Starring Madame Modjeska

Starring Madame Modjeska

On Tour in Poland and America
Beth Holmgren
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 11/10/2011
ISBN: 978-0-253-00519-9
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Winner, 2012 Heldt PrizeWinner, 2013 ASEEES Kulczycki Book PrizeWinner, 2014 Halecki Award

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.

Author Bio

Beth Holmgren is Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University. She is author of Women's Works in Stalin's Time (IUP, 1993), editor (with Helena Goscilo) of Poles Apart: Women in Modern Polish Culture and Russia • Women • Culture (IUP, 1996), and translator and editor (with Helena Goscilo) of The Keys to Happiness by Anastasya Verbitskaya (IUP, 1999).


“This engrossing biography traces leading Polish actress Helena 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.”

“Starring Madame Modjeska is a tour de force . . . Modjeska's story is conveyed in clear, vivid, witty prose.”
 — Bożena Shallcross, University of Chicago

“Through extensive research on two continents, Holmgren offers a richly contextualized account of how the Polish Modrzejewska successfully negotiated late nineteenth century ethnic, class, and gender hierarchies to become the American Modjeska, luminous star and self-styled aristocrat. This beautifully written biography contributes to the histories of both theatre and immigration with nuanced insight into a compelling case of binational cultural arbitration.”
 — Kim Marra, author of Strange Duets: Impresarios and Actresses in the American Theatre, 1865–1914

“A fine piece of scholarship on Helena Modjeska, a major figure in American theatre in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. . . . The breadth of Holmgren’s research is impressive, as is the creativity of her approach. . . . I loved the book and learned a great deal from it.”
 — Catherine Schuler, editor, Theatre Journal

“Winner, 2012 Heldt Prize Honorable Mention, 2012 American Society for Theatre Research Barnard Hewitt Award Winner, 2013 Kulczycki Book Prize for Polish Studies, ASEEES Winner, 2014 Polish American Historian Association's Halecki Award ”

“Starring Madame Modjeska . . . makes an important contribution to our understanding of Western theatre history. Scholars as well as theatre enthusiasts will surely benefit from this well-organized and meticulously researched study of a true international star of the nineteenth century. ”

“While theater enthusiasts will enjoy the care and detail that Beth Holmgren took with Starring Madame Modjeska, readers of history will appreciate the role this woman played on the world's stage. It makes for great drama. ”

“The breadth of Holmgren's research is impressive, as is her talent as a writer. Her achievement is to have put together from many disparate sources an immensely readable narrative. ”
 — Women's Review of Books

“Starring Madame Modjeska is based on very solid archival research, yet it is written with lightness and grace—qualities inspired by the character of the formidable protagonist of this excellent book.”
 — Slavic Review

“Holmgren’s study is a truly transnational biography, elegantly written and immaculately researched. Its real achievement is to make Modrzejewska whole, not just by bridging two national narratives but by integrating her public and private personae. . . . Starring Madame Modjeska will be of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century Poland, world theater, and American immigration.”
 — H-Poland H-Net Reviews

“Beth Holmgren's book is a monograph of Helena Modrzejewska/Modjeska . . . , the famous Polish-American stage star. The author's purpose was 'to introduce a little-remembered actress to a new American audience' . . . . This plan was successfully completed. Starring Madame Modjeska is not just a popularized biography but a result of meticulous research and intellectual elaboration.”
 — Pol-Int

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Table of Contents

Timeline of Modjeska's Life and Career
1. Debut
2. The Making of a Polish Actress
3. Warsaw's State of the Stars
4. A Colonial Party and the California Dream
5. On the American Road
6. The Roles of Madame Modjeska
7. The Polish Modjeska
8. Farewell Tour
Epilogue: Finding Modjeska Today