On 11th October 2015, Kraków, Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Wrocław all hosted walks organised by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute. The routes of these promenades commemorate prominent figures of Polish theatre, as the Spacerownik Teatralny (Theatrical Walk Guide) project joins in the celebrations of 250 years of public Polish theatre. The author of the Kraków walk is Agnieszka Walicka from the Theatre and Drama Department of the Jagiellonian University. Culture.pl provides hints on some of the major points on the map of Kraków which allow one to trace Helena Modrzejewska’s biography within the city's landscape. So, let us put the museum visits off for a moment, and take a stroll along one long avenue, all lined with chestnut trees. This is the beloved Planty Park of the famous actress, who was born 175 years ago.
"I remember that when I was young and aspiring to the art of the stage, I used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I would take my role with me, and I memorised the lines while strolling back and forth in the shade of these huge trees. At 8 o’clock I had to go back out of fear, in order to avoid the jokes of college students".
1. Family home: "In life and on the stage – equal to the princess Helena"
The first point on the map of Kraków is an apartment house at 22 Grodzka street. It is here that Helena Jadwiga Misel was born on 12th October, 1840. She was the illegitimate child of Józefa Bendowa née Misel, the widow of a rich merchant who had ran a winery and confectionery at the same address. It is not known who the father of the actress was, it was even said that Helena was the daughter of prince Eustachy Sanguszko. A phrase was coined in Kraków to describe the young actress – "Both in life and on the stage, an equal to the princess Helena”.
Unfortunately the original building was destroyed in the huge fire of July, 1850. A new house was built on the same spot, at the corner of Grodzka Street and Dominican Square. This is the building that now bears a commemorative plaque of the actress’ birthplace. In her book entitled Memoirs and Impressions, Helena wrote "the two windows on the second floor, that is where I spent the first ten years of my life”. From here, little Helena looked out onto the street, focusing her sights on the small figure of Holy Mary, a decoration on Suski House which had miraculously survived both Austrian bomb raids and the fires.
The points that are part of route are: the figure of Holy Mary in Suski House, Grodzka Street, Main Square, Św. Jana Street.
2. "Kraków was everything to me", education and youth with the Prezentki sisters
- 7 Św. Jana street, presently, the gymnasium and high school of the Prezentki Sisters in Kraków
It was the first all-girls school founded in Poland, created in 1627 thanks to Zofia Czeska in order to ensure young girls a proper start to life. Little Helena attended a 5-year course of lessons on reading, writing, and mathematics, but also singing, cooking, sewing, laundry and knowledge of moral and religious values. The major women’s school of the St. John’s monastery was led by nuns, and it is a junior high school and a high school.
"Kraków (…) was everything to me: a cradle, a nanny, a caretaker, and an educator. I was born here, and it is here that I grew up”
– the star noted.
The points that are a part of the route are: 22 Św. Jana Street – Św. Tomasza Street – Szczepański Square
3. On the stage: National Stary Theatre
The route dedicated to Modrzejewska cannot lack the most significant address, 5 Jagiellońska Street, the oldest theatre headquarters in Kraków, which hosted the National Stary Theatre from 1799 and is presently named after the actress herself. In 1865, after a difficult period, the theatre gained new energy. Count Adam Skorupka became head of the theatre and he took to the role with great zeal. New decorations were brought from Vienna, an experienced director from Warsaw was hired and the new team was completed. The team could not lack the true star of the Czerniowice theatre, Helena Modrzejewska.
On 7th October, 1865 Modrzejewska made her debut as Sara in Wacław Szymanowski’s drama, Salomon, and she received favourable opinions from the press as well as the love of the public. It is worth visiting the interiors of the Stary Theatre, which are decorated with a portrait of the actress painted by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz. From the beginning of her career Modrzejewska gathered reviews filled with awe. She played romantic roles from the repertoire of Schiller
, Juliusz Słowacki
, and Aleksander Fredro
The actress, who would later become famous for her Shakepearian roles, first played in a play by the English playwright in 1866, The Merchant of Venice.
Her roles in Adrianna, Maria Stuart and Barbara Radziwiłłówna were all iconic. In the mid 19th century the work of a contracted actress resembled forced labour – plays were staged for a brief period of time, but a premiere would take place almost every week. At times, as many as three new stagings would take place in a single week. At the time, Modrzejewska had the sense that she had achieved everything that was possible in the city of Kraków. In 1868 she set off to conquer Warsaw. But let us still stay by the Wawel a little longer, because even more points of interest still await fans of Modrzejewska in this city: Szczepańska Street – 34 Main Square – Sukiennice – Sienna Street.
4. Salon Madame
One day, a rather surprising party invitation appeared on the door of the Piotr Skarga house, announcing the celebrations of Helena Modrzejewska’s name-day party. A dozen invitations were sent out, there were announcements in the press, and then finally, in March, 2012, the Modrzejewska Salon was officially opened in order to attract fans of this great actress’ talent.
Here, the star of the Polish stage is present on little known photographs but also in various objects from the era, letters, and perfume bottles. In 1905, during her farewell play at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Modrzejewska is meant to have said: "In the end, it is not the applause that is an actor’s biggest rewards. It is the awareness that he will live on in the heart and memory of the spectators.” The best place to verify how prophetic these words proved to have been is the Salon of Mme Helena, which also houses the Foundation of Research on the Life and Work of Helena Modrzejewska.
The points that are a part of the route are: – Little Square – Mikołajska Street – Planty – Westerplatte Street
5. In the shoot
Are the students of the Higher European School aware that the academic palace once belonged to Walery Rzewuski, a pioneer of photography and a social activist? In November, 1867, he opened a modern atelier, the largest and most popular photographic studio in Kraków. Modrzejewska was a frequent guest. She had a great sense of the promotional potential of this new medium. She would love being photographed throughout her whole career but Rzewuski’s photo’s are the most unique to this day. Why? The answer is revealed during the walk.
The points that are part of the route are: Planty – Św. Ducha square – J. Słowacki Theatre – Pollera Hotel– Św. Krzyża Church (of the Holy Cross)
6. Juliusz Słowacki Theatre (formerly Municipal Theatre)
With the Parisian Opera as its model the legendary national stage has ceaselessly operated since 1893. Enclosed within a Renaissance and Classicist building, the theatre witnessed the birth of the Polish art of directing, acting and stage design. On 2nd June, 1891, Helena Modrzejewska and her former rival Antonina Hoffmann laid the first brick on the Święty Duch (Holy Spirit) square for what would later become the theatre's headquarters. She would always perform here during guest showings, and her last appearance was on 28th April, 1903, in the production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Protesilas and Laodamia. Stanisław Witkiewicz noted in a letter to his son about the performance:
"My dearest! I saw Laodamia yesterday. It’s a wonder! Only Ms. Modrzejewska can play it. I laid roses next to her sandals.” (J. Szczublewski, The Life of Modrzejewska, W. 1975, pg. 638).
It was also the very last performance of the actress in her home country, and in her mother tongue.
7. Hotel Pollera
Its history goes back to 1834. During World War II it was taken over by Germans, and after the liberation of Kraków, it also briefly served as the headquarters of the Red Army. The interiors of the renowned hotel, which stands in the very heart of the old town, are decorated with art nouveau stained glass windows, designed by Stanisław Wyspiański. Many personas of the political, art and theatre world used to stay there, including our heroine Modrzejewska. She checked in at the Pollera when she was preparing for her role in Protesilas and Laodamia. In April, 1903, she wrote a letter to Wyspiański:
"Dear Master! It was with great pleasure that I found that the performance of Laodamia can in effect be realised and that you Sir will be willing to communicate with me. Tonight I will be there from six until seven and because apparently you are going to the theatre, it may well be more convenient to drop by on the way. Thus – until then. My husband sends his compliments. With my highest regards – Helena Modrzejewska” (Modrzejewska/Letters. Part 2, letter 1005).
The next stopover: the Gothic church of the Holy Cross from the 13th century. It was here that the coffin of Helena Modrzejewska was transported on 8th April, 1909, from Bay Island in the United States.
8. The "Modrzejówka" villa
"For the summer months of 1885 we went to Zakopane, and later to our new house in Kraków, which was built with the thought that we would live there for some two or three years after retiring from the stage.”
– this is Helena Modrzejewska’s note on the property surrounded by a park, a garden and an orangerie. Although the place is not situated on the route of the walk, it is definitely worth visiting! In the year 2000, the "Modrzejówka" housing area, along with the building, were inscribed on the historical heritage list as a manor.
At present, the Foundation for Supporting the Research on the Life and Work of Helena Modrzejewska is making efforts to obtain the property. The walk that follows in the footsteps of Helena Modrzejewska takes place as part the project of the Theatre Institute. Art historians and specialists prepare themed walks across various Polish cities, including Wrocław, Warsaw, Gdańska, Łódź, Lublin, and Kraków.
sources: press release, Instytut Teatralny (Theatre Institute), www.modjeskafoundation.org, www.spacerownikteatralny.pl, edited by AL
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 19/10/2015