23 February 2012

Helena Modjeska



Helena Modjeska (October 12, 1840 – April 8, 1909, whose actual Polish surname was Modrzejewska , was a renowned actress who specialized in Shakespearean and tragic roles. She was born in Kraków, Poland, on October 12, 1840. Her name was recorded at birth as Jadwiga Benda, but she was later baptized Helena Opid, being given her godfather’s surname.



The question of her origins is a complicated one. Modjeska’s mother was Józefa (Misel) Benda, the widow of a prosperous Kraków merchant, Szymon Benda. In her autobiography, Modjeska claimed that her father was a musician named Michael Opid. While it is true that the Benda family did employ a music teacher named Michal Opid, who later stood as Helena’s godfather, Opid was not the father of Józefa Benda’s two youngest children. There is evidence to suggest that Helena and her older brother Adolf were the results of an affair between Józefa and Prince Władysław Sanguszko, a wealthy and influential Polish nobleman.



Also glossed over in Modjeska's autobiography were the details concerning her first marriage, to her former guardian, Gustave Sinnmayer (known in Poland as Gustaw Zimajer). Gustave was an actor and the director of a second-rate provincial theater troupe. The date of Modjeska’s marriage to Gustave is uncertain. She discovered many years later that they had never been legally married, as he was still married to his first wife when they wed. Together the couple had two children, a son Rudolf (later renamed Ralph Modjeski), and a daughter Marylka, who died in infancy.



Gustaw Zimajer used the stage name "Gustaw Modrzejewski." It was the feminine version of this name that Modjeska adopted when she made her stage debut in 1861 as Helena Modrzejewska. Later, when acting abroad, she used an "anglicized" version of her name ("Modjeska"), which was easier for English-speaking audiences to pronounce. In 1865, Zimajer tried to get her a contract with Viennese theaters, but the plan came to naught due to her poor knowledge of the German language. Later that year Helena left Zimajer, taking their son Rudolf, and returning to Kraków. Once there she accepted a four-year theatrical engagement. In 1868 she began appearing in Warsaw; during her eight years there, she consolidated her status as a theater star. Her brothers Józef and Feliks Benda were also well regarded actors in Poland.



On September 12, 1868, Modjeska married a Polish nobleman, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski. Best known in America as "Count Bozenta," he was not a count. His family belonged to the untitled landed gentry (szlachta). In the United States he adopted the stage name "Count Bozenta" as a ploy to gain publicity. "Bozenta" was easier for an English-speaking audience to pronounce than "Chłapowski". Modjeska wrote that their home "became the center of the artistic and literary world [of Kraków]." Poets, authors, politicians, artists, composers and other actors frequented Modjeska’s salon. In July 1876, after spending more than a decade as the reigning diva of the Polish national theater, for reasons both personal and political, Modjeska and her husband chose to emigrate to the United States.

My husband's only desire was to take me away from my surroundings and give me perfect rest from my work...Our friends used to talk about the new country, the new life, new scenery, and the possibility of settling down somewhere in the land of freedom, away from the daily vexations to which each Pole was exposed in Russian or Prussian Poland. Henryk Sienkiewicz was the first to advocate emigration. Little by little others followed him, and soon five of them expressed the desire to seek adventures in the jungles of the virgin land. My husband, seeing the eagerness of the young men, conceived the idea of forming a colony in California on the model of the Brook Farm. The project was received with acclamation.

Once in America, Modjeska and her husband purchased a ranch near Anaheim, California. Julian Sypniewski, Łucjan Paprowski and Henryk Sienkiewicz, future author of famous novels including Quo Vadis, were among the friends who had accompanied them to California. Modjeska intended to abandon her career and envisioned herself living "a life of toil under the blue skies of California, among the hills, riding on horseback with a gun over my shoulder." The reality proved less cinematic. None of the colonists knew the first thing about ranching or farming, and they could barely speak English. The utopian experiment failed, the colonists went their separate ways, and Modjeska returned to the stage, reprising the Shakespearean roles that she had performed in Poland.


as Ophelia

Despite her accent and imperfect command of English, she achieved great 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.


as Sapho

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. Modjeska suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed in 1897, but recovered and soon returned to the stage, continuing to perform for several additional years. 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 Bright's disease. Modrzejewska's son, Rudolf Modrzejewski (Ralph Modjeski), was a civil engineer who gained fame as a designer of bridges. Modjeska was also the aunt of artist Władysław T. Benda and she was godmother to American actress Ethel Barrymore.

source: Wikipedia


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