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Starring Madame Modjeska

On Tour in Poland and America

Beth Holmgren

Publication Year: 2011

In 1876, Poland's leading actress, Helena Modrzejewska, accompanied by family and friends, emigrated to southern California to establish a utopian commune that soon failed. Within a year Modrzejewska made her debut in the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur at San Francisco's California Theatre. She changed her name to Modjeska and quickly became a leading star on the American stage, where she reigned for the next 30 years. During this time, she established herself as America's most esteemed Shakespearean actress, playing opposite such celebrated actors as Edwin Booth and Maurice Barrymore. Starring Madame Modjeska traces Modjeska's fabulous life and career from her illegitimate birth in Krakow, to her successive reinventions of herself as a star in both Poland and America, and finally to her enduring legacy.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

As I grew more involved with Helena Modjeska’s life and work, I regretted the fact that I could not interview her or spend an hour or two in her presence. But researching and writing this book introduced me to so many other Modjeska enthusiasts and experts that I feel I have been reveling in Modjeska’s circle for years. Modjeska has made my life rich in friendships as well as the...

Timeline of Modjeska's Life and Career

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pp. xiii-xv

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1. Debut

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pp. 1-17

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...

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2. The Making of a Polish Actress

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pp. 18-63

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...

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3. Warsaw's State of the Stars

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pp. 64-115

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...

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4. A Colonial Party and the California Dream

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pp. 116-148

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...

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5. On the American Road

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pp. 149-206

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...

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6. The Roles of Madame Modjeska

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pp. 207-252

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...

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7. The Polish Modjeska

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pp. 253-297

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...

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8. Farewell Tour

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pp. 298-308

After her feat of mastering three new parts for the Kraków stage in 1903, Modjeska’s final years in America marked a period of fitful artistic decline. With the help of influential friends and her husband’s willingness to abandon his ranching schemes, she mainly worked her family out of debt, selling Arden and enduring the hard farewell tours that her 1905 benefit had generated...

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Epilogue: Finding Modjeska Today

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pp. 309-328

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...


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pp. 329-383


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pp. 385-398


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pp. 399-408

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780253005199
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253356642

Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2011