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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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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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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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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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