9 Chapters
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5 On the American Road

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

After her California debut, Modjeska’s hybrid identity as earnest settler and classy import rendered her an unusual sort of touring star. In fact, Modjeska began her American career as a recently arrived foreigner who could barely manage a simple conversation in English. She might easily have been dismissed as a single-season sensation or relegated to the ethnic margins of American culture. Yet Modjeska resisted performing anywhere but on America’s English-language stage, unlike her closest immigrant counterpart, the German-speaking Czech actress Fanny Janauschek. Janauschek first made her name in German-language theater in the United States and only shifted to English-language performance late in her career, on the strong advice of her new manager Augustin Daly.1 Modjeska would not duplicate Janauschek’s slow progress into the mainstream. The America she entered in the late 1870s disdained the increasing numbers of Polish immigrants as distinctly lower class, as one of the new ethnicities expressly needing Anglo-Saxon cultivation. Polish-language theater in America was a modest and very localized affair in the late nineteenth century, a ghettoized circuit.

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3 Warsaw’s State of the Stars

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Helena Modrzejewska’s conquest of Warsaw by theatrical debut in 1868 was a major event in Polish culture, the commencement of what theater historians demarcate as the “epoch of the stars.”1 In her memoirs, Modjeska reconstructs her debut as its own drama, primed by antagonism and intrigue, tightly focused on a single performance, and concluding, of course, with her unadulterated triumph. But her conquest of Warsaw sooner resembled a political campaign. Modrzejewska strategized this next move with an eye to consummate, rather than contingent, theatrical glory. Guided by a close adviser, she plotted her campaign with ambition, agility, and media savvy, and delivered masterly performances over the course of several months under intense public scrutiny. She stepped literally into the national spotlight. During the long period of partitioned Poland (1795–1918) the Warsaw Imperial Theatres constituted an obsessively watched showcase of the nation. Conquering the Warsaw stage won Modrzejewska indelible stardom in Polish history as well as the heady, lucrative worship of theater-crazy Varsovians.

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8 Farewell Tour

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

After her feat of mastering three new parts for the Kraków stage in 1903, Modjeska’s final years in America marked a period of fitful artistic decline. With the help of influential friends and her husband’s willingness to abandon his ranching schemes, she mainly worked her family out of debt, selling Arden and enduring the hard farewell tours that her 1905 benefit had generated. Her truly final 1906–1907 season on the American road told on her already fragile health. Modjeska admitted falling asleep during a rehearsal “to the great amazement of our director” and reckoned that her pitiable state at last moved manager Jules Murry to arrange for her customary travel by a private car, a dreary conveyance named “The Sunbeam.”1 She knew her waning star had demoted her to an awful circuit; in one letter she listed her return address as “some dump where Murry ‘is peddling’ Shakespeare and me.”2 Aging and ailing, the star could no longer summon the prerequisite physical control and mental acuity to impress audiences from the stage, although she attracted nostalgic, forgiving fans, among them many of her critics.

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6 The Roles of Madame Modjeska

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Because she sought to make her mark above all as an artist rather than as a director or a master teacher, the question of Modjeska’s lasting professional legacy remains problematic. In spite of her complaints about life on the road, Modjeska seemed primarily disposed to shine onstage. Nothing inspired her more than the prospect of an excellent new part or a starring role in a play that she might redeem through her interpretation and design. In Warsaw, she confessed envy of Rapacki’s achievement as a playwright, but in America, she mainly preoccupied herself with finding promising new plays to produce. Toward the end of her American career, Modjeska seemed sanguine about the value of her ephemeral art. When a reporter for the New York Times asked her in 1899 if “the work of the stage” was less satisfying than that of a painter or a sculptor, creators of lasting art, the actress’s response was thoughtfully positive rather than self-deprecating: “ ‘No,’ Madame Modjeska answered, ‘you do not have anything to show, but you know what you have done.’”1

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7 The Polish Modjeska

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Memories and Impressions begins not with Modjeska’s journey to America, but her 1890 return visit to Kraków when she was accompanied by “Miss L. B. F.” (Lu Freeman), an exuberant young American friend. The actress opens her life story with the sentimental joy of repatriation rather than the thrill of embarking for the New World. As she exits the train in Kraków and is embraced by her friends, Modjeska feels herself to be completely at home: “Faces not seen for years, faithful eyes and friendly, smiling lips, shaking of hands, words of hearty welcome,—all this fills me with joy, warms me, intoxicates me. The lapse of years spent far away from the country shrinks into nothingness; I am again with my own people as of old, and they are the same, unchanged and true! I am happy!”1

This preface, “written some years ago,” attests to Modjeska’s profound and abiding attachment to her native land. After decades performing before the American public, she reminds her readers first of her Polish roots and always parallel Polish stardom, maintained by cherished returns which shrink the years away “into nothingness.” The presence of the appreciative Miss L. B. F. explicitly obliges Modjeska to serve as local guide and interpreter. She enjoys introducing her American friend to her private Kraków—the Virgin Mary statue in which she confided as a child, the location of the house in which she was born—as well as such magnificent Polish monuments as St. Mary’s Church and the Wawel Castle, once the residence and burial place of Polish kings. Her role as guide expands as her readers accompany the reminiscing star to each of the partitions: the beautiful hills and small towns of Galicia, the Chłapowski family’s ancestral lands in the Prussian partition, the bustling metropolis of Russian-occupied Warsaw. One of her chief reasons in undertaking this publication “was the desire to acquaint the world with the great names of her homeland,” as Chłapowski explains to Gilder after her death, entreating him to retain those daunting Polish surnames in the text.2

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