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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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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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7 The Polish Modjeska

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Memories and Impressions begins not with Modjeska’s journey to America, but her 1890 return visit to Kraków when she was accompanied by “Miss L. B. F.” (Lu Freeman), an exuberant young American friend. The actress opens her life story with the sentimental joy of repatriation rather than the thrill of embarking for the New World. As she exits the train in Kraków and is embraced by her friends, Modjeska feels herself to be completely at home: “Faces not seen for years, faithful eyes and friendly, smiling lips, shaking of hands, words of hearty welcome,—all this fills me with joy, warms me, intoxicates me. The lapse of years spent far away from the country shrinks into nothingness; I am again with my own people as of old, and they are the same, unchanged and true! I am happy!”1

This preface, “written some years ago,” attests to Modjeska’s profound and abiding attachment to her native land. After decades performing before the American public, she reminds her readers first of her Polish roots and always parallel Polish stardom, maintained by cherished returns which shrink the years away “into nothingness.” The presence of the appreciative Miss L. B. F. explicitly obliges Modjeska to serve as local guide and interpreter. She enjoys introducing her American friend to her private Kraków—the Virgin Mary statue in which she confided as a child, the location of the house in which she was born—as well as such magnificent Polish monuments as St. Mary’s Church and the Wawel Castle, once the residence and burial place of Polish kings. Her role as guide expands as her readers accompany the reminiscing star to each of the partitions: the beautiful hills and small towns of Galicia, the Chłapowski family’s ancestral lands in the Prussian partition, the bustling metropolis of Russian-occupied Warsaw. One of her chief reasons in undertaking this publication “was the desire to acquaint the world with the great names of her homeland,” as Chłapowski explains to Gilder after her death, entreating him to retain those daunting Polish surnames in the text.2

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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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1 Debut

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

On 20 August 1877, in San Francisco’s California Theatre, an obscure foreign actress performed the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a drama by the popular French playwrights Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. For San Francisco’s many avid theatergoers, the venue, supporting company, and play promised a fine evening’s entertainment. After the 1859 Silver Rush “rebuilt” the city in style, the California Theatre, like the nearby Palace Hotel, stood as a sumptuous example of San Francisco’s prosperity and keen pursuit of public recreation.1 As recalled by historian Constance Rourke, the California “seemed designed both for the cultivation of the actors and the pleasures of the audience,” boasting an expansive lobby, comfortable dressing rooms with good soundproofing, and a stage curtain “covered with Spanish scenes and vignettes of early mining days.”2 A contemporary visitor, Guillermo Prieto, admired its superb stage framed by “a vast arch resting on heavy pillars” and equipped with scenery “run in both sides with great speed on rails along the floor.”3 The California’s “powerful and expert stock company” was formed under the talented leadership of actor-managers John McCullough and Lawrence Barrett and furnished knowledgeable, if not always appropriately subordinate, support for visiting stars.4

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Epilogue: Finding Modjeska Today

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

For those of us intrigued by the biography of Modjeska, a long-dead stage actress, the American memorial trail is at best elusive. We have no recordings to thrill us with a living voice, no filmed performances or home movies to scrutinize and replay. Americans were the intended audience for Modjeska’s Memories and Impressions, and Gilder’s publishing house produced for his dear old friend a lavish edition, complete with state-of-the-art reproductions of her photos. But we possess very few translations of her copious correspondence and no reprint of the many letters she wrote in English, in which her opinions are sharper, her style livelier, and her self-image less carefully composed. Nor can we visit Modjeska’s grave on this side of the ocean to commemorate the anniversaries of her death.

In contrast, the Poles have become practiced keepers of her flame, successful in large part because they had less territory to cover and more national impetus to invest in her memory. The relatively small area of Kraków’s Old City, Modrzejewska’s first world, encompasses a much-abridged, somewhat meandering walking tour of her life, provided one knows the landmarks beforehand. A crudely carved plaque marks the site, if not the actual building, of Modrzejewska’s birthplace on Dominican Square.1 Kraków’s Old Theatre, now named after the actress, still stands on Jagielloska Street, just the other side of the city’s main square. Here Modrzejewska dueled with Hoffmann and performed opposite her beloved brother Feliks. The Theatre Museum, on the corner of Szpitalna and St. Mark, offers the richest immersion in Modrzejewska artifacts, featuring a permanent exhibit of costumes, photographs, paintings, photographs, trinkets, and everyday objects such as the star’s ashtray shaped like a lizard, her tiny deck of playing cards, and a device for stretching her gloves.2

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6 The Roles of Madame Modjeska

Beth Holmgren Indiana University Press ePub

Because she sought to make her mark above all as an artist rather than as a director or a master teacher, the question of Modjeska’s lasting professional legacy remains problematic. In spite of her complaints about life on the road, Modjeska seemed primarily disposed to shine onstage. Nothing inspired her more than the prospect of an excellent new part or a starring role in a play that she might redeem through her interpretation and design. In Warsaw, she confessed envy of Rapacki’s achievement as a playwright, but in America, she mainly preoccupied herself with finding promising new plays to produce. Toward the end of her American career, Modjeska seemed sanguine about the value of her ephemeral art. When a reporter for the New York Times asked her in 1899 if “the work of the stage” was less satisfying than that of a painter or a sculptor, creators of lasting art, the actress’s response was thoughtfully positive rather than self-deprecating: “ ‘No,’ Madame Modjeska answered, ‘you do not have anything to show, but you know what you have done.’”1

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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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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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