In 1880, when Polish actress, and one of Wilde’s Women, Helena Modjeska arrived in London to star in Heartsease, the English title chosen for Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelia, at the Court Theatre, she asked of Oscar Wilde:
‘What has he done, this young man that one meets him everywhere? Oh yes he talks well, but what has he done? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act – he does nothing but talk. I do not understand.’ 1
Born to Józefa Benda, the widow of a wealthy merchant in Kraków in 1840, Modjeska was a veteran of the stage of the stage by the time she arrived in London. At twenty, she had joined a company of strolling players managed by Gustav Modrzejewski, who she married and had two children by before discovering that he already had a wife who was very much alive.
Modjeska left Modrzejewski after their daughter, Marylka, died in infancy in 1865. She took their son Rudolf, later renamed Ralph Modjeska, to Krakow with her. There, she accepted a four-year theatrical engagement before moving to Warsaw in 1868, where she forged a reputation as a talented theatrical actress. Her two brothers, Józef and Feliks Benda, were also well regarded actors.
On 12 September 1868, Modjeska married Polish nobleman Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who was editor of the liberal nationalist newspaper Kraj. Their home became the focus of Krakow’s dissident, artistic and literary milieu. The couple’s political activities attracted the attention of authorities and in 1876,they felt obliged to flee to California, where Chlapowski established an experimental and idealistic colony of Polish expatriates on a remote ranch in California. A good account of daily life on the ranch is included in Theodore Payne’s memoir, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties.
When this experiment failed spectacularly, leaving them penniless, Modjeska was obliged to resume her career. Although she had been principal actress at the Polish National Theatre, she needed to learn English to secure major roles. She accomplished this in a matter of months by practising the language between performances for six or seven hours every day.
Modjeska was fêted in London and reported with delight:
‘My success surpassed all my expectations; everyone here seems to think it quite extraordinary, and my manager has already numerous projects concerning my future.’2
The Prince of Wales visited her in her dressing room and she shared a stage with the great Genevieve Ward at a party given his honour; the two women got on famously. Lillie Langtry came backstage to meet her during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Bernhardt, who Modjeska described as ‘the wonderful creature’, sent her a bouquet of white camellias and assured her that she was moved to tears by her performance. When Ellen Terry came to her dressing room, Modjeska declared:
‘Whoever has met Ellen Terry knows that she is irresistible, and I liked her from the first.’ 3
Offstage, Modjeska was embraced by fashionable society. She received an invitation to leading society hostess Lady Jeune’s unmissable ‘five o’clocks’. Wilde had once quipped:
‘There were three inevitables – death, quarter-day and Lady Jeune’s parties.’ (Quarter-days were the four days each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due).
Keen to befriend this newfound star, Wilde invited Modjeska to tea. Her instinct was to refuse, since she thought it unwise to visit a young man unaccompanied, but she relented when he assured her that Lillie Langtry and artist Louise Jopling would be there too.
Before long, Wilde and Modjeska had become good friends. They collaborated on a poem, ‘Sen Artysty; or the Artist’s Dream. When it appeared in the Christmas 1880 edition of The Green Room, it was attributed to ‘Madame Helena Modjeska (translated from the Polish by Oscar Wilde)’. 4
Afterwards, Wilde enthused:
‘If there is any beauty in this poem it is the work of the subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska. I myself am but a pipe through which her tones full of sweetness have flown.’
Wilde and Modjeska also considered adapting Verdi’s opera, Luisa Miller, but this project came to nothing and Modjeska left London to tour in the US and further afield
Helena Modjeska died at Newport Beach, California on April 8, 1909. She was 68 and had been suffering from Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Her remains were returned to Kraków where they were buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published posthumously in 1910.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:
1. As reported by G.K. Atkinson in The Cornhill Magazine 1925, Part 395, p.564
2. Helena Modjeska, ‘Modjeska’s Memoirs: The Record of a Romantic Career Part V, Success in London’, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.879
3. Modjeska, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.883
4. ‘Sen Artysty; or, The Artist’s Dream’ was published in Clement Scott (Ed.), The Green Room: Stories by Those Who Frequent It (London, Routledge, 1880), pp.66-8; http://www.helenamodjeskasociety.com/activity.html accessed on 12 January 2015