Modjeska’s Book

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 22, 2016

A Stage Pioneer

Helena Modjeska, Modjeski, or Modzejewska, or Countess Carol Bosenta Chlapowaki—whatever her real name, it must be admitted by all that she was an actress of very high rank and a woman of very real charm, and so her “Memories and Impressions,” just published by the Macmillans, is a book that is well worth reading. Mme Modjeska bridged the gap, as it were, between the old school of acting and the new. In the days of her nonage the stage was in the grip of convention. Acting was artificial and most of the plays in favor were artificial. She lived long enough to see the birth and rise of naturalism, both in acting and in dramaturgy, and the change found in her, not the hunkerous opponent that nearly every one of her contemporaries was, but an ardent and powerful advocate. At a time when Ibsen was scarcely a name, even on the Continent, she produced “A Doll’s House” in Polish and English. At a time when Fanny Davenport and other such mutilators of the atmosphere were in highest esteem among us she saw the future greatness of Mrs. Fiske and lent a hand to Mary Shaw.

Mme. Modjeska, in brief, was not only an actress of extraordinary natural talents, but also a woman of extraordinary culture and intelligence—a combination extremely rare in this luckless world. She came from a refined family, she grew up in an artistic circle, she married on her second venture into the most truly aristocratic aristocracy of Europe, she was the intimate (not merely the casual acquaintance) of more than one of the great men of her own race, and travel and her ready gift for languages gave her a breadth of mind which made her hospitable to new ideas and eager to hear and weigh the doctrines of all parties, new or old. Her store of knowledge was immense; her taste was catholic. Seldom, indeed, has a woman—or a man, for that matter—brought a better intellectual equipment to the solution of the problems of acting.

Early Days In Cracow

Modjeska was the daughter of Michael Opid, a Cracow school teacher, and her early years were spent in the ancient Polish city. There was never an excess of money in the Opid home, but the family, for all that, was almost ideally happy. The father himself supervised the education of the children. Long before they could read he told them the stories out of the great sagas. The Iliad was his favorite and to the end of her life its heroes were well nigh as real to Helene as the folk about her. He was also a musician, and on Sunday there would be chamber music in his sanctum sanctorum, with the children and a few neighbors for audience. Opid died when Helena was but 7 years old, but the vividness of her recollections of him, half a century afterward, proved the extent and durability of his influence on her.

In 1848 came the Austrians, and Cracow was bombarded. Helena and the other children were sent into the cellar for safety, and just in time, for bullets rattled upon the walls of the Opid home, and after a while a cannonball tore off one of the upstairs balconies. A year or so later came a great fire which threatened to destroy the whole city. The times were exciting, but there must have been a certain tranquility in the intervals between alarms among the Opids, for the instruction of the children went on. A young man named Gustave Modjeski began coming to the house in 1850, at first as a mere caller but later on as teacher and brevet big brother. Helena was then 10 years old. Ten years afterward she became Modjeski’s wife.

The Story Of Her Debut

It was not until she was married and a mother that she made her debut upon the stage. Her three elder brothers had become actors and were rising to celebrity, and she herself had long looked stageward, but her mother’s opposition stood in the way, and when she was married to Modjeski she gave up, for a time, all thoughts of a career. It was in the little town of Bochnia, in the Carpathian foothills, that her chance came. She was living there in the summer of 1861 when an old friend named Loboiko, a sort of itinerant showman, happened to strike the town and at once proposed to give a series of performances for the amusement of the summer colony. But his company was too small to present the plays demanded—and so the chance offered for Helena to volunteer. She played a dozen parts during the first week.

No; there was no riot of enthusiasm. No one hailed the debutante as a new Ristori. Not even Loboiko seems to have noticed anything extraordinary in her work. But the success of the little company encouraged that worthy to take it on tour and it started out in a huge covered wagon not unlike a prairie schooner. In her old age Mme. Modjeska could not put out of mind the delights of that journey.

 The weather was glorious! From the road, which led uphill almost all the time, we saw villages with luxuriant orchards, golden fields and diminutive white huts all flooded with warm sunlight, and far ahead of us the Carpathian Mountains. My soul was filled with enchantment and delight. The joy was so great that I sang. Absorbed by our own merriment we did not notice that we were crossing a village until our wagon stopped and we saw peasants gathered around us—girls with pink cheeks looking at us from windows and from garden gates, and little Jews yelling “Circus! Circus!” Amidst laughter and jokes we descended from our Noah’s Ark at an inn.

The Road To Fame

For a year or more this gypsy life continued, first with Loboiko in charge of the little company and then with Modjeski as manager. Helena was the leading woman, and before long she began to acquire admirers in all the little towns of Galicia. In September, 1862, came her first chance to show her art in a large city. That city was Lemberg—and, as the “Memories” quaintly say. “I passed happily through the verdict of the audience.” More provincial trooping followed, broken by visits to Vienna to see the great stars of the Burg Theatre, and then came Helena’s debut at the Cracow Theatre, in her native city, under the management of Count Adam Skorupka—and the beginning of her great reputation.

Ten years later she was the acknowledged queen of the Polish stage. Twenty years later her fame reached to the Pacific.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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