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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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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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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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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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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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