The Polish Cultural Institute in New York commemorates Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska) – American theater icon, utopian pioneer, national celebrity and woman ahead of her time – on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her death
The Polish Cultural Institute
commemorates Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska)
- an iconic Polish-American Shakespearean actress of the 19th century - on the occasion of the centennial of her death.
Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska, 1880,
oil on canvasFrom humble origins, Modjeska became a dominant force in Polish theater and a star of Warsaw high society. For reasons both political and personal she left Poland together with her aristocrat husband and founded a utopian community in California. The immigrant actress was considered by many American critics to be the best American female Shakespearean of her generation, a one-woman theatrical institution comparable only to the great Edwin Booth in her achievements. Truly a woman ahead of her time, her fame and impact extended well beyond her status as a Shakespearean actress. Susan Sontag's award-winning 1999 novel, In America is based on Modjeska's extraordinary life.
On April 5, 2009, the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Helena Modjeska at St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Church, the oldest Polish Roman-Catholic parish in Manhattan, took place. Ralph Modjeski, Helena's son and a famous American civil engineer and bridge builder, was married here in 1886. And on July 2, 1909, Modjeska's funeral mass took place in this church, after which her remains were taken by ship to Poland.
On April 8, 100 years to the day after Modjeska's death, distinguished scholars and Modjeska biographers will discuss her life and work at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, in a conversation moderated by Prof. Daniel Gerould, the Center's director. Prof. Andrzej Żurowski, a leading Polish Shakespeare scholar, and Prof. Beth Holmgren of Duke University will explore Modjeska's life from contrasting theater-historical and feminist perspectives. The discussion will be accompanied by the trailer for a forthcoming documentary on Modjeska. The evening is co-presented with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.
Unveiling of the Helena Modjeska Memorial Plaque April 5, 2009 - St. Stanislaus Church, East Village, 101 East 7th Street, NYC
"Helena Modjeska (Poland/US): Commemorating a 19th Century American Theatre Icon" April 8, 6.30-8.00 PM - Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street)
Detailed information could be found on pages www.polishculture-nyc.org.
Helena Modjeska (known in Poland as Helena Modrzejewska) was born in Krakow in 1840, the illegitimate daughter of a widowed mother, Józefa Bendowa. At a young age she followed her elder half-brothers into acting, was schooled and coached by a lover who fathered her son and gave her her theatrical surname, and launched her career as the star of a small-town theater group. At the age of 25, when that career dead-ended, Modrzejewska fled with her young son back to Krakow, where she reinvented herself and soon became a star of the Krakow theater.
Modrzejewska's career was further aided by her marriage in 1868 to the nobleman Karol Bozenta Chłapowski, who was a theater lover, veteran of the unsuccessful January 1863 uprising against the Czar, and editor of a liberal-nationalist newspaper. Following a series of premieres at the finest stage in Russian-occupied Poland, The Warsaw Imperial Theater, Modrzejewska came to dominate Warsaw theater life for the better part of a decade, promoting ambitious productions of Shakespeare, Schiller, and Słowacki, and hosting a literary-artistic salon. Modrzejewska's star status made her a symbolically charged figure in the life of the nation − which at the time had been partitioned and occupied for almost a century. Once, during an encore, a group of high school students presented her with a bouquet of flowers tied with a red-and-white ribbon, Poland's national colors. They were accused by the Russian authorities of conducting a patriotic demonstration and were banned from attending school. One of the pupils subsequently shot himself and Modrzejewska attended the politically fraught funeral.
Despite an unprecedented lifetime contract with the Warsaw Imperial Theater, Modrzejewska decided to leave Poland in 1876 for reasons both personal and political. The Warsaw cultural scene was becoming increasingly restrictive, and she had an abiding desire to perform her favorite playwright, Shakespeare, on a world-class stage, in English. Hoping to use America as a springboard to England, Modrzejewska set out for California with a small "colonial party" that included her husband, her son, and an admirer - the author, Henryk Sienkiewicz, who would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. They attempted a short-lived experiment in communal living, modeled after Brook Farm, in Anaheim. The Polish star later moved to San Francisco, where, after months of practicing her English pronunciation, she successfully debuted under her newly Americanized stage name, Helena Modjeska, at the California Theater on August 20th, 1877.
In her first years on the American road, given American popular taste and her heavily accented English, Modjeska relied on "weeping Magdalene" melodramas such as Adrienne Lecouvreur and Camille to fill houses. The fourteen years between 1882 and 1896 constituted her most spectacular and successful period on the American stage, when she was able to produce, star, and win popular and critical acclaim for her work in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, and Merchant of Venice, as well as other, contemporary plays. Many Americans considered the Polish Modjeska to be the best American female Shakespearean of her generation - a one-woman theatrical institution comparable only to the great Edwin Booth, whom she starred opposite in productions of Macbeth and Othello. For thirty years, Modjeska toured the United States as a major star, crisscrossing the nation by railroad with theater troupes named after her, playing a repertoire she had chosen herself, following her own artistic vision, and financially dependent only on her own drawing power.
Modjeska easily assumed the role of professional reformer, delivering lectures and publishing articles to promote the development of an American national theater and to argue for the nobility of the actress's vocation. During the World's Congress of Representative Women held in Chicago in 1893, Modjeska spoke critically about the situation of women in the Russian and Prussian partitions of Poland, after which the Russian Czar declared her persona non grata in the Russian Empire. In the U.S., she was honored as a "first citizen" of Orange County, California, where she and Chłapowski spent many off-seasons. Following Modjeska's death on April 8, 1909, her memorial service in Los Angeles - the first in a traveling series of services nationwide - attracted over 4,000 Angelenos, a tribute to her local reputation and national celebrity. Three months later, on July 2, 1909, Americans paid their last respects to her one last time in St. Stanislaus Church in New York, after which her remains were taken by ship to Poland. On July 17, 1909 in Krakow, following eulogies by various Polish luminaries, an enormous crowd accompanied Modjeska's casket through the city's streets to her final resting place in Rakowicki Cemetery.
Helena Modjeska was godmother to both American actress Ethel Barrymore and Polish artist-author-philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy). Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published posthumously in 1910. "Arden," the actress's home from 1886 to 1906, designed for her by Stanford White in what is now Modjeska, CA, is a registered National Historic Landmark. Apart from the town, Modjeska Canyon and Modjeska Peak, both in Orange County, California, are named after her.
Information provided by The Polish Cultural Institute in New York