Helena Modjeska – biography
Helena Jadwiga was born on 12 October 1840 in Krakow. Having adopted the stage pseudonym Modrzejewska, she began her acting career in a traveling ensemble led by Konstanty Lobojka and Gustaw Zimajer, the father of her two children, Rudolf and Marylka. In the 1862–1863 season, she performed in Lviv, and from 1865 to 1869 in the Krakow theatre. In 1868 she performed for the first time in Warsaw in the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. She worked for Warsaw Theatre Directorate for several years and it was here that she developed her high social and artistic position.
In 1868 Modjeska married a Polish aristocrat, Karol Chłapowski. Together with her husband, her son and a small group of friends, including the future Nobel Prize winner, Henryk Sienkiewicz, she moved to Southern California (USA) in 1876. They settled on a ranch in Anaheim, in the Santa Ana Mountains.
In 1877 she took a simplified form of her name – Modjeska – and performed for the first time at the California Theatre in the English version of Adrienne Lecouvreur. She was an incredible success. Madame continued to perform mainly in America, but also in Poland and England. Together with her theatre group, she went on 26 tours, each lasting many months. In 1883, she obtained American citizenship.
Modjeska was acclaimed the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage of that period (Ophelia in Hamlet, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Desdemona in Othello, Viola in The Twelth Night, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth). She also gained recognition for her roles in the plays of Henrik Ibsen (Nora in A Doll's House), Stanisław Wyspiański (Maria in Varsovian Anthem, Laodamia in Protesilas and Laodamia), Friedrich Schiller (Maria Stuart), Alexander Dumas fils (The Lady of the Camellias). Her repertoire consisted of 260 roles, some of them in both Polish and English.
Modjeska often supported charitable, cultural and political initiatives in Poland and in America. In 1893, she was invited to participate in the Women's Congress during the World Exhibition in Chicago, where she gave a lecture on the situation of women in Poland. After this speech, she was banned from Russian territory.
In May 1905, the farewell performance of Helena Modjeska took place. She died on 9 April 1909, on Bay Island, Newport Beach, near Los Angeles. Her remains were transported to Krakow and buried in the Rakowicki Cemetery. After her death, one of the peaks of the Santa Ana Mountains was named Modjeska Peak in her honour. The part of the Santiago Canyon where Modjeska lived with her husband is now called Modjeska Canyon. Their house was entered in The National Register of Historic Places.
The autobiographical Memoirs and Impressions of Helena Modjeska were published posthumously in 1910. Their Polish translation was published in the same year in "Czas" newspaper in Krakow.