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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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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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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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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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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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