HELENA MODJESKA SOCIETY

Helena Modjeska - biography

Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska), born Helena Opid in Krakow, Poland. October 12, 1840 - died April 8, 1909 in Newport Beach, California) was renowned Polish actress Polish actress who specialized in Shakespearean roles and became the most famous American actress of the 19th century.

As young girl she dreamed of going to the stage. In the summer of 1861 she appeared in the part of Hortensia (The White Camelia) in an amateur performance in Bochnia. She worked four seasons in the theatre in Krakow (1865-1869) and was increasingly successful on the stage and in high society. In 1868 Modrzejewska married Count Karol Bozetna Chlapowski, a politician and critic and received an invitation to act in Warsaw, in Russian Poland, where she remained for seven years.

In 1876 Modjeska immigrated to Southern California with her husband and son) Ralph Modjeski who later became the most famous bridge designing engineer) and several friends, including Henryk Sienkiewicz, future author of "Quo Vadis". There they founded an utopian Polish colony on a ranch that Modjeska and her husband bought near Anaheim. The experiment failed and Helena Modjeska returned to the stage, acting in Shakespearean roles known to her from Poland.

In 1877 Modjeska appeared in San Francisco in an English version of Ernest Legouve's Adrienne Lecouvreur and also made her New York debut. Despite her imperfect knowledge of English language, she rose to fame and achieved the most remarkable success. During her career she played numerous Shakespearean heroines, Margueritte Gautier in Camille and Schiller's Mary Stuart. In 1883, the year she took out 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.

"I grew up mostly under the influence of Nature, among the incidents of life and national calamities, free, unrestrained, forming my own judgment of things blindly, innocently, adoring and magnifying them with my vivid imagination. Catching eagerly snatches of heroic songs, poems, or religious hymns, memorizing and repeating them, and thus unconsciously building up my character as well as laying the foundation for my artistic future. Talent is born with us, but the influence of surroundings shapes, develops or subdues it".

— Helena Modjeska