A celebrated actress, exceptional in Modernist plays, stage director, theatre manager; born 30 December 1867 in Lipowa near Kobryń; died 6 August 1947 in Żarnowiec.
A celebrated actress (exceptional in Modernist plays), stage director and theatre manager.
Siemaszkowa was born into the notable Sierpiński family of eastern Poland. However, she grew up in the town of Łomża, where the family moved after inheriting a sizeable estate there, an estate that happened to include a theatre building. The actress's father organized an amateur troupe that offered performances at the theatre and inviting provincial troupes to present their productions. Thus, Siemaszkowa was exposed to theatre and its workings from early childhood. Initially a student at the local grammar school in Łomża, she went on to study at Henryka Czarnocka's finishing school in Warsaw. In 1886 she began to study acting, taking private lessons from Józef Kotarbiński. In 1887, having graduated from her school and completed her studies with Kotarbiński, she traveled to Kraków to try her strength at the city's municipal theatre, headed at the time by Jakub Glikson. Employing her maiden name, she debuted as Helenka in Aleksander Mańkowski's Dziwak / The Eccentric (1887). She was hired on and remained in Kraków until mid 1893. In 1888 she married actor Antoni Siemaszko and assumed his last name. While in Kraków she perfected her skills, mostly appearing in supporting roles, portraying lyrical maidens and naïve girls, she was chiefly valued for her good stage presence, charm, grace and naturalness. She also demonstrated flexibility, convincingly playing a man, namely, Spinoza in Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Akosta / Uriel Acosta (1889). With this role, Siemaszkowa demonstrated considerable artistic individuality and intelligence. In 1893 Tadeusz Pawlikowski took over managing the Kraków Municipal Theatre. He did not see Siemaszkowa as a member of his ensemble, so the artist traveled to Lviv and worked at the municipal theatre there for one year (1893-1894). Though brief, her time in Lviv proved important, allowing her to gain confidence in her stage talents. In 1894 Siemaszkowa returned to the Kraków Municipal Theatre, remaining there until 1899. Twice during this period she sought to establish herself at the Government Theatres in Warsaw. Her Warsaw debut in 1897 was received coldly; her second attempt in 1900 proved successful and she signed on with the Warsaw theatre. However, she was unhappy with the terms of her contract and returned to Kraków the same year, where she would continue performing until 1902. She once again moved to Warsaw and worked with the Government Theatres for two years, though she toured extensively throughout this time, offering guest performances at many theatres, including the Municipal and People's theatres in Kraków, and the Municipal Theatre in Lviv, an institution she worked at again in 1905 and in the years 1906-1918. It was with the Lviv troupe that Siemaszkowa traveled to Vienna (1910) and Paris (1913).
One of Siemaszkowa's first great performances in Kraków came as Salome in Zygmunt Sarnecki's Harde dusze / Hardened Souls (1894), with the actress bringing out her character's psychological diverseness and emotional complexity. The actress was equally successful in plays from the classical repertoire, offering accomplished portrayals of Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1895) and of Juliet in the author's Romeo and Juliet (1897), as well as a very simple and powerful performance as Margaret in Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust (1900).
"Ms. Siemaszkowa is incomparable in 'Faust,' " wrote Jan Sten. "Not a trace of routine, just unparalleled simplicity; great moderation in the use of what is called 'acting,' the most beautiful delivery ever. The scene before the statue of the Virgin Mary and the concluding prison scene were scrumptious, skillful blends of great poetry and the artist's characteristic realism" ("Krytyka", 1901, v. 2).
Siemaszkowa also excelled in the dramas of Juliusz Słowacki, portraying Amelia in Mazepa (1899) and the title role in Balladyna, the latter role on two occasions - first in Lviv in 1909 and again in Kraków three years later. She also played Judyta in the same author's Ksiądz Marek / Father Mark (1901), blending realistic and symbolic acting, convincingly rendering her heroine's heated temperament and spiritual struggle. Highly valuing the plays of Stanisław Wyspiański, who worked closely with the Kraków stage while it was headed by Tadeusz Pawlikowski and later Józef Kotarbiński, she appeared in a number of his dramas, actively seeking to be cast in them. She was excellent as Maria in Stanisław Wyspiański's Warszawianka / La Varsovienne (1898), convincingly demonstrating the vast emotional scale of her heroine, then gracefully and sensitively played the Bride in the famous premiere production of the author's Wesele / The Wedding (1901). While in Lviv, she played the Unfaithful Wife in Bolesław Śmiały / Boleslaus The Bold (1906) and Jewdocha in Sędziowie / The Judges (1908) with dramatic vigor. The works of Aleksander Fredro and Gabriela Zapolska's frequently staged plays proved more difficult for her to handle, while her attempts at roles popular among 19th century actresses, including the title character in Eugene Scribe's and Ernest Legouve's Adrienne Lecouvreur (1902), were sometimes disastrous.
The Modernist repertoire became her true passion. Along with Karol Adwentowicz, she came to express the concerns of her generation. She proved capable of accurately expressing the anxiety reflected in European Modernist drama and the plays of the Young Poland movement. Ably blending realistic acting with passion, poetry and symbolism, she highlighted human nature as torn by extreme and violent emotions, as condemned to the influence of biological instincts. She saturated her heroines with tragedy, often elevating the status of her characters as written. She invested vigor and passion in her portrayals of characters nearing their breaking point, demonic and impulsive women, young quarrelsome peasant lasses. Her hallmark performances, which contemporaries often referred to as masterpieces of stage art, included the crazed Julka in Jan August Kisielewski's W sieci / In the Web (Kraków, 1899), the Miller's Wife in Lucjan Rydel's Zaczarowane koło / The Enchanted Wheel (Kraków, 1899), Hanka in Woznica Henszel/Henshel the Carter (Kraków, 1899), Mrs. Sworzen in Boleslaw Gorczyński's W noc lipcowa/One Night in July (Warsaw, 1903), the title role in Jerzy Żuławski's drama Donna Aluica (Lviv, 1906), Gabriele d'Annunzio's heroines - the Madwoman in The Dream of a Spring Morning (Kraków, 1901) and Liliola de Sagro in The Torch under the Bushel (Lviv, 1908), and finally Jo in Herman Heijerman's Nadzieja / Hope (Kraków, 1902).
"This was more than a display of excellent acting technique," wrote an excited Władysław Rabski of her performance as Julka. "It was the great and deep art of a born artist who absorbs the poet's soul, re-forges it in her own fiery inspiration and returns something improved, more powerful and deeper to audiences" ("Kurier Warszawski", 01.06.1902).
Siemaszkowa portrayed Henry Ibsen's dramatic heroines often, though above all in Kraków while Kotarbiński headed the theatre and in Lviv when Ludwik Heller managed the stage there. She was excellent as Hedda Gabler (Kraków, 1900), Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder (Kraków, 1901), Helena Alving in Ghosts (Lviv, 1904). In Lviv, she appeared opposite Adwentowicz in eight of the Scandinavian writer's plays and contemporaries saw them as an exceptional duo for Ibsen's dramas.
In 1918 the artist was no longer associated with any one theatre. Instead, she worked with a touring company through 1919, simultaneously making guest appearances at repertory theatres in Warsaw, Łódź and Lublin. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she periodically found employment with several repertory theatres, but simultaneously offered guest performances of her hallmark roles in many Polish cities. She became a traveling actress in the full sense of the phrase, at times experiencing bitterness during lulls when she had no guest appearances while theatres offered her no new roles.
In 1920 Siemaszkowa became director of the Municipal Theatre in Bydgoszcz for two seasons. She devised a very ambitious repertoire consisting primarily of classics by Polish authors like Słowacki, **os:Wyspiański*os_wyspianski_stanislaw**, Mickiewicz, Fredro, as well as Zapolska, **os:Kisielewski*os_kisielewski_jan_august**, Stanisław Przybyszewski, Tadeusz Rittner, and Stefan Żeromski. She staged plays by Shakespeare and Maeterlinck, and had a good ensemble at the theatre. Critics, however, accused her of poor management. Siemaszkowa did indeed lack administrative talent and soon had to resign from her position with the Bydgoszcz stage. At the invitation of Polish émigré communities, she spent 1924-1926 in the United States, offering poetry readings and organizing amateur theatre productions and concerts. In 1926 she opened the Studio, a private acting and recitation school in Chicago. Yet she did not remain abroad for long and soon returned to Poland. In 1927-1929 she was a member of the ensemble in Lviv, where Teofil Trzciński had assumed the helm. During the 1930/1931 season she managed the Popular Theatre in Poznan, an institution she herself founded. Assembling a half amateur ensemble, she began presenting productions in a space that was given a modern makeover. Żeromski's Ponad śnieg... / Whiter Than Snow... (1930) was among the plays she produced, but the theatre shortly went bankrupt. From 1932 and 1935, while Wilam Horzyca remained director of the Theatre in Lviv, her employment situation was stable and she was very well compensated. In 1935 she became a member of the ensemble at the Polish Theatre in Katowice, where she remained until the outbreak of World War II. In the first years of the war (1939-1941), she continued to appear on stage at the Polish Dramatic Theatre in Lviv.
Siemaszkowa created far fewer new characters in the interwar years. She was still seen as an excellent actress, best above all in character and comedic roles, though she also was successful at times in the classics. She was excellent as Mammea in Zygmunt Krasiński's Irydion / Iridion (Lviv, 1928), Mrs. Rollinson in Dziady / Forefathers' Eve (Bydgoszcz, 1921) and Dziadówka in Rostworowski's Miłosierdzie / Mercy (Lviv, 1928). At Juliusz Osterwa's Reduta Theatre she was an extremely successful Rudomska in Zeromski's Ponad śnieg (1919). She also played Eugenia in Ferenc Molnar's Olympia (Lviv, 1932) and Josephine in Hicks' and Duckes' Stare wino / Aged Wine (Katowice, 1935). Her most famous performance, however, was that of a proud Jewish mother, the title role in Jakub Gordin's Mirla Efros (Warsaw, Elisium Theatre, 1929).
For two seasons after the war (1945-1947) Siemaszkowa managed the Rzeszow Regional Theatre, directing and appearing in a number of productions. She put together a young, committed acting ensemble and devised an ambitious repertoire that included Słowacki's Balladyna (1945) and Mary Stuart (1946), and Ibsen's A Doll's House (1946). She appeared on stage for the final time in Rzeszow in 1946, portraying Mrs. Tabret in William Somerset-Maugham's The Sacred Flame. Since 1947, the theatre in Rzeszow has born this exceptional artist's name.
Autor: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, November 2006