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2 The Making of a Polish Actress

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

The Poland of Modrzejewska’s youth was politically turbulent and socially stultifying, possessed of an inspiring past and mired in a present of poverty and oppression. The Polish empire had flourished for centuries under the Jagiellonian dynasty (1385–1569) and as the Republic of Poland-Lithuania (1569–1795), boasting prosperous cities, a powerful army, major achievements in the arts and sciences, and a Statute of General Toleration guaranteeing safe haven for Jews, Muslims, and Protestants as well as Catholics. By the eighteenth century, however, the Republic’s wars against the Russians, Swedes, and Prussians had emptied the state’s coffers, and its landed aristocrats further weakened the state’s infrastructure by diverting their fortunes into their own estates. In 1795, the armies of Prussia, Russia, and Austria finally wiped the Republic off the European map, dividing its lands into three occupied partitions. The Russian partition claimed the capital Warsaw, while the Austrian partition, also known as Galicia, included the city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) and Poland’s historic capital of Kraków.

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Epilogue: Finding Modjeska Today

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

For those of us intrigued by the biography of Modjeska, a long-dead stage actress, the American memorial trail is at best elusive. We have no recordings to thrill us with a living voice, no filmed performances or home movies to scrutinize and replay. Americans were the intended audience for Modjeska’s Memories and Impressions, and Gilder’s publishing house produced for his dear old friend a lavish edition, complete with state-of-the-art reproductions of her photos. But we possess very few translations of her copious correspondence and no reprint of the many letters she wrote in English, in which her opinions are sharper, her style livelier, and her self-image less carefully composed. Nor can we visit Modjeska’s grave on this side of the ocean to commemorate the anniversaries of her death.

In contrast, the Poles have become practiced keepers of her flame, successful in large part because they had less territory to cover and more national impetus to invest in her memory. The relatively small area of Kraków’s Old City, Modrzejewska’s first world, encompasses a much-abridged, somewhat meandering walking tour of her life, provided one knows the landmarks beforehand. A crudely carved plaque marks the site, if not the actual building, of Modrzejewska’s birthplace on Dominican Square.1 Kraków’s Old Theatre, now named after the actress, still stands on Jagielloska Street, just the other side of the city’s main square. Here Modrzejewska dueled with Hoffmann and performed opposite her beloved brother Feliks. The Theatre Museum, on the corner of Szpitalna and St. Mark, offers the richest immersion in Modrzejewska artifacts, featuring a permanent exhibit of costumes, photographs, paintings, photographs, trinkets, and everyday objects such as the star’s ashtray shaped like a lizard, her tiny deck of playing cards, and a device for stretching her gloves.2

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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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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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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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