Starring Madame Modjeska:
On Tour in Poland and America
By Beth Holmgren
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012, 408 pp., $39.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Halina Filipowicz
The Polish-born Helena Modrzejewska/Modjeska (1840-1909) appears, if in rather special terms, to be living happily ever after in American culture. When you start looking for her, she seems to be everywhere: gamboling through novels, dramas, and screenplays; beckoning from Arden, her house-turned-museum in Modjeska Canyon in California; commemorated with geographic landmarks; celebrated in suitably triumphalist terms under the banners of local history and Polish-American pride; and relished as a specialty candy, Kentucky “Modjeskas,” named after her and distributed through such national chains as Williams-Sonoma and Cracker Barrel. In Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy (1926), she has a cameo as a queenly actress. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve (1950), she is invoked as a legendary American star. And in Susan Sontag’s National Book Award-winning novel, In America (2000), she features as the immigrant actress Marina Zaleńska, married to a man with homosexual desires and seduced by America’s breathtaking natural beauty and unlimited possibilities. Paradoxically, however, Modjeska is a cultural icon who remains “obscure to the vast majority of [American] readers,” notes Beth Holmgren. Her project in Starring Madame Modjeska is to rescue Modjeska from oblivion.
Holmgren’s starting point is plain: to comprehend Modrzejewska/Modjeska’s remarkable rise to stardom and iconic status as a great Shakespearean actress who won the American public “not as an ethnic artist or a visiting foreign star, but as an Americanized success,” it is vital to understand her binational life and career in their multiple historical, cultural, social, economic, and political contexts. A number of important studies of the actress are available; however, a comprehensive biography is not among them. The American coverage of Modjeska has been rather amateurish, while scholars in Poland, who have written the best studies of the Polish Modrzejewska, underplay her success in the United States on the assumption that nineteenth-century American theater lagged behind its Polish counterpart, and that therefore her talent inevitably declined in the land of big business. In this splendidly readable biography, which seems to get everything right except the fact that, in truth, no “daughters of Poland” have ever been laid to rest in Kraków’s Skałka Sanctuary crypt, Holmgren offers “the first English-language interpretation of the star’s life, from her birth in Kraków to her posthumous legacy in both Poland and the United States.”
Modjeska’s career is still almost unbelievable, even when the ornaments of cultural myth are stripped from it. Like her Polish contemporary, Teodor Józef Konrad Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad, Modjeska spoke English with a foreign accent to the end of her life. And if this weren’t a serious enough impediment to an acting career in the English-speaking world, she also had to overcome her national disadvantage. She took her gamble on America at a time when being Polish was regarded as socially demoting in the United States. One influential American critic went so far as to claim that as a Pole, Modjeska was inherently unable to understand and perform Shakespeare’s characters correctly. And yet she rocketed into fame, money, and prestige. As Holmgren points out, she “eclipsed her American contemporaries as a high-culture actress specializing in Shakespeare, rivaled international touring greats Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry in box office draw and adulatory reviews, and played with such famed actors as Edwin Booth and Maurice Barrymore.”
Modrzejewska started with little. The illegitimate and poorly educated daughter of an impoverished widow, she should have had, at best, a respectable career in provincial theaters. But her birth gave her three attributes. The first two were beauty and talent, and she was extremely good at leveraging those assets, as the phrase goes now. The third was her family connections in the theater world through her half-brothers, all theater professionals. Though her formal education was brief and superficial, her formative years were shaped by her family’s passion for theater. She was launched on her career by a shadowy figure, Gustaw Zimajer, a married man fifteen years her senior who became her tutor, mentor, manager, and lover. (Following Modjeska’s 1910 pseudo-autobiography, Memories and Impressions, Holmgren emphasizes Zimajer’s positive role in the actress’s professional formation, refusing to consider the ruthless sexual exploitation that, according to some accounts, accompanied her early years on the stage.) Whatever the murky circumstances of her theatrical debut, Modrzejewska quickly established herself as the reigning star of the provincial theater circuit. Moving up the professional ladder, she secured an engagement in the Kraków theater and then won a lucrative contract with the Warsaw Imperial Theaters. In Holmgren’s words, “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.’”
In 1876, Modrzejewska broke her contract, leaving Warsaw for California along with her husband, Karol Chłapowski, and a group of friends, to establish a utopian farming community. Though the project was short lived, it gave her enough time to improve her English, to memorize plays in her adopted language, and to secure social connections and professional support. As Holmgren makes clear, the farming experiment was little more than a strategic move by Modjeska to help her realize her artistic and social aspirations to world-class stardom. From the time she began planning her trip to the United States, she regarded the American stage as a cultural second-best to British theater, a mere launching pad for her international career. First, however, this unknown foreign actress, who emerged out of nowhere and was not attached to any touring company, had to win over the American public.
Holmgren is particularly good at reconstructing Modjeska’s “surprisingly successful” American debut in San Francisco’s California Theater on August 20, 1877. Cast in the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a popular French melodrama on the fallen woman theme, she wowed her audience scene by scene. The next day, she signed a contract for an East Coast tour. Writing to a Polish friend, she reported with heady self-confidence: “I’ve debuted here at last, and I was naturally a success, as usual. It appears that a strong will can conquer all. The papers are enraptured, the ladies love me. In a word, it’s all going well.” And it continued to go well for her on the American stage for years to come, though her hopes for international stardom were thwarted when her guest performances in London in 1880-1882 met with a cool reception.
Starring Madame Modjeska is an eloquent and compelling study of its protagonist’s “awe-inspiring star trajectory over several decades,” and especially of her self-creation and self-representation. Modjeska’s phenomenal success, Holmgren argues, was made possible by a complex of factors, ranging from her talent and “statuesque beauty” to her intellectual energy, iron will, competitiveness, stamina, grueling work ethic, and unflagging confidence in her star quality and power. Even choosing the right husband, a bona fide Polish aristocrat with impeccable patriotic credentials, was crucial to Modjeska’s career plans. Holmgren also emphasizes her networking skill, high-profile socializing, and shrewd investment in her public image as a European connoisseur of high culture and chic countess, always dressed to kill. While Holmgren is always admiring of Modjeska cultivation of well-placed supporters and mentors to advance her career, some readers might find the actress’s strategies for currying favor, as they shade into something that looks like opportunistic sycophancy, off-putting.
The breadth of Holmgren’s research is impressive, as is her talent as a writer. Her achievement is to have put together from many disparate sources an immensely readable narrative. She proves a fine storyteller, recounting the actress’s life with verve, wit, and a sure eye for vivid detail. Only rarely does she succumb to biographers’ tricks and clichés: her Poles are a bit too much like the heroes of the Polish Romantic poet-playwrights; her British are a bit too parochial; Modjeska’s rivals are a bit too ready to engage in back stabbing. But on its own terms, by offering a fuller understanding of Modjeska, Starring Madame Modjeska is a great success.
In some ways, though, the book is a disappointment. In Holmgren, Modjeska has found an enthusiastic biographer who never feels awkward about handing out, time and again, such encomia as “artistic genius,” “performing genius,” and even an “incarnation of Polish genius.” Holmgren’s Modjeska is a brisk and sunny presence, a consummate theater professional, a queen of the binational stage, an open-minded nurturer of new talent, a Polish cultural ambassador, and a protofeminist icon, strong, resilient, and resourceful. In short, Holmgren expresses boundless admiration for her subject. In the spirit of balance, however, it is worth drawing attention to a downside of this admiring approach: a tendency to oversimplify the historical context, in particular by neglecting its structural features or the forces behind the decisions made by individuals.
This tendency is especially evident in Holmgren’s attempt to cast Modjeska as a protofeminist. Fame, she argues, gave Modjeska access to the American media, enabling her to wield “an artistic, professional, tacitly feminist authority unavailable to her in Poland.” In America she “willingly subscribed to women’s professional solidarity and social engagement,” writes Holmgren, and she provides copious evidence to support this claim. At the same time, however, she tiptoes around Modjeska’s disquieting indifference to the struggle for women’s suffrage. After a few pages of rather one-sided argument, Holmgren remarks defensively that “Modjeska did not march for American women’s right to vote, yet she zealously lectured with her sister thespians in America about their art and respectability.” To be sure, there are various kinds of feminist activism, but nowhere in Holmgren’s treatment of Modjeska’s protofeminism is there a discussion of questions such as why Modjeska, unlike other American actresses, stayed clear of lobbying for women’s suffrage; why she remained silent when progressive men and women in Poland campaigned during the 1880s and 1890s to open Polish universities to women; and where the boundaries lay for her support for other women and her interest in advancing their opportunities. Was she aware of the risks, personal and professional, that she would have run if she’d become involved in political campaigns for women’s rights in male-dominated America and Poland? While no book can do everything, more attention to such questions would have made for a more complex portrait of Modjeska.
Halina Filipowicz teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her books include a co-edited volume, The Great Tradition and Its Legacy: The Evolution of Dramatic and Musical Theater in Austria and Central Europe (2003).