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4 A Colonial Party and the California Dream

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Modrzejewska traveled without her phalanstery in July 1876, but she greatly relished her leisure time, distance from the Polish stage, and the sea’s hypnotizing Romantic landscape. Her transatlantic diary is happily self-indulgent:

Is there no regret for my country left in me? Or is it that the ocean, with its immortal beauty, has filled my soul to the very brim, leaving no room for anything else? I do not care to analyze the present state of my mind; I only know it is made of happiness and peace. My soul, lulled by that strange nurse, is dreaming. What are these dreams? Ah, there are no words in human language to express them. The thoughts are as unseizable as birds in their flight, like clouds which scarcely take shape ere they change into mist and melt away. This is bliss! A sharp and fragrant air strokes my brow: I take it in with full lungs—I nearly faint away under its caressing breath, drawing from it strength and health.1

Modrzejewska’s passage to America did not transform her into the poet or playwright she sometimes desired to be, but it made of her an inveterate letter writer to ever more distant family and friends. The actress had to transfer her performance to paper and to play the right roles before various correspondents. Her 13 August 1876 letter to Witkiewicz, written from New York after they had toured the city and visited Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, obliged the painter and critic with local snapshots and acerbic judgments. “New York,” she declared, “is a monstrous, untidy bazaar. The buildings are large, but without style. Brick or chocolate houses (the latter called here brownstone), with green window-shades, look simply awful. The whole city is as ugly as can be. But what makes the streets look still more unattractive are the soles of men’s boots in the windows. Imagine that men have here the singular custom of sitting in rocking-chairs and putting their feet up on the window sills.”2 With the same audience awareness, Modrzejewska conjured up lush pictures of jungle flora for the old Romantic poet Kornel Ujejski as her party traveled across Panama, evoking for him a “living bower of lianas” fit for a water nymph, a “wreath of blue butterflies circling the shore,” and a black woman resembling a bronze Greek sculpture in her beauty and dignity.3

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2 The Making of a Polish Actress

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

The Poland of Modrzejewska’s youth was politically turbulent and socially stultifying, possessed of an inspiring past and mired in a present of poverty and oppression. The Polish empire had flourished for centuries under the Jagiellonian dynasty (1385–1569) and as the Republic of Poland-Lithuania (1569–1795), boasting prosperous cities, a powerful army, major achievements in the arts and sciences, and a Statute of General Toleration guaranteeing safe haven for Jews, Muslims, and Protestants as well as Catholics. By the eighteenth century, however, the Republic’s wars against the Russians, Swedes, and Prussians had emptied the state’s coffers, and its landed aristocrats further weakened the state’s infrastructure by diverting their fortunes into their own estates. In 1795, the armies of Prussia, Russia, and Austria finally wiped the Republic off the European map, dividing its lands into three occupied partitions. The Russian partition claimed the capital Warsaw, while the Austrian partition, also known as Galicia, included the city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) and Poland’s historic capital of Kraków.

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5 On the American Road

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

After her California debut, Modjeska’s hybrid identity as earnest settler and classy import rendered her an unusual sort of touring star. In fact, Modjeska began her American career as a recently arrived foreigner who could barely manage a simple conversation in English. She might easily have been dismissed as a single-season sensation or relegated to the ethnic margins of American culture. Yet Modjeska resisted performing anywhere but on America’s English-language stage, unlike her closest immigrant counterpart, the German-speaking Czech actress Fanny Janauschek. Janauschek first made her name in German-language theater in the United States and only shifted to English-language performance late in her career, on the strong advice of her new manager Augustin Daly.1 Modjeska would not duplicate Janauschek’s slow progress into the mainstream. The America she entered in the late 1870s disdained the increasing numbers of Polish immigrants as distinctly lower class, as one of the new ethnicities expressly needing Anglo-Saxon cultivation. Polish-language theater in America was a modest and very localized affair in the late nineteenth century, a ghettoized circuit.

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8 Farewell Tour

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

After her feat of mastering three new parts for the Kraków stage in 1903, Modjeska’s final years in America marked a period of fitful artistic decline. With the help of influential friends and her husband’s willingness to abandon his ranching schemes, she mainly worked her family out of debt, selling Arden and enduring the hard farewell tours that her 1905 benefit had generated. Her truly final 1906–1907 season on the American road told on her already fragile health. Modjeska admitted falling asleep during a rehearsal “to the great amazement of our director” and reckoned that her pitiable state at last moved manager Jules Murry to arrange for her customary travel by a private car, a dreary conveyance named “The Sunbeam.”1 She knew her waning star had demoted her to an awful circuit; in one letter she listed her return address as “some dump where Murry ‘is peddling’ Shakespeare and me.”2 Aging and ailing, the star could no longer summon the prerequisite physical control and mental acuity to impress audiences from the stage, although she attracted nostalgic, forgiving fans, among them many of her critics.

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3 Warsaw’s State of the Stars

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Helena Modrzejewska’s conquest of Warsaw by theatrical debut in 1868 was a major event in Polish culture, the commencement of what theater historians demarcate as the “epoch of the stars.”1 In her memoirs, Modjeska reconstructs her debut as its own drama, primed by antagonism and intrigue, tightly focused on a single performance, and concluding, of course, with her unadulterated triumph. But her conquest of Warsaw sooner resembled a political campaign. Modrzejewska strategized this next move with an eye to consummate, rather than contingent, theatrical glory. Guided by a close adviser, she plotted her campaign with ambition, agility, and media savvy, and delivered masterly performances over the course of several months under intense public scrutiny. She stepped literally into the national spotlight. During the long period of partitioned Poland (1795–1918) the Warsaw Imperial Theatres constituted an obsessively watched showcase of the nation. Conquering the Warsaw stage won Modrzejewska indelible stardom in Polish history as well as the heady, lucrative worship of theater-crazy Varsovians.

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