Polish-born Madame Helena Modjeska was one of the greatest Shakespearean actresses of the late 19th century. Luckily for local theater-goers she was no stranger to Central Illinois, having performed in Bloomington on at least eight occasions over a 22-year span, from 1885 to 1907.
Born in Krakow, Poland in 1840, Modjeska was an anglicized version of her earlier stage name Helena Modrzejewska.
A celebrated actress in her homeland, Madame Modjeska left for the United States in 1876 for a Polish utopian colony and ranch near Anaheim, Calif. When the artist colony collapsed (as all utopian experiments seemingly do) she spent three years in England improving her English. She then returned stateside and conquered the American stage, from the bright lights of the Great White Way to provincial Bloomington.
To her American audiences, Modjeska’s allure was partly due to her supposed aristocratic Eastern European lineage worthy of the histrionic arts. “Modjeska’s brother is lame from a shot in the knee fired by her husband in a duel,” reported the July 28, 1880 Pantagraph. Talk about histrionics!
Anyway, Modjeska made her Bloomington debut at the Durley Theater on Nov. 20, 1885, as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Located at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets off the courthouse square, the 1,200-seat Durley was the city’s finest theater of the day.
Tickets for the single performance ranged from 50 cents to $1.50 (or the equivalent of $13.50 to $40, adjusted for inflation). Modjeska appeared under the direction of Daniel Frohman, a New York stage producer and manager who, interestingly enough, would later marry Margaret Illington, an actress from Bloomington.
Modjeska’s party arrived in Bloomington by palace (or “boudoir”) railcar the afternoon of the play, having taken the Illinois Central from Rockford where they had performed the night before. The troupe was greeted by a crowd of theater devotees and curious onlookers, including “many ladies anxious to see the actress.”
The day before, Count Bozenta (the stage name for Modjeska’s husband, Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who, though a nobleman, was no count!) sent pre-show dinner arrangements via telegraph to Charles T. Lewin’s restaurant and saloon, located on Center Street off the courthouse square. The count’s order for a party of 24 included broiled oysters, tenderloin steak, quail on toast and prairie chicken.
The local press (Bloomington boasted three daily newspapers in the mid-1880s) found Modjeska enchanting, though the night was not without its minor annoyances. “It was an ideal Shakespearean representation marred only by some bad scene shifting and a few head of Bloomington ‘cattle’ getting up and tramping out just before the curtain fell,” noted The Daily Leader (“cattle” here was a reference to rude theatergoers.)
After the performance, Modjeska’s party returned to Lewin’s and “supped” well into the morning hours, the owner having earlier appeared before the city council to get special dispensation from city fathers to stay open past midnight. The troupe departed the next morning for Terre Haute, Ind., and after that it was three nights in Louisville, Ky.
The “distinguished tragedienne” returned to Bloomington and the Durley Theater for an April 16, 1887 performance of the Bard’s “Twelfth Night.” She was joined on stage by Grace Henderson, who would enjoy success in the early silent film era, and Maurice Barrymore, patriarch of the legendary acting clan.
By this time Modjeska was a household name. Confectionaries sold “Modjeskas,” a caramel-dipped marshmallow, while clothiers also sold “Modjeskas,” though in their case the name referred to stylish cloaks.
Madame Modjeska was back in Bloomington three years later, April 29, 1890, for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” one of the singular works in the entire Western canon. This time she received second billing behind Edwin Booth, the nation’s most celebrated actor. (His popularity survived the shame of being brother to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.)
Modjeska received a standing ovation for the crucial scene of a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth that opens Act 5. “Every variant tone of her voice was truthfully abnormal” observed The Leader, “and yet the denotement (that is, indication) of a stricken conscience, and a soul horrified to the verge of madness, was not made indistinct by the physical disturbance.”
Much like Booth, Modjeska was recognized for her “modern”— meaning more sophisticated and psychologically rich — style of acting which replaced the more artificial and declamatory style that had long dominated American theater.
The “Queen of the Stage” was back in Bloomington three years later, April 18, 1893, for Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 tragedy “Mary Stuart.” In this appearance she received top billing over leading man Otis Skinner. And for the first time she was not performing at the Durley Theater but rather the much newer Grand Opera House on East Market Street. This venue burned down in the early 20th century and was replaced by another “opera house,” the Chatterton (later renamed the Illini), which still stands today just west of Lucca Grill.
In early May 1905, Modjeska gave a send-off performance in New York City before spending two years on what would become a farewell tour.
Modjeska’s final curtain call in Bloomington came on Jan. 22, 1907, fittingly as Lady Macbeth. “To sit under the spell of the art and personality of this splendid actress even under ordinary conditions is a delight and a privilege,” noted The Pantagraph. “But heretofore, when there was a fair certainty that she would return again, there was none of the concern, not to say anxiety and sorrow, which her present coming — her last here — brings with it.”
Modjeska passed away on Apr. 8, 1909, at the age of 68. Her earthly remains were returned to her birthplace of Krakow. There is a Modjeska Park in Anaheim, Calif., and also a statute of her elsewhere in the city. Also in California you’ll find Modjeska Canyon, Modjeska Falls and Modjeska Peak.
At the time of her last show in Bloomington, The Pantagraph grouped Modjeska with fellow acting legends Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman and a few others “whose intellect, purpose, achievement and life raised acting into the realm of the fine arts, and established the theater as one of the permanent and powerful institutions of modern life.”
Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.