Helena Modjeska

Helena Modjeska

Infobox actor
name = Helena Modjeska

imagesize = 150px
caption = Helena Modrzejewska as Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Austrian Poland, 1867.
birthname = Helena Opid
birthdate = birth date|1840|10|12|mf=y
birthplace = Free City of Kraków
deathdate = death date and age|1909|4|8|1840|10|12|mf=y
deathplace = Newport Beach, California, United States
spouse = Gustav Modrzejewski
Count Karol Bozenta Chłapowski

Helena Modjeska (aka Helena Modrzejewska, "Mod-zhe-"yev"-ska"; "modrzew" = "larch"), born Helena Opid in the Free City of Kraków on October 12, 1840, was a renowned Polish actress who specialized in Shakespearean roles. She died on April 8, 1909, aged 68, in California.

She was the mother of Ralph Modjeski, and godmother to Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, son of Stanisław Witkiewicz (the elder Witkiewicz almost accompanied her and her family to California in 1876).

Early life

Modjeska's father, Michał Opid, was a musician, and her tastes soon declared themselves strongly in favor of a dramatic career. In 1861 she married her guardian, Gustaw Modrzejewski, who helped her get started in the theater.

In 1868 Gustaw Modrzejewski died. Modrzejewska married Count Karol Bozenta Chłapowski, a politician and critic, and received an invitation to act at Warsaw, in Russian Poland, where she remained for seven years. She kept the normal, grammatically-feminine form of her first husband's surname. She would later, when acting abroad, use an "anglicized" version of her name ("Modjeska"), easier for English-speaking audiences to pronounce. [ [http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article-9330293 Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] at www.britannica.com] ).

In 1876 Modjeska emigrated to southern California with her husband and son and several friends, including Julian Sypniewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz, future author of "Quo Vadis". There they founded a utopian Polish colony on a ranch that Modjeska and her husband bought near Anaheim (future home of Disneyland).

It was in this period that Sienkiewicz wrote his "Charcoal Sketches" ("Szkice węglem"). The utopian experiment failed, the colonists went their separate ways, and Modrzejewska returned to the stage, reprising Shakespearean roles that she had acted in Poland. Perhaps the best account of daily life on the ranch was Theodore Payne's memoir, "Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties ".


In 1877 Modjeska appeared in San Francisco in an English version of Ernest Legouvé's "Adrienne Lecouvreur" and also made her New York debut. Despite her imperfect command of English, she achieved remarkable success.

During her career she played nine Shakespearean heroines, Marguerite Gautier in "Camille", and Schiller's "Maria Stuart". In 1883, the year she obtained American citizenship, she produced Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" in Louisville, Kentucky, the first Ibsen play staged in the United States. In the 1880s and 1890s she had a reputation as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage.

In 1893 Modjeska was invited to speak to a women's conference at the Chicago World's Fair, and described the situation of Polish women in the Russian- and Prussian-ruled parts of dismembered Poland. This led to a Tsarist ban on her traveling in Russian territory.

She last visited Poland in 1902/1903. During her stay, from October 31, 1902, to April 28, 1903, she appeared on the stage in Lwów, Poznań and her native Kraków.

On May 2, 1905, she gave a jubilee performance in New York City. Then she toured for two years and ended her acting career, afterward only appearing sporadically in support of charitable causes.

Modjeska died at Newport Beach, California on April 8, 1909, aged 68, from undisclosed causes. Her remains were sent to Kraków to be buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery. A book by her, "Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska", appeared posthumously in 1910. A Polish translation ran that same year in the Kraków newspaper, "Czas" (Time). The last Polish edition of the book appeared in 1957.

Modrzejewska's son, Rudolf Modrzejewski (Ralph Modjeski), became famous as a designer of bridges. Fact|date=November 2007


Modjeska's home from 1888 to 1906, "Arden", is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Named for her are:
* Modjeska, California
* Modjeska Canyon, California (where Arden is located)
* Modjeska Peak (the north peak of Saddleback Mountain).
* Modjeskas, a caramel-covered marshmallow confection invented by Schimpff's Confectionery in her honor when she visited Louisville, Kentucky.


Modjeska's chief tragic roles were:
* William Shakespeare::* Ophelia, in "Hamlet";:* Juliet, in "Romeo and Juliet";:* Desdemona, in "Othello"; and:* Queen Anne, in "Richard III".
* Nora, in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House".
* Louisa Miller.
* Friedrich Schiller's "Maria Stuart".
* Friedrich Schiller's "Princess Eboli".
* Marion Delorme, in Victor Hugo's "Marion Delorme".
* Victor Hugo's "Tisbé".
* Juliusz Slowacki's "Mazeppa".

Modrzejewska was also the Polish interpreter of the most prominent plays by Ernest Legouvé, Alexandre Dumas, père and fils, Émile Augier, Alfred de Musset, Octave Feuillet and Victorien Sardou.

Popular culture

Susan Sontag's 1999 novel, "In America", won the National Book Award in 2000. Although fiction, it is based on Modrzejewska's life story, including her 1876 emigration to California, and her ascendance to American theatrical fame. Sontag was accused of plagarizing passages of her book. [Carvajal, Doreen (May 27, 2002) [http://partners.nytimes.com/library/books/052700sontag-america.html "So Whose Words Are They? Susan Sontag Creates a Stir."] "New York Times Book Review."]


* Mabel Collins, "The Story of Helena Modjeska", London, 1883.
* Helena Modjeska, "Memories and Impressions", New York, 1910.
* cite news
title=Susan Sontag, Social Critic With Verve, Dies at 71
date=December 28, 2004
work=New York Times

External links

* [http://www.canyonlife.com/docent1.htm Biography of Madame Helena Modjeska]
* [http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf0489n6gt Guide to the Helena Modjeska Collection.] Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
* [http://www.ocparks.com/modjeskahouse/ Modjeska Home website]


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