Celebrated Polish actress, a living legend in her time as a star both in Poland and America. Born 12 October, 1840 in Kraków, died 8 April, 1909, in Newport Beach, California.
Modrzejewska was the illegimate child of Józefa Bendowa (née Misel), widow of a wealthy trader, and an unidentified father. Although she called her mother's friend, Michał Opid, her father, the rumour at the time was that she was actually the daughter of Duke Eustachy Sanguszko. Her half brothers, Feliks and Jozef, were actors. 'Modrzejewska' is a pseudonym she adopted in the early days of her acting career.
Modrzejewska was first sent to study at a boarding school for girls, and then later to a school run by the Presentation Sisters. She began her acting career on provincial stages with the strong support of her life partner, Gustaw Zimajer. It was thanks to him that she first appeared on stage in Bochnia in 1861 and shortly afterwards in Nowy Sącz, Przemyśl, Rzeszów and Brzezany. Reviewers at the time wrote of
'the unquestionable talent of Mrs Modrzejewska who, while still coping with the difficulties of her profession, puts so much work and diligence into every stage appearance that over time she may become the star of the very best theatres.' (Dziennik Literacki, after Józef Szczublewski, Żywot Modrzejewskiej / Modrzejewska's Life, Warsaw 1975)
In 1862, she appeared for the first time before audiences in Lwów. The three different roles she played earned her a contract with the Lwów theatre, where her first part was that of Skierka in Słowacki's drama Balladyna. However, being a young and inexperienced actress, she could not count on securing major roles within the classical repertoire. Therefore, in early 1863, Modrzejewska left Lwów for the stages of Stanislavov and Chernyovtsy. There, she played the title role of Barbara Radziwiłłówna in Alojzy Felinski's tragedy, as well as Louisa in Friedrich Schiller's Intrigue and Love, Amelia in Juliusz Słowacki's Mazepa and Mary Stuart in Słowacki's Maria Stuart. She would go on to appear in Słowacki's plays a number of times, becoming well-known for her ability to perform their female roles.
At Zimajer's urging, Modrzejewska attempted to sign a contract with one of the Vienna theatres, but her German wasn't good enough and she was unsuccessful. After she separated from Zimajer, who had fathered her two children, she moved to Kraków and made her stage debut there in October 1865. The artistic manager (and would-be director) of the Kracków theatre, Stanisław Koźmian, had turned the theatre into a special place, with a repertoire embracing Polish and foreign classics as well as ambitious contemporary dramas. He had also gathered together a group of the most interesting Polish actors, including Wincenty Rapacki and Antonina Hoffman, who played alongside Modrzejewska. Koźmian created the so-called 'Kraków school', rejecting to the cult of stars and strict specialization in an attempt to reveal the psychological, reality-based truth of a play's protagonists. The playwrights' intentions were studied carefully and team work was the order of the day.
Modrzejewska first appeared in the Kraków theatre as Sara in Wacław Szymanowski's Salomon.
She came across as the kind of actress who is hard to find even on the stages of great capital cities, an artist who, through work and enlightened management, could join the first ranks of her profession. Mother nature has been generous with her. She has given her all an artist needs: a beautiful appearance, figure and voice, and most importantly, the gift of artistic perspicacity, which makes an actor instinctively feel what a role needs, wrote a Kurier Warszawski reviewer (after Józef Szczublewski, Żywot Modrzejewskiej, Warszawa 1975).
Modrzejewska's most important roles at the time included that of Anna Oswiecimowna in a play by Mikołaj Boloz Antoniewicz (1865), Princess Eboli in Don Carlos (1866), Amalia in Schiller's The Robbers (1866) and, the same year, Portia in The Merchant of Venice - her first Shakespearian role. The following year she played the part of Ophelia in Hamlet and of Doñe Sol in Victor Hugo's Hernani. Her performance in the title role of Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve's Adrianna Lecouvreur was hailed as a triumph.
Modrzejewska spent her four years in Kraków working hard, competing with the actress Antonina Hoffman and enjoying great success with both the public and critics alike. The latter considered her to be worthy of Vienna's famous Burgtheater. An intelligent and sensitive individualist, Modrzejewska used her time at the Cracow theatre well, learning a new, more understated style of acting and getting rid of some of her more provincial theatre habits.
Even that early on, she was able to moderate her performance as the plot moved on, preferring to build it almost from scratch, wrote Józef Szczublewski. The role of Adrianna was better suited to this method than any other. On that night Modrzejewska, starting from zero, worked the audience into a frenzy of enthusiasm by the end of Act V. (Great and Sad Warsaw Theatre 1868-1880, Warsaw 1963)
Her Warsaw debut having been a tremendous success, Modrzejewska managed to sign a contract with the Warsaw Government Theatre, a move that cemented her position as Poland's premier actress of drama and comedy and bestowed upon her the status of a true star. She even influenced the repertoire; it was because of pressure from her that Warsaw audiences were treated to Hamlet's first premiere in fifty years (with Modrzejewska playing Ophelia), the play's first Polish appearance in translation from the original. Despite resistance from the censors, she also pushed for Slowacki's dramas to be staged, and Maria Stuart premiered in 1872. This was followed by the third act of Mazepa that same year, though the entire play was not staged until 1873.
In Warsaw Modrzejewska played a number of roles, including that of Aniela in Aleksander Fredro's Śluby panieńskie / Maidens' Vows (1871), Princess Severine in Alexandre Dumas jr's Princess George, Desdemona in Othello (1873) and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (1876). She was also a guest actress in the theatres of Kraków and Lwów. By the time she left the Warsaw Government Theatres in 1876, she had firmly established her position as Poland's greatest actress, as well as one of the most interesting actresses of her generation in all of Europe. Shakespeare held a special place in her repertoire, and during her career in Warsaw she appeared in his plays a total of 95 times .
In July 1867 Modrzejewska gave her last performance in front of a Polish audience and left for America. She was accompanied by her husband, Karol Chłapowski, whom she had married in Kraków in 1868. She settled first in Anaheim, where she ran a farm. But the business failed, and the following year she simplified her name to Modjeska and moved to San Francisco. After taking an intensive English course, she made her stage debut at The California Theatre in the title role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. It was a tremendous success, and in a cable to her husband she wrote simply, Victory. Modjeska." As Henryk Sienkiewicz, then a correspondent for "Gazeta Polska", wrote at the end of his account of her performance:
Everybody was in a frenzy... Nobody left their seats after the show was over, which is unheard of in America. Contrary to local custom, the actress was called back eleven times... America was taken by storm (after Józef Szczublewski, Żywot Modrzejewskiej, Warszawa 1975).
In the autumn of 1877 Modrzejewska embarked upon her first tour of America, appearing on the stages of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, among others.
She is one of the greatest actresses of our time", wrote a reviewer from Philadelphia's "Public Ledger". "Her method is calm and composed. There isn't a touch of hysteria in even the most fiery explosions. She has a shocking power, made even stronger by the fact that she allows only a part of it to expose itself on stage, and she has a wonderfully expressive face. There is so much grace and truth in her movements, and she expresses so much through her body, that she could clearly and accurately convey her thoughts through pantomime alone. (after Józef Szczublewski, Żywot Modrzejewskiej, Warszawa 1975)
Modrzejewska worked hard to hone her acting skills. Aware that her voice was her weakness, she had focused on it back in Poland and, through various exercises, managed to expand her vocal range. Once in America she threw herself into studying English, and she was always careful to stay physically fit. A deliberate actress, she was able to control and regulate emotion, grabbing attention in the first scenes but not revealing her true mastery until the finale. Her excellent acting technique was often commented on, as was her magnetic personality, which left the audience in awe. Her acting was described as 'beautiful'. She tended to defend and idealize her heroines, emphasising moral beauty that was often paid for by human error. Her theatrical repertoire was very broad, including comic, romantic and tragic roles alongside convincing portraits of heroines of contemporary drama, such as Henrik Ibsen's Nora. Over time her acting evolved to become more realistic, but it always remained detached from pure realism - Modrzejewska was too fond of the theatrical 'aestethization' of her heroines to embrace realism itself. A number of her roles were said to have their origins in the romantic understanding of beauty.
In 1880 Modrzejewska, by then an established actress in America, gave a series of guest performances in England. She was very well received, and would later revisit England in 1881, 1882 and 1885. She became a United States citizen in 1883 and continued acting there until 1907. She worked very hard, going on twenty-six tours with her company. From 1897 she began travelling to Poland as a guest performer, visiting Kraków (nine times), Lwów (six times) and Warsaw (four times), as well as Poznań, Tarnów, Łódź, Lublin and Stanislavov. Her repertoire included 260 roles. Her Polish interpretations of Shakespearean roles went down in history (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), as did her later performances as Rosalind in As You Like It, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Viola in Twelfth-Night, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Imogen in Cymbeline. She was superb in the role of Margaret Gauthier in Alexandre Dumas fils' Camille, as well as the title roles in Octave Feuillet's Dalila and Victorien Sardou's Odette. She was much lauded as Nora, Magda and Silvia Settala in plays by Henrik Ibsen, Hermann Sudermann and Gabriele d'Annunzio. Near the end of her career, in Poland, she played Mary and Laodamia in Stanisław Wyspiański's dramas Warszawianka (Varsovienne) and Protesilas and Laodamia.
Modrzejewska's memoirs, written in English, were published in 1910 under the title Memories and Impressions. The Polish translation, Wspomnienia i wrażenia, was published in 1957.
Modrzejewska died in the United States in 1909 and was buried in Los Angeles. In accordance with her will, her remains were later repatriated to Poland and put to rest next to her mother's grave at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Cracow, accompanied by a funeral ceremony that turned into a demonstration of national pride.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006
Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska)
Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska)