Monday, April 8, 2019

Pilgrimage to Stratford

‘We went to Stratford-on-Avon. The little house where the great William was born has been so often described that I already knew every corner in it. A strong emotion, however, thrilled me, when I entered that dwelling. When I looked around, this first impression was somehow dispelled by amazement at the human egotism and stupidity which prompt the people to put their own ‘I’ everywhere. Not only the walls, the window-panes, and the ceiling are covered with the names of visitors, but even the bust of the poet is defaced with them.’ This is from some diary notes kept by Helena Modjeska, the great Polish actress who died 110 years ago today. She was known in particular for her interpretations of Shakespearan roles, in Poland, but also - and despite a Polish accent - in Britain and the US where she lived for the latter half of her life.

Jadwiga Benda was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1840 but she was later baptised as Helena Opid, being given her godfather’s surname. The details of her early life are not accurately recorded in her own biography, and remain a little shrouded in mystery. Her mother was the widow of a prosperous merchant, and her father may have been a Polish nobleman. Although she married her former guardian, Gustaw Zimajer, and they had two children together (one of whom died in infancy), she later discovered he had been married at the time of their wedding. Zimajer was an actor and provincial director who used the stage name Modrzejewski, while Helena later adopted a simpler form of the name for English-speaking audiences - Modjeska. She made her stage debut in 1861, and toured through Poland acting in provincial productions.

In 1865, Modjeska left Zimajer and, taking her son, returned to Kraków, accepting a four year contract. From 1868 she began appearing in Warsaw, where she soon became a theatre star. Also in 1868, she married a Polish nobleman Karol Bożenta Chłapowski (later known as Count Bozenta). In 1876, she and her husband (as well as a number of friends) decided to emigrate to the United States, where they bought a ranch near Anaheim in California. It was a utopian dream which soon fell apart, as they knew nothing about farming or ranching, and Modjeska returned to the theatre reprising many of the Shakespeare rolls she had performed in Poland. A theatrical agent signed her for a tour on the east coast where she made her New York debut, and she then spent three years performing abroad (and learning to speak English better), mainly in London and through Great Britain.

In 1883, Modjeska was granted American citizenship, and in the same year she produced Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House, the first Ibsen play to be staged in the US in the US. In the 1880s and 1890s, and despite a persistent Polish accent, she had a reputation as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage, and was a much-loved performer. Mostly, she directed her own troupe of actors, touring widely through the States performing not only at major city theatres but in small makeshift halls - accompanied by her personal manager, Count Bozenta. From 1888, for nearly 20 years, they lived at Arden a ranch, not far from their original home, in what is now known as Modjeska Canyon. When in 1893, Modjeska spoke out about the poor conditions of Polish women in Russian controlled parts of Poland, she was banned from travelling in Russian territory. After a stroke in 1897, she managed to return to the stage, and even to travel to Poland in 1903-1903 where she performed in her native Kraków. Back in the US, she continued touring until 1907, and died two years later on 8 April 1909. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, the Online Archive of California, the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club, the Helena Modjeska Society.

Much of the available biographical information about Modjeska’s early life comes from her autobiography, published posthumously by Macmillan in 1910: Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska (freely available online at Internet Archive). In this memoir, Modjeska occasionally refers to the fact that she kept notes about her life - and these are very diary-like. For example on board the German steamer Donau heading for New York in 1870 she writes: ‘O
ur journey across the Atlantic was also a novelty to me. I was fascinated by the spell of the sea. It evidently had a soothing effect on me, judging by some notes which I then scribbled down in my nautical enthusiasm.’ And here is her seventh note to herself.

Summer 1876
‘Note 7th
The day after tomorrow we shall be in New York! The ocean is blue again. Every one is on deck. The first- class passengers are looking down at those of the third class. There is a regular beehive there, but the people seem miserable. A band of barefooted, dirty children, young women with tangled hair, unwashed and untidy. Boys with starved or brazen faces, mothers knitting and fathers smoking. Some sleep on the bare deck, with faces to the floor. Our fellow-passengers of the first class amuse themselves by throwing amidst that pitiful crowd small coins and oranges, which produce a great commotion among the young ones. They fight, push, and nearly strangle each other, in their endeavors to catch a coin. Oranges passing from hand to hand, mashed, torn, and squeezed nearly dry, are grabbed by the victors, while the poor children retreat, crying, and extending in vain their tiny, dirty hands, in hope of getting their share of the booty.

This exhibition was painful to me, for there was no charity in it, but a mere heartless sport. So I crossed to the other side of the boat, where I could see the aristocracy of the steerage amusing themselves with dancing. Several sailors also danced with them. Some men moved with most ridiculous motions of feet and body, but with the solemnity of undertakers. One girl was so pretty, and danced with such grace, that everybody admired her. She had blond hair and sad, sky-blue eyes. What will become of that child, I wonder; has she anybody to protect her? I feel so sorry for her, not knowing why. The musician who played on a harmonica had the face of a Richard Wagner, and must have been a German. He looked to the upper deck, tracing on our faces the effect of his music. We applauded, of course.

Encouraged by the example of the steerage, the first-class people began to plan a dancing party for tomorrow, a full-dress affair.

Late in the afternoon we had a beautiful sight. The sun was setting simultaneously with the rising of the moon. On the right the bright red light, dancing on the water like a laugh, on the left the solemn and soft face of the moon floating among the rainbow shades of the skies, throwing in its wake a long stream of silver light. It was curious to watch these two astral potentates looking at each other freely, with nothing between them but the gigantic pane of the ocean, and almost touching each other by the long rays of light which the water carried there and back.’

Later in the autobiography she writes about starting a short provincial tour, that it was her second visit to different English towns, and that she has a few notes from that time. Here are several those.

2 October 1881
‘Sheffield. In the afternoon we walked a long time in the country. Coming back, we met the procession of the Salvation Army. Their ministers call themselves Generals, and, as I hear, are doing a great deal of good, converting drunkards to soberness and commending pure life among the poor classes.

Singing hymns, beating a drum, and playing tambourines, they march among hostile elements, for they are not liked here. We even witnessed a row; an old woman struck with her soiled broom the officer’s face, and a skirmish ensued. The drum was broken, the banner tom to pieces; even some women who wanted to join the procession received quite serious blows.

The English are demonstrative when they do not belong to the better classes.’

3 October 1881
‘At ten o’clock in the morning we left for Birmingham, and opened with ‘Heartsease.’ The house was not very full because people were afraid the play was too risqué. They asked if it was the same play where the heroine dresses on the stage, getting up from her bed. We played it, however, three times, every time to better houses.’

5 October 1881
‘Two days ago we rehearsed ‘Marie Stuart.’ It was a sad rehearsal. W. flirted with the dark-eyed Vivian, and paid no attention to his lines; the prompter snored in his chair, and Elizabeth could not read her part fluently, and said by way of excuse that she did not think it worth while to pay much attention to such an insignificant part.

I am still reading the life of Ste. Jeanne Franchise de Chantal. Yesterday I had to put the book aside because I cried so much over the death of young Baron de Torrens and his wife, and over the silent resignation of Madame Chantal. Charles laughed, and said I would never grow old. I feel, indeed, as young at times as I was at twelve, and only when I look in the mirror the sad truth is revealed. But no matter, the older I grow the better I shall be, Anna says, ‘like the old wine.’

When shall I see the Carpathian Mountains again? When?

Yesterday we were invited to supper by Mr. Rogers, the manager of the Prince of Wales Theatre. Mr. and Mrs. Kendal were there and also Mr. Hare. Mr. Rogers spoke a great deal of the brotherhood of actors. How optimistic! After the supper, Mrs. Kendal sang ballads, and was very eloquent and entertaining. Miss Rogers, who was in Poland, and knows a few Polish words, talked to me about cur mutual friends and acquaintances.’

12 October 1881
‘Frou-frou. The house was not well filled. The play was too Frenchy, some one said. We were all in bad humor, which did not help the performance.

It is my birthday. I received many presents and cards from friends and even strangers, but not one word from Poland. I must return, or else they will forget me entirely. This evening I formed a strong resolution to leave the stage in two or three years.

I may succeed, because I have good work in view: to found schools for the mountaineers’ children, and begin by Zakopane. I have no distinct plans, only a desire to do something good.’

14 October 1881
‘We went to Stratford-on-Avon. The little house where the great William was born has been so often described that I already knew every corner in it. A strong emotion, however, thrilled me, when I entered that dwelling. When I looked around, this first impression was somehow dispelled by amazement at the human egotism and stupidity which prompt the people to put their own ‘I’ everywhere. Not only the walls, the window-panes, and the ceiling are covered with the names of visitors, but even the bust of the poet is defaced with them. What is the object of desecrating thus the sanctuary? Another proof of idiocy.

In the first room there is a chair by the fireside where Shakespeare used to sit, as tradition tell us. Every person who comes to that room sits down in the chair. Is there any sense in that action?

At the ‘New Place’ we saw an American couple, both young and handsome, kneel down and kiss the ground on which the great man walked. I wanted to do the same, but I had lived in England long enough to learn restraint, and limited my demonstrations to picking up some ivy leaves growing around the well. In church we saw the painted bust. I did not like it: The ruddy-cheeked and stout Shakespeare did not appeal to me.

Finally, later in the autobiography, Modjeska write about her current co-star, Edwin Booth. ‘Every one loved him,’ she says, ‘and all the remarks he made to the actors of his company were received as favors rather than reproofs.’She then writes: ‘I made a few notes on our life in the private car, which may throw more light upon the intimate character of that wonderful man and artist.’ Here’s one of those.

22 April 1890
‘Milwaukee. We played “Hamlet” last night.

Ralph and Félicie have gone - at 1.40 p.m. We did not cry at parting - we hope to meet again in Poland. Only when the train disappeared from the station the tears came to my eyes. I slept the whole afternoon in order to calm myself.

The audiences were cold and unsympathetic.

After the performance we went to the car and had supper. Edwin Booth was delightful. He told us some of his early experiences: how in Honolulu he was compelled to paste his own bills on the corners of the streets, and was surprised at that work by a fellow from New York who happened to be there just at the time. This happened, of course, some years ago, about thirty-five, I think. I went to bed directly after supper, but I heard him talking to the ladies of the company for more than an hour. They all shrieked with laughter.’

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