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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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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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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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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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