An exceptional actress who came to be known as the 'Aegeria of Modernism', stage director and theatre manager. Born on 6 April 1875 in Warsaw; died on 8 March 1958 in Skolimowo.
An exceptional actress who came to be known as the 'Aegeria of Modernism', stage director and theatre manager.
Irena Solska's real name was Karolina Flora Poświk. Her mother, a painter, taught her drawing and painting while she attended classes at Henryka Czarnocka's school for girls.
"Solska's talent as a painter would remain with her throughout her life," wrote Lidia Kuchtówna. "Later, she frequently assembled wonderful costumes for herself, sewing or painting them, choosing the color schemes. Artistically sensitive, she had an excellent feel for stage form and gesture, while the costumes she created often inspired how she chose to portray certain characters" (L. Kuchtówna, "Irena Solska," Warsaw, 1980).
This promising young painter initially studied acting in secrecy, concealing this even from her mother. She took lessons from Bolesław Leszczyński, an excellent dramatic actor and a leading performer at the Government Theatres in Warsaw. Leszczyński then helped Solska make her professional debut. She did so, under the name of Irena Górska, at the Victoria Theatre in Łódź, playing the title role in F. Halm's Hrabia René / Count René (1896). The play's heroine, raised as a boy, comes to accept her gender only upon experiencing romantic love. Critics praised Solska, contending that she demonstrated a talent for lyrical roles. That same year she played Count René at the Municipal Theatre in Kraków, appearing under the stage name Pomian. Well-received, she was asked to join the ensemble. She quickly made a home for herself at the Kraków theatre, managed ably by Tadeusz Pawlikowski. In 1899 the young artist married the actor Ludwik Solski. She began performing under the name Pomian-Solska and later abbreviated this to just Solska. She remained at the Kraków theatre until 1900, when she and her husband moved to the Municipal Theatre in Lviv, where Pawlikowski had just been appointed general manager. Solska was in Lviv until 1905, when she returned to Kraków for what would be another five year term, during which the actress made frequent guest appearances, visiting Lvov several times, as well as Warsaw, Łódź and Zagreb.
At the start of her career, Solska landed at a very good Kraków theatre where Pawlikowski had introduced contemporary, western drama and, in directing productions, had begun applying almost modern staging methods. Solska was part of an exceptional ensemble that included such greats as Wanda and Antoni Siemaszko, Kazimierz Kamiński, and Ludwik Solski. Initially she was cast in small roles, though before long she began appearing in Shakespeare productions, playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1897) and Olivia in Twelfth Night (1897). She brought sensitivity and charm to character roles and parts in salon dramas, including that of the coquette Mrs. Ware in Pinero's comedy The Princess and the Butterfly (1898), and offered fine performances in Gabriela Zapolska's dramas, appearing as Rózia Horn in Małka Szwarcenkopf / Malka Schwarzenkopf (1897) and as Miriam in Jojne Firulkes / Yoyne Firulkes (1899). She then spent a number of years in Lviv, where she solidified her professional reputation. Her first significant performance at the new theatre came as the title character in Nawojka / Navoyka, a play by Lvov-based poet Stanisław Rossowski (1901). Many noted her realistic and subtle acting, while others underlined her originality and singular acting style, characterized by a calm, controlled voice and an unusual movement style. Solska was soon cast in one of the prime roles of this period, one that would become a trademark of the Young Poland movement. As portrayed by the actress, Rachel in Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding (1901) was appropriately moody, though Solska supplemented the character with a degree of exaltation and a healthy dose of eroticism. In Lviv, the actress successfully portrayed the heroines of contemporary Scandinavian dramas, playing Ella in Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman (1903). She was very comfortable with the plays of Maxim Gorky, playing Yelena Krivtsova in Petit-Bourgeois (1903) and the prostitute Nastka in The Lower Depths (1903). Around this time she made her first appearances in plays by key writers of the Young Poland movement Stanisław Przybyszewski and Jerzy Żuławski. Her greatest successes came with her realistic-symbolic portrayal of Eva, the vamp, in Przybyszewski's Śnieg / Snow (1903) and with Psyche in Żuławski's Eros i Psyche / Eros and Psyche (1904), which dazzled both critics and audiences. Reviewers called Solska's performance expressive, poetic, stirring, and soulful. The actress also proved to be a skilled comedic performer.
"Her range is incredibly broad, though she most often seeks to play spiritually complex characters," wrote a reviewer in "Tygodnik Ilustrowany" [Illustrated Weekly]. "She has great intuition and focuses viewer attention on the psychological whole that is each of her characters (...) Ms. Solska's acting comes across as continuously fresh, almost improvised, yet she conveys complete honesty, is precise and engaging" ("Tygodnik Ilustrowany", 1904, no. 36).
While in Lvov, Solska played feature roles in a number of new dramas, portraying the Character in Juliusz German's symbolic fairy tale Lilith (1904) and Helena Topolska in Włodzimierz Perzyński's Lekkomyślna siostra / The Frivolous Sister (1904). She also played Tchiyo in the Japanese drama Terakoya, or the Village School by Takeda Izumo (1904) and the title character in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's once-act play Sobeid's Wedding (1904). Her final performance before leaving Lvov came in Ijola / Iyola, a play Żuławski wrote especially with Solska in mind (1905).
By the time she returned to Kraków, Solska was an established star and a symbol of the Young Poland movement. She confirmed her talents in productions of contemporary and classical plays. She was Melisande in Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande (1906), offered an excellent performance as the title character in Henry Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1906), played Nora in A Doll's House by the same author (1910), Fenixana in Calderon-Słowacki's Książę Niezłomny / The Constant Prince (1906), Idalia in Slowacki's Fantazy (1906), and the title character in the same author's drama Beatrix Cenci (1907). Her sophisticated performance as Mrs. Erlynne in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (1906) marked a vastly successful return to salon drama. She also appeared in Wyspiański's plays, following her portrayal of Rachel with an excellent tragic performance as Joas in the author's Sędziowie / The Judges (1909).
Her own intriguing personality turned Solska into the muse of other artists. Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński dubbed her the Aegeria of Symbolism, Modernism, and decadence. Many portraits of her survive, including ones painted by Leon Wyczółkowski, Stanisław Witkiewicz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Stanisław Eliasz Radzikowski, Aleksander Augustynowicz, Wojciech Kossak, and Zbigniew Pronaszko; and the actress was frequently caricatured. Witkiewicz described his youthful love affair with Solska in his early novel titled 622 upadki Bunga czyli demoniczna kobieta / The 622 Falls of Bungo, or the Demonic Woman. In the theatre the actress, described as a Secession-era beauty, produced elevated levels of lyrical and dramatic tension, generating metaphysical anxiety on stage, excelling at the portrayal of soulful, overly sensitive, morbid, or hysterical characters engulfed in mystery. In short, she embodied the melancholy of her generation. A master of dialogue, she maintained captivating conversation in plays ranging from salon dramas to monumental symbolic works. She was at once a commanding presence, hypnotizing audiences with movement reflecting the sensitivity of a painter. She often underlined the anxiety or spiritual struggles of her heroines, but also proved capable of shaping calm characters exhibiting perspective, of delineating their contours and mental interior with great precision and intelligence.
In 1910 Solska left the theatre in Kraków for Berlin, where she prepared to debut on the German stage. After a time she abandoned these plans and returned to Poland, where she made a string of guest appearances in Kraków, Lviv and Warsaw. In 1913 she was asked to join the ensemble at her former theatre in Kraków, where Tadeusz Pawlikowski once again assumed the helm. She divorced in 1914 and soon afterwards married a railway official named Otto Grosser, making some of her subsequent appearances as Solska-Grosser. She spent World War I in Kraków and in 1919 moved to Warsaw, where she performed at a number of theatres, including the Polish Theatre, the Little Theatre, and the Variety Theatre in the years 1921-1923. She began touring again, offering guest appearances in her best repertory roles at theatres in Kraków, Łódź, Lviv, Vilnius, and Poznań. During the 1925/1926 season she was part of Leon Schiller's experimental company known as the Boguslawski Theatre and spent the subsequent season working with Juliusz Osterwa's Reduta [Redoubt]. The actress saw the work she did at the Boguslawski Theatre as highly important.
"This theatre swept me away," she once said. "Schiller's directing. Zelwerowicz's spontaneity. I would have carried sets around at the Bogusławski Theatre if they had asked me to. This theatre had its own unique face" ("Comoedia", 1926, no. 27).
At this highly innovative, though short-lived institution Solska played Hippodamia in Wyspiański's Achilles (1925), Lady Milford in Friedrich Schiller's Love and Intrigue (1925), and Krystyna in Stefan Żeromski's Róża / The Rose (1926).
Solska performed less frequently in the interwar years. She was stricken with a grave illness that in its final stages caused frequent indispositions, trembling, and breaks in her voice that were plainly audible to audiences. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s Solska managed to create a number of excellent characters. At Warsaw's Polish Theatre she played the Wife in Zygmunt Krasiński's Nie-boska Komedia / The Un-Divine Comedy, directed by Arnold Szyfman and designed by Wincenty Drabik (1920), and Rebecca West opposite Karol Adwentowicz as the former pastor in Ibsen's Rosmersholm (1920). She premiered a number of significant roles at this time at Warsaw's Variety Theatre, portraying the Infanta in an excellent production of Pierre Corneille's El Cid (1922) and Dusia in Karol Hubert Rostworowski's Straszne dzieci / Terrible Children (1922). In 1934 she was a captivating Marmeladova in an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment directed by Schiller at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, this in spite of being quite ill by this time. Throughout these years the actress was also active in giving public recitations. Earlier, she had given readings of poetry of the Romantic and Young Poland eras, now she recited the works of the "Skamander" circle and of the Futurists, the latter as a participant of Futurist poetry evenings.
In 1932-1933 Solska managed the Żeromski Theatre in Warsaw, directing and overseeing the staging of a number of interesting stage premieres. She herself directed Georg Kaiser's One October Day (1932) and Zapolska's Tamten / That One (1932). Schiller mounted Widowisko rybałtowskie / A Minstrel's Show composed of minstrels' comedies (1932), while Osterwa staged Morawska's Sobowtór / The Doppelganger (1932). Michał Brandt directed German author Bernard Blume's Boston, a controversial stage reportage about innocent immigrants who are accused of a crime and condemned (1933). Critics liked the production, but authorities frowned upon it. Subsequent productions added fuel to the fire, either through their staging or content. They included Leon Schiller's Gody weselne / Wedding Vows directed by Edmund Wierciński (1933) and a play by Jerzy Leszczyński titled § 245 KK / § 245 CC (a reference to a section of the criminal code), which explored the topic of venereal disease (1933). The theatre was already in poor financial condition when it lost its public subsidy. A part of the Żeromski Theatre's ensemble abandoned it for the Polish Theatre, headed at the time by Arnold Szyfman, and the institution ultimately closed.
Solska found it difficult to abandon the theatre altogether. She made her final stage appearance in 1938 as the Widow in a production of Słowacki's Balladyna staged at the National Theatre. She did not return to the stage after World War II and spent the final years of her life in the Home for Veteran Artists of the Polish Stage in Skolimów near Warsaw.
Autor: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, November 2006