Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America

Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America

Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America

Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America

Synopsis

In 1876, Poland's leading actress, Helena Modrzejewska, accompanied by family and friends, emigrated to southern California to establish a utopian commune that soon failed. Within a year Modrzejewska made her debut in the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur at San Francisco's California Theatre. She changed her name to Modjeska and quickly became a leading star on the American stage, where she reigned for the next 30 years. During this time, she established herself as America's most esteemed Shakespearean actress, playing opposite such celebrated actors as Edwin Booth and Maurice Barrymore. Starring Madame Modjeska traces Modjeska's fabulous life and career from her illegitimate birth in Krakow, to her successive reinventions of herself as a star in both Poland and America, and finally to her enduring legacy.

Excerpt

Helena Modjeska at the california

On 20 August 1877, in San Francisco’s California Theatre, an obscure foreign actress performed the title role of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a drama by the popular French playwrights Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. For San Francisco’s many avid theatergoers, the venue, supporting company, and play prom ised a fine evening’s entertainment. After the 1859 Silver Rush “rebuilt” the city in style, the California Theatre, like the nearby Palace Hotel, stood as a sumptuous example of San Francisco’s prosperity and keen pursuit of public recreation. As recalled by historian Constance Rourke, the California “seemed designed both for the cultivation of the actors and the pleasures of the audience,” boasting an expansive lobby, comfortable dressing rooms with good soundproofing, and a stage curtain “covered with Spanish scenes and vignettes of early mining days.” a contemporary visitor, Guillermo Prieto, admired its superb stage framed by “a vast arch resting on heavy pillars” and equipped with scenery “run in both sides with great speed on rails along the floor.” the California’s “powerful and expert stock company” was formed under the talented leadership of actor-managers John McCullough and Lawrence Barrett and furnished knowledgeable, if not always appropriately subordinate, support for visiting stars.

The play performed that August night was a familiar star vehicle about the turbulent private life of a famous actress. Like Alexandre Dumas fils’ Lady of the Camellias, its more renowned contemporary, Adrienne Lecouvreur com-

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