Helena Modrzejewska: International Queen of the Theatre
portrait, Helena Modrzejewska:
of the Theatre, Helena Modrzejewska as Ophelia in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', photo: National Library / Polona, center, helena_modrzejewska_8.jpg
Helena Modrzejewska was a 19th-century celebrity. What she took back with her from the United States was not only fame but also… crocodiles. A charismatic queen of Shakespearean drama, she played almost 300 roles in thousands of performances.
A provincial girl
Modrzejewska is born in Kraków as Jadwiga Helena Misel. She grows up in a theatrical atmosphere: her two older stepbrothers are both actors, and her stepfather would read her Homer in the evenings. She begins her career in acting after being persuaded by Gustaw Zimajer, a theatre manager and her future partner, 15 years her senior. She performs in a troupe; the audiences of the towns and villages consider her a sensation. Her dark eyes, deep gaze and black hair are bewildering. It is around this time that she assumes her pseudonym, invented by Zimajer. It would later become her world-famous personal brand.
A Theatrical Walk Across the Kraków of Helena Modrzejewska
As Modrzejewska is extremely hardworking, she appears in several thousand performances. Even when pregnant, she continues performing, almost until delivery. As her career gains momentum, she moves from the provincial stages to Lviv and then to Kraków. It is here that a dramatic event takes place: after they split, Zimajer kidnaps their baby son Rudolf and takes him away to Hungary. With a lawyer’s help, Helena manages to redeem her child in exchange for 4,000 Austrian gulden.
An industrious Ophelia
Modrzejewska’s adventure with Shakespeare starts in Warsaw. She falls in love with his plays and goes to great lengths to present them to a Polish audience. These roles become her trademark. Her photographs as Ophelia, presenting her as a long-haired angel in a floral coronet, come to be her showpiece. She also plays Juliet, Mary Stuart and Desdemona. In Warsaw, Modrzejewska puts her own endurance to the test: she sometimes performs in a few premieres a week. The hard work pays off, however: she becomes one of the unquestionable stars in Poland and one of Europe’s greatest artists.
Shakespeare’s Chair & Other Trophies: The Pilfering Polish Princess behind Europe’s First Museum
The ambitious actress yearns for distant travels. She emigrates to California in 1876, accompanied by the Nobel prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz and her teenage son – who is soon to become an engineer, a pioneer in the construction of suspension bridges.
Discovering the USA
Modrzejewska's first stop is a farm in California. Her craving for art, however, keeps her restless. She quickly learns English and begins performing. American audiences are delighted – from now on, they chant ‘Modjeska!’ After her debut at the California Theatre in San Francisco, playing the role of Adrienne Lecouvreur, she is applauded 11 times. Sienkiewicz sends a telegram to Poland:
America has been taken by storm!
Meanwhile, Modrzejewska grows somewhat eccentric: she adopts two baby crocodiles and plans to return to Poland with her exotic pets. She lies about her age, presenting herself as six years younger, and claims that Rudolf is not her son but… her brother.
Secrets, Dreams & Stars: Spiritual Experiments in Theatre
After her first tour of the United States (she performs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago) she is dubbed ‘one of the greatest actresses of all time’. She uses her publicity wisely: in 1883 she talks about the situation of Polish women in the partitioned country at a Chicago women’s congress. In the same year, Modrzejewska becomes a citizen of the US.
Smoking cigarettes with Modrzejewska
Modrzejewska becomes a true icon. She is admired for not only her talent, but her style: an elegant beauty, she has impeccable fashion sense and even designs her own costumes. With time, she becomes a living commercial: her name advertises umbrellas, corsets and gloves. The Larkin Soap Company releases a whole series of products called ‘Modjeska’. Her portraits accompany cigarette packs and stamps. A steamboat is even christened after her. Even today, you can buy candy named in her honour: Modjeska’s Caramels, a confection consisting of marshmallow dipped in caramel, is still produced using the original 1899 recipe.
Modrzejewska is still hungry for fame and continues her conquet of new stages. The English audience is delighted with her. She also performs in Poland. Modrzejewska keeps on working until the very end of her days. She also becomes the godmother of one of 20th century’s most important Polish artists, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, as well as Ethel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s grandmother.
Historic Theatres of the Baltic Route
Modrzejewska dies in the United States. Her funeral takes place in Los Angeles, but later, in accordance with her will, she is buried next to her mother in Kraków. Her friend, Henryk Sienkiewicz – who was tragically in love with her – gives the speech at her Kraków funeral.
Originally written in Polish by Marcelina Obarska, translated by NS