Public Women, Parochial Stage: The Actress in Late Nineteenth-Century Poland

By Holmgren, Beth | Indiana Slavic Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Public Women, Parochial Stage: The Actress in Late Nineteenth-Century Poland


Holmgren, Beth, Indiana Slavic Studies


   In 1893 I was invited by the Committee of the World's Fair
   Auxiliary Women's Congress, in Chicago, to take part in the
   theatrical section of the Congress and to say something about
   "Woman on the Stage".... It may be remembered that one of
   the features of the Congress was a series of national women's
   delegations, each of them describing the position of women in
   their country. Among others, there was expected a delegation
   of ladies from Russian Poland, but none of them came to Chicago.
   Apparently they were afraid of the possible conflict with
   their government, and they limited their activity to sending a
   few statistical notes--ah! Most poor, bashful notes!

   In the face of this obstacle, wishing by all means to have a
   representative of our nationality, Mrs. May Wright Sewall, the
   Chairman of the Executive Board, appealed to me, requesting
   most urgently that I appear as the proxy of the Polish delegates
   and speak on their behalf. Mrs. Sewall, who for years has been
   my friend, put such pressure on me that I finally consented....

   The auditorium was packed, and I had some difficulty in
   reaching the platform. The beginning of my speech was an excuse
   for the absence of my countrywomen from the Congress ...
   Warmed up by the subject, and trying to arouse the sympathy
   of the brilliant audience for our cause, I was probably not careful
   enough in the choice of my expressions, but I said such
   words as my heart prompted me at the moment. (Memories and
   Impressions of Helena Modjeska 512-13)

On May 19, 1893, at the World's Congress of Representative Women held at the Chicago World's Fair, Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), the great Polish actress become American stage star, graciously substituted for absent Polish delegates in a panel discussion "about the position of women in modern life." (1) She had delivered her scheduled lecture on "Woman in the True Drama" a few days prior, yet it was this impromptu performance that stirred her public and articulated, in the words of one chronicler, "her most significant statement about Poland" (Coleman 623). Modjeska's "heartfelt" speech celebrates Polish Women--particularly Polish gentry women--as family providers of biblical mettle, willing warriors "against the Turks or the Tartars," and equal partners in enlightened marriages (Coleman 625-26). Although she ultimately contains her incendiary examples with the verbal firewall of "Polish mother," she arrays them beside the militant models of Roman matron and Spartan mother and concludes with a salvo eastward: "Our enemies are making a great mistake if they think that they can kill patriotism. As long as there is one Polish woman left alive, Poland will not die, and the more they persecute us the better it is for us now" (Coleman 630).

Over the years Modjeska's myriad Polish admirers have read this speech for its supercharged patriotic content, the more so because its target, the tsarist authorities in Russian Poland, consequently forbade her return engagements at the all-important Warsaw Imperial Theater. (2) Less remarked, but no less important, is her speech's local political context. The Polish actress had been recruited by May Wright Sewall, a key member of the suffragist National Council of Women, whose proposed Congress invited "discussions of every subject in relation to the woman question." (3) At the first World's Fair which could boast a grand Woman's Building (funded through the efforts of Bertha Honore Palmer and a host of "Lady Managers"), Modjeska joined an impressive cast of female luminaries, including feminists Susan B. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe, painter Mary Cassatt, explorer May French Sheldon, naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock, nursing pioneer Kate Marsden, and fellow actresses Clara Morris, Georgia Cayvan, and Julia Marlowe. Modjeska's speech may have impressed its "brilliant audience" as yet another exotic foreign artifact, not unlike the royal Russian costumes touted as "a curious mixture of Paris fashion and barbaric gorgeousness," but its foregrounding of women's accomplishments and incipient power fully conformed to the political specifications of the Congress's American organizers and attendees (Weimann 274). …

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