Helena Modjeska, a shining Polish-American star

Born on October 12, 1840, in Kraków, Helena Modjeska was a shining star in two theatrical worlds that were very far apart. After becoming a leading lady in Warsaw, where she learned and performed Shakespeare primarily in German, Modjeska moved with her husband to a Utopian agricultural community in Anaheim, California. She then embarked on a second career as a widely recognized actress who toured large and small theaters throughout the United States and in London. Today, Modjeska is also remembered for a delicious candy that was named the Modjeska in her honor.

Byron Company, New York. Detail from a photograph of King John, starring Madame Modjeska and Elita Proctor Otis. After 1900.

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Modjeska was among the many topics included in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, a Folger exhibition at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The exhibition’s co-curator Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the English Department at UCLA, shared some of his thoughts on her story—and what he had been surprised to learn about Modjeska as he prepared the exhibition—with Barbara Bogaev in our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode Shakespeare in California.

STEPHEN DICKEY: Modjeska was a very well-established and highly regarded Polish actress who did Shakespeare, mainly in German, which was the language she learned Shakespeare in, but also in Polish. In the 19th century it was not unheard of to conceive of a Utopian community. Modjeska and her husband purchased—well, resettled—in Anaheim, and they were looking for a place to set up their vision. Her husband and the people who came with them, realized that not one of them could milk a cow or plant a crop successfully—

BARBARA BOGAEV: I love this. This happened over and over again in California. The people that would establish these Utopian communes—

DICKEY: Over and over again. It happened in New England, as well—

BOGAEV: And New England, right, and then it turns out no one knows how to do anything. They’re all artists.

DICKEY: Well, I think the secret is, on some level they must already intuitively know that. If you’re setting up a “Utopian” community, you are literally “nowhere.” So, it’s not going to happen. The interesting aspect of it is, what happens when, as you know it must, it doesn’t work?

And happily, in this case, the result is that Modjeska just had to go back to work. She was basically bankrolling it. Her husband seemed to not be contributing much in the way of finance to this. So, she went back to work. She worked very hard on improving her accent, and she is very well known for Rosalind in As You Like It, basically all the Shakespeare heroines, Cleopatra, and Ophelia. So, it’s all right here.

What was a revelation to me—I certainly was aware of her name and career—was that her fame was extraordinary among Americans. She toured all over America, just as Booth did, and when she died in 1909, the first of many memorial services for her was held in Los Angeles, downtown at Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral—and the city apparently, more or less, came to a standstill, in 1909 downtown LA. And so, she was part of the migration of Shakespeare into the US. It comes in waves and waves through all kinds of cultures, as America opens up to all kinds of cultures.

Above: Helena Modjeska in a variety of theatrical roles, including Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Rosalind in As You Like It

To celebrate Modjeska’s birthday week, you may want to look for an opportunity to sample a Modjeska candy, or explore the range of Modjeska-related items in the Folger collection. These include a wealth of theatrical photographs like the sampling of images above, many of which are autographed. Surely the most spectacular Modjeska item in the Folger collection, however, is the Cleopatra snake girdle, part of the Folger’s extensive holding of stage costumes. As its catalogue entry explains, this gorgeous object, made in Paris in the late 1800s or early 1900s and worn by Modjeska as Cleopatra, is a “flexible woven gold girdle in the form of a serpent with a jeweled head. Hook under the head allows it to be attached to a bodice. Hidden clasp allows it to be placed around the waist. Can be coiled up for ease of storage and display.”

Cleopatra snake girdle worn by Madame Modjeska. Gold with jewels, made in Paris, late 19th or early 20th century.

Helena Modjeska is discussed in our blog post America’s Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to California’s gold mining camps, which also describes performances in the American West by Edwin Booth—one of the best-known male stars of 19th-century American theater, a famed Hamlet, and the older brother of John Wilkes Booth.

Modjeska’s book Memories and Impressions, which was published in 1910, a year after her death, is filled with vivid theatrical anecdotes, ranging from gritty and funny to melodramatic. One of her simplest stories, though, is a recollection of acting with Edwin Booth on tour:

E.B. played Hamlet beautifully. I watched behind the scenes, and was deeply impressed. This put me on my mettle, and I played Ophelia better than usual. The pale face of Mrs. E., who recently lost her father, followed me through the play. A strange tenderness took possession of me when I sang, ‘White his shroud as a mountain snow,’ and tears came to my eyes because I felt her watching me from her box…

The next day was Sunday. The birds woke me up. It was a glorious morning. I dressed and went out with Charles. There was something solemn and yet sweet and touching in this awakening of a spring day. We felt so happy that we wanted to embrace each other in the street.