polish church in New York City – he has a serious job as an engineer. Soon grandchildren will come to the world, for whom Madame will write, while in Arden, a beautifully illustrated book (in English and in Polish).
What about house the in Zakopane, a mansion in Kraków? The Zakopane house, named Modrzejów, finished in 1884, stays practically uninhabited. The mansion in Kraków was almost complete the same year, but it also stayed uninhabited. Modrzejówka, as it was named, was sold in 1889; today, it is a property of the Piotr Skarga Sodality of Mercy. The building is included on the list of monuments waits, and awaits the return of Madame Modjeska.
She choses California and Santiago Canyon in Orange County, where Chłapowski acquired rights to a lot of land in 1876. In 1883, Modjeska buys 120 acres from the local Pleasant family, and later buys more. The excellent architect Stanford White designs and helps to set up the house. It will be a residence worthy of the great actress, and at the same time it will fulfill Chłapowski’s dream about his own ranch. The ranch – first called El Refugio (the Refuge), later called Arden by Modjeska-Rosalind, the name by which it has gone to this day – is situated in front of the Modjeska Fire Station. Maintaining Arden consumes all their savings, but it's only here that Modjeska can really rest.
She needs to perform, she needs to earn money. Next seasons. Among the most interesting news: Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, premiere in Boston in 1886, along with the premiere of a play by Pierre Berton based on Balzac’s Les Chouans. Great success with the audience, but financially almost a disaster: 2 wagonloads of stage decor, 100 costumes.
Measure for Measure – the beautiful role of Isabella.
Next Shakespeare – Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
In 1888 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, she plays one more exceptional role from Shakespeare. This is in Hamlet, in a benefit for Lester Wallack. On her friend’s request, she plays Ophelia in a cast including Booth, Barrett, Jefferson, Morris. Astonishing success.
1890 in Europe. Performances in Poznań, Lviv, Kraków, Warsaw, Lublin, Łódź, in April at the National Theatre in Prague; everywhere she makes generous donations for charity purposes.
In Zakopane, she becomes godmother to Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – who would become famous as Witkacy. His godfather is the legendary highlander Sabała.
1. The Artist's Houses
A: Californian Arden in Calfornia is owned by Orange County, which finances the activities of the museum; run by the Modjeska Foundation in California
B: Modrzejówka in Kraków is owned by Sodality of Mercy; the building was registered as a monument and is waiting for renovation and setting up.
Other signs of memory about her are geographical and topographical: Modjeska Peak, Modjeska Canyon, Modjeska Historic Park. Movies about Modejska include Triumphant Woman by Barbara Myszyński in the U.S. and a TV series in Poland with Krystyna Janda in the role of Helena Modjeska.
Many dramas have been dedicated to her; most have played in America, Canada and Poland, such as Kazimierz Braun's Pani Helena (Madame Helena) and the intriguing play including a scene with Modjeska, Brat naszego Boga, by Karol Wojtyła, and others collected in the two-volume edition Sztuki o Helenie Modrzejewskiej. Antologia (Plays about Helene Modjeska: An Anthology). Maria Nowotarska played Modjeska in the Braun movie; along with Krystyna Janda, other Polish actresses taking up her role include Anna Lutosławska, Anna Polony and Beata Malczewska.
In a production of Hamlet by Krzysztof Garbaczewski on the main stage of the Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Teatr (premiered on 13 June 2015), the theater's patron steps out of the frame of her famous portrait hung in the theater to instruct actors with words by Wyspiański on how to play Shakespeare; she then appears in the scene of Ophelia’s death, in the outfit and pose depicted in photographs by Walery Rezwuski from a performance in 1867. She is “horribly beautiful” again. And this is how her wish is realized – she remains “in the hearts and memory of the public.”
Coleman, Marion Moore, Fair Rosalind: The American Career of Helena Modjeska, Cherry Hill Books, Cheshire 1969.
Got, Jerzy, Helena Modrzejewska na scenie krakowskiej 1865-1869, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1956.
Got, Jerzy, Helena Modrzejewska. Almanach, PIW, Warsaw 1958.
Helena Modjeska Modrzejewska, ed. Bianka Kurylczuk, Anna Litak, Narodowy Stary Teatr im. Heleny Modrzejewskiej, Kraków 2010.
Helena Modrzejewska 1840-1909. I ja miewałam swoje sny, ill. Łukasz Lenda, text Emil Orzechowski, Kraków 2012.
Helena Modrzejewska. Artykuły-referaty-wywiady-varia, ed. Emil Orzechowski, Attyka, Kraków 2009.
Holmgren, Beth, Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012.
Kydryński, Juliusz, Gwiazda dwóch kontynentów, Nasza Księgarnia, Warsaw 1989.
Madame Helena Modjeska Countess Bozenta. Amerykańscy poeci ku czci Heleny Modrzejewskiej, ed. Emil Orzechowski, Attyka, Kraków 2010.
Madame Helena Modrzejewska. Polscy poeci ku czci Heleny Modrzejewskiej, ed. Alicja Kędziora, Attyka, Kraków 2014.
Modrzejewska, Helena, Wspomnienia i wrażenia [Memories and Impressions], transl. Marian Promiński, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1957.
Modrzejewska. Listy, ed. Alicja Kędziora, Emil Orzechowski, PIW, Warsaw 2015, vol. I, II.
Modrzejewska/Modjeska. Zamknięcie obchodów stulecia śmierci Heleny Modrzejewskiej. Materiały z konferencji w Muzeum Teatralnym w Warszawie 10 stycznia 2010, ed. Alicja Kędziora, Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska, Attyka, Kraków 2010.
Szczublewski, Józef, Żywot Modrzejewskiej, PIW, Warsaw 1977.
Sztuki o Helenie Modrzejewskiej. Antologia, ed. Alicja Kedziora, Emil Orzechowski, Attyka, Kraków 2010, vol. I, II.
Terlecki, Tymon, Pani Helena. Opowieść biograficzna o Modrzejewskiej, Państwowy Instytut Sztuki, Warsaw 1959.
Z miłości do sztuki. Helena Modrzejewska (1840-1909), ed. Agnieszka Kowalska, Muzeum Historyczna miasta Krakowa, Kraków 2009. Helena Modrzejewska 1840-1909. I ja miewałam swoje sny, ill. Łukasz Lenda, text Emil Orzechowski, Kraków 2012.
Exhibition scenario: Dr. Alicja Kędziora, Prof. Emil Orzechowski
Translation: Klementyna Suchanow with Alan Lockwood
Coordination and collaboration: Klaudyna Desperat, Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute